So, funny story. About a year ago, I got really into the Killer Instinct soundtrack. Turns out Kan-Ra’s theme goes surprisingly well with modelling power planes for a PCB in discretised chunks. Cut to 2016 and lo and behold, DOOM’s soundtrack is being composed by an oddly familiar name. Cut forward again to PAX, and I sent off an email to Mick Gordon with the vague hope he might decline me (a response is better than nothing, right?). As it turns out, Mick’s a pretty chill guy, and against my most cynical beliefs, we managed to get an interview with him. An accomplished musician and all round cool guy, Mick gave us a glimpse into how he got into the industry, how you go about composing for games and why Australia’s a kickass place to be.
For anyone who doesn’t know who you are, let us know or forever be doomed.
My name’s Mick Gordon. I make music for video games. I’ve been working in video games for about 13 years now. The last three games I’ve worked on have been Killer Instinct, Wolfenstein and, most recently, Doom.
KI and Doom are pretty guitar heavy. How important is it that those organic, less electro-centric instruments come into the music?
Obviously, KI and Doom are both established franchises, and they come from a time where guitar was more prevalent in pop music. It was an inspiration that they – Bobby Prince and Robert Beeline, the original composers of Doom and KI – took from the time
So, it was stuff they were being inspired by at that time. You gotta be really careful when you try to do that these days, because you don’t really want it to just sound like a tribute to the ‘90s. So, you’ve gotta take a more modern approach to it, and this is where we start getting into lower stringed guitars and trying to find different original sounds and things.
I really like that stuff because, to me, this is what video game music really is. Video game music to me has never really been that big cinematic type thing. That’s really cool, don’t get wrong, and it certainly works well for some games (love the Halo series, and I love that it works so well for those games) but you can’t approach a game like Halo in the same way you approach a game like Doom. It needs to be Doom. To me, that video game period of the ‘90s were when those heavier elements were creeping into games, I really liked that and I was really inspired by that.
You originally hail from Brisbane. How did you end up making music for international companies like Bethesda?
When I started trying to produce music for video games, I started by making music from home on a basic computer set up. I was looking around for different video game companies, and right at the time, there seemed to be about 40 companies in Australia that were making video games. Literally, there was nobody making music for video games, everybody was trying to do film or pop music. So, for me, it was an open market staring me right in the face.
I started sending this music out to these companies that were in Australia at the time, and I was able to meet them because they were in Australia – a lot were even in Brisbane. After I’d done a couple of those projects, I was able to approach studios overseas. I travelled a lot to San Francisco to the Game Developers Conference each year, and that’s a really great thing because there are, like, 26,000 developers from all over the world that all converge on San Francisco for a week. It’s a great way to meet people if you want to meet anybody in the game industry.
So I started doing that a lot and met a lot of different people, started working on franchises like Need For Speed and stuff like those sort of experiences, and it just kinda grew from there.
How important is the Aussie scene to you now?
The Aussie scene is amazing. It’s obviously transitioned a lot from that period; we used to have a lot of big studios that were here in Australia, whereas now there’s this absolutely kickass indie scene. There are so many smaller teams out there and way more developers than there ever used to be making these really incredible games. We’ve got so many of these really top indie games and iPhone games and such, and they’re all being developed out here in Australia. You know, Crossy Road, Jetpack Joyride, Fruit Ninja, all that sort of stuff, they’re amazing [note: he emphasised amazing like amaaazing, so, it’s clearly amazing].
The creativity never left Australia, that’s still here, and that’s always important to deal with for anybody who wants to get into that industry.
Would you say it’s better than having those few big games companies?
I wouldn’t say it’s better, its just different. There’s not really one better way or a worse way, it’s just different. The industry itself has changed a lot too, it’s really opened up a lot more. You really wouldn’t have been able to have that small 3 or 4 person team back in that time when you had those bigger studios. Now there are markets that can support that, which is really cool.
There’s a whole lot more focus on online stuff these days. Now, you have quite an interesting online presence. Every second cover of a Killer Instinct or Doom song on Youtube, you’re just there going, “Nice cover, bro”. So, how important is it to you, as someone from the Aussie lands, to get online and interact with fans and community.
What’s fascinating to me is that, to me, games survive not because of marketing budgets but because of fans. That Doom soundtrack that came out recently did super well, not because it’s the music that’s on there, it’s really not. It’s because the fans got behind it, and that’s the most important thing; it’s the fans that have that huge community backing. When that soundtrack was there sitting on the charts next to Beyonce, that’s the fans that have done that, it really is.
I always thought when I was younger growing up, I could never reach the people that were inspiring me. Either they’d passed away a long time ago or they lived so far away that I never even thought of them as being real people. You know what that’s like, you live in Asutralia you live so far away… Whereas nowadays with the internet, you can do that. You can reach out to somebody and say, “Hey, really well done,” or “Hey, I really like that,” or whatever. It’s just great because it creates this discourse that you would have never really had fifteen years ago. So, for me that sort of stuff is really important, and I really love that sort of stuff.
In terms of music for games specifically, how would you compare it to doing music for other mediums like film or TV?
The biggest difference between film music and game music is – you obviously have the music side of it. You are producing music, so you’re working with different musicians, you’re working with different people that make music and do that sort of musical thing. That is identical across video game music, pop music, rock music, film music, TV music – all the same stuff. Making the music’s the same.
Where video games differ is in the implementation side of things. So, getting the music, once you’ve finished it, into the game itself and working the way you want it to work. You can’t just make a song and then throw it into a game. What we do these days is split the song apart into different segments, and then that song gets rearranged based on what the player is doing. It’s always different, you’ll never hear the same song over and over again. You’re hearing the same parts, but it’s always in a different arrangement. That’s very specific to video games, and it just doesn’t happen in film.
In the process of making those different tracks, how do you compose for that? It seems crazy if you’ve got a half finished game and your boss says, “Right, we want a track for this.”
Basically what happens when you sit down to design a game- see, games are pretty much all smoke and mirrors. Games give you the illusion that you can do a lot of things, but you really can’t. There’s a very specific set of things that you can actually do. For example, in Doom, you can’t just go crack open the wall, pull out a pipe and start using that. That’s way too much freedom. Instead, we create these conditions, and what once you’ve got those conditions in place, you’re able to see what possibilities can actually occur.
So, we can say at this possibility the player could pick up a shotgun, an assault rifle or a pistol. When they pick up one of those, they can fight an imp, they can fight a mancubus or they can fight a giant boss battle. Once you have this set of possiblities, you can then write music for different sets of possibilities. What happens is, you have this really big, long session, can be 40 minutes, can be an hour or so, and in that there are all sorts of small pieces of music that accommodate for every single possibility. It’s a bit insane.
Just one giant state machine, and you’re writing for the states.
Absolutely. All states, all state-based.
[Patrick jumps in] Can I jump in? Sometimes you can have music that is really influenced by what you’re seeing in the design and so on. Have you ever found the reverse? Have you ever had the experience where something that you’re composing has ever changed the design?
Yeah, absolutely! I really like working on projects where we’ll all working as team. What I like about that is that you do something that inspires what I would do and I change my thing and that then inspires what you do. That back and forth is really quite cool. So, yeah, that’s happened a couple of times on different projects. Spinal from Killer Instinct, for example, we were working with these Swedish choir Viking elements, and all of a sudden Spinal became this viking. He became this Swedish Viking kind of guy, and that came about totally because of music.
[Patrick again] Working on Wolfenstein, what was the experience like? It’s a really heavy topic and it’s really weird to work with alt-history…
Yeah, it is, absolutely. It’s weird because I always like to do a lot of research on every project, and there was certainly a point in Wolfenstein where you’re reading about all sorts of things that were happening in Europe at the time, and I just have to block it out, you know? Walk outside and look at the beautiful sunshine or something. I acknowledge in my mind that it’s a video game, it’s an alternative timeline, it’s not meant to be a representation of history because it’s fiction. That being said, you’re always treading a very difficult line, especially because some of the characters in Wolfenstein are pretty horrible characters, especially Deathshead.
The Deathshead theme came about because we just wanted distortion, horrible noises when he’s slicing and dicing people up, which is this horrible noise, which just became this theme for him. What was great, though, was that the team over at Machine Games are just incredible and they really pulled it together and made it work.
For Wolfenstein, you worked with Frederik [Thorendal, of Meshuggah fame]. What was it like when he came into the mix?
Frederik is the nicest most excitable musician I think I’ve ever met. I had a 9-string guitar for Doom and I wanted to get rid of it because it was just stupid, and he was like, “Hey, Give it to me! Give it to me! I really want it, I really want it!” I was like, “You’re Frederik from Meshuggah, you could have any guitar in the world,” and he was like, “No, I want that one, that’s the Doom Guitar!” So I went, “All right, you can have it then…” Nah, he’s great, man.
I’ve been really lucky to work with some really awesome musicians, and he’s definitely one of them. His whole approach to music is just… It’s on a different level.
It has to be if you’re in Meshuggah.
Yeah! I mean, I try to keep my practice up, like, the music side of things down. Because it’s easy to let that go when you start working. Like, playing and recalling modes off the top of my head, remembering scales, all that sort of stuff. The actual musical side of it, I try to keep up with it… And I felt so embarrassed working with Frederik because I had to ask for midi files because I had no idea what was going on.
Another thing I really learned from Frederik was an interesting thing he said to me one day. He said, “Why would you do that like that?” He was pointing to a different thing, and he said, “It sounds just like that. That already exists, why would you do that? It’s already out there, so do something new.” And one thing you can always say about Meshuggah is that whatever they do is their own thing, you can tell Meshuggah by Meshuggah. So, yeah, he’s an amazing person and musician.
That’s surprising to me, because they never come across as huge theory buffs.
Yeah, he thinks of everything in 4/4. He’s always listening to the hi-hat, and I’m like, “But what about this thing that’s happening,” and he goes, “No, don’t listen to that, it’s all in 4/4”.
Advice or encouraging words for anyone who’d like to get into video game music?
Anyone who’s wanting to get into game music, I’d say the most important thing is to try and come up with a sound that’s uniquely your own. Something that you do that’s different to everybody else. Why I say that is because that’ll encourage video game developers to contact you looking for that specific thing that you do that’s different that nobody else can do. They want that because that’s what can separate them from every other game that’s out there. That’s probably the most important thing for sure.
Don’t be another generic ‘epic’ guy.
Right, absolutely, and if you’re going to do that, do it really well or come up with a new way of doing ‘epic’ or whatever it might be.
For all our music nerds out there, favourite mode?
Mixolydian has always been a thing for me. I really love the combination of the bluesy sound, of the flattened seventh, but I love the positivity of the major third as well. It’s a little bit of aggression but not too bad. I really like Dorian. I dunno, combat music and fighting music always seems to be in Phrygian, but I’m trying to get away from that at the moment.