Peter McConnell is a composer gamers know well. If you have ever loved a game from Double Fine or LucasArts, it’s likely McConnell contributed musically to it. He’s also helped push the boundaries of game music as a programmer, developing systems to make game music more dynamic and suited to the action. We had some time with him to chat about how a game composer makes decisions, some of his career and what he’s got coming up next.
Gamma Squad: You’ve been with the Sly Cooper series since the second game. How do you decide what music and themes to retain and what you should newly compose?
Peter McConnell: For the thematic melodies in the last two games, I started from a clean slate because I felt those titles were exploring new territory for the Sly story. But for the opening scene of Thieves in Time, I started with the original Paris accordion figure from the first game as a way to bring the whole series together. I always liked that accordion sound.
Gamma Squad: How does scoring from the Sly Cooper series differ from composing for, say, adventure games?
McConnell: There is an entirely different rhythm to the music in a platform title. The adventure game score is about environment, mood and dialogue, whereas the platformer is about movement. Sly is always in motion – sneaking jumping, evading, punching. So the music should reflect that. It should make the player experience that motion. This also affects technical aspects of the way the music is put together, since the energy level can change fluidly from a very slow stalking mode to all-out fisticuffs. Thus one might compose layers of music over the same basic structure which can then be cross-faded by the music system as the energy level changes.
Gamma Squad: How did you first start working with Sucker Punch?
McConnell: I was connected to them through a visual artist friend. They asked me for a demo and I sent them the music that became the Title music for Sly 2 and 3. The Thieves in Time Sci-Fi theme is also based on that same melody.
Gamma Squad: How do you choose the influences you work with? Sly Cooper has a distinct Henry Mancini twist to it, but it’s completely different from Grim Fandango‘s Mexican jazz and klezmer, or Stacking‘s silent-film reminiscent score.
McConnell: Both Grim Fandango and Stacking had culturally specific worlds that called for those particular musical styles. Sly is maybe not so obvious until you watch him in action. He is, as his very name suggests, graceful, sneaky, and a member of a team that goes on dangerous, top-secret missions. Above all, he’s cool. Put all that together with the element of motion I mentioned earlier, and the whole picture lends itself nicely to the ‘60s retro spy vibe. You always think of James Bond or Our Man Flint or the Pink Panther as doing something fast and cool.
Gamma Squad: You’ve been working in games composing for quite a while now. What’s the biggest major change in the industry for you over that time?
McConnell: I think it’s a combination of how big things have gotten, and how small they have gotten at the same time. It’s a long way from the ‘90s and having to fit all the music for Monkey Island II on something like 1 floppy disk, to recording 2 ½ hours of music live in Nashville with big band and orchestra. It’s also a long way from a clunky ‘90s PC CRT to playing games in the palm of your hand on an iPhone. I think the biggest change is what a familiar part of most people’s lives games have become.
Gamma Squad: You also have a substantial coding background, developing programs like iMuse. How do you find that helps as a video game composer?
McConnell: It certainly helps to understand how the music will actually be implemented in a game, because implementation has some implications for what you compose. It’s kind of like knowing what a pit orchestra is capable of if you want to write for the stage. How quickly can the players and conductor respond to what’s happening? What kinds of cues can they take from the drama being presented? There are a number of ways a musical system can adapt to action in a game, and knowing them is like knowing tools in a toolbox. An example would be the layering for different energy levels in Sly as I mentioned earlier.
Gamma Squad: Our readers would kill me if I didn’t ask you to talk a little bit about Grim Fandango. How did it feel when you first played the game?
McConnell: Some games just really strike you when you first see the main character in the game environment. You think, “Wow, this is something really different.” I remember feeling that when I first saw Manny walking around in Rubacava: “A walking skeleton? Cool! And in this dark wet street like something from a different time, yet colorful and beautiful.” I got a similar feeling when I saw Sly in the streets of Paris: “A Raccoon leaping from rooftop to rooftop in Paris? Absolutely!” There was something iconic about it.
Gamma Squad: What’s coming up next for you?
McConnell: A couple of projects that are under wraps, but I can mention Double Fine’s new adventure game and PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2. Really I’m amazed at the variety of new titles that are coming out. It makes me optimistic about the future of games.
Thank you, Mr. McConnell, for taking the time to speak with us. Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time is out now for the PS Vita and PS3.