We recently got the chance to sit down with composer Brian D’Oliveira to talk about his experiences working on Lara Croft’s newest adventure, Shadow of the Tomb Raider. During the interview, we discussed the legacy of Tomb Raider’s music, the Aztec death whistle, and why Mexican Volcanic rock was a perfect instrument for this game. Let’s get spelunking.
Push Square: Lara Croft is a name that carries quite the legacy when it comes to the history of games. Did this legacy colour your creative process when it came to scoring? And in what ways?
Brian D’Oliveira: Working on such an iconic game and character was an immense privilege, and the only way to do it proper justice was to fully immerse myself in the project and give the best of what I do as a composer and storyteller. My personal challenge was to be able to create a strong and massive sound that alludes to the epic nature of the IP, but express it in my very own way and personally performing and recording all the instrumentation live off the floor, and you can really hear the fruition of this process in the OST 'Overture' piece.
In what capacity did you view the scores of the previous two entries in the trilogy, be it the first title’s score by Jason Graves, or the follow-up from Bobby Tahouri? Did you want to craft something entirely different than that which came before? Or more of a blend of reprises and a new sound?
I am a big fan of Jason's Tomb Raider soundtrack since he created a unique sound that really defined and brought to life the 'new' Tomb Raider trilogy. I was elated to be able to take it further and deeper to reflect the evolution of Lara's now more mature and darker character, as well as the rich Pre-Columbian culture and settings that are part of the game.
This project was also a rare chance to incorporate my passion for ancient cultures and the immense richness of sounds when it came to the sacred Pre-Columbian and ancient European elements and instrumentation in both a genuine and respectful way. So I reference the TR9 theme in certain maps during the beginning of the game in a re-interpreted manner, such as in the track 'Ruins at Cozumel' as a bridge, but then take it into entirely new and uncharted musical territories as we progress deeper into the game.
How did you initially develop the sound you wanted to use for Shadow? Did you have particular instruments or themes in mind that you wanted to utilise right out of the gate?
During my very first meeting with Rob [Bridgett, audio and music director] and the Eidos-Montréal team, I was so inspired that I spent an all-nighter working away on two exploratory pieces of music that became the basis for the soundtrack. During this process it became apparent that the best way to achieve this was to creatively limit the musical palette to only use natural acoustic sources and employ, as close as possible, the most accurate representations and original instruments. So, as a result, all of the music is entirely live - with each take being performed from the beginning of the song to its end without any interruptions. There is no looping or digital over-editing; it's purposefully imperfect and natural.
Also, the primary iconic instruments organically resulted in being the cello, flute, and Aztec death whistle - of which you can hear within most of the music throughout the game in one manner or another.
AAA games like Tomb Raider are generally chock full of big setpiece moments and lots of impressive visual sequences. Sometimes to such an extent that things like the music can easily get lost in the shuffle. What steps did you take to avoid this? Or did you go for more of a John Carpenter “the music is like wallpaper” approach?
This was a focused creative effort between myself and Shadow's audio director Rob Bridgett, who had the initial vision to use the core theme of 'fear' and express it by blending sound design and music in such a seamless way. They became a unified and cohesive sonic tapestry, yet in tandem making settings (such as the tombs) become living breathing spaces with their own personalities that react and resonate to gameplay.
Our first couple years of production were spent incessantly work-shopping and researching together to really identify the core sounds to match the foundational emotions within Lara's world. In tandem with the creative team, we built a musical sound language that could seamlessly blend in with the rest of the sound design, which ended up being a large custom sonic palette that allowed for the accentuation and building up of more music-heavy moments to be efficiently designed and implemented by the sound team.
As we iterated and experimented, we were amazed by how taking this approach generated sonic textures that were evoking and enhancing a sense of physicality and depth to the environments and gameplay. I still remember the feeling of wonder and excitement when we first started juxtaposing and combining these musical textures with the sound design during gameplay and in the environments - and this was just the beginning of the magical journey!
How did the score change (if at all) through the course of development for the title? Did anything end up wildly different in the finished product from what you had initially made or at least intended?
The game was mostly created linearly and the music I created also follows this path while I was working throughout the project. As I went deeper into the game I became more adventurous and continuously pushed my personal, creative boundaries with a lot of encouragement from the Eidos-Montréal team. You can hear the pronounced transformation of both the music in tandem with Lara's character. It becomes much more profound and darker and I drew a lot of inspiration from my time spent doing Ayahuasca [an indigenous, psychoactive, medicinal brew of the peoples of the Amazon basin] in the Peruvian Amazon Jungle, as well as my travels in Mexico.
You’re no stranger to scoring games, having contributed music for titles such as LittleBigPlanet 3, Papo & Yo, Tearaway, and more. In what ways did your work on Tomb Raider differ from your previous experiences with game music, be it on a personal, or corporate level?
It was definitely the longest running and most significant project of my life to date, creating several hundreds of minutes of music! At moments I even felt as if I was working on a composition master’s thesis, using as inspiration the game and conceptual ideas such as our inner human condition as related to ancient cultures and nature.
A major breakthrough was that as I spent time absorbing and getting into the music with this approach. I had a major creative epiphany when I realised that expressing music from the viewpoint of the Pre-Columbian state of mind was accomplished with the understanding that all beings are intrinsically and unequivocally interconnected. Thus, it is a big reason why it’s implicit in their ritual practices and daily lives and not seen as 'entertainment.' The deeper I went, the more my compositional methodology transformed, and I eventually reached a point of musical ease and transcendence where during the recordings I literally became a medium - without the need for thoughts or planning. So, towards the end of the game, composing for Shadow was mostly a matter of intent and then emotive expression. Often times it even felt as if the instruments and melodies were playing themselves, certain songs such as 'Return to Paititi' have an insane amount of fluid rhythmic complexity and non-tempered scales and textures that would have been impossible to create using a logical approach.
In what ways did your approach for the more scripted elements of the game differ from that which was more contingent on the player to activate? How did you account for the dynamics of the more open-ended areas of the title in regards to your music?
Since I was working so closely in collaboration with the audio team, we were able to precisely plan and create a large variety of music and specific musical assets in the form of stems and isolated elements that allowed for total creative flexibility when they were implementing in-game. So, the pieces of music were created in a linear manner with the addition of parallel key elements that could be moved and adjusted without clashing with the flow of the musical energy.
As for the more open-ended areas, I created music that was massively stacked both in layers, stems, and performance variations. Those were then cut into smaller elements and randomised during implementation by the audio team. This approach also allowed them to create their own arrangements and progressions without any back and forth, which saved considerable amounts of time.
Were there any particularly unique or outlandish ideas or instruments you wanted to use for the score that made it into the game? And likewise, any that you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
I never imagined that I would have ended up using volcanic rocks that I had found in a lost village deep in the Mexican countryside, but they became one of the essential sounds in the Cenote maps. We also had the dream of creating some giant death whistles, however during prototyping, it became apparent that it would not really work out.
Was there any particular standout piece you found especially tricky to get where you wanted it or something that just wasn’t quite coming together in the way that you had hoped? And on the reverse, did anything click much quicker than you had expected?
Some of the most surprising music that came out was the music during Lara's childhood flashback. Given that I was deep into making mostly dark and 'ancient' sounds, I was not sure if I was going to be able to switch into a pastoral English countryside vibe that easily. But the very opposite occurred, all of that music was mostly recorded over 3 days live off the floor as it was being composed on the fly, and even now it’s some of my favourite music that I created for the game!
What brought you to the games industry? Walk us through how you got into games. Is it something you knew you wanted to do? Did it just sort of happen?
For me it was a happy accident. Many years ago, I met Vander Caballero (the creator of Papo & Yo) and working on it was an epiphany because for the very first time in my life, I was being allowed to honestly express myself as an artist and creator within the confines of a 'commercial' project! To me it’s one of the new media that is at the forefront of pushing the creative boundaries into new realms, and as a result, my life has changed dramatically. I have grown tremendously both as an artist and person.
And there we have it. Some pretty intriguing information that helps colour one’s interpretation of the newest Lara Croft title just a little bit more. A big thank you to Brian for taking the time to answer our questions.