Interview | Jessica Curry
By Lewis Denby
We’ve discussed The Chinese Room’s gameplay experiments before. Dear Esther was hauntingly atmospheric, and Korsakovia is shaping up to be delightfully terrifying. These game mods work against the grain of accepted storytelling methods within the medium, and conjure up something visceral, real and affecting.
While I don’t want to continually shout about how much I love what these researchers, artists and amateur developers are doing, I was particularly intrigued when an email dropped into my inbox last week from Jessica Curry, the composer and sound designer for these games. She was looking for a platform to talk about her work, her thoughts on the videogaming medium and community, and her plans for the future. And, being the selfish brute that I am, I saw the opportunity to delve a little deeper into some facets of gaming that I absolutely adore. So I took her up on the offer.
We talked for over half an hour in total, with my initial intention being to edit this down into some sort of coherent feature. But there are just so many concepts in play, and it seemed silly to cut anything out. At nearly two and a half thousand words, what follows is criminally lengthy, but I do consider it essential reading for anyone who’s interested in the more artsy sides of gaming and interactive worlds. Resolution’s interrogation is bolded, with Jessica’s responses in bog-standard, everyday Arial. It went something like this:
Hello! Should I be frightened?
I don’t think I’m that frightening…
Okay. Fire away.
Right, firstly, do you want to just explain a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I am a composer and sound artist. As a classically trained composer, my work fuses traditional instruments and orchestration with applications of digital technology. My work is an ongoing exploration of human identity, particularly our hidden lives and emotional landscapes, and the end result is a lush, melodic, melancholic sound.
I trained at the National Film and Television School, but soon found that working commercially was very unsatisfying for me. Directors said that my music was too strong and overpowered the image. They would swap cues and fade music out. I discovered that I’m very precious about my work, and felt directors often didn’t know how to communicate with composers. They would often say, “Can you make it sound like so-and-so?” and not really be interested in hearing anything new or innovative.
That’s interesting, actually. I was just going to ask about your working relationship with Dan [Pinchbeck, The Chinese Room's lead designer and project director]. Does he give you a lot of freedom with your composition, then?
Dan loves music and knows a lot about it. So he has a real respect for the composer, and the fact that everyone has a speciality. He basically lets you get on with it, and then sits down with you and says what is and isn’t working, but in a very positive way. Knowing your collaborator trusts you is a vital component in the success of a project. Dan talks about moods, atmosphere and textures, and I find that a really stimulating and easy way to work.
I think that’s totally key in the sort of projects he directs. Essentially, particularly with Dear Esther, it’s so stripped down that it’s all about the mood and texture.
Absolutely. He also isn’t afraid to try new things, and he has a greater frame of reference as he’s interested in a wide variety of media. So it doesn’t look and sound like everything else out there.
What drew you to games, then? Is it a particular interest of yours, or is there just something about composing for them that works for you?
I have very little interest in games, and also a suspicion of them! Having a son, I find it worrying how much time he wants to spend playing them, and I find they are still often targeted at a very male and macho audience. But I try not to limit myself to any particular media, and am drawn to projects if they offer the opportunity to go off on a tangent, in a new and interesting dimension. If there were more games like Dear Esther then I’d play them, but there doesn’t seem to be so much that offers a different experience.
I think there’s an increasing tendency for the smaller studios to move into creating something that’s not “just” a game, but also some sort of artwork within an interactive 3D engine…
I hope so. That would be fantastic, and would help draw new audiences into gaming. I think games are like animation, in that you can be more adventurous and experimental, and people will take odder music that they’d find harder to believe in live action.
Do you think music in games works the same as in other forms of media? In the sense that… is there something about the interactivity of games that fuses in a different way with the music than, say, film?
Hmm, good question. I think that so far I’ve come at the composition in a very filmic way, as that is my background, and in a way I think that is partly why people’s reaction to the music in Dear Esther has been so strong and heartfelt. Often the music in games is to add an adrenaline kick – short loops that fire you up and keep you running – but the music in Dear Esther was there to add an emotional dimension. I used very filmic musical devices. But for our new project I hope that the music will be more responsive to the player – that’s something that interests me very much, and I’m keen to explore this on a deeper level.
Having played an early build of Korsakovia, the music seems to segue between that emotional pull and something more traditionally game-like. But it also seems to be about soundscapes… I don’t know how involved you were in the actual sound design…
Yes, I was keen to try out some more traditional “gameplay” music in Korsakovia, and look forward to people’s responses. It needed pace, and music is a fantastic way to create tension and the illusion of speed and panic. And yes, I did the sound design for Korsakovia too.
The “black fog” sound is one of the most profoundly disturbing noises I think I’ve heard.
Thank you. It was really funny. I was mixing it with my headphones on and scared myself while I was listening to it. First time that’s happened – I really got the hairs on the back of my neck standing up!
How did you go about creating it?
I really wanted the sound to be a strange mixture of organic and industrial sounds, so mixed whale song with factory machinery, etc. I trawled the internet for interesting sounds and started mixing it together to create sounds that you somehow knew but couldn’t place.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard.
Thank you, that’s a real compliment. I really wanted to avoid the “man roars into a microphone then pitches it low” sound. I’ve heard it so many times for monsters and it just isn’t scary. I wanted to mix sounds that we all know, but effect them so that they couldn’t be placed. Dan made me a list that said: “monster roars, monster waiting, monster attack” etc, with a few suggestions of how he wanted them to sound, then left me to it.
I think that organic process really leads to an organic sound, too.
Yes, and that’s what many directors don’t seem to understand. That fluidity of process is going to allow you to come up with something so much more interesting and original.
Going back to Esther for a minute: I wonder if something that doesn’t appeal to you about games is that they’re not traditionally a medium that evokes emotional or philosophical reaction. Esther strikes me as being one of the most engaging and affecting gaming experiences I’ve had…
Absolutely. My music is almost purely driven by emotion. When people listen to it they often say that it’s very open and heartfelt. To me, that’s what drives us as human beings, and games sometimes seem very empty in that sense. There’s little exploration of what it is to be human, thinking about the human condition.
Esther appealed to me because it was the story of a man searching for his lost love, and maybe even his soul. There was something very seductive about that for me: a love story within a game. And working with Nigel’s (Carrington) voice acting was a privilege. It adds so much to the story and the mood, and made the music very easy to write. As soon as I heard his voice I knew how I wanted the music to sound.
The way the music and narration blend during Ascent (Dear Esther’s final level) is spellbinding. I’ve heard people say the music obscures the voiceover, but for me that was kind of the point. Everything’s becoming so fucked up in this guy’s mind, none of it’s making much sense any more, and the confusion feeds through to the player.
Yes, the levels have been quite contentious. Some people love it, some people hate it. I actually wanted the music to be turned down – unusual for a composer! – but Dan insisted that I should drown out the voice, and that was the whole point.
You mentioned the story before. I think it’s really interesting. There are so many theories flying around that scene as to what it’s about. Some people find it uplifting, others scary. I found it deeply tragic…
I also find it very sad. Not frightening at all. But I wanted the music to add an element of hope and a sense of possibility. I know that Dan left the story deliberately quite open. I didn’t ask him what his intentions were as I thought it would lose something. It’s hard, as sometimes you want specific pointers, but for this project I felt like the less I asked, the more I could add to it, if that makes sense.
The game is all about ambiguity, so to work with that idea it had to be ambiguous to you as well?
Do you want to talk a little about The Second Death of Caspar Helendale?
That was probably my favourite project. It contained so many issues that are important in my work: death, mortality, philosophy, nostalgia and the relevance of a digital society. The music was absolutely what I wanted to write. And who could pass up the opportunity to write a requiem for a man that never existed? Everything came together for that project, and I’m just sorry that it didn’t get a bigger audience, as I felt it deserved more attention.
Could you just explain what it was? I’m sure a lot of readers won’t be aware of it…
We killed an avatar in Second Life and then held a funeral service for him. The idea was to explore what happens to unwanted avatars. When we no longer want these Second Lives, do they just revert into inert data held on a server?
It’s such a unique concept and says a lot about the artistic merit of MMO gaming.
It was amazing how people committed to the project. People cried when we killed him, and begged us not to do it. Their emotional response to Caspar was extraordinary. They treated him like a real person. They also contributed to the book of the dead, and that was very moving. They added names of people they had lost in “first” and Second Life.
There’s so much investment in MMOs. A lot of people are scared of that. I remember BBC Breakfast interviewing Tim Edwards (Editor of PC Gamer UK) about Wrath of the Lich King – the presenters totally didn’t understand what the appeal was, but I guess you’ve cracked it there.
Yes, it’s very interesting to me. People’s investment in their avatars was strange. It gives people the opportunity for escape.
Do you think that’s troublesome? Is it overly escapist?
No, I think that most people who use it don’t blur the boundaries too much, and see it as a form of exploration and relaxation. One guy came with weapons, and I asked him why he came dressed so aggressively for a funeral. He told me his job in real life was to protect people, and that Second Life gave him the opportunity to explore another side of himself. I found that really interesting.
It’s funny how you said “people who use it.” There seems to be that view, from a lot of people, that there’s something quite drug-like about MMOs. There’s the old nickname for WoW: “World of WarCrack”…
[Laughs] Well Second Life is certainly trippy. In some ways it’s so close to real life, but in other ways it’s very different. I get freaked out after a while.
I do find it dispiriting how much porn there is on there. We can create a brave new world, but all we can make are some unrealistic tits…
I think there’ll always be an element of that. But while ever people are creating truly artistic material in there as well, there’s always that potential for something more.
Yes, that’s true. I was surprised that there aren’t more artists using it as a place of work. We struggled to find many conceptual artists who use it.
People seem to use it as an advertising bed, rather than a creative one…
Absolutely right. I don’t know why that is.
I suppose people are still learning how they can utilise these new media.
Yes. I’m just impatient. Dan and I have applied for funding to make a game in Second Life. It’s about the Olympics and is very subversive!
Sounds interesting. I hope that comes through for you.
Yeah, I’d love to do it.
Right, I guess we’ll wrap it up there. Unless there’s anything else you want to talk about?
No, I think that’s it. Just wanted to add that writing music for Dan is the first time I’ve received fan mail! I don’t know why it’s had that effect on people, but it’s a pleasure to do. I think we’re going to keep on pushing those boundaries and hopefully getting better and better.
Thanks so much for your time. You weren’t frightening at all.
I’m all cuddly and nice.
For more information about Jessica Curry, why not visit her website? I’m sure she’d like that.