Gareth Coker on Ori and the Blind Forest’s four year journey – Part I

Believe it or not, Microsoft’s first real Xbox One exclusive, Ori and the Blind Forest, was actually conceived way back in 2011: a year that saw Charlie Sheen crash...
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Believe it or not, Microsoft’s first real Xbox One exclusive, Ori and the Blind Forest, was actually conceived way back in 2011: a year that saw Charlie Sheen crash and burn in absurd style, the FBI finally get its most wanted man, and the Earth’s population soar above 7 billion. To really put it into perspective, back in 2011 people still had every right to be optimistic about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit prequels. Yeah, it’s been a while.

Despite its long development cycle, Moon Studio’s platformer – originally conceived as an Xbox 360 title – only saw the light of day at last year’s E3, with the curtain being lifted in front of a crowd clamouring for something fresh, bold, and exciting.

Fast-forward 9 months and Ori and the Blind Forest has done the impossible, surpassing extraordinary expectations that, less than a year ago, didn’t even exist. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with critics and fans alike taking to the internet to praise every aspect of the platformer’s near-perfect design. Indeed, from its warm, fluid visuals, to its precise gameplay and emotive score, Ori and the Blind Forest is one of those rare titles that feels truly complete.

How though, did an indie title years in the making leap out of obscurity to become one of 2015’s most anticipated games? We caught up with Ori and the Blind Forest composer, Gareth Coker, to find out.

Side One: How does i feel to see the game finally hit shelves? I imagine you must be feeling a mixture of relief, sadness, and excitement?

Gareth: Yeah, it’s been quite a long process, and it’s weird seeing four years of your life condensed into eight hours. That’s quite daunting, and a lot of emotions have gone through my head. Of course, the rewarding part is seeing people take things from it.

Okay, so, would you be able to turn back the clock by four years and tell me how you first became involved in the project?

This is a good story. So, Thomas Muller, the director, found me on a website called Mod DB and emailed me out of the blue. He explained he was working on this game and asked if he could send me a build. So I actually got to play Ori – and it had a different title then, although I can’t tell you what that is – and while the look was very different, it still played in a very similar way. He said it was still a prototype, and that they were hoping to pitch it to various publishers, and he asked me if I’d mind working on some music for the game. After playing it, it was really a no-brainer because I could see it was going to be really special.

After that I wrote 12 minutes of music for the prototype, which I did for free, and Thomas pitched it, Microsoft ended up biting, and I was given the chance to work on the score.

Are you allowed to tell us what the game looked like back then?

I’d say it looked a lot more abstract than it does now. It definitely looked and felt more like an indie game. The visuals were more Limbo inspired, but it still had the colours and that richness, but it was a lot more minimalist. If we’d gone with that look for the whole game we wouldn’t have been able to do an orchestral soundtrack. It would’ve been too much.

At what point did the visuals shift?

That’s tricky actually. It was just a gradual thing. The way we developed the game, the team’s focus was entirely on the mechanics because the game has to be fun before the art comes in. We were playing the game initially and Ori was just a rectangle and the levels were just basic geometry.

It sounds a little bit like Thomas Was Alone.

Yeah, that’s pretty much it actually. Then, about two years in, the artwork was fleshed out. The long development time really allowed the artists to focus on detail, and we ramped that up once we were confirmed as an Xbox One title. The visuals really came on leaps and bounds in the last year, and coincidentally that’s when most of my score came together as well.

Did your score start to inform the game’s look, or was it the other way around?

I would say that the early parts of my process in the game was focused more on experimentation. I knew that most of those experiments weren’t going to end up in the final version of the game, but that process needed to happen so that I could find the main melody.

“I think you need to play games a lot to understand what the player is really going to go through.”

Then, when all of the artwork started coming in, the visuals started informing my musical choices. As is common with a metroidvania title, different areas have unique looks, which means they need unique pieces of music. The thing that ties it all together is the orchestra and the melody, but we experimented with different textures to try and give each area a very unique sound.

One of the biggest things I’ve picked up on is that the Ori score really is seamless. A lot of video game soundtracks can feel disjointed, because you can tell when a piece of music has been designed for a boss fight, or a specific area or scene. That’s not a bad thing, because those tracks serve a purpose, but what really intrigued my about your score is that it avoids falling into that trap. It feels complete.

Thanks, that was something that was very important to me, and it was hard to make something that’s seamless also feel unique. We could’ve just scored the game with an orchestra, but I like finding cool sounds, and there’s a lot of synth work in the game that most people won’t pick up on.

There are lots of electronic elements, and then there’s also a lot of weird and wonderful percussion instruments and flutes from around the world.

I’m also curious, because you worked on this project for such an extensive length of time, what your creative process was like?

When I joined the project I didn’t know it was going to take four years. I think originally we were supposed to be releasing at the end of 2013, but I’m not too sure about that. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing much writing at the beginning, but Moon Studios gave me access to their dropbox, they got me a license for Unity, their game engine, so that I could check on the game whenever I wanted.

Having that kind of access early on meant that I was almost like a tester for the first year and a half, but that process let me understand the game on a core level. I don’t think that’s really all that common in the games industry, and that’s a shame, because I think you need to play games a lot to understand what the player is really going to go through.

So, while I wasn’t writing much at that point, I was still able to play the game frequently, and when the art finally started to trickle in I was able to start writing more and more music.

I was reading that the game’s art style has been heavily influenced by Studio Ghibli, which got me wondering where you looked for inspiration when it came to the score?

When it comes to other soundtracks, I’ll listen to them, but I don’t want to spend too much time doing that because they’ll inform what I’m doing. That being said, I can’t deny that I’m a huge fan of Joe Hisaishi’s work.

Even Moon Studios had a few references for me, so once I’d heard those I knew what they wanted, which meant I could throw them out and start from scratch. One of the references was Avatar – not the whole score, because it’s a little bit grand – and one of my own references was the Life of Pi soundtrack. I mention that because, while it has an Indian flavour to it, it also feels very universal. Really though, the inspiration did stem from the artwork. Once you’ve seen that, it makes a lot of the decisions for you.

“I don’t want to spend too much time listening to other soundtracks because then they’ll inform what I’m doing.”

Going back to the point you made about the score feeling seamless, just quickly, one of the most important things about it being seamless is that there are no loading screens in the game. That in itself means the score needs to be seamless.

Well, I was going to ask you what your biggest challenge was, but was it actually trying to ensure the score was completely seamless?

The seamless part was a bit of a challenge, but I wrote all the music in related keys, so it wasn’t in the back of my mind the whole time. The biggest challenge, by far, was the prologue. The opening of the game is a semi-interactive short film, so its got to have the pacing that you associate with a film, where you can have really tight editing and flow, but you’ve also got to take into account the player, who might try and break that.

Thomas, our director, he took great pride in breaking the music as often as he could. It wouldn’t mean I had to start again, but it would mean I had to find a new solution. Now though, if you try and break the prologue by doing something you’re not supposed to, you’ll have a pretty hard time messing with the music system. That, however, was the result of eight months of iteration. I don’t know how many music files there are in there, but there are a lot for only 10 minutes of music.

The payoff, though, has been huge. You only have to go onto YouTube to see the let’s play videos, and people are crying, which is awesome.

Thanks to Gareth for his time.

Thanks to the mircale of social media, you can learn more about Gareth’s work by following him on Twitter.  After you’ve done that, don’t forget to come back next Monday to find out more about Ori and the Blind Forest’s tremendous score.