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Staying In Tune: Richard Jacques On Game Music's Past, Present, And Future
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Staying In Tune: Richard Jacques On Game Music's Past, Present, And Future

June 16, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 10 Next

Richard Jacques is a legendary name among Sega die-hards, thanks to his music composition work during his time at Sega Europe on games such as Sonic R and Metropolis Street Racer - as well as assists on other classic Sega titles such as Jet Set Radio.

But, having left Sega for a freelance career, his compositional credits extend to the current day, with projects like The Club, additional work on Mass Effect and Sega Superstars Tennis on his resume -- a blend of the old and new, even in 2008.

Here, in a wide-ranging interview, Jacques talks about his feelings on how iconic music may be making a comeback in games, the importance of dynamic soundtracks, the concept of a composer-led game design, and even spills the beans on classic Sega projects that fans have debated the merits of for years.

So what have you been doing most recently?

Richard Jacques: Last year was an incredibly busy year. I was working on Mass Effect -- focusing on that -- I was working on The Club and Conflict: Denied Ops... Also, I've been working on Sega Superstars Tennis, which is going to be great for the fans, I think. They've done a really good job on that. And I'm currently working on Highlander, which I have another three or four weeks to finish.

With the Sega game, is that kind of back to form?

RJ: Oh yes. I'm a big Sega fan. I spent eight years of my career working with them, and I love their games and their look and feel and stuff. This particular game, using all their huge characters and IPs and putting them all together with the Virtua Tennis 3 engine, which the guys at Sumo Digital over the UK put's just a great celebration, really, of all things Sega.

I was asked to write a whole bunch of custom music for the frontend and the main theme and the trailer, and I've been remixing Space Harrier and Virtua Cop and things like that. We've also done... 85 of the original tracks have been upmixed to 5.1 surround. So they've gone all-out on that, and it's going to be a lot of fun, I think.

It seems to me that over time, music has gotten much less iconic and more like background-y, or representational. It's like sweeping orchestral stuff, and not like real iconic music. Why do you think that happened?

RJ: It's a good question. I think partly, it's because of the way games have changed. If you were playing, ten or fifteen years ago, a Sonic or a Mario or a Metroid or something like that, it would be very clearly level-based or goal-based, and there would be a piece of music for that zone or that level.

Consequently, the gameplay challenges would warrant you playing that level quite a few times before completing it and progressing.

Now, games are structured quite a bit differently, and the atmospheric and orchestral thing is just as valid now, because the gameplay is so different.

If you're on a huge, 30 to 40 hour playing game like Gears of War or Halo or Mass Effect or something like that, you can't be bombarded with music. It has to be there to back up story and characterization.

I think back in the day, with the Sonics and Marios, music played a different function, whereas today, it's to support characters and narrative, to create emotional rises and falls in the stories and arcs, etcetera.

I think we have gone through a certain..."renaissance" is the wrong word, but I think the whole orchestral thing has now peaked, because everyone wanted to do it, and they've done it, and blah blah blah. And now they're finding, "Right. We could go that route, or we could go a world-ethnic music route, or we could go a computer-electronica route."

So I think now, it's finding its place as a valid tool and a valid stylistic point of reference for game designers, producers, and composers alike. But it's not necessarily the be-all and end-all of it. I mean, I love composing in that genre, because that's what I was trained to do -- I was classically trained, etcetera -- but you could easily do a score with a completely different approach, which would make just as good a game score.

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John Barnstorm
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Oddly enough, one of the last things I wrote mocked Richard Jacques for his faux-licensed soundtrack to Metropolis Street Racer, which crossed the line from campy into brain melting. It featured original work billed as by fictional stars, but sung by studio artists, parodying (I guess?) genres popular in the three cities. An interesting idea, but it didn't quite work.

One of the best examples of an interactive soundtrack that still retains a good theme is Mercenaries. Yeah, it's very John Williamsesque, but the theme has so many different versions, wehther a wistful, sad one, or a booming, stirring version during the big firefights, it was one of the more moving soundtracks for me in recent memory. That said, Mass Effect's Vangelis style one was excellent. I didn't know Jacques worked on it.

Yannick Boucher
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I have to strongly disagree with that comment, I think MSR's soundtrack was marvelous; Jacques managed to nail it spot on for EACH style, a feat that not many musicians can accomplish. And that's one of his strengths, his incredible versatility. I loved what he did in Sonic R, JSRF, MSR, and most importantly, the classic Headhunter soundtrack... :) (shame about Redemption's gameplay and story, though... :( )