Just recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with famed game composer Akira Yamaoka. As a former Konami employee, Yamaoka is best known for his music and sound work on the first several Silent Hill games. He additionally served as a producer on those titles and even the Silent Hill film.
In 2010, Yamaoka joined Suda51’s studio Grasshopper Manufacture and composed the music of such titles as Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw. He is currently working on the studio’s latest game Let It Die.
When crafting a game’s score, how much of the game are you presented with or do you like to see? What content from the game helps you shape the end result?
For Let It Die especially, since I’ve been on the project staff since the beginning, I try to get as many materials as possible: concept art, key character art, cutscenes, and storylines. I like to get my hands on everything I can to become immersed in the world.
Were there any inspirations behind the music of Let It Die?
There wasn’t much inspiration from my past works or other works out there. But I made sure to use all my experience from past projects to focus on making Let It Die’s music and have the action and horror reflected in my compositions.
A number of composers for games come from a background of scoring movies and television shows. Some of them have commented on the challenge of composing songs which can be looped or change seamlessly with the player’s action on screen. Have you ever faced difficulty with that?
Yes, that dynamic aspect of the game can be a challenging. But rather than seeing it as a loop or where other music comes in, I try to view it from the eyes of the player and estimate how much time players will take. Person A may take x amount of time but Person B may take twice as long. I try to anticipate that variable when composing and create music that works well for everyone.
Is there a favorite game you’ve composed music for?
Probably Silent Hill.
What is your favorite video game(s) personally? Not necessarily ones you have scored.
The Age of Empires games are my favorite.
Any favorite composers in general?
Red Dead Redemption’s Woody Jackson. I love that score!
What’s the biggest change in video game music you’ve seen over your decades of experience?
This might sound a little depressing, but I feel because there are so many soundtracks from the 90s and since the dawn of gaming, all the old veterans are still in the industry and crushing the new talent out there unfortunately. I feel like there needs to be more fresh blood in the industry. There should be some place in the industry that should be a safe haven for new composers to get introduced.
Have you noticed any difference between the music in Japanese games versus American games?
I think the Western style is more innovative and more involved in other media, not just games. For example, a lot of Western games tend to use composers not just from the games industry, but also from movie, TV, and other mediums. They also try to incorporate a real orchestra so you don’t notice the difference between a game score versus a film or TV score. In contrast in Japan, there are a lot of game composers who got their start in the 80s or 90s when they had 8-bit and 16-bit soundtracks. So there are a lot of people who are conservative and want to preserve that chiptune style. Because of that, I feel Japanese game scores are held back from being innovative.
What is the best advice you can give to composers eager to break into the gaming industry?
With mobile games, traditional PC and console gaming, and now the introduction of VR, there are so many different places to be involved in the gaming industry. There shouldn’t be any barriers of entry, even if you have ones in your head. If anyone wants to be in the industry, just go with your heart, challenge yourself, and best of luck!
Read our other Let It Die interview with executive director Suda51 and executive producer and GungHo CEO Kazuki Morishita.