Features | Written by Nick Spacek 17/01/2022

Gareth Coker | HALO INFINITE

Composer and two-time SXSW Gaming Award for Excellence in Score winner Gareth Coker is best known for his work on the Moon Studios games Ori and the Blind Forest and Ori and the Will of the Wisps, as well as his score for ARK: Survival Evolved, but it is with his latest work for 343 Industries that the British-born, Los Angeles-based Ivor Novello award-winning composer comes to his widest audience. With Halo Infinite, Coker's music now reaches a massive audience.

Building on the classic music created for the long-running first-person shooter franchise by Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori, Coker's music for Halo Infinite takes familiar themes and motifs and recontextualises them within the latest instalment. It's a big set of shoes to fill, but Coker was definitely up to the job. We spoke with him about his work on the game and how it relates to what has come before.

STARBURST: Halo Infinite is a huge deal...

Gareth Coker: Yes. I remember when I first got contacted about it. It was sometime in 2019, through email and they didn't name the project, but then in the email signature, I'm thinking, "343 Industries? Well, they only make one game," so I kind of knew what it was. Interestingly, the music supervisor picked me out – most people will think, "Because of this success on Ori, you've got picked to do Halo." It's actually because of my work on Ark: Survival Evolved. That's how the music supervisor discovered my work and then became familiar with Ori. The reason why Ark came up was because it relies a lot on tribal percussion, which obviously is a big feature of Halo soundtracks past and present because it's included in this one.

There was some overlap between Ark's approach to percussion and then Halo. And then, of course, he went into my other work and saw that I could do emotional stuff. I do the creating worlds with music kind of thing, so I got asked to audition for it, and well, here we are, one Halo game later.

Well, the interesting thing about Ark is that you're also working on the sequel to that. We're curious if some of the things you learned doing Halo Infinite have let you learn how to work on Ark II. There's a lengthy musical history for Halo that you have to kind of work within, but also create something new. Is that work similar to what you're doing for Ark, too? How did working within these two decades of music teach you things?

There's a fundamental difference between the two projects. I'll get into that in a sec, but I think one thing about Halo and working on it is – I didn't create the musical IP. I didn't establish the musical brand, the musical sound – that's Marty [O'Donnell] and Michael [Salvatori], and then all the other composers subsequently built on, on their work. Working on Halo, I was thinking, "All right, it's time to go to Halo music" – whatever that means.

It's going back and studying all of the old material, figuring out what works, what doesn't, and – more importantly – going back and playing the old games, figuring out what works, and why it works – why do people like this so much? – and then seeing how much of that applies to Halo Infinite.

I like to think we struck a good balance between respecting all of the work that has come in the past, because here's the thing: with Halo's music, there are pieces of music from the older games which you just expect. You expect to hear the monk's theme. Like if you don't put the monk's theme in the main menu, you're done. You might as well stop right now. You've got to put it in the menu.

The famous action motif, the [sings the Halo main theme]: if you don't put that in, what are you doing? You've got to put it in. And there are other fragments of themes as well that we've put in. I like to think what we've done is we've taken those themes, done our own spin on them, but also combined them with some of the newer themes in the game.

The best examples from my own contributions to the soundtrack – if you see the Halo presentation last year where Escharum was presented as Master Chief's main antagonist in this game, I combined Escharum's theme and the low basses with the Halo monk's theme, but written for orchestra on top. That's just a simple example of fusing two themes together. The other example is from closer to the end of the game and it's a track called "Judgment," and that combines my theme for the Endless – really, the Harbinger – and also the action/Master Chief motif.

We get to take the old themes, but the sound we end up with is very new. It's all about combining those two. I was only able to do that once I studied enough of the old material and felt confident working with it.

I liken it to learning a language: at first, you have no idea what's going on but, at least in the case of Western languages, you can read the alphabets. You can have a rough idea of what it might sound like, but you've got to become familiar with it for the reading, the writing, the listening and speaking. The more you do of it, the more fluent you get, and once I became fluent in what I call Halo's musical language, it became easier to write with it.

Now, getting back to the original part of your question and how does this differentiate from Ark? Well, the difference is, I created the musical language for Ark, and I created the musical language for Ori and the Blind Forest, which meant when I did the sequel to Ori, I wanted to do what I'm doing with the sequel to Ark.

I'm already familiar with everything, so I feel like I am just building upon what I've already created. And especially in the case of Ark II, I definitely don't feel like I've run out of places to go. Even though we've been to a lot of places, there's suddenly more places I can take the music. I don't know if they'll ever make another Ori game, but I feel like I could probably say more in that world if I needed to, but it helps because I created the musical language.

I feel like that that's the main difference between the two. I think it's easier to work on something that I created. Marty and Michael did how many sequels? I mean, Halo one, two and three and ODST and Reach. It's a lot, right? Because it's easier to create the music language. I think one of the challenges all composers who have followed Marty and Michael is, you've got to learn the language. You've just got to.

Good luck to the composer following John Williams, when Star Wars 10 inevitably comes out. That's what we're talking about here. You've got to go and respect the original material. You've got to do that before you do anything else. You've got to learn that and once you've learned that, then you have the platform to expand on it because you're building that expansion on a foundation of knowledge that is synergistic to the IP, in this case.

In addition to what has come before and those tribal drum elements like that, there's a real sense, listening to the score for Halo Infinite, of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." It just had that sort of rising dramatic brass aspect to it. What were some of the other influences that you had, in addition to the work that's come before on the series itself?

Well, I think one thing that came up is that Halo is not a dark, gritty action game. One of the things that is common between all three composers working on the project – myself, Curtis Schweitzer, and Joel Corelitzand this is a literal quote from the music supervisor, he said, "We are not afraid to use a major chord."

Because there is a lot of that. A lot of action scores are very dour, very dark, minor, gritty. But the thing is – when Chief arrives on the battlefield, people look to him and it's a moment of hope. He is a beacon of hope and we wanted to put that into music and the Copland analogy is interesting. It's a lot of major chords in that piece. It's not just the major chords. It really was the feeling of hope.

So, it's less about targeting certain influences. It's like, "What can we do to make sure that when the player is playing as Chief, you're seeing the world through the eyes of Chief?" When you're playing through the game, other people react to Chief in a positive way. And you know, even the Grunts and the people fighting Chief, they see him as a challenge, but it's a fun challenge.

Here's the thing: the enemy in the game, the Banished? They've been winning for a while. It's not been a challenge for them for quite a while and they're all a mercenary group, so they're actually kind of excited for a real challenge. I think the game would have a very different tone if it was just one of these dour, typical action scores – which have their place, but that place is not Halo.

The rising brass figures is another common thing that comes up. I look at the famous action theme. It's up an octave up and up a ninth, and then up a tenth. That's a big leap for those instruments, by the way. It's not easy to record. The Monk's theme. What does it do first? It rises. This all goes back to a musical vocabulary that has been established. You might think that it's just rising brass, but yeah, you've still got to do it and you have still got to make it work in the context of the game, because if you overdo it, it doesn't make you feel as much. A lot of it's not just about the content. A lot of it is also about where it's placed and when it occurs in the game as well.

By the time this music is done, you've heard it dozens, if not hundreds of times, but then you also have to realise that as the player is playing through the game, they're going to hear it dozens, if not hundreds of times, as well. We imagine there's a certain level of work that goes into it in order to make this music as energetic and entertaining the 20th time as the second.

That's a very interesting topic and it's quite a deep one where there are kind of two schools of thought. But it also does depend on the game. I'm in a position where I can talk about both ends of the spectrum here. Halo has this intelligent music system that does all kinds of dynamic adaptive playback based on the threat level of the current situation that you were in. So it can kind of recompose music on the fly based on all of the recordings that we've got already.

This is the thing – when you're playing a game because you're an active participant, the brain can only process so much information, so when you're playing through, can you actually process all of the music that is happening in addition to the sound effects, the dialogue? Oh, and the visuals, and by the way, pressing all of the controllers. It's a lot for your brain to process.

I like to look through the comments. I know I shouldn't, but I like to look through the comments of how people are enjoying – or not – my work. And even though Will of the Wisp doesn't have an intelligent music playback system, it does have really long tracks. Each environment, like the shortest loop, is four minutes and you're really not in an area for a super-long time. It's rare that you'll be in an environment long enough that you'll hear something more than four or five times.

You might end before hearing another piece of music, even if that's just a stinger, but the thing is you're walking through the environment, you're doing all of this other stuff, and your brain knows the music is there, but it's not processing every single note of the melody. It might poke out at a certain moment when you're doing nothing.

But when are you actually doing nothing in a video game? You're not and, really, the definition of doing nothing is literally just walking from left to right. That's a moment where yeah, you can actually have the music be more prominent, but then, when you're fighting, your brain isn't going to be processing all of the musical notes because you're processing everything else that is going on on-screen.

Repetition is kind of a dirty word amongst the game music community, but I don't believe it is. It's only repetition if the content is bad, and the player wouldn't want to listen to it anymore. And bad music is just bad music.

Now, how do we define the music? That's another whole thing, which I won't get into, but if your music is fitting for the general scene and mood of the moment, then it can work over a long period of time without much adjustment now, or is a very different game in terms of a game compared to Halo, because of scale. You might fight one Grunt, or you might be fighting a hundred and so the reason that dynamic music exists is you can't have the same piece of combat music for one Grunt versus a hundred, so it kind of grows and expands and shrinks as the combat goes.

Whereas, Ori? We don't actually use combat music, except when you have to kill an enemy or something to progress and that's actually very rare in the game. You can go throughout the game, for the most part, being a pacifist. The only time in Will of the Wisp when you have actual combat music is the mini-bosses and boss fight and chases, and that's it. The rest of it, you're in and out of combat so quick, there wasn't any point in having combat music. It'd be too much for the brain to process.

One day, I am going to do a PhD on brain activity during games and how music affects that. Not there yet. I've still got music I want to write, but I think we've all played games when you just feel like you're at one with the game. Most people call it the flow state and your brain isn't really paying attention to anything in particular, but you are so perfectly engrossed that you just feel connected.

Getting back to your question – it's like the music can play a lot if it's being composed with every scene in mind. It's a very tricky one to navigate though, because it changes for every single game. Some games do need the repetition because when you return to a certain area, it's welcoming to hear that same piece of music again, but in some games, you might never return to certain areas, and you've got to make the most of that music while you're listening to it.

It depends on the needs of the game, how you reuse the music. It just needs to be done intelligently, and that just requires planning and foresight from whoever was working on it. It's not like a film where you're just playing from A to B the whole time, and you kind of know where the start is, where the middle is, where the end is.

I feel like when I am working on a game, I'm working on a jigsaw puzzle, but I don't have the reference, which is obviously really hard, but the more of it you fill in, the more obvious it becomes. It's just really hard at the beginning to map things out but, as that map gets bigger, it's like, "Oh yeah, I can use this piece of music here and then I don't use it here. I do use it here."

HALO INFINITE is out now, and Gareth Coker's score is available digitally from Skill Tree Records and on double vinyl LP from Mondo.