Squeaking About The Music Of “Moss: Book II,” With Composer Jason Graves
Written By: Gbanas92
Published On: June 16th, 2023
PlayStation VR2, the latest headset from Sony launched back in February. Among the massive launch lineup for the virtual reality peripheral were upgraded ports of two of the previous generations’ best titles: Moss, and Moss: Book II. The Moss titles are action platformers that see you assume the role of “the reader,” a magical being who has a spiritual connection to the adorable ASL-fluent mouse heroine, Quill. To celebrate the re-releases of these two gems, we sat down with series composer Jason Graves. In addition to scoring both Moss titles, Graves has lent his talents to a number of games, including Until Dawn, the underappreciated The Order: 1886, and perhaps most significantly, the Dead Space franchise.
Over the course of this conversation, we’ll talk about the challenges that go into making a sequel sound fresh, how differing time signatures played a big role in Book II’s musical identity, and yes, even a quick little question about Dead Space. Let’s dive in!
During the course of this interview, there are references to a past discussion with Jason. This is in reference to an interview conducted by this writer for the PlayStation website Push Square, and for anyone curious about what was discussed during that interview, you can find that article here.
Utopia District: Really glad to be talking again! Years ago we actually talked about your work on Moss over at Push Square!
Jason Graves: I remember! I totally remember, it was great! I had such a good time!
UD: Awesome! I’m happy to hear that! Some of the questions ended up almost as companions to that interview, so let’s have a look at how things went for this time with Moss: Book II!
On completion of Moss, were there any ideas that stuck with you? Melodies or bigger picture ideas that you might have wanted to explore if you had the chance to work on a Moss sequel? Like “Ah dang, I want to do that now!”
JG: When we finished the first one, there was this big question mark. With any game, it’s like that. I’ve scored so many games where it was like “We have three games planned” but only the first ever gets made. It just winds up not being financially viable to continue. Musically speaking, thematically, I think…[Moss] was one of the first times with themes where I got to explore them this much. I didn’t feel like I had short-changed any of them, and then when the second game came around and we knew it was going to be a thing, I thought I should be coming up with a bunch of new themes. Not for any reason other than “new game, new themes! Maybe I’ll use one of the old ones!”
There were a lot of smaller themes that came out of the second game, but most of the second game is a reiteration of the themes from the first game. They just sat really well with me and with the audio team at [Moss developer] Polyarc. We just really liked them. We felt like they didn’t wear out their welcome the first time. And I had them playing everywhere, just all the time! But I think, for an emotional connection to the music, having that sort of theme, like the Indiana Jones theme [“The Raiders March”], something that allows you to connect with a character. It was written, well, hopefully anyways, as something you never get tired of when it shows back up. As long as I can dress it up in different ways!
UD: And then when the original version of the melody shows up again in sparse moments of Book II, or even at later points in Moss, as the player you’ll be able to better recognize it. Like, “Ahhh, I know that. I recognize that!”
The reprisal of “Dear Reader,” [from the first game] that melody, I noticed quite a few times playing in Book II, which I found interesting. It reminded me of John Williams, especially Star Wars. Star Wars of course relies on reprisal a lot more than many other properties. And it’s effective in that context, and I think that Moss is using reprisals in a similar fashion.
JG: That’s actually great to hear! That’s the sort of thing that John Williams is just so well known for. Whether it’s “The Flying Theme” from E.T. or Star Wars, I already mentioned Indiana Jones. That was just my gut reaction to thinking “What sort of theme when I hear it, evokes a certain thing.” And I love film music. I love ballet music, and classical music, and that performance-oriented underscoring of action in music. And for me, John Williams, many others as well, but mostly John Williams, is the pinnacle of that sort of writing. I didn’t look at any John Williams music and think “I want to write Moss like that,” but it’s an indelible part of my DNA now since I’ve heard those scores and watched those movies so much that I can’t help but write my music for games in a cinematic way.
The tracks on the CD, for Moss and Book II both, were the tracks that I gave the developer when they said “We need some music for when Quill’s [the mouse heroine from the games] fighting some mechanical bugs.” So you hear this dancey combat track, and it ebbs and flows. Gets louder, and quieter. I’m just doing all that based on my internal monologue. How I think the action could be playing out. And that’s just so much fun!
UD: I think that shines through loud and clear in the music!
To step back briefly, I think that the key melody (see the Bandcamp embed above) that shows up in the first game, and all throughout the second game, is a good relationship anchor. Not to harp on John Williams again, but he’s especially good at writing themes for characters, especially compared to contemporary composers. On soundtracks now, you don’t often get “theme for so-and-so” anymore unless it’s a contemporary Williams score.
But with Moss, I feel like that key melody functions as a character theme for Quill, but also as a theme for “The Reader” [the character players control in both Moss titles]. And it of course helps to connect those two together as well.
JG: Totally! And that was the purpose behind it for the first game. And it helps to forge an even stronger bond in the second game! There were instances where I was working with Stephen [Hodde] and Kristen [Quinn] at Polyarc, on the audio team, and they would say “This would be a great time to have the theme there, but maybe it’s shaded slightly sadder, or more heroic. Or this would be a great time to have the theme, but we want it to hit as nostalgia. We want it to feel like the first game in how it’s presented.”
This helped, as I just get really bored quickly, so I’m constantly re-harmonizing things, trying to make it feel like it’s saying different things. Even if it’s just the same two notes repeated.
And those intervals are very open and there’s no third in them. So the third of the chord is what makes them feel happy or sad. And I intentionally wrote that for the first game so I could put a minor chord, a minor third in there and it would sound sad, or a major third in there so it would sound happy. Without having to change the notes of the theme. I didn’t do it much in Moss, but in Book II, I did it everywhere. Every time I used it, I was reharmonizing it in different ways. If the first game was my dream come true to be able to write like that, the second game was like winning the musical lottery. I got to write twice as much music! And so many more themes. But really, falling back on that first song that I wrote for [singer] Malukah that’s at the end of the first game and the end of the first soundtrack, those melodies were the keystone to the whole thing!
UD: So going back to the newer themes that you worked on for Book II, how did you evolve those sounds? The ones removed from the melodies you wrote for the first game. Obviously, they’re an accompaniment to what you’re making elsewhere in the game, but how did you want to make these new ideas distinct?
JG: So to keep it fairly surface level and not get “musical nerdy,” a lot of it had to do with the type of harmony that I was utilizing. There was a general “bad guy” theme in the game that a lot of the time is played by super low bass clarinets, contrabass clarinets, and bassoons and I would double it with low piano, and low electric bass guitar. And that creates a lot of mysterious intervals. Lots of half steps. So when you hear this texture play, even if it’s just a single note, it’s this low, weighty thing. And then you get these half-step meanderings and it sounds…well it sounds evil.
As opposed to something like the theme for [Quill’s uncle] Argus, who is sort of your quest in the first game. And…spoiler alert, but it’s a 5-year-old game!
At the end of the first game, you rescue Argus, but he did not have a theme in the first game because he was more the impetus behind Quill’s journey. But. as the second game picks up right where the first game left off, now Argus needed a theme. And that one’s using warm, familial, friendly nostalgic harmonies. So when I was able to play his melody underneath those harmonies, you could recognize it. Any time he’s on-screen it’s basically playing his theme. But I could also play just his harmonies without the melody and you kind of get that same warm cozy nostalgia despite the melody not playing. I think it’s important to have the harmony and melody distinct, especially in games. So I gave the audio people at Polyarc the harmony and melody separately so they can just play an English horn playing Argus’ theme by itself if it’s a quiet moment. Or just play the harmony by itself if it’s an exploration moment. The music needs to be modular that way it can still evoke the same feeling for the player even if half of the things for the music aren’t actually being heard at that time.
UD: Plus since it’s up to the player to dictate when the action moves forward, you don’t want to see the figurative “seams” in the music. In areas where the music loops.
JG: Totally! I’ve been such an opponent of just merely looping music in games for at least the last 15 years probably. To me that’s just the telltale sign, you can see the seam, like you said, I like that! I don’t want the music to loop. I want it to play through in its full 5-minute state that I give them, and if for some reason the player is still in that area, half the music gets very quiet. The conductor would tell all the melodic instruments in the orchestra to stop playing, and all the higher instruments and now we just hear the lower part of the orchestra quietly in the background. And it makes it feel like the music is continuing and not looping.
UD: Even though it’s a stripped-down version of what you’d been hearing. But masked effectively where it feels wholly unique!
UD: So my next question involves the technical end of things. I’m curious to hear about how your approach to composition has changed for VR in the time from Moss to Book II. Or if it has? I know when we did the Moss interview, I asked about how composing worked for you in VR, and I’m interested to see if that process has changed?
JG: [Laughing] It hasn’t. It’s a really quick answer. As a matter of fact, the few things that I did for VR specifically in the first game, the second game was so much larger in scope, that the music took more of a step back, and plays more of an emotional background role. This time, we didn’t want to call a lot of attention to the fact that you’re in VR. We likened it to being in an interactive storybook, which I suppose it is. So the music is in the background, and no fancy VR tricks this time!
UD: I’m glad you mentioned the scope of the game having expanded because that relates to my next question! So in Book II, the scope and complexity of the environments are much larger. The puzzles as well. But what did that expansion present to you for musical opportunities? You mentioned the music taking a minimized role this time, but with all these new environments and types of locations, did that open up anything new for you musically?
JG: Absolutely! The game is just on a bigger scale. With the first game, it sort of crescendos and feels bigger by the end, but you still have this mouse-sized perspective on everything. A lot of the instruments I used were small, very high [sounding], very quiet. And I wanted to take half of that and continue in the second one, but also augment things. Not necessarily in a subtle way, but I didn’t want it to sound like a gigantic orchestra.
I just did small things. So instead of using a solo violin, which I used extensively in the first game, I opted for a solo cello. You get this deeper voice from the cello, and when it goes up higher, you get a beautiful, longing, mournful sound. It’s one of my favorite instruments to write for. And instead of using the Celtic Harp, which was also featured a lot in the first game, I just got tired of tuning it. I didn’t want to buy a super expensive harp, because they can get really really expensive, I just had a little lap harp, but it was always going out of tune. So instead I bought a piano! Honestly, the piano ended up being so much more expensive than a harp, but I’ve always wanted a piano. And it’s a grand piano. But I bought it with the intent of composing the score for Book II on piano, in the same way that I scored Moss primarily on the harp. And you can get some similarity there. The harp is plucky, and has a sustain that slowly dies away, and the piano does the exact same thing, but on a larger scale. Those were the instrumental options that seemed like a natural progression from the first game. As a result, it naturally expanded my harmonies and the rest of the sound palette. Everything was opening up and feeling bigger, without having to force it. Without the big Hollywood drums or brass.
UD: An organic expansion of the sound as opposed to a Blockbuster [film score].
GS: Yes! Exactly!
UD: So my next question is an accompaniment to my last one, especially in regard to the environment. Book II has an industrial lilt to it. Especially with the forge.
JG: Yeah, the underground stuff! Beneath the castle.
UD: Exactly! What opportunities did that new kind of environment present to you that basically weren’t at all there in the first game? There’s a little in the first one I guess, mostly with the enemies, but in Book II the environments themselves are a lot more industrial, some of them almost feel Steampunk!
JG: Yeah! It’s tricky. So, I’ve been doing this for 25-something years now. So the first half of my career was everyone telling me what they wanted the music to sound like, and me having to sort of get as close to what they wanted but also make it different. So I was trying to be original. But now in this second half of my career, people are instead asking my opinion. Like, what do I think it should sound like?
And there are a lot of traps you can easily fall into. And in Book II, the perfect example could have been “Oh there’s a forge, and there’s molten metal and big steampunk-looking things and this giant robot to fight. We should use big industrial metal sounds!”
UD: Time to make a Trent Reznor album!
JG: [Laughs] Even if it was “Mossified” in a way where it worked in that universe, it just didn’t feel like the right approach to take. So a lot of it was just using guitars especially. I played a lot of guitars, and I had Tom Strahle, an incredible guitar player, play Oud and Bouzouki, which are these incredible world guitars. And what I would do is distort them. Well, not like Trent Reznor distortion, but more that they had some edge to them. If you hear a clean guitar, and then I played you [these] distorted guitars, and you see those visuals of the forge, it’s just a little bit rock and roll with the tone of the guitars. And I played some electric guitar as well. It’s this bouncy, busy, slightly edgy guitar sound from Tom, and myself on an acoustic guitar. And then there’s a lot of really distorted electric guitar, but I’m playing it [with] this big reverb, and it almost sounds like a pad. A washy, background thing, but it also has an edge to it. It sounds so subtle when I’m talking about it, but if I played the track for you and took it out, you’d be like “Yeah, this feels like there’s something missing.”
Additionally, everything that takes place aboveground in Book II is composed in triplets (three evenly-spaced notes played within the span of two notes). Which gives it an almost Celtic snap. But everything that happens underground is recorded in groups of 4, so it’s very square sounding. I like the idea of it being more mechanical, square like that down below. Whereas up top it’s beautiful and pretty. But [this is] all pretty subliminal. I would never expect anyone to actually pick up on that.
UD: That has to have been premeditated right?
JG: Oh yeah, absolutely. At first, I was thinking the whole score was going to be in triple meter, and very bouncy. But then I saw the underground forge stuff, and the caverns that Quill and Sahima [an additional playable character for portions of Book II] explore. And I thought, “Oh, this should be in 4/4”. It just feels like it’s different. And then you combine that with the textures and the beautiful visuals. When you’re playing the game, it’s like “Oh, okay.” We are in a completely different area now, with no sonic relation or any other kind to what was upstairs.
UD: That’s why I was so curious about it, because, it’s night and day, almost literally, while you’re playing. Such wildly different areas to explore!
Anyway, with that progression of sound, where the music almost took a step back but was equally important in Book II, what kind of advancements would you be looking forward to or expecting in a hypothetical Moss: Book III?
JG: No idea. Only because everything from the instrument sizes –violin to cello, harp to the piano—all of that was based on the story and the setting of the game. And I know the overall story, what happens between different games, but the specifics are really what draws me in and starts painting musical ideas in my head for instrumentation and everything. I’d have to get that pitch from Polyarc and simmer on it for a couple of weeks.
UD: Ruminate on ideas like how you arrived at those time signatures for the different areas.
JG: Yeah, totally. It’s the kind of thing that’s almost more of a reaction to getting input. And I need that input [from Polyarc] to process some sort of a decision.
UD: So for my final question, I want to ask about something apart from Moss. Plus I just can’t help myself from asking about Dead Space. Obviously, the remake came out a couple of months ago, so I was curious if you had a.) played it, or b.) if you had any thoughts on the soundtrack?
JG: Oh boy. Well, that’s going to be an easy answer, because I have not played it and I have not heard the soundtrack. But I am in the middle of watching Servant on AppleTV, which Trevor [Gureckis, the composer for the Dead Space remake] did the music for, and it’s brilliant! So I can say that I do love his music. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he did a great job sort of filling in where they added all this extra gameplay and bridging the gaps between the score and everything else. I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about how well the remake was done. I was just tickled that they left any of my music behind, let alone all of it, and supplemented it with other stuff. Talk about the best compliment in the world!
Although, if I could get my hands on a PS5, I would totally play through it with one of my daughters because she’s dying to play it, but it’s just been impossible [to find a PS5].
UD: Luckily, Sony’s finally managing to meet at least some of the console demand, so you might actually be able to get one soon!
JG: Hopefully. We’ll see!
UD: That does it for me! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!
JG: Thank you as well for the great questions!
And there we go! A pulling back of the proverbial curtain. A glimpse at the intense world of crafting video game music! If you enjoyed the interview, please check out the game! And the music!