Heart, Mind And Sound: Defining Game Experiences Through Music With Jessica Curry

Dear Esther

This interview was produced as part of Game Music Festival – a multi-day celebration of video game music. To find out more, head over to http://www.gamemusicfestival.com and check it out!

Jessica Curry is a sound artist and composer whose talent has spanned everything from live performances to audio-based installations, to soundtracks. From the bleak, yet hopeful Perpetual Light, a choral piece about Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, the victims of his creation and the human will to persevere, to The Second Death of Caspar Helendale, a live performance piece of a virtual funeral in Second Life, Curry has a penchant for merging media to create profound, emotional responses from her audience.

“…the industry holds a wealth of talent that I’d really like to work with, and that’s a very exciting place to be.”

jessica curryIn the game world, she is most known for her work on Dear Esther, the acclaimed mod-turned-standalone that challenged players to rethink what they know about interactive digital experiences, and the music that ties it all together.

Curry is co-founder of The Chinese Room, alongside her husband, Dan Pinchbeck. The Brighton-based game studio is known for its early, Source engine mods like Korsakovia, its most recent work on Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs and their upcoming project, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

While the development side of The Chinese Room offers us unique, challenging experiences and game narratives, it is Jessica Curry’s masterful sound-weaving that steers our emotions through these haunting landscapes. I had the chance to speak with her about her career in games, her creative process and the challenges and achievements she’s experienced being a game musician thus far.


Indie Statik: Where did your history with games begin, and when did it merge with your background in music?

Jessica Curry: Gaming is a relatively new direction for me. If you’d have asked five years ago if I’d be writing soundtracks for computer games, I would have just laughed. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world by husband and collaborator Dan Pinchbeck. He made a mod and asked me to write the music for it. I’d had a long break to raise our son and was desperate to write again, so jumped at the chance. This music turned out to be the most important of my career. The mod was Dear Esther, and the rest is history.

Dear Esther

I’ve had a desperately unstrategic career, only working on projects that I feel passionately about, and before Dear Esther, I wouldn’t have said that the games industry necessarily held anything for me. Dan provided a beautiful piece of work that explored themes of love, loss, madness, grief and loneliness. This was like composer catnip to me.

I now feel that the industry holds a wealth of talent that I’d really like to work with, and that’s a very exciting place to be.

Indie Statik: I really love that you chose to preserve the original Dear Esther soundtrack in the remake. Those songs are such an impactful part of the game experience. Could you talk about the process and experience of building upon and perfecting an older soundtrack?

Curry: Good question. For me, the act of creating is the exciting part, and once you’ve done your job, it’s time to move on. It’s as if the music loses its life and vibrancy, and it feels like something that is very much in the past. So to resurrect the score was quite a strange experience for me, but it also provided a fascinating challenge. I was determined that I was going to keep the original music for the game as it was so innately tied to the emotional experience that we’d aimed to provide in the mod.

Dear Esther

So it was very much a case of making it the best soundtrack it could be: getting rid of all those awful samples and letting the music sing out using live instruments, replacing my dreadful piano-playing with a skilled musician, replacing my even more dreadful singing voice with the wonderful Clara Sanabras. The musicians breathe life into the score, and I was just so glad to be given the opportunity to rework the music.

Indie Statik: You’ve spoken at length about the Dear Esther and Korsakovia soundtracks before, but what was it like working on Conscientious Objector? It was the first mod developed by The Chinese Room. What was that like?

Curry: Yes, Conscientious Objector was the first mod out of the four that we initially created. A few years earlier, I’d worked on a multi-screen installation in Germany. Dan had always really liked the sound work I’d done for that, so I re-used many of the samples for Conscientious Objector. So there was very little work in it for me, and it isn’t something that sticks in my head to be honest, although I still absolutely love Dan’s concept – such a brilliant idea.

We were just chucking stuff out there at that time. That sounds a bit causal and like we weren’t invested in them! What I’m trying to say (badly) is that they were little experiments about gameplay that came from Dan’s PhD research, so they weren’t really intended for a wider audience.

“We are interested in the capacity of sound to embed itself into the heart and mind of the player…”

Indie Statik: You’re in charge of sound design, as well as writing and composing soundtracks. What is that like? Is the process significantly different from writing music, or are both primarily about the same thing – composing sounds to carry the game experience, etc?

Curry: After we released Dear Esther as a full game, I knew that it was essential to bring a sound designer onto the team. So for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, we worked with the talented Sam Justice, and now, for Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture, we’re lucky enough to have Adam Hay on board. The sound in our games goes way past foley, “record what you see on screen” functionality.

We are interested in the capacity of sound to embed itself into the heart and mind of the player – to crawl under their skin, to affect their choices, to make them really listen to the world. Sound always whispers secrets in our game, and that sense of sound’s true presence in our games burying itself in the psychology of the player really excites me.

It’s a joy to work with people on the sound, partly as I’m simply not qualified, but also because they bring something so new and fresh with them. It is exceptionally complicated, and I stand in awe of these people. The requirement to merge technical and creative skills is mind-bending. Adam and I are working closely on Rapture, and I think the sound and music are going to pack a beautifully powerful punch. I have never been so excited to work on a project, and at the moment, the music is pouring out. It’s heaven to work on, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s a real job.

“Rapture will be by far the most sophisticated attempt to get this balance right so far.”

Indie Statik: What do you think is the major technical difference between your early work on games and your most recent? What do you think you struggled with the most when you first started working on soundtracks for video games? Does it differ much from your work on other kinds of media?

Similarly, do you see the relative non-linearity of games as a constraint when you write music? So often, your songs come in at just the right moments, triggered by player cues, but from there, it is partially up to the player how she experiences those moments. The cinematography and pacing is in the player’s control. Do you take this into account when writing music?

Curry: I still view myself as a crawling, drooling infant when it comes to writing music specifically for games. I have so much to learn; it’s absolutely insane! Non-linearity is a constraint, but I am starting to see that as a fun challenge, rather than a disadvantage. You wouldn’t have believed me if you’d heard me swearing about it yesterday.

Esther was a completely linear soundtrack because I didn’t know how else to do it. People’s reaction to that score told me that people love a strong OST with a strong narrative drive. Pigs was more interactive, but with an attempt at keeping that musical strength and sense of journey.

Indie Game Indie Statik Amnesia A Machine For Pigs

Rapture will be by far the most sophisticated attempt to get this balance right so far. I’m aiming to make it feel like a completely bespoke musical experience for each player. No pressure, then. What binds my work, irrespective of media, is the intent – to make beautiful music that speaks to the audience.

Indie Statik: What are some of your favorite video game soundtracks? What are some of your favorite pieces of music in general?

Curry: I will probably get shot for this, but I spend very little time listening to game soundtracks. Should I leave the room, or perhaps even the industry, now?! I wanted to give you an honest answer, though.

Every week, my favorite pieces of music change, but this week’s listening pleasure has included Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Calvin Harris, Joni Mitchell (every week), Hazel O’Connor, James Horner, and I am listening absolutely obsessively to the incredible singer songwriter, Emma Pollock. I love her voice. I love her songs. I love her, but not in a frightening, creepy or remotely threatening way, I’d like to add! Listen to Limbs or The Optimist, and you will be instantly hooked.

The big guns – Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Vaughan Williams. Tallis always get played at some point in the week, and I have rather a partiality for The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. The Cardiacs remain the closest to my heart.

Indie Statik: You’ve mentioned your dislike of the chiptune style in previous interviews, stating you prefer sounds that are full and epic. Can you think of any exceptions to this? Do you think the chiptune style is itself limiting, or just that its potential has so far remained untapped? I’d be interested in hearing some of your own, classical interpretations of retro-style songs!

Curry: This interview is going from bad to worse! “Composer rubbishes game music with particular emphasis on hatred of chiptune.” You could break me with this! To be honest, I’m just very, very old, Chloi. I did chiptune when it first came round, so for me, there is no element of retro cool attached to it. I am a dinosaur, a dinosaur with her heart firmly buried in lush orchestration. I can’t think of any exceptions.

I am honestly not trying to rid chiptune from the planet, and I don’t want to rubbish the amazing work that’s done in this area. There is such cool stuff out there. Moving on!

“Just do what you love and write the music that you feel passionately about.”

Indie Statik: Is there any other type of music you dislike? Do you think musicians can learn from the music they don’t enjoy as much as they can the music that inspires them, or do you think that is a waste of time?

Curry: Another very interesting question. R&B remains a bit of a mystery to me. Jazz drives me literally, actually and properly insane. Yes, jazz is a broad church; how can you lump jazz into one category etc, etc? But I just can’t stand it. I’m on a roll now; is there anyone I haven’t offended yet?

I wish I was the kind of person who could sit listening to music that I don’t like, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I can’t resist putting on the old favorites. I do find that as I get older, I don’t search out new music to listen to in the avid, hungry way that I used to do in the “olden days,” as my son likes to put it. Whenever I tell him a story, he says, without guile or sarcasm, “Was that in the olden days, Mum?” Increasingly, I can’t deal with words in songs, and I seem to be returning like a salmon to my classical roots.

Indie Statik: At what point did you realize the potential for game music to capture and convey the same range of emotions as music for film and theater? Was it a favorite game? Your first game-related project?

Curry: I love Tale of Tale’s work. They are still my big inspiration, and I have a huge amount of respect for them. Their game, The Graveyard, made me think, “Yes, there are people here that I want to work with.”

I’m delighted to say that I am working with them on one of their next projects, and here is the music I wrote for their very lovely trailer:

Indie Statik: Is there anything you would like to add? Any words of advice for aspiring musicians? Thank you so much for your time!

Curry: My mum always gives cracking advice. As a writer and generally exceptionally very clever and lovely person, she has such a wealth of knowledge to impart.

She said to me, “Never try to be fashionable with your work.” It has stood me in such good stead. If you try and relentlessly follow trends, then you will never develop your own style, and that’s a disaster, as far as I’m concerned. It also means that you’re slightly behind all the time as the trends move on so quickly. Just do what you love and write the music that you feel passionately about.

I am a great believer in the fact that people can hear when something is created with integrity and passion. It’s the music that make the hairs on your arm stand up when you listen to it. There is always a depth, resonance and intensity that comes with that truth of intent. Life is short. Making music is hard, so write music that gladdens your heart, that wakes you up in the night thinking about it, that you tear your hair out over, that you feel is saying something important – quite simply, the music that makes you you.

If you’ve enjoyed the numerous tracks scattered throughout this article, you can purchase them at Jessica Curry’s Bandcamp. On sale are the Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs soundtracks, and a non-game related standalone track called Fields Were the Essence of the Song.