If there’s one video game series that’s managed to capture the whimsical magic usually reserved for top-notch Disney movies, it’s the two Ori games.
Beginning with the first stretch of Ori and the Blind Forest — which even features the classic Disney archetype of an adorable protagonist with a tragically deceased parental figure — all the way through the dramatic conclusion of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the metroidvanias’ combination of smooth gameplay, thoughtful storytelling, and timeless art style have drawn praise from the gaming community and beyond. But just like The Lion King or Aladdin wouldn’t be considered all-time classics without their unforgettable soundtracks, it’s the scores of both Ori titles that really convey the range of emotion within each game.
Having won a handful of major awards in 2015 for the Blind Forest and looking likely for several more nominations this year with the Will of the Wisps, the cutest guardian spirit in gaming has become as much of a success for Microsoft as Halo, Forza, or Gears of War these days. Having recently released both soundtracks on vinyl through iam8bit (the Will of the Wisps for the first time and a re-issue of the Blind Forest), physical versions of composer Gareth Coker’s diverse work are available for the games’ diehard fan base for the first time ever.
SPIN caught up with Coker to chat about the emotions and efforts that went into the Ori soundtracks and beyond.
SPIN: What inspired you to work on games like the Ori series?
Gareth Coker: When you see a game that looks the way [Ori] does, it’s pretty easy to get inspired. I don’t think there’s any game out there that looks like it, as it has a very unique and appealing animation style. But what draws me the most to any project is the story, because the story really informs almost all of the decisions I make with regards to how I write the music. The gameplay comes second — which isn’t to say that one is more important than the other, but that’s just how I write the music. These two games really had all of the elements a composer could wish for to be able to have a platform to write something that lets you show off your range. Everything is so wide and colorful that there’s a lot of opportunity to do some really cool things musically.
How did you and the rest of the Ori team manage to capture that whimsical Disney-like magic in the games?
We studied a lot of the old school Disney movies from back when they were doing the classic animation like Bambi, The Lion King, and a lot of the really famous 2D animations to see how stuff moves and how characters emote. That word “character” is really important, because the music takes the point of view of the character [Ori] whatever you interpret the character as — it’s not really an animal, it’s just sort of a spirit creature that some people see as a fox or a squirrel, but it doesn’t really matter. When I’m writing the music, what I’m trying to help the player feel isn’t necessarily a musical commentary on what they’re seeing, but the music that reflects Ori’s state of mind as he’s going through the world.
Outside of Ori, you’ve worked on everything from Minecraft to Darksiders, and now your next project is Halo Infinite. What’s it like to work on such a wide variety of titles?
I’m very lucky that I haven’t been pigeonholed yet, because with some composers that can happen where you kind of get known for doing one style. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to do a bunch of different styles. If you asked any composer if they could write in any style, I think they could, but it’s a matter of having to do research and figure out the best sound of the game. It’s not really more or less challenging to work on a project in a different genre, as I tend to apply the same thought process regardless. At the end of the day, us composers are just trying to come up with lots of different sounds and melodies that work for one project or another.
Having spent approximately a decade in the industry, how have you seen video game soundtracks change over the years?
One thing I’ve learned over the decade is that I’m a very different composer in 2020 than I was when I was getting started. If you asked me to write the score for the first Ori game now, I’d probably approach it a little differently than how I did in 2013 when I was writing it. That’s just a matter of gaining life experience and writing a lot of music.
In terms of the tech, I think we are on the cusp of a golden era of video games. We’ve had a lot of great games in the last decade, but now I think that because there are no limitations on what the game music can be, it’s going to come down to not just how well the music is produced, recorded and written but also how it plays back in games. At the top level, all game soundtracks nowadays sound good. They sound expensive, well-produced, and very well written. But what’s going to separate a good soundtrack from a really great soundtrack is going to be where and how the music plays in the game, and that is something that takes quite a lot of time, skill, playing, and testing. If you compare it to a film, you know exactly when the music is going to hit and how it’s going to flow, but that’s not something you can control as easily in games. It’s going to come down to how well we can get the soundtrack to sync up to the game, and that’s going to make a big difference for the player. I think that’s going to be something that differentiates soundtracks going forward, and that’s why I’m excited to see what’s coming.