Laced Records: Ori composer Gareth Coker is happy to make players sad

Composer Gareth Coker chats to Laced With Wax about his latest game score for Ori and the Will of the Wisps — how he changed approach from Blind Forest, how he’s happy to hit players over the head (emotionally speaking), and his favourite melodists among other composers.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

In 2015, Moon Studios released the aesthetically sublime yet challenging 2D platformer Ori and the Blind Forest to critical acclaim — the developer’s first game release. The art and music in particular were praised for being exceptionally beautiful and affecting, setting high expectations for a possible sequel.

Fast-forward five years and the sequel has arrived: Ori and the Will of the Wisps was released for Xbox One and PC in March 2020. (In folklore, a will-o’-the-wisp is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travelers.)

Unlike its forebear, Will of the Wisps launches into a market stuffed with so-called ‘metroidvanias’ thanks to a resurgence of the genre. A metroidvania might loosely be defined as a game — often a 2D platformer — where the player can gradually access more of the world as they unlock new character abilities related to movement (e.g. a double jump) or tools (e.g. a grappling hook.)

We caught up with Ori series composer Gareth Coker just a few weeks shy of the launch of Will of the Wisps to find out about how he approached the ‘difficult second album’, the levels of interactivity built into the game’s soundtrack, and his favourite melodists from music history.

You can find links to the Ori and the Will of the Wisps soundtrack across all the different music services here:

Gareth Coker: Origins

A constant across both Ori games is the highly emotive music of the L.A.-based British expat. As an award-winning composer for media he’s worked on feature and short films, documentaries, and trailers. His video games work includes scoring ARK Survival Evolved, VR title The Unspoken, and the Mythology expansion packs for Minecraft.

Far from being a film composer that fell sideways into video games, Coker was playing games “since as young as I can remember. My first gaming experience must have been on the ZX Spectrum or an Amstrad, and my Dad bought me a book where you had to type in computer code in order to play a game. I also remember putting in cassettes to play games that would then take 20 minutes to load. [An early favourite] Star Wars: X-Wing [1993], came on five floppy disks!

“Of course I’ve been watching films and TVs shows all that time but I feel an affinity with gaming — it’s the medium I understand best. I try to play as many games as possible.”

Coker also has a serious habit. Potentially an addiction. Every year (depending on the year) he has to complete the latest Assassin’s Creed title to 100% completion — including DLC! Call it a map-mopping mania.

One of the most interesting things about his career is the number of countries he’s lived and worked in. After being raised and studying in the UK, Coker has also lived in several U.S. states as well as in the Netherlands and Japan. He seems undaunted to work with musical styles and instruments from different cultures, evidenced by his work on the Mythology expansion packs for Minecraft.

Moon and me

The role of video game composer has evolved over the decades. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, these days you often think of composers as guns for hire working with a development studio for just one project (and possibly a sequel.) They might visit the studio a few times. They’ll receive plenty of reference material. They might even get to play some builds of a game. Ultimately, they will spend a lot of time working solitarily in their respective ‘composer cave.’

Coker’s relationship with Ori developer Moon Studios is a little different, in part thanks to the company being a globally distributed team (albeit with its roots in Austria.) This means that the L.A.-based composer, effectively a freelancer, need not feel like he’s any more distanced from the project than any other team member. “That’s one of the cool things about the studio and a lot of people are still surprised by that. We made a map of where the team is located and the number of different locations is crazy.”

This interview took place before the more stringent lockdown measures came into effect in the UK (where Laced is) and California (where Coker was) in response to COVID-19. One wonders whether Moon Studios will have a distinct advantage over the next few years as other gaming companies adjust to the global pandemic. Coker says: “We literally make Will of the Wisps over Skype, Dropbox, Google Docs, and basically any online thing that doesn’t crash. We’ve honed that process over the last eight to nine years.”

“My relationship with Moon is unique. I am deeply embedded in the project, but there have been other projects where I am more of a music supplier. My work on the Minecraft expansions followed a straightforward brief and is played back in the game in a ‘jukebox’-style system. It’s designed to immerse the player rather than be tightly tied to the experience.”

“With the Ori series and similar games, the music is tied closely to the gameplay, the visuals, and the overall experience. To be frank, I don’t think the composer would be able to do their best work if they didn’t have a close relationship to the game. Of course there are exceptions, a few great soundtracks where the composer didn’t get to play the game. But, in those cases, they probably had a brilliant audio team [backing them up.]”

Coker is the music team for Ori titles: “For better or worse, I have complete creative control. The buck stops with me and it comes down to my taste. That is aided somewhat by working so closely with the whole studio, which prides itself on having as flat an organisational structure as possible across 80 people.

“I don’t just get regular feedback from the game directors. I get it from everyone! The art team might say ‘we created this beautiful vista so where’s the cool music moment to accompany it?’ And, in turn, if there’s something I feel strongly about regarding art or animation — for instance a sequence feels like it lacks a visual reward — I can speak up.”

As Control composer Petri Alanko told Laced With Wax, it can be a blessed relief to a composer to have expert audio programmers to hand over musical material to so that it can be implemented in the game engine.

Coker also found this to be the case: “I’m very lucky to have [former Director of Audio at Microsoft Game Studios and game composer] Guy Whitmore do all the technical music implementation and some environmental ambience tracks on Will of the Wisps. He’s a wizard and a game audio legend, responsible for the deep musical interactivity of PopCap’s Peggle 2, where all the sounds are linked to different bricks.”

“Because Guy’s a composer, he understands what I’m going for and what the transition should be. I can tell him exactly how I want it to play back and it happens — no small feat! It feels like I’m using a cheat code to have him there so that I can focus on the creative side of things.

“Nearer the end of the project, all I have to do is find music and audio bugs and report them; but the actual nitty gritty of solving them is out of my hands. That’s probably smart because I don’t think anyone wants me poking around in [game engine] Unity or Wwise. He enjoys solving implementation problems that are my worst nightmare!

Wwise. He enjoys solving implementation problems that are my worst nightmare!

“We have to think about things like ‘the player has reached the third act and they finished that room a long time ago, but maybe there are still some collectibles they want to get. In that scenario, which music cue is going to play in that room?’ Thinking about all of that is a pain, made more complicated by the game’s structure where players can deviate from the ‘golden path’ at will. We don’t want the same generic track playing over and over again if a player has left the beaten path.”

Read the rest of the interview here!