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IGM Composer’s Corner – Jessica Curry (The Chinese Room)

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It’s apparently music month at IGM (it’s almost like somebody planned that…) so we’re continuing on with our Composer’s Corner segment, featuring some of the latest and greatest musical talents in the gaming world. This interview is one I’m especially excited to share with you, just because I’m admittedly such a fan. I think by the time you’ve finished reading – and listening! – you will be too.

Quite truthfully, even if you’ve only been half paying attention to the indie scene, tonight’s guest truly needs no introduction. But for those of you who just thawed out of North Atlantic ice after fighting the good fight back in WWII, and want to catch up on world events before slapping on star spangled tights and assembling Avengers, here’s what you need to know: Jessica Curry is the director and composer of The Chinese Room, a development team responsible for the likes of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, and the award-winning Dear Esther. Their current project, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, has more than just a little bit of hype building in anticipation of release. After multiple BAFTA nominations, it became clear the musical stylings for both games were an experience unto their own, so now it’s nothing out of the oridinatry to be excited for future TCR projects just out of anticipation for Curry’s emotionally resonant tracks. I was fortunate enough to chat with her about her distinct muscial style, and how composing for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture differs from previous projects.

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Indie Game Magazine: Do you have any sort of pre-composition ritual before beginning a new project?

Jessica Curry: What a great question. As a matter of fact I do. I have a very ancient, much traveled, hairy-yellow-Sellotaped black and white photocopy stuck on my wall that simply says “BEGIN ANYWHERE” and in smaller letters underneath it is attributed to John Cage. Whenever I’m about to begin a project I stare at that tatty piece of paper intently and it always gives me hope. Any person that creates for a living will know that there is always this sense of gaping, awful, gnawing panic that envelops you just before you start a new project. So in times of anxiety; the days where I’m well and truly stuck and I feel like I’ll never write again: I turn to my right, look at the tattered piece of paper, take a deep breath and as instructed, simply begin.

IGM: One of the questions posed during the “Indie Games – Revolution or Renaissance?” panel at Game Music Connect very interestingly asks whether the indie scene is really pioneering a new form of artistic expression, or actually just a soft reboot of the AAA games industry, harkening back to the less sequel-infused origins of gaming. What are your thoughts about that?

Curry: I’m now not saying, “what a great question” but more “oh what an absolutely MASSIVE question.” I’m always loathe to speak about industry trends in general because we work in such a sizable and diverse industry, but what I can do is offer some thoughts from the perspective of our company, The Chinese Room. We are often labeled as an indie game company, but actually Dan and I often say that it’s more accurate to say that we make short AAA games. I think we’re quite different from many people on the indie scene who can iterate quickly because of a simple or retro/8 bit aesthetic/visual style (not a judgment, just an observation before anyone writes in to complain!).

I do think that we are doing something different that the industry hasn’t really seen or heard before. We have incredibly high-production values but are able to push narrative in very experimental and innovative directions. I’m writing music that would never make it into mainstream games. This is incredibly exciting for us, and Rapture is pushing us further than we ever thought we’d be able to go.

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IGM: What would you say to someone looking to break into the world of game music composing, AAA or otherwise?

Curry: For me it boils down to three core things- communication, contacts, and tenacity. You can be the best composer in the world, but if no one knows your work you’re unlikely to get a job. Using social media effectively and being able to promote yourself are absolutely vital skills. I have an incredibly loyal fan base. I feel I owe it to them to communicate with them and let them know what I’m up to.

Contacts- like it or not people are more likely to use you if they know you. That doesn’t mean that there is this giant conspiracy and none shall pass, just that making games costs a lot of money- the risk is high- so if you know someone that you like, respect, and crucially, know can get the job done, you will use that person. So, not surprisingly, the more people you know and the more you integrate yourself in the scene, the more likely it is that you’ll get work.

Tenacity- just keep going. I’ve had hundreds of rejections in my career, myriad setbacks, and there have been times where I’ve been determined to throw the towel in. You just have to keep going. Lastly, don’t be an arsehole. This is my golden rule. It’s a relatively small industry, and one that thrives on gossip. Believe me when I tell you that your reputation will definitely precede you!

IGM: Do you prefer composing as a collaborative project alongside a team? Or is it easier to put together a number of tracks, and then receive general feedback afterward?

Curry: Without wanting to dodge this question, I would say that my compositional process tends to go down both of these routes. For the first few months of the project, I work very collaboratively with the team and I really embed myself into all aspects of the game. (Being a Studio Head also means that I’m completely involved in every discipline.) Now I’m about to go into my hibernatory phase where I get my head down and shout at anyone who tries to come in to my room. We have set the tone and orchestration of the music for Rapture, and I just need to get on and write it. This for me is the gorgeous part of the process. Enter my room at your peril.

IGM: Are you surprised by how quickly the indie industry received recognition by award scenes such as BAFTA?

Curry: The thing that I like about BAFTA is that they have made a very conscious decision to support smaller projects. It would be so easy for them not to do this, and having spoken to them, I know that it’s not just lip service- they are absolutely committed to independent production. Brandon Boyer, IGF Chairman, has done a wonderful job of raising the profile of, respect for, and knowledge about indie games, and Indiecade has also done sterling work in this area. When you meet the organisers, it’s clear that their passion has driven this awareness, and I’m really grateful to all of them for recognizing what a great scene it is.

IGM: Have you noticed any growing trends in game composition that weren‘t present until recently?

Curry: I’m a big fan of Oliver Deriviere’s score for Remember Me. The orchestral instrumentation mixed with that glitchy Protools-sounding production sounded really fresh to me.

IGM: Has the experience scoring Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture differed from prior games developed by The Chinese Room at all?

Curry: Up until now I have approached the scores that I’ve worked on as film soundtracks- so compositionally it’s been a traditional, linear process. This has since been ascribed to some kind of bold aesthetic stance, but actually it came out of not knowing any different! With Rapture, I am attempting to retain the strength of that linear approach with the flexibility of interactive music. This is a real challenge and I’m still working on it. The other difference is that up until now I’ve scored for smaller ensembles, so I’m really excited to have the budget to have an orchestra and a choir.

Jessica Curry HeadshotIGM: How important is music as a component of immersion during gameplay?

Curry: Music plays an absolutely vital role. Music can place you in a scene like nothing else can. My brilliant and very wise mum once wrote that “music is part of the fabric of being human. There isn’t a society that doesn’t use music to woo by, soothe its children with, march to war on, bury its dead by and every experience in between.” As with everything else, she’s right on this one too. Music often accompanies our deepest moments- it’s the most wonderful tool for game developers and sometimes I wished that it was used more imaginatively, but that’s another discussion for another day.

IGM: Have you found any one particular game genre easier to compose for than another? Or does it more depend on the individual game itself?

Curry: I am definitely more comfortable with a more melancholy style, and think that I’d struggle to write comedy or anything overly whimsical. I’m fortunate that Dan [Pinchbeck, Creative Director at TCR] is interested in big themes- love, loss, grief, questioning what it is to be human- and that gives incredible scope for me to write what I’m good at- emotional, epic music that hopefully touches the soul. That sounds incredibly hippy now that I’ve written it, but fortunately I’m much better with music than words.

IGM: Are there any new software or composition tools you’ve recently integrated into your repertoire?

Curry: Not so much software, but the actual process of composition has changed in that I think about it in a different way- that elusive blend of narrative strength and interactivity that I was talking about earlier. The Holy Grail of game composition, and my quest continues… [rides off into sunset on her trusty steed].

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Wow, does that lady know how to make an exit, or what? I’m going to take that “another dicussion for another day” line as an open invitation for a follow up chat at a later date. In the meantime, I have to say a very special Thank You to Jessica Curry for taking the time to chat. For those who want to hear more of her thoughts, you can do just that on September 24 at the Game Music Connect 2014 conference, where she will be a panelist. To keep up with her online, you can follow her on Twitter, or just spend countlesss hours listening to her available music on Bandcamp.



Vinny Parisi graduated from the Ramapo College of New Jersey with a degree in Journalism. No stranger to the industry, Vinny first picked up an NES controller at the tender age of two-years-old and hasn't stopped gaming since. RPG and Action-adventure are his genres of choice, but there isn't much he hasn't played. His thoughts and shenanigans are displayed for all the world to see @Vincent_Parisi