Upon my first viewing of the announcement trailer for Moon Studios’ ‘Ori and the Blind Forest’, I was taken aback by its dazzling visuals and haunting score. When the game was finally released, before I even played it, I purchased Gareth Coker’s soundtrack, knowing full well it’d be worth it.
Coker’s foray into the industry was through scoring trailer music. “Trailers and advertising have paid my bills for a long time and they are very fun to work on; they have quick turnarounds, which is a nice contrast to long-form projects,” Coker explains. Shortly afterwards, Coker went to the University of Southern California to study with their film scoring program, and has also studied music in the United Kingdom at the Royal Academy of Music. As for the game world, Gareth says, “I’ve always made it known that I’m a fan of video games, and have been active on a lot of forums and websites. Eventually, people started getting in touch, and one of them happened to be Moon Studios, before Ori was even picked up by Microsoft.”
Coker’s music has been featured in over one hundred trailers, and according to him, scoring a trailer is a completely separate process from scoring the project with which the trailer is showcasing. “Trailers – especially teasers – are often made before the film’s music has ever been recorded,” Coker describes, “The goal of a teaser or trailer is to build hype, if you can get a narrative arc in there then that’s great, but the overall goal has to be to excite your audience and craft a memorable experience.” Coker has found that the most memorable trailers are between 90 and 120 seconds long with a strong narrative arc. “It all comes down to good pacing and flow,” he says, “if you have these things and are doing them well, you have a better chance of creating something that resonates with people.” However, as Coker points out, “If, on the other hand, everything is dialed up to 11, the brain just switches off. When everything is ‘epic’, then actually, nothing is epic. Dynamic range is extremely important.”
Moon Studios is an independent game development studio founded by former AAA game developers. In 2011, Moon Studios began development on a game in cooperation with Microsoft Games Studios, which in 2014 was revealed to be Ori and the Blind Forest, a 2-D Metroidvania game with a particular focus on storytelling, platforming and atmosphere. What makes Moon Studios especially unique is that they are a collaboration of game developers located all over the world. “One of the biggest advantages was that someone would be working on the game at all times due to the different time zones,” Coker says of Moon Studios’ location, or lack thereof. Another advantage, Coker explains, was the plethora of file-sharing and communication resources available which allowed the Coker to stay in contact with the people he needed to help him do his job.
Although Moon Studios gave Coker guide tracks, he had a considerable amount of creative freedom with regards to the score. “I was encouraged to experiment and to share my experiments, and if the team members liked them, they were implemented. If not, they got thrown out,” Coker says. Moon Studios gave Coker the necessary guidelines in terms of narrative direction to “ensure [he] fully understood what emotions and storytelling [we] were trying to achieve in each scene,” and it was up to him to craft a score that would capture those emotions. Coker praised Moon Studios for including him in the games’ creative process. “We generally tried to help everyone else out where appropriate and give a ton of feedback even in areas outside our supposed areas of expertise,” Coker explains, “At the end of the day we’re all gamers so if we strongly felt something wasn’t working we would make suggestions and improve.” It’s rare that a composer gets the chance to have such an influence on game design, pacing and flow – and in the case of Moon Studios and Coker, it worked with great success, as both Ori and the Blind Forest and it’s soundtrack were well received!
Coker was only able to match the tone of the score with the game’s unique setting through “…totally thorough play-testing.” He’s been a part of Moon Studios from the very beginning of production. As a result, he’s “…developed an understanding of not just the visuals, but also the mechanics. Understanding the mechanics – how Ori moves, the attacks, etc… – is key to establishing the correct tempo, pace and feel for the music.” Through this, Coker was able to learn early on that percussion in the music wouldn’t work because Ori’s sound effects were quite frequent, and quite percussive. “In essence,” Coker explains, “Ori’s sound effects acted as the percussion section of the orchestra. This ended up producing a really nice blend.”
Once the visuals began to come in, they dictated quite a bit of Coker’s instrumentation. ‘Valley of the Wind’ features wind instruments such as a bansuri. ‘Mount Horu’ takes place inside of a Volcano, and thus features heavier instruments. ‘Ginso Tree’ takes place inside of a tree; so wooden percussion instruments such as the marimba were used.
Only once Coker was happy with a track, it would get uploaded for the rest of the team to hear. “After establishing the palettes and tempo of the music, it was simply a case of writing music, testing it in game, and determining whether or not it worked. I would test it locally, and if it wasn’t working for me, I wouldn’t even bother uploading it. This sometimes led to long periods of time with no uploads!”
While Ori and the Blind Forest’s entire score is held in high regard, its main, or title theme is the highlight of the score. According to Coker, this theme was developed with great difficulty, as he had become blind to his own work. “It doesn’t happen often,” he says, “but if you are churning out material you might become less self-aware of it.” It was pointed out to Coker that a theme he had discarded was well liked by the team, so he took the time to re-orchestrate and redevelop that theme into what we hear today. Ori’s theme is prevalent throughout the game, which helps to bring the player closer to Ori. “At the end of the game, ‘Light of Nibel’ playes over the end credits; it is the main theme in its most epic form. Ori has completed his journey; every manifestation of the theme up to the end build up to what is the score’s most substantial track,” Coker explains. This is a fitting reward for the player who had reached the end of the game.
One of the most important aspects of crafting the score of ‘Ori and the Blind Forest’ was that the music was designed to reflect Ori’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. “I felt it was crucial that the score take a point of view; that of Ori.” Coker says. “Some games do music on a ‘per level’ basis, which is fine, but I wanted the music to reflect Ori’s journey more closely.” Coker crafted the score in such a way that there are dozens upon dozens of subtle changes to mirror Ori’s experiences and emotions. The purpose of this, according to Coker, “is to help the player connect with Ori so that by the end of the game they are really rooting for Ori.
Since ‘Journey’ was released in 2011, many games have aimed to induce emotional catharsis within players. ‘Ori and the Blind Forest’ is no exception. Coker comments, “Achieving emotion in a game results from everything coming together in the grand picture. The release you get at the end of the game is the result of everything before that.” Coker explains that flow, on both a narrative and gameplay level, has a lot to do with this. “By throwing new mechanics, areas and narrative development at players, we hope to keep the player immersed and engaged with the story.” In Coker’s particular case, since the game possessed no dialogue, he had to ensure that the dynamic of the score had appropriate peaks and valleys throughout the experience.
Coker is excited that Ori’s soundtrack was so well received, and is looking forward to scoring more TV, films, advertising and games in the future. His is particularly looking forward to the June announcement of a small, fun independent game with zany music, as it’s stylistically different than anything he has done before.