In the depths of the cavernous Abbey Road Studio One, the prehistoric world of ARK: Survival Evolved was raised out of embryonic darkness into extant splendour. Composer Gareth Coker (Minecraft, Ori and the Blind Forest) led the charge, animating empty grasslands with calculated symphonic strokes, harnessing the power of traditional instruments to magnify the animalistic primalism of survival. Coker describes it as cinematic tribal rock—an assembly of raw, tribal power that’s meant to infiltrate the senses—and says video game audio needs to be more than just an afterthought.
Gameranx: How did you get involved in musical composition? Were your interests always leaning towards music, or was your journey accidental, as life tends to be?
Gareth Coker: Absolutely accidental. I was given piano lessons by my parents when I was 8 years old. I practised reasonably well over the next 5-6 years, and eventually joined the school’s jazz band. It was there that I developed my improvisation skills, which were the foundation for composing. When I was 17, my music teacher suggested that I apply to music school for composition. Having nothing to lose, I applied to the Royal Academy of Music.
My portfolio for the application was extremely limited, mostly just piano work with melodies. And it was for that reason – the melody – that I was accepted. I was pretty useless at everything else but I had the melodies and thus they could work with that.
Gameranx: Your melodies have graced both the film and video game scene. Do you have a preference? What is your favourite film/game you’ve worked on so far?
Coker: I have no preference. All I look for is 1) a good story, and 2) a good setting. If you have just one of those things, it gives you an enormously helpful canvas with which to work. My favourite project is usually the one I’ve just finished. I tend not to listen to my older work because it’s somewhat counter-productive for me.
“I have no preference. However, Ori and the Blind Forest will always be a career highlight”
However, all the older work informs the newest one, thus I feel like the most recent project is the best representation of myself at the time. However, I won’t completely chicken out of your answer. Ori and the Blind Forest will always be a career highlight simply because it was one of those special projects where the sum became greater than the parts.
Gameranx: I shamelessly confess to listening to the gorgeous menu theme for Ori and the Blind Forest on repeat. What was it like creating music for such a sensitive game? Was it difficult getting the creative juices flowing?
Coker: Thank you! When you have a story that is easy to connect with, animation and art that is beautiful to look at, honestly it makes it easier to get the creative juices flowing. The main challenge with a game like this is finding the character themes, but once you have them, you can use them throughout the game in different ways.
Gameranx: How would you describe the sounds of ARK: Survival Evolved in terms of genre? They seem very polemical, sombre, and tribal (I swear I could hear didgeridoos in Writhing Swamp), sometimes reminiscent of Two Steps From Hell with a touch of Avatar. What’s your trademark?
Coker: Conceptually, I thought of ARK as cinematic, tribal rock! The rock element is limited (and not audible in terms of instrumentation) but it’s more in how the tracks are structured, and also the raw, primal nature of a lot of the music in ARK. This ties in with the tribal element, which to me felt obvious because the game places great emphasis on tribes and teaming up with friends to advance in the game.
The cinematic element obviously comes from the orchestral side of things – though in several of the tracks they play in an aggressive nature that fits the tribal/rock nature of the music.
You’re correct in that there are didgeridoos in Writhing Swamp! Overall, I’d say my trademark is syncing the game’s music to the visuals the player is seeing – especially when it comes to the environment. Didgeridoos seemed most appropriate for the swamp, for example. The other trademark is having a strong theme and developing it in multiple ways and playing it throughout the score.
Gameranx: Can you tell us about the recording process? What kind of instruments, effects and/or software do you use? Were there any live performances?
Coker: We recorded the score with a 93-piece orchestra (The Philharmonia) at Abbey Road Studio One over 3 days. Abbey Road Studio One is where some of the greatest film scores have been recorded (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter), so it really was a privilege and a wonderful opportunity afforded to me by the ARK team to record there.
No instruments were off the table for ARK, the score uses an orchestra, ethnic instruments from around the world (bansuri, didgeridoo, Thai gongs, to name a few), and towards the end of the game, a strong synthetic element also joins the fray.
As for software I’ve been writing in Cakewalk Sonar since 2009. My library of effects, virtual instruments and sounds is too numerous to mention. I am something of a digital hoarder when it comes to tools for the job!
Gameranx: What mood or theme were you trying to generate in ARK: Survival Evolved? Some tracks (The Megapithecus, The Broodmother) are a tense, struggle for survival, while others are slower and more despondent (Creation, The TEK Cave & Hall of History, Shores and Stars).
Coker: Generally speaking, a mood of adventuring. The game’s main pillar is based around ‘survival’. Survival and adventure means a whole range of emotions and experiences, thus the music had to reflect that.
In the case of Broodmother or Megapithecus, these tracks are two of the boss tracks in the game (the others being The Dragon, and Overseer). These creatures are extremely difficult to defeat and thus these are the most intense pieces of music in the game. Occasionally though, the game enters a more reflective state.
Creation plays when you die and when you create your character – it’s a piece of music that emphasizes that you are about to start (or repeat) the process once more. The music that plays at the TEK Cave & Hall of History is reflective, as you discover a great deal about the game’s backstory.
Gameranx: How important is the role of music in a video game? Do you think it’s underestimated?
Coker: It’s a big part of the experience, but I truly believe that all departments are dependent on each other. Great art and storytelling will elevate music – and vice versa. There’s an old saying that ‘music can’t make a bad movie/game good, but it can make a good movie/game great’.
“I’m disappointed when game reviews barely mention the music…especially in narrative driven games where it’s a big part of the emotional experience”
I don’t think it’s underestimated by the community, but I am always disappointed when game reviews barely mention the music. You are lucky if a sentence gets dedicated to it. Especially in narratively driven games where music is a big part of the emotional experience, it’s a shame that music appears to be an afterthought. There are
always exceptions to this of course, but in general I’d like to see an increase of coverage on music.
Gameranx: Are there any video game franchises you’d be keen to work on in future? What are you currently occupied with?
Coker: I would love to work on an Assassin’s Creed title. I feel like they still have so many places that they could explore and it would be a fantastic musical legacy to be a part of. I am a huge fan of Sarah Schachner’s score for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and Jesper Kyd’s scores for the early games.
I’m currently occupied with Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest. It’ll be a monumental task to take everything from the first game and try and improve on it, but we’ll do our best!
Gameranx: What are your tips for anyone who’s interested in composing for video games? Any do’s and don’t’s?
Coker: This might seem incredibly obvious, but when you’re getting started, it’s actually one of the hardest things to do: “Finish your work”!
Like most creatives, I have a huge folder of unfinished ideas. It’s difficult to sell or present to someone else an unfinished idea. People respond much better to work that is finished. It is also helpful to you to finish your work, because then you can evaluate it, and learn how to make it better the next time around. Finished work is much more attractive if you’re looking to get a job from someone because it proves that you can stay the course.
“Finish your work! Evaluate it, and learn how to make it better the next time around. Finished work proves you can stay the course.”
The only other thing I’d say in addition to working hard is to never stop or give up, and always be friendly within the very caring game audio community, because you never know what opportunity might be around the corner, and it only takes one person to give you that opportunity!
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Gameranx thanks Gareth Coker for his time and expertise, and making this interview possible. Those interested can indulge in the ARK: Survival Evolved OST here.