Jessica Curry is a Director and Composer at The Chinese Room, a game development studio based in Brighton, UK. The studio shipped their first game, Dear Esther in 2012 and are currently hard at work on their third, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Designing Sound: Tell us a little about how you got started out as a composer? What kind of projects did you start out with?
Jessica Curry: I started composing when I was a little girl. I begged for piano lessons and loved it from the outset. I was always writing little songs; the first Mozartian classic being “Jessica Curry is in a hurry, she’s going on holiday/Hip hip, hurray, she’s going on holiday.” I think you can spot the innate talent right there. Then a fun three years reading English Literature and Language at University followed by a “what the hell are you doing with your life, you’re working at the Warner Brothers store” talk from my amazing late step-dad who gently pushed the National Film and Television screenwriting Screen Music course application under my nose. From then on, a vast and pretty bizarre array of projects. I often say that I’ve had a desperately unstrategic career but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I always follow my heart rather than my head and this has led to some phenomenally interesting collaborations, ranging from a Requiem for a Second Life character for the Royal Opera House to writing lullabies for Great Ormond Street Hospital. So although I’ve very probably sacrificed recognition in one particular field, to me what I’ve gained is the most wonderful and unusual collection of projects and that to me has been worth far more.
DS: Had you given any thought to game or interactive music before your work on Dear Esther?
JC: I can honestly say that composing for interactive music was never on my agenda! Dear Esther is not an interactive score- I had never played a game when I wrote Dear Esther so I just wrote the music that I thought fitted the game. In retrospect I do think that that naivety played in my favour. Because I wasn’t aware of the conventions of game music, it completely freed me just to write. I wouldn’t advocate ignorance as a best practice technique for everything by the way but I think it worked for us because Dear Esther itself defied so many gamic conventions. I never intended to write music for a game because if I’m honest I didn’t think that that world had anything of interest for me as a composer. I am exceptionally glad to have been proved very wrong on this matter.
DS: How did you approach the music for Esther? Did the transition from the mod to the released title change your thoughts on the score in any way?
JC: Dan [Creative Director of The Chinese Room] left the story deliberately ambitious and gave me complete freedom with the music. Because we’d worked together lots of times before he knew that I’d be able to come up with the music that the project needed. I immediately fell in love with the story that he’d so beautifully crafted and as usual, I just wrote very instinctively. When we decided to commercialise the game we made the decision not to change anything about the music that I’d originally composed for the mod. That was a very instinctual decision and one that I think paid off. So, basically what I did was replace the sampled instrumentation with live players. I’m really glad we stuck with that as I think it retained the heart of the original music and in a way, that’s what gave it its power.
DS: By removing traditional game mechanics from Esther do you think this changed the player’s interaction with, and appreciation of the sound and music?
JC: That’s a really good question and yes, I think it did. Dan always says that you can only focus on a certain amount of elements when you’re playing a game and I think that the removal of game mechanics meant that it gives over a wonderful amount of space to the emotional aspects of the experience. Because there is no gameplay you can focus on the sounds of the wind and the sea, the voiceover and the music. You are free to experience and to think and dream and contemplate in that space. For me where so many games go wrong is spoon-feeding the player constantly. Always pushing them in a certain direction, to feel a certain thing. I believe that what people responded to more than anything in Dear Esther was the ambiguity and the chance to just be. I still love that about the game. The music was able to take a large role because Dan created the space for it and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
JC: That’s a very long story! As with any collaboration it had it’s good and bad points and there is no doubt that we learned a lot about making games during the process. I think it was really hard for Frictional to give up their baby to us- of course it was- and I completely understand why they found it hard to let go. The unfortunate side of this was that the game became something of a compromise. Where we wanted to leave ambiguity they feared that many players wouldn’t understand, and there was an inherent tension there. We’re still really proud of the game and I really like the music that I wrote for it. I had complete freedom with the music and that was a joy.
DS: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has already created quite a buzz. What can you tell us about it?
JC: Rapture is going to be an absolutely beautiful experience; I can’t wait to show it to the world! The game is set in 1984 in a fictional village in Shropshire and the game is about understanding how real people would behave when faced with a global crisis. There are no grand heroics in the game and the characters that Dan has written are flawed, complex and completely relatable. He has done a wonderful job of looking outside the normal game stereotypes in terms of gender, age and race. That wasn’t something that we had to force- it felt completely natural for the story that we wanted to tell. I think it does something completely new in the way that the story is delivered. It asks quite a lot of the player but it will be completely worth it. Dan always says that the more we give away about the game the more we take away from the player so I’m going to leave it at that!
DS: As well as composing the music have you had a hand in the design of the game?
JC: Yes, as well as being composer at The Chinese Room I am also a Studio Head so I am involved in all aspects of production. In my opinion, good management is mainly about letting talented people get on with what they’re good at. They are an exceptional group and we have a lot of fun at the studio. They are all creative, funny people who are experts in their field. Dan and I set what we want and then we let them run with it. I say we set what we want, it’s very important to us that everyone in the team has a voice and that the team feel they can comment on any aspect of the game. We are a very “talky” studio and I love the ruck! I love the fact that because I am involved in the design process I can craft space for my music when I think the game needs it- not many composers are afforded that luxury!
DS: Dan has spoken about drawing on British sci-fi of the 60’s and 70’s (John Wyndham and John Christopher) for the game’s story. Have you drawn on any influences for the score?
JC: The score is very bucolic and pastoral and one major influence was the 1967 film Far from The Madding Crowd. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score is absolutely stunning and it gave me the inspiration to try and capture the fragility, the loneliness, the tender ache, the joy and the sheer beauty of being alive. As always I have just written from the heart on this project; I have a very visceral approach to composition. Dan’s words make it easy to write music- his stories never fail to catch my imagination and to set my fingers at the piano. I feel incredibly lucky to have such an extraordinarily talented and generous collaborator. He is gold.
DS: You’ve noted before that you work closely with Adam Hay, the game’s sound designer. Can you tell us about the relationship between the sound design and music in Rapture?
JC: Music and sound are inextricably linked in Rapture. Adam has been a really exciting collaborator as he loves music and doesn’t see it as competition or as an entirely separate discipline. Adam has built the most incredible procedural audio system- again, I don’t want to share too much about that because I don’t want to spoil the experience for players but what I can say is that sound design has been at the forefront of this project from its inception. Adam and I have worked really hard to enable the music and the audio to work as one- they flow in and out of one another and have a very intimate relationship. I think that this is going to make the audio world of Rapture really stand out from many other games. Adam’s sound is really clever because he has used amazing analogue processes to really evoke the period that the game is set in. He’s done this really subtly though and it never clocks the player over the head, which I really like. He makes beautiful and thoughtful sounds and that fits our style as a company really well.
DS: You’re preparing to record the game’s score this month. Can you give us an insight into the process of recording the score for a game of this scope?
JC: Spreadsheets, spreadsheets and more spreadsheets. I dream in spreadsheets. It’s been a big step up in scale for me as I’m using an orchestra, choir and soloists – this has meant being very disciplined with organisation. Jim Fowler, my brilliant orchestrator and he has really helped with this side of things. He is really experienced in the organisational aspects of music production and has been very generous with his knowledge. So, we are recording at AIR, the players and the the conductor are booked. We have five days of studio time and six for the mix, which is happening straight after the recordings. There is a cue order list for the sessions taking into consideration length, dynamics and difficulty of cues, making sure the singers’ cues are spread in such a way that their voices don’t get fatigued. It’s great to have an experienced team around me as there’s always someone to ask and that’s great. Now all there is to do is hope and pray that it sounds as good in the studio as it does in my head- always a nerve wracking moment for any composer! As soon as we get started I’ll be fine- it’s these last few days before the studio that are the most nerve shredding!
DS: Do you feel like you’re on the home stretch now with Rapture? At this point in the process is it possible to appreciate what you’ve achieved?
JC: Absolutely- it’s really interesting because if you’d asked me this a month ago I would have said no but now I would absolutely say yes, the home stretch is nigh! I think if you asked most game developers they would tell you that there is a very particular moment in development when everything suddenly drops into place. We reached that sweet spot a couple of weeks ago and it was an amazing feeling. You have to remember that we’ve been working on this game for nearly three years now! To see all the pieces of this extraordinarily complicated jigsaw puzzle come together is a wonderful feeling. I do appreciate all the work that the team have put in and I consider it to be a huge achievement that I’m still totally in love with this game three years in. I see and hear it day in and day out and it still fills me with wonder ands still moves me to tears. I have no idea how this game and this soundtrack are going to be received but I try not to worry too much about that because it’s entirely out of my hands. All I know is, I am proud of what we’ve achieved and it was absolutely the game we wanted to make- no compromises. That has been an honour and is all any artist can strive to achieve.
Many thanks to Jessica for finding time amidst the spreadsheets to answer my questions.