Video Game Composers You Should Know: Harry Gregson-Williams

With Bethesda hosting its first-ever E3 conference this year and the accompanying chatter of a Fallout 4 announcement, I find myself thinking about why I decided to invest so many hours of my life in the Fallout universe and the worlds of so many other games.

There are many (almost reactionary) responses people would give: “The story is amazing,” “The acting is great,” “The gameplay is really fun,” “I love the freedom of the world.” All are perfectly suitable answers, and I have used them many times myself, but a less common answer might be the game’s musical wonder. With such incredible effort given to video game soundtracks, it seems a shame not to recognize wonderfully talented composers alongside your front-facing lead designers and voice actors. Without great composers, many of our favorite games would never have been able to capture our hearts and imaginations in the way they have.

The goal of this three-part series is to spotlight three video game music giants who played vital roles breathing life into some of the greatest worlds in video games. In no way are the three composers discussed in this series the only ones deserving of attention for their tremendous contributions to games—I aim merely to start a conversation in territory oft-ignored.

This next composer is one of the earliest Hollywood composers to work with video games, and is responsible for music behind one of my favorite series of all time: Metal Gear Solid.

If you missed our spotlight of Inon Zur, be sure to check out Part 1.

Part 2: Harry Gregson-Williams

(Please enjoy some of the artist’s music as you read!)

Born in England, Harry Gregson-Williams showed tremendous talent in music at an exceptionally early age. By age seven, Gregson-Williams earned himself a music scholarship to St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. He later attended Stowe School, an independent boarding school, where he became the top music scholar. His accomplishments within this exemplary music background earned him a place at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where Gregson-Williams finished his formal education.

Before starting a career in film, Gregson-Williams began his professional life as a teacher. He first taught music at the Amesbury School in Hindhead, Surrey, England alongside his brother, Rupert. Later, he returned to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as an instructor. He also taught briefly in Egypt.

Gregson-Williams started composing for films and television in the early ‘90s. In 1995, he moved to Los Angeles and has been composing music scores for major motion pictures ever since. Not long after his move to Los Angeles, Gregson-Williams was approached by none other than game designer Hideo Kojima, who hoped to create something truly special for his upcoming project, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In an interview with IGN, Gregson-Williams went into further detail about the encounter:

“…I was approached by Hideo Kojima who asked me to consider doing MGS2. He said he had a vision for his game to be scored as if it were a Hollywood action movie. He seemed like a nice bloke, and I never even considered writing music for a game before, so I thought I would give it a go. He was great fun to work with.”

Gregson-Williams also elaborated on why he has continued to work on the Metal Gear Solid franchise and on games in general, saying, “For me, part of it, is the chance to work with Hideo, who is an exceptional brain, and also part of it is that it is so very different from scoring films, which makes it fresh and fun.”

In a more recent interview with the Vilcek Foundation, Gregson-Williams spoke at length about what it was like in the early days of video game composing, how it has changed and improved since his first experience composing for Metal Gear Solid 2, and what challenges it presented him with:

“…to begin with it was quite primitive. Because it’s not a film, he wasn’t able to send me the film, and that’s my normal working process, would be to start with… hello!… the film. So, if ever I’m stuck with my work, I go to look up at the screen and learn something, and bounce off that. But with a video game, they weren’t able to give me footage, per se. So, more than that, when I first started doing video games, I would be sent little descriptions – adjectives – by the director. You know. Sneaky. (laughs) Thrilling. Nerve-wracking. Something like that. And I’d have to write 30 seconds or a minute of music in that vein, but without any guidance from pictures, so it was kind of difficult for me, and different. But I liked it. And actually, as things have progressed, more and more film composers have become involved in making music for games, I think the game makers themselves have developed better methods of getting the best out of us. So they’ll send us, for instance, what’s known as Cut Scenes… they’re like a scene in a movie, so that they’re presented as that. And those can be sent to the composer, and he can compose the music very much like he would to a film in that case.”

To date, Gregson-Williams has scored music for every Metal Gear Solid game since Sons of Liberty. He was also responsible for much of the music behind Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. In 2009, he was nominated for the BAFTA Games Awards’ Best Original Score for his work on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Throughout the course of his career, Gregson-Williams has won 18 awards for his music and received 27 nominations.

While the number of video game projects Gregson-Williams has worked on pales in comparison to his cinematic portfolio, his contribution to games is unquestionable. Fostering such a strong working relationship with one of the game industry’s greatest minds in Hideo Kojima, Gregson-Williams has been able to help bring alive one of the most powerful worlds in video game history.

Unsurprisingly, Gregson-Williams is working on the musical score for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which is slated for release on September 1.

Keep your eyes peeled for the last composer profile in our series later this week, and sound off in the comments with your favorite video game soundtracks.