Scoring Halo 4
Halo 4's composer Neil Davidge has been working in a cocoon of secrecy for the past year and a half since signing on to Microsoft's marquee shooter series. With the game's development shifting from Bungie to internal studio 343 Industries, he has the unenviable task of following up the iconic work of previous composer Marty O'Donnell. Davidge is more than up for the task however, drawing on his expertise developed over many years working as one of the primary creative engines behind trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack. We talk to him about his love affair with Halo and the day-to-day process of tackling one of the biggest music projects videogames has to offer.
Your job as the composer is to draw out the emotional story of Halo 4’s setting and characters. How do you feel when people dismiss these games as just being about “space marines”?
My gut instinct when I hear that is I’m actually quite annoyed, because it’s a very rich story and the passion behind a project like this is immense. I’ve never witnessed this kind of passion before on a project, whether that be scoring for a film or making an album. The guys at 343, they work through the night, they skip lunches, they don’t go home to get a shower. They live and breathe this story. There’s a lot of human emotion that goes into it, and that comes through in Halo 4’s characters.
I’ve been playing Halo since 2001, right from the very start, pretty much right through my time working with Massive Attack on album projects. Everyone knows how long it takes to make a Massive Attack album these days – three years, seven years and everything in between. So there was a lot of downtime where I’m waiting for the band to turn up on the sessions. So I spent quite a lot of time playing Halo, and I became hooked. I’ve played a couple of other games – Call Of Duty a couple of times – but Halo is the only one I keep coming back to.
How did you end up getting into Halo specifically?
As a kid I was a fan of Marvel comics, [especially] Spider-Man. Growing up, I really got into graphic novels – Alan Moore’s stuff, Frank Miller, some of the classic graphic novels. I’ve always appreciated really rich, but graphic storytelling, where you're taking normal human emotions and you’re elevating those, kind of putting a spotlight on them, putting people in very unusual circumstances and seeing what comes up from that, how you test someone. A little bit like when I go into the studio and have no ideas and I have to write a piece of music.
I have this challenge. I have no idea how I’m actually going to achieve this and I just have to use my initiative, I have to use my other sense, my unconscious and kind of lock into whatever’s going on in my gut and get rid of all conscious thought and create. And it comes from nowhere, it comes from somewhere out there. Halo has this ‘somewhere out there’ quality. It’s a very inspiring, heroic story, it’s very positive. There’s a lot of hope and it kind of takes me back to reading Spider-Man – a misunderstood teenager trying to do the right thing, that was me.
I’d love to be able to inspire people like that. Some of the music I’ve made over the years, I’ve had various people come up to me and say, "That track changed my life". I don’t believe that for a second, of course, but I love the sentiment that a piece of music had a marked effect on that person, and made them do something different to the way they would normally do it. I believe that you can do that with a videogame too.
So at what point did your manager bring the project to you?
He told me what the project was three days before we left for Seattle. It blew me away. It was beyond my wildest dreams that it would actually be this game. I was blown away, very excited about the idea. And also, at the same time, kinda freaked out. This game is huge, and the scores that Marty [O’Donnell] did – there’s a big challenge and there’s a lot to live up to. So [when I took on this project] there was the ‘wow’ factor but then the ‘oh shit’ too.
Even though you were instrumental in creating the Massive Attack records that you worked on you were still very much a background operator. It seems like in the past few years you’ve begun to emerge as your own entity. This is a huge project. How are you feeling about leaving behind that cocoon of relative anonymity?
The enigmatic character behind the curtain is an idea I love. It’s kind of daunting, and not necessarily something I’m that comfortable with, coming forward. I’ve been warned that people might end up hanging outside the door of the studio. I’ve already seen people trying to recreate my ProTools session [for the Halo 4 reveal trailer] on YouTube. So people are pretty fanatical. That’s cool, and it’s inspiring that people are that passionate. I love that about humans. We overcomplicate things all the time, but there’s something very beautiful about that.
Halo is at a crossroads with Bungie stepping aside and 343 taking over development. How do you resolve the tension between preserving continuity with what’s come before and then exploring new ideas and pushing things forward?
Just by accepting and loving what’s come before. For me personally, I’ve loved those games and I’ve spent a lot of time with those games and gone through each several times. I enjoy them. They can’t be bettered, as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t sign onto this to improve on what Bungie and Marty have done, but just to take it somewhere else. It’s a new journey, it’s a new story, it’s a new arc, and so I feel like my job is not to revolutionise or reinvent but to continue the evolution, and I have a slightly different voice to those guys. So where they may have run out of steam – they’d taken the story as far as it could go – I have renewed energy. I have fresh energy to bring to a project like this. And everybody at 343 has the same intense passion that I have to continue the story.
No one wants to beat anyone’s previous work. Everyone just wants to make this game as great as possible, regardless of what aspect they’re working on, whether it’s the environments or the weapons, the sound effects. The passion of the guys who make the sound effects is intense. There’s a guy who sits there for 12 hours straight just listening to gunshots over and over again. The intensity of that passion is inspiring. And of course that in itself makes it something that I want to be involved with.