Sometimes, the most valuable lessons are learnt from the things that just don’t work as expected. In this, part 6 of the seemingly never ending interview saga that is my interview with Bungie’s Marty O’Donnell, he talks about the ‘misses’ in the music of Halo 2, working with music from outside Bungie, in particular the rock band ‘Incubus’, some of the reactions to the music and whether he likes to use musical ‘leitmotif’.
Ben: So can I change gears for a second and ask you if there were any areas in the music for Halo that you weren’t happy with? I think you mentioned in one interview that you probably didn’t quite the level of polish for the mix in Halo 2 that you wanted to. Was there anything that if you had another week or month you’d change?
Marty: The mix is probably the biggest thing. It’s really hard because you never know how somebody’s going to play. And the mix isn’t something you set, it’s that you allow the game to mix based upon what’s happening. So, if dialogue happens to come in, then whatever music is playing will be ducked 6db or whatever explosion is happening gets ducked… and playing around with all of those, attenuation and EQ and all the rest of it that we can do in real time and actually really testing it all out in as many ways a possible is just tediously hard to do, and we just never get enough time to do that… yeah, the mix is my biggest complaint.
One of my other complaints would probably be… just the amount of music that I would be able to compose after a level is completed and designed. I would rather be able to compose more music in response to what I’m playing rather than having to do it prior. My ideal would be that all the music that’s composed is composed for what I’m seeing and I never use another piece twice. Especially in Halo 2 I think you’re going to at least hear I think every piece of music probably is repeated somewhere in the game. But it’s not going to be repeated verbatim, because the system won’t let it, but it’s still the same piece. That is simply because we only have so much time and room to shove things on the disc. I would love to have it be a more original from beginning to end… I still think themes should return and be developed but I would rather have it truly be developed and be new than repeated.
And then the other thing for Halo 2, I experimented with using some music from some outside bands. I think that it’s a sort of mixed bag – stylistically it wasn’t as successful as I would have hoped.
B: I quite liked them, especially Incubus’s instrumental ‘The Odyssey’ pieces.
M: Oh good, well I liked that one too but it was tough. There were a couple other things I wasn’t as happy with and I actually wish I had more time to play with the incubus piece and actually work it in better than where I worked it.
B: So that wasn’t where you would have ideally put it in the game?
M: No, it was OK just I think in the long run, that particular level was a flying level and it was the only place I used it and I think it was a little bit soft and it didn’t’ quite do everything I was hoping it would do for that level.
And then I’ve had enough push-back from other people who were like “What the heck was that doing in there, that stuck out like a sore thumb!”
B: *laughs* Really? Wow.
M: Yeah, I’ve had people say that. But, y’know a lot of people, other people really liked it, and I liked it too, but there were some other things scattered throughout the game that I wasn’t necessarily as happy with.
And there’s always little choices that I’ve made, like here’s a piece I wrote and put in this section and think it’s great, then a month later after we ship the game I listen to it, ‘Wow, what was I thinking that really didn’t work’. That’s always going to happen.
B: On that development of themes idea… do you deliberately aim for that Leitmotif style?
M: Yeah, I’ve had people say ‘Hey here are the 5 main characters and here are the 6 locations and we think it would be great to have a theme for each location and a theme for each character and I basically say, that’s not me that’s not the composer that I want to be. I’m not writing Peter and the Wolf, as much as I love Peter & the Wolf… I’m not Wagner, but I think Wagner did some things that I think were kinda cool…
So it’s not like ‘Here’s a theme and it comes in every time this guy comes [on the screen]’. Sometimes by having certain themes that are kind of associated with some characters or even the emotion a character might feel, what happens is… this is just me, my personal opinion… if you say here’s the heroic Master Chief theme and every time Master Chief does something you play this theme, it’s like, well, how does that work when Master Chief is the player, and the player is really freaked out or scared or something – that theme just doesn’t work. I like ‘emotional leitmotifs’, so to speak. So it’s like, ‘Here’s the love theme, here’s the heroically successful theme, here’s the scary theme’…and then it doesn’t matter who the characters are if they’re going through that emotion I can bring that in.
These things tend to develop almost on their own – you realize… this music worked really worked well over here and this is the emotion that was happening, so I can do that again over here because that same kind of emotion is happening.
It seems like it ties together, and it seems like a thematic thing but it’s almost like, ‘Wow, isn’t that great that that works?’ Anyway that’s my approach if that makes sense.
In part 7, the final installment in the series, Marty Talks a bit more about his ‘emotional leitmotif’ approach, the affect of instrumentation on his music and finally he answers the question ‘What gets you out of bed in the morning’.