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Interview with Luci Holland

Dr Kenny McAlpine speaks to Luci Holland, an Edinburgh-based media composer who has scored for film, dance and video games.
I’ve come to speak to Luci Holland, an Edinburgh-based composer who’s scored across multiple screen media formats, including film and video games. Luci, you’ve got a really wide range of musical interests and experience. What’s particularly interesting about video game music? So I guess, for me, games were the first thing that got me excited and interested in music when I was a kid. It was always a big thing for our family. We, even if it wasn’t a multiplayer game or something like that, would play things together and kind of experience stories together, from Zelda up until Resident Evil and stuff that probably I shouldn’t have been watching when I was a kid.
[LAUGHTER] And it was those environments that I first started to notice, really notice, the music that was happening and would wonder why it was that made that so special. There’s often moments where I would just pause games that I was playing, and just sit and listen to it, and really just enjoy it through the form of games rather than pressing play on a CD player, or the radio, or something like that. So I think really that’s the essence of everything for me, but that started off that kind of interest.
And as I got older and started to become more analytically aware of how the music was working and the sound was working as well, that kind of just blossomed into wanting to write music for games. So for me one of the things that makes video game music special and interesting is that notion of interactivity, and the idea that music in some sense has to keep up with the gameplay. Now, that notion of interactivity then must pose real challenges to someone like you as a composer. How do you score music for a medium when you’re not actually quite sure in advance what it is that you’re trying to score to?
For me it’s always been very much about the collaborative process, I suppose. I know you don’t always have the luxury of having that, but I think trying to have a conversation as early as possible about what that experience is going to be for someone is always the heart of everything for me. So even if there isn’t anything available in the way of artwork, or even concepts, or narrative, wherever you are in the point, it’s having a sit-down session together with the key players
and saying: What is this? What’s it going to be? What’s it going to feel like for someone? What’s the atmosphere, the tone? Trying to use as broad a language as possible as well so that there’s never any kind of miscommunication or someone’s understanding of a certain word or terminology doesn’t clash with how you view it as well, and that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable for me as well. Whenever it’s anything to do with – not just games or interactivity, any collaborative project where you’re working with someone, that the exciting part is that you’re building something together wherever you come into the process, and you’re playing a part in that.
So what you’re describing there really is using the music and the compositional process to try and capture, if you like, the atmosphere, the moods, the feel, and the experience of playing the game, but from a logistical point of view, how challenging is it as a composer to write fragments of music or loops that are going to be pieced together in response to the player’s gameplay and input when you yourself don’t actually have very much control over how they’re going to work together? Well, for me it can depend on the project, and the product, and who’s on the team supporting you.
I think one of the earliest experiences I had, actually, with ever creating something for an interactive medium, which was a small indie game project, actually, it was part of my master’s degree a few years back. We were really lucky because there was a quite experienced sound engineer who was studying on the masters as well, had a lot of experience with interactive game audio. So he was fantastic to work with because he really showed me some techniques and helped me kind of get to grips with very basic things that I think you can do very early on. It was for a 3D platform game, kind of fun little maze experience.
You control this little fairy that kind of explores this cool, swampy lake. So I was writing very atmospheric, slightly kooky, weird, kind of flowy background music for it. And one of the challenges was, well, how do we – it was quite a frustrating game, so how do we mellow people out but encourage them to keep playing as well? So that was something very important to consider. Rather than how was the music going to react exactly, what does it need to do for the player to help them enjoy the game but feel like it’s a challenge and that they’re getting something from it.
So we wanted to do some interactive vertical layering basically, that you would hear more of the layers as you progress, and then after a certain amount of failures, the track would change and switch into something that was much more relaxing and kind of ramp back up again as you calmed down a bit, hopefully, and gathered yourself. And the earliest thing, the earliest mistake I made, which seems so rookie now, was that the layers didn’t have fades on them.
So quite quickly the sound engineer – we were sitting down – he was putting them in, and all you’re hearing is these nasty clicks and pops everywhere which seems so obvious now, but it was one of the earliest introductions to me about approaching these things in a different way to how you might be used to if it was a linear or synced experience. So I suppose what you’re describing there is that you’re not just writing the music, really what you’re doing is thinking about constructing a framework, if you like, or the structures that will allow the music to develop and react to the gameplay in a relatively seamless way.
Yeah, I think that’s a really good way of describing it actually, and it’s the way I would describe how I approach these things as well. I do try to think about any of the calculations that are necessary, thinking about timing, or some of the more logistical elements of… Are there going to be any clashes? Does this work here? What’s the syncing like? Is it going to work for the experience? Is it going to repeat too many times? All that stuff. But that normally comes further down the conceptual process for me. It’s always been about how do you create this atmosphere? What does it need?
What does it need to do, or how does it need to play, or when does it not need to be playing? It’s always been about the feeling, and the experience for me, and the atmosphere, and then, OK, how do we do that later down the line? It strikes me then that, as you were describing it, like it or not, technology forms a big part of video game composition. Do you find then your process being influenced by the technologies, and sometimes do you find yourself being constrained by what the technology can do?
I think, again, depending on the project, tech would always in some way inspire the process in terms of what might be available, and very recently I’ve been getting much more into analogue to digital interactive processes, so using sensors to pick up real movements or activity, and translating that into a virtual world, or into virtual audio, or digital audio, whatever it is. So that is something that I would definitely say as an example, influences the potential of what I think I can do artistically, absolutely. And that makes the whole process then quite performative. Exactly. Yeah, definitely. And that’s something else that is quite important to me, actually, always trying to bring the humanity into it in a certain way.
That might sound a bit more arty-farty than it is really, but you know, wherever possible using live players, or live musicians, or doing something a little different, or using an instrument in a different way. So I’m a big fan of Mikolai Stroinski, actually, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter composer and Witcher 3 composer, because he just brings something a little different into the sounds he creates and something that you’re not expecting, which I just really love. I think it’s really inspiring. In terms of constraining, I think my only constraint would be if I don’t know enough about a particular technological approach or software. That’s the constraints that I often come up against is…
Even DAWs that I’m very used to using, I still don’t know everything about them, you know, and there’ll be something where I think, I know this is possible, but it’s me that doesn’t know how to do it. So that would be my main constraint, the problems that come across definitely. Now I know you’ve also been really active in trying to raise the profile of video game music as an emerging and developing artform, and to that end you’ve organised the Edinburgh Game Symposium and a whole series of game concerts. Can you tell us how all of that came about? It’s kind of an interesting story, actually.
So it was back in 2013, and a good friend of mine, Jacob Pernell, who’s from the US, but he was studying over here, and another friend of ours who’s a lecturer at Edinburgh Uni, Yati Durant; me and Yati had been working on some film music concerts for a while. We had a small orchestral ensemble that we’d put on concerts with and play lesser-known film music, and also musical scores that come from very interesting, archived film projects. And so we were just chatting with Yati and Jacob one day. We were all together.
I think it was after a rehearsal, and I’d actually been trying for a while to get some game music concerts programmed, and Yati had always been kind of interested, but not the sort of the direction he wanted to go in. And then we were having a chat with Jacob, and this conversation came up again. And I think now the fact that there was two people advocating a game music concert, Yati was much more interested, and so we decided to put on a concert of game music.
And we started reaching out to composers that we just wanted to play their music, people that we were individually just fans of ourselves, and that was really the kind of main process for why we reached out to certain composers. We just really liked their music and thought it would make a fun thing to play in a concert. So we started reaching out to people like Robert Holmes, who’s from Phoenix Online. He created, with his wife, in his games studio things like Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter, which I was a huge fan of, Simon Hale, who was the orchestrator for L.A. Noire, Jessica Curry, Austin Wintory.
And we started contacting these amazing composers, and they were all so supportive, and immediately saying, yes, that they would love us to play their music, and as that started to happen, we started realising and chatting about how we had this actual incredible resource at our fingertips. There was all these amazing, experienced composers, and people who were very experienced in the industry, and understood not just the music and the audio but the game design process, and were doing really new and interesting things themselves who were connected to us now and were very supportive. So we thought, why don’t we put a conference together?
Because we have all these great people who are interested, and we can widen it out, and we can invite local game designers, and other local musicians, and audio people who might be interested in not only talking about the game music but also about the rest of the process. There’s always been – although there’s been a feature, and a kind of focus, on game audio itself, especially music – it’s always been for us, as much as possible, to put that into the framework of this collaborative goldmine, you know? All these talents that come together to make these incredible products and experiences for people, and it kind of blossomed from there. It sort of snowballed a bit, actually.
As we started sounding this idea out with various people, the composers that we’d already also approached, and other people who are more local, or some people who weren’t as well, actually – we had some game designers come from LA and also from London – everyone was just so supportive and was saying, yeah, let’s do this. After the first one, we had so much fun with it that we thought, well, let’s try it again. So we did it again, and each year we’ve tried to do something a little different, or try to bring something new to it, or just try to explore another area in some way. So yeah, that’s kind of how it happened.
Yeah, so one of the things that struck me as you’ve been talking is that you’ve been describing the game development process as being a collaborative one and that involves a community of practitioners. So I suppose my question is, you put on all of this stuff; how did the community respond? It’s been really inspiring, and heartwarming, and really interesting as well, actually. We had a lot of support and enthusiasm after the first one, which made it all worth it to hear that people had really enjoyed it and found it interesting.
Something that had been quite important for us was to try and make these events as accessible as possible and as welcoming as possible, which I think can be quite hard to do with some games industry events, depending on what angle they’re going for, but it can often feel a little bit hard to break through that wall, especially if you don’t know much about the process of anything and might just be interested. Or maybe you don’t know anything about games at all, and for me that’s always been very important to just try and show, like you said, that there’s an artform here.
In terms of the Game Symposium, it was great to hear what people had learned and taken from it, and we had a lot of enthusiasm, and support, and questions, asking us, are we going to do this again? And over the years, as we’ve thought, well, let’s do another one because it’s been so interesting, we’ve tried to listen to what people have said, both good and bad feedback about what the community wants, or needs, or is particularly interested in, but also what we think is maybe not being talked about very much or being considered every time. So generally it’s been very supportive, I think, and really inspiring.
And I guess then that one of the really exciting parts about organising events like that is that it puts you right at the cutting edge, and one of the things that’s always fascinated me about video game music as a developing artform is that we’re only just at the beginning of finding out what the possibilities might be. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had some really exciting games that have challenged the notion even of what gaming is. I mean, I think of maybe Jessica Curry’s soundtrack to Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. What do you think lies just beyond the horizon for game audio? So I’m so excited about collaboration.
It’s always, for me, about working with people who can bring something really interesting, and unique, and innovative to a process, whether that’s something that’s been done hundreds of times before, and I’ve never seen it before, or whether it’s a completely new idea. And I think there’s a lot of potential about how all the talents that are needed to make a game or an experience like that can bounce off of each other in interesting ways, which is why I’m so interested in other mediums and other ways of telling an interactive story or bringing an audience into an experience in some way, because I think you can bring your knowledge that you’ve gained on working on projects like this to other art forms and do really interesting, amazing things with it.
So I think there’s a heap of potential there for how people can work together. And there’s amazing things that are being done, particularly in audio, maybe. I think of something like Inside, Playdead’s release last year. I was watching their GDC audio talk about – one of the problems they’ve had was having the music not restart again in limbo every time their character died and you started a scene again, and they overcame that – and just how seamless something like that is, but how much it means to the industry, and how audio is going to work in a game.
That’s one particular thing that stands out that’s going to have a lot of impact on the industry and how game designers approach how they’re even considering something like sound in that way. That’s one tiny thing. You know, there’s so many parts, as you know, of what comes to make a game and an experience like that. VR, obviously – I’m always on the fence about how gimmicky is this? Is this going to be another 3D glasses cinema thing, or is this something that actually could take off, and become very commercial, or super accessible for a general audience? Whether it is or not, I still think it’s an incredible resource, and we’re right at the cusp of something like this.
It obviously directly relates to the game industry itself, but what’s, again, exciting for me is that that can bridge gaps between different environments, and industries, and disciplines. Right now, actually, I’m working on a project that is bringing VR, dance, and digital visual design together, as well as with sound, to create an experience for an audience to experience dance in a new interesting, exciting, completely immersive way. You know, for me that’s something I’ve never done before, and we’re exploring really interesting ways of getting analogue into digital, and capturing real movement, and translating that into other forms. So basically, I think there’s loads of potential. I’m not sure where it’s going to go.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think we more likely are going to see some really interesting things over the next five, ten years. I really am getting a sense that for you it’s about the collaboration, connecting people and experiences, and in a sense, the technologies are really just the tools of the trade, but what’s most important is putting music and people right at the heart of things. Would that be fair summing up? Yeah, I think so. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud in the industry, actually, because obviously I appreciate, and have a lot of value and respect for the tech and the people who make the stuff and use it in their everyday life.
For me, it’s always about the centre of the project, and the meaning, and the people that are involved, as much as possible. Sometimes that’s not applicable to the project, or even possible, depending on how you’re doing something, but it’s what gets me excited, which is maybe kind of selfish, but that’s what comes first. Luci, thank you very much. No worries. Thank you very much.

Luci Holland is an Edinburgh-based media composer who has scored films, live performances and, of course, video games.

Luci is a very committed and passionate advocate of video game music, and has been a driving force in raising its profile as an emerging art form. In this interview, we talk about her approach to writing game music, and her work with the Edinburgh Games Symposium.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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