We often use vague catchall words to describe careers in gaming: developer, designer, producer. But those words don’t tell much of a story. What’s Your Line? is an interview series designed to demystify the people who make their living in games.
Gerard Marino has been making music his whole life, playing in bands and spinning tunes at a strip club to pay his way through music school. He’s scored a few smaller films, but he really hit it big when he was asked to be the lead composer on a little game called God Of War. Recently, he received a Hollywood Music In Media Awards nomination for his work scoring the new Amazing Spider-Man game, further cementing his place as one of the industry’s go-to composers.
The Gameological Society: How do you score a video game?
Gerard Marino: [Laughs] I don’t even want to say, “Very carefully.” Well, it depends on the game. You meet with the guys and find out about the game—what’s gonna happen, what kind of game is it, what do you want from the music in this game. If it’s a platformer like Super Mario Galaxy, it’ll be one thing. If it’s a sword-and-sandal slasher like God Of War, it’ll be another thing. So you determine what you’re gonna need. Quite often with the games I’m doing—let’s call them your stereotypical video game, the big console game variety where you’re either fighting somebody or saving the world—there’s a lot of parallels with film and TV music. They look for that cinematic experience, so in that regard, those aims are the same.
Gameological: Do they have a script for you to read when you’re brought on?
Marino: As long as it is a story-based game, then yes. If it’s earlier in the process, or the game’s not working really well, you get concept art and explanations. You read the script, you look at the pictures. Here’s the story. Here’s the guy. Here’s the main character. Here’s what he looks like. Here’s the people he’s going to be fighting, here’s what they look like, and here’s the places they’re going to be fighting. And you kind of just use your imagination from there. And if it’s a sequel or something, you’re going to know a lot more about it. You’re maybe going to be able to play it sooner rather than later.
Gameological: So when you made God Of War II and God Of War III, you basically had a baseline from which to work from?
As long as it’s a good melody, it could repeat a million times and we won’t care.
Marino: Yes, I did. The really hard groundwork was done, as far as coming up with a world and a universe. Conceptually, we knew what was going to happen, and it was just pushing around on the edges of what we’ve built before. It’s a little easier to do a sequel for that reason. You don’t have to find the DNA of a project. At least you have the DNA together. So you’re just making new mutants out of it? Having more children?
Gameological: Is there a trick to writing music that you know is going to get repeated within the game?
Marino: There are different schools of thought on that. I lean on the side of having a whole wealth of interesting musical material going on all the time. That way, if it plays a bunch of times, there’s a whole lot to it so that people cannot get bored with it. I err on the side of putting a melody in there. There are those who say there should be no melody, because that’ll be very recognizable and every time it repeats, you’ll hear it. So I say, as long as it’s a good melody, it could repeat a million times and we won’t care. Just like Super Mario Bros. did. I go back to these iconic games that didn’t worry too much about it, that just worried about having good music in there, and that was just fine.
I think good music trumps all when it comes to technology. And also there’s implementation. If they only took 30 seconds out of Beethoven’s 9th and played it the 13 hours you’re playing a video game, yes, as awesome as that music is, you would learn to hate it. I’m an external kind of composer kind of guy, and I’m not much of a computer programmer. There are usually one to seven guys at work at the development studio, making all the right sounds work at the right times and the right places. As long as they have enough time, they will make sure that the music works well and turns off after a while. Like if you sit in one room for a while, they’ll just fade out the music.
Gameological: You mentioned Super Mario Bros. How has new technology in gaming music influenced your compositions? In the past, the 8-bit limit on sound gave rise to all sorts of interesting melodies; I’m curious how the lack of limitations impacts music writing.
Marino: In the past it was more about you having to pick maybe two to four sounds. You could come up with different ones, but you could never get more than two or four to play at the same time. It’s like writing for string quartet. It’s actually much harder to write for small resources than it is for big ones. A string quartet is so bare and exposed, every note has to count, the same as 8-bit. Whereas with an orchestra, as long as everybody’s playing the same note, it sounds like a million dollars.
The inspiration I pull from the 8-bit scores is more about how those guys had to make everything count. Usually the ones we remember these days are because of the melodies, the Super Mario Bros. and some Final Fantasy stuff, and the Zelda stuff. All of that has been re-orchestrated now and is on tour with orchestras across the world. Three or four different touring orchestras with orchestrated 8-bit music now. It’s cool, but we need to make sure that the music’s good.
There is technology in games now that allows branching and looping and layer-fading and all this sort of stuff. And if you get all caught up in the details of that, it generally has downward pressure on the actual artistic measure of the music. It becomes all this bolts and nuts and gears, and it doesn’t ever flow, because actual music flows. Until we can get some really workable algorithmic composition software into a console game and have the sounds be available that will play convincingly all at the same time out of the console, it’s going to have to be well-written music. All the little bits and pieces that we stick together, the more you do of that, the less musical it is.
Gameological: You just did music for the Amazing Spider-Man game, which is based on a film. How much inspiration do you take from the composition of the film?
Marino: I’d say that the game directors do look for the music to accomplish certain goals the same way that a film director would, but I’d say scoring them is a lot different due to the different technical issues that go along with it. The role of the music is pretty much the same, but the way to do it is different—they were still shooting the movie when I was halfway done with my score. I was probably done with my score for the video game before James Horner wrote the first note for the score of the movie. And actually, the story of the video game, it’s the smartest thing I’ve heard so far with these movie tie-in games: It’s actually a sequel to the movie. It takes place after the events of the movie. Instead of having some half-baked version of the movie, they pick up where the movie left off.
Gameological: Do you play games?
Marino: I play as often as I can. It’s been getting busier and busier, and I don’t get to play as often as I’d like. I’ve actually got a stack of games wrapped in plastic that I haven’t quite burned through yet. And I do feel like you should live life, too, so I try to get out and have some experiences in the real world, too.
Gameological: So have you played games you’ve worked on?
Marino: Oh yeah. The Spider-Man game came out yesterday, and I didn’t want to wait until my comp copies came. I bought it and I played it. I just got done this morning. I absolutely do that, usually the day they come out. Those are the games that I absolutely, always play.
Gameological: What is that experience like?
Marino: Sometimes it’s like, “Yes!” and sometimes it’s like, “Oh no!” I can see where if we all had another month, we would have had it perfect. Another month for him to spend on the music implementation. Another month for me to finally see all the cinematics, to finally see where some of them really went. Toward the end, things get really crazy. There are a lot of important little movies in the game that weren’t done before the “all audio assets in” date. There’s these giant teams that are spread across multiple countries, and not every part of every team always gets all their stuff in on time. It’s like watching a football game. It’s your home team, and they’re winning. Every once in a while the quarterback twists his ankle. It’s kind of a contact sport.
Gameological: What are the rough logistics of how much time you have between when they sit you down and talk about the concept, to when you deliver the full score?
Marino: It kind of varies. When they start talking to you also varies. The first three God Of War console games I did, I had almost exactly a year to do whatever I wanted on it. So lots of time. Lots of detail went into those scores.
Gameological: So eight months of slacking and four months of work?
Marino: It’s actually a lot like that. For the Spider-Man game, I had five or six months, so five months of slacking and two weeks of work. [Laughs] It was a little more compressed. Those are different companies too. So it varies. Ideally you get on early because then you can spend plenty of time spitballing and coming up with a really cool concept. Then when you actually do start writing, you don’t have giant amounts to do, so you can take a lot of time on it. If you don’t have another gig going, you can really spend serious time and get lots of detail in there, and that makes for a loop that you don’t get tired of right away.
Gameological: I saw on your website that you started your career as a strip club DJ. How does that trajectory work?
Marino: Well, you know, always a means to an end. Basically I was up to no good in my immediate years after high school, and I cleaned up my act by getting a job as a strip club DJ. I decided after all my rock bands had broken up—I was going to be a rock star first and foremost. I wasn’t going to go to school, I was just going to be a crazy, long-haired, new wave, heavy metal ’80s rocker. But every band broke up, like they always do, for all the same stupid reasons, and I tried to do something alone, solo film music. I figured, okay, my favorite film music is written for orchestra, and that means you do have to go to college after all. How am I going to pay for it? Essentially that was that. I put myself through school as a strip club DJ. All that stuff did infiltrate me, so it’s all kicking around in there. And it comes out. I used to fight it, but now I don’t fight it.
Gameological: What’s kicking around from that?
Marino: I feel like I was born as a musician in the ’80s, and all that music from then—all that hair metal, all that thrash metal, all that new wave, all those things that I played, all those songs that I wrote, all those bands that I was in, and all those things that I was imagining in envisioning my rock stardom or my pop stardom—all that is part of my musical DNA. So now I write for the orchestra, but when I write a cello line it’s perfectly something that James Hetfield could play. When I write woodwind lines, it’s very much the kind of thing that sounds like it could come out of an arpeggiator of Nick Rhodes. I went to college, and I thought I was going to learn how to do everything right, but after I got out, I found that the way I can write original sounding orchestral music is to not ignore my roots. It’s to embrace it all and to let it come out, however it comes out. Let that sensibility happen. Actually right now, it’s really working out, because the ’80s are kind of back.
Gameological: How did you get the God Of War job?
Marino: The short story is, I knew a guy who knew a guy. The long story is, I had a lot of music in this production library that had been licensed to lots of trailers—big, epic, mean stuff—and they went through a really involved, convoluted process looking for the right music for God Of War. Originally it was called Dark Odyssey, and it was shrouded in secrecy. They kept asking for the wrong thing for the music. Everybody got tired of demoing for it, and they started reaching outside the industry. That’s where my pal who runs the production music library he says, “Well I do know a guy who writes the most aggressive shit that you’ve ever heard, if you want to check it out.” And so they gave me a shot at it. I wrote the first piece of music that David Jaffe liked in a year.
I write for the orchestra, but when I write a cello line it’s something that James Hetfield could play.
It’s only because they kept asking for the wrong music from everybody. If they had come out and said, “We’re looking for sword-and-sandal, gladiator type stuff,” which seems like a no-brainer—but no, they were trying to get all kinds of weird on it. And I had come in there fresh too. I hadn’t taken three stabs at it. At that point no one had ever seen anything. They just told everybody, “We want mean, nasty, arrhythmic, non-melodic, stuff, because it’s the most evil character to ever step foot in a video game.” They didn’t say it was ancient Greece. They didn’t say you were going up against gods. So everybody did whatever they did, but it was wrong. Once you actually say what it is that you have, what you want, at least give up some of the plot, then you’re maybe going to get somebody with an idea. Thankfully, they did it wrong, because otherwise somebody else would have gotten picked.
It’s funny because I lose gigs for the same reason now. I’m one of the guys they reach out to with the wrong information, and I give them the best wrong demo they’ve ever heard. After they’ve gone to everybody they’ll say, “Jeez, I don’t know,” and then they’ll talk to one guy, and he’ll do something different and get the gig. So I see the gigs that made me king going away, and I complain about it, but I guess I shouldn’t complain too loud because I’m on the map now. If you really want to get original music, you should have one little conversation with just one of us, and don’t put out the cattle call to the whole world. I always say, pick five guys who you think would be good for it and one guy who you never think would be good for it, because that guy will be so glad you even called him that he’ll swing for the fences harder than anybody.