An Interview With Video Game Composer John Robert Matz
John Robert Matz is an American composer, music educator, performer and arranger. He's an award-winning video game composer and he also writes and works for a concert band and orchestra. I talked to him about where he got his start in music, his creative process as a composer and where he finds inspiration.
Interview With John Robert Matz
Karl Magi: How did you first get involved with making music?
John Robert Matz: I initially got involved in music because of my parents. My father was a trumpet player and my mother was a classically-trained soprano. They were both involved with music at our church; one thing led to another, and I found myself involved as well, singing with the church choir. Educationally, I was homeschooled all the way through high school, but I was fortunate enough to be part of a large homeschool fine arts group with a fantastic band program, and a wonderful director. They let me join a year early and, following in my dad’s footsteps, I took up the cornet, eventually switching to trumpet in high school.
Along the way, I developed a passion for music theory, and, when the opportunity arose my senior year of high school, I began to teach music theory to the youngest grades in our homeschool music program. Combined with the inspirational teaching and mentoring of our band director, I was pretty firmly set on the path of becoming a music educator. I went on to study music education in college, and, along the way, I started to cultivate my compositional brain. I had written a lot of music for the various ensembles that I’d been in through high school, and, after four semesters of collegiate music theory and oral skills, I finally learned the labels for things that I’d known instinctively from a lifetime of playing. The difference was, now I had actual words for them and an understanding of how to apply them to the music I wrote. I knew not only what they were, but why they worked the way they did, and that sparked something in me. I started to compose more seriously at that point.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine had gotten very deep into filmmaking. He’d always done small projects, fun short films, documentaries, etc., but on this occasion, he, my sister and a bunch of their theatre friends decided to tackle something much more substantial. Being huge fans of The Lord of the Rings, they poured months of work and hundreds of man hours into a massive undertaking: an adaptation of a story from J.R.R Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, “The Tale of Beren and Luthien”. All their labors produced an hour and 45 minute-long fantasy adventure, and like any good brother and friend, I got roped into helping out on the project. I acted. I built costumes and props. And, naturally, I wrote the music.
When all was said and done, the film was probably 90% complete, but a handful of VFX shots that proved impossible to execute on kept the project from being formally released. Though it was never quite finished, all of that work on writing music to screen and learning how to score to picture had an indelible impact on me, and pushed me further into the world of composition.
A year later, that same friend wound up getting a job with a big independent film project, and when the movie had progressed to the point where they were looking for composers, he suggested me to the director, sharing some of my work I’d done previously. The director was apparently impressed enough to invite me to pitch something, which I did, and I got pretty darn far in the audition process, only losing out to someone with more experience at the very end. But, along the way, I realized that I liked writing music for films. There was something special, magical about telling a story with music.
I pushed forward in college with my music education focus, but continued to compose, writing music for band, orchestra, small ensembles, and soloists during my collegiate career. When I graduated and got a teaching position, I realized I couldn’t quit writing, and decided to spend some effort and time and re-focus on composition. That led me to an interesting opportunity, and getting my very first video game gig: scoring Artemis: The Spaceship Bridge Simulator.
KM: What first started you with composing for video games?
JRM: I always enjoyed playing video games as a kid, but I came at it from a PC gaming standpoint. I didn’t have any video game consoles growing up; they didn’t have a purpose outside of games, and were therefore, “inessential”. My parents were much more OK with spending money on something that could be used to write book reports, or do research, than something that just played games. That didn’t stop me from playing console games, NES, SNES, Genesis, and N64 at friends’ houses, but it did mean that they weren’t an integral part of my childhood the way they were for my peers.
Instead of Mario Kart, I played Falcon 3.0. Instead of Zelda, I played Star Wars: Dark Forces. I always thought the musical scores of the games were cool, but when I was playing in bands and orchestras a couple of times a week, Ad Lib-powered MIDI stuff just didn’t do much for me. Some of the coolest stuff that really stuck with me were the games coming out of LucasArts, dealing with their brilliant “iMuse” system which was this interactive music system that stitched fragments of music together, padding things out, or switching music up to match the gameplay.
I’d started playing in pit orchestras in high school, so the whole idea of “vamping” a segment or repeating a section until the player does something was just like what you’d have in a stage show. The idea of a multi-layered, branching interactive score getting woven together from these constituent pieces was kind of mind-blowing, but it still sounded like MIDI music being played through a soundboard, and lacked emotional impact.
I’d grown up listening to and loving film scores by Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Alan Silvestri, and the like, and hearing those wonderful, emotive performances. Video game music of the late 90’s was compositionally on a similar level, except it didn’t have the production quality, the emotion of those live performances. It couldn’t. It took a game that came out in 1999 called Outcast to show me that video game music could be even more. Lennie Moore, an incredibly talented composer (whom I’m now proud to call a friend), wrote an absolutely lush, fully-orchestrated score for this weird action/adventure/RPG game set in a parallel dimension on an alien planet, and had it performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Suddenly you had this great music played well by world-class musicians. It was “real” for me in a way that it hadn’t been before. I’d always loved playing video games and now that the door was open to this sort of musical score, it was transformative for me. The emotional content of the music could now be carried by real performers and I realized that might just be something I could do.
KM: How do you approach the process of composing for games?
JRM: I want to know two things when I start a new game project: I want to know what the game world is like and I want to know what the gameplay is like. The world will tell me how the music has to feel and the gameplay will tell me how the music has to function.
If I can get concept art that depicts some of the characters and environments, or some of the story treatments from the writing team, I’ll stew on it and come up with an idea of how the world sounds and what instruments we’ll be featuring. Is this a sci-fi thing? Is this more of a fantasy feel? Is this something unique, something we haven’t seen before? The answers to those questions will help form the palette that I’ll be working with and maybe even some of the themes and motifs that I’ll use throughout the score.
It’s the gameplay and systems of the game, though, that will radically determine how the score is going to be paced and how it’s going to be structured. If the game, for example, is a turn-based RPG where you have all the time in the world to decide what you’re going to do and you do the thing, that’s score is going to be very different from that of an action game where you are twitch-responding to enemy attacks. You have to take those elements of gameplay and pace and figure out how you’re going to make the score work to support them appropriately.
KM: Where does video game music fit into the broader world of contemporary music?
JRM: Video game music and video games, for that matter, are more mainstream than ever before. I’m very much a “classical” musician; I grew up doing things in a “classical” vein. My world is maybe staid than most, but I feel like the best “classical” music that’s being written these days is being written for video games.
As the classical concert world has become more avant-garde (which can be terribly interesting, if not always approachable), there’s been a neo-Romantic renaissance in video game scores. Austin Wintory’s scores for Journey and ABZÛ are fantastic “real” modern classical orchestral music. Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy scores are popular enough to support multiple touring concert series. Video game music is not only intelligent, but is accessible. It can be performed in a concert hall and pull people in who might not want to come and just hear traditional classical music. To me, reaching new audiences like that is super important.
KM: Tell me more about your non-video game related compositions.
JRM: I’ve written a fair few pieces of concert music; a lot of it is for wind ensemble, but I’ve written some solo pieces and some orchestral pieces as well. It’s a world I always like to go back to, but I’m busy enough with video game music nowadays that I don’t get to do it as much. I’m also a bit lazy, and I only tend to write something if I know it’s going to have a shot at being performed. Thankfully, I’ve had some fantastic opportunities to have my work played by some wonderful people over the years.
Several years ago, I wrote a program piece for wind ensemble, based on Norse myth and legend, called Gods of the North. Each movement focused on a different God or Goddess, from a different snapshot of their mythological lives: Odin, Frigg, Loki, and Thor. I followed that up with a work called Theseus, based on the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur from Greek mythology. Both of these program pieces gave me an exciting chance to bring some of my video game scoring techniques to concert music.
I’m actually working on something right now that’s halfway between concert music and video game music. It’s a musical theatre project with the working title of Project ESPER. It’s a musical theatre/audio drama adaptation of the classic JRPG Final Fantasy VI. It’s shaping up to be super cool, and my co-composer Jeff Swingle and I are fortunate to head up a wonderful team of writers, sound designers and and a fantastic cast of voice actors and singers. Getting to adapt themes and motifs from Uematsu’s wonderful score into song is a real treat, and we’re very excited to share more with people in the next few months.
KM: Tell me about some of the game scores of which you’re the most proud.
JRM: The first game I ever scored was Artemis: The Spaceship Bridge Simulator, back in 2011. It’s been a weirdly persistent cult-classic game; there are conventions devoted to it, and “Celebrity Artemis” on the annual JoCo Cruise geek convention/cruise has meant that actors and authors like Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi have played it. (Heck, I’m pretty sure George R. R. Martin captained the Artemis at one point!) It's not bad at all for the very first game I scored!
Gunpoint was my second game score and I worked with two other composers on that, Ryan Ike, and Francisco Cerda. We were honored to recieve a BAFTA nomination for it and it’s still just a fantastic piece of game design and storytelling. Rodina is the third major game I worked on and it’s a wonderful space sim adventure game set in a fully realized solar system. From time to time, I go back and listen to the themes I wrote for it and, at the risk of sounding like I’m flattering myself, I’m still really happy with how it came out.
More recently I worked on a game called Fossil Echo. It was a small game that got a lot of attention in the game audio community, which has been really wonderful. (Although I wish it got a little more attention from the game press, etc.) It had a beautifully animated, hand-painted art style, and was created by two Frenchmen from New Caledonia, Phil Crifo (art/design), and Thierry Boura (code). I was lucky to get bring in my good friends at A Shell in the Pit Audio from Vancouver to handle the sound design side of things.
I’ve never had a score come as easily as that one. The sound of it is very different from anything else I’d done up to that point and, to a degree, it’s a very true expression of myself, rather than me being inspired by what other composers have done before. We were fortunate to have won Best Interactive Score at the 2017 G.A.N.G Awards, (and for me to take home the “Rookie of the Year” award as well), and to get nominated for an ASCAP Composers’ Choice Award, up against games like Destiny, Killer Instinct, and Overwatch. Just an incredible honor.
Most recently I released the score of For The King. It’s this beautifully low-fi, turn-based RPG set in this neat little world where the king has been killed, all the heroes are fallen and you’re the last bastion of hope; regular people who’ve been called up by the Queen to stand against the rising tide of evil sweeping the land. The score takes cues from early music and Renaissance music; I used a small ensemble of bardic instruments to carry the main themes, and act as musical surrogates for the player characters as they address the bigger world. It’s that small ensemble’s interaction with the big orchestral stuff of the larger world that is the focal point of the score.
KM: Talk about some of the composers who have inspired you.
JRM: The first soundtrack I ever owned was two-record vinyl collection of John Williams’ music from Star Wars. I stole it from my dad, and played that on the record player until I wore it out. My first CD was John Williams’ score for Jurassic Park. After that, I really got into Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western scores and discovered Basil Pouledoris’ scores for Conan the Barbarian and The Hunt for Red October with its big choral writing. Obviously Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings figured prominently in my adolescence, too. I feel like I’m hitting all of the composer clichés, but there’s something to be said for these brilliant minds that created these themes that were baked into my childhood.
On the more classical front, I’m a huge fan of Copland and Bernstein. As a child, I became very disaffected with Mozart (hahaha), but as an adult I’ve come back around to him. There’s an irritating perfectionism to his stuff, but that same perfection is what makes it brilliant.
More recently, it’s been listening to my peers and colleagues like Austin Wintory and Christopher Tin and more of Lennie Moore’s recent work. I’m a huge Bear McCreary fan, as well; the stuff he and his team put together is fantastic. On a little bit more of a pop bent, I’ve developed an affection for the music of Kishi Bashi. I don’t know a ton about him, but I’ve listened to his albums way too much. He’s a fantastic violinist, but he weaves in electronics and stringed instruments and sound manipulation in such a brilliant way.
KM: Tell me about some of your current projects.
JRM: Along with Project ESPER, I’ve got a score for a game I’m working on called Ambition: A Minuet in Power. It’s a rogue-like, dating sim, adventure game where you play as a young woman in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution. The score for it has been a joy to write so far. I get to dig back into my music history knowledge and write all of this music that’s as close to period as I can get while adapting it to function in a video game.
I’ve got another project in the works called Mythgard. Instead of small, mid to late-era classical ensembles, I’m dealing with a cyberpunk dystopia where the ancient gods are still around pulling strings. It’s the polar opposite to Ambition. It has big orchestras and electronics galore.
KM: What are your future plans for your compositional career?
JRM: I want to work on fun projects that spark my imagination, projects that have the time and budgets to allow me to make the art that I want to make, so that I don’t have to stress about everyday life and I can just worry about composing. I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world, but it is always a struggle to make ends meet and find new work. The hope is that someday that won’t be as much of a problem. We’ll see how it goes.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
JRM: I don’t have that much time to do so, so I try for a semblance of structure to my days. If I have my druthers and everything works perfectly, I have a schedule that I try to keep to. I’m most creative in the early morning and so I will try to write ideas or get the ball rolling for things in the first six hours of the day.
After I have the ball rolling, I’m much more able to carry through on the detail work, the less “spark of creativity” side of composition. Then, the next day, I’ll be working on something completely different. I have multiple projects in the works simultaneously and they’re so contrasting in tone and style that being able to switch gears from one to the other allows me to regenerate my brain a bit and keep from getting stagnant.