Will Roget Interview: From Transcribing MIDIs to Scoring AAA Titles
Breaking artist Wilbert Roget II is a spectacular example of someone who has turned a crisis into an opportunity. After years working as a composer for Star Wars game scores, he was laid off when Disney closed LucasArts 18 months ago. However, he has bounced by back through work on indie, remix, film, and library projects, not to mention a couple of triple A productions. It was revealed at this E3 that Will Roget is scoring three upcoming titles: Dead Island 2, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, and Super Roman Conquest.
In this interview, Will Roget recalls his early experiences and time at LucasArts, including an exclusive insight into the concept and orchestral score of the cancelled video game Star Wars: First Assault, before reflecting on how he bounced back from the studio’s closure with the help of his old colleagues and long-term business partner Andrew Aversa. He goes on to discuss his recent projects, giving a first glimpse into the unique, multifaceted scores for Lara Croft and Dead Island. While Roget is used to big-budget scores, he is inspired by the thematic scores of classic video games and movies above all. To JRPG fans delight, he even mentions Vagrant Story!
Interview Subject: Wilbert Roget II
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Welcome to Game Music Online, Wilbert Roget II. First of all, could you tell us about your musical background, education, and experiences? What led you on the path to becoming a game composer?
Will Roget: Howdy! So, I’d been a musician my whole life really, starting with piano when I was four, but I didn’t really play video games until later. A summer afternoon for me usually meant sitting at the piano and just improvising for hours on end. It wasn’t until high school that a single game drew me into buying a console and realizing that writing game music was my calling. Of course, that game was Final Fantasy VII (what else would it be?!).
After fuzzing around on rickety old MIDI software throughout high school and studying .MID files from games like Duke Nukem, I started writing music for various indie projects that never saw the light of day. I studied music at Yale, focusing on composition and orchestration and taking on far too many side projects. Upon graduating, I started my own sample library development company (Impact Soundworks), mostly for my own purposes as a composer; I created the libraries I wanted to use, but simply didn’t exist yet. After that I was hired at Lucasarts, and now six years later I’m working as a freelance composer.
Chris: Alongside your classical training, you also regularly participated in community projects such as OverClocked ReMix. What drew you to such projects and what was it like to contribute to the OCR community? To what extent did these experiences influence you?
Will Roget: I actually was a member of VGMusic.com first, long before OCR. It was a site dedicated to transcribing .MID files of video game music by ear – this was long before MP3s and Youtube/Spotify streams existed, so that was really the only way to share video game scores outside the game itself. It turns out it was incredibly good practice for writing my own music; transcription is how all the great Classical composers learned their craft. So I’m very grateful I had that experience in particular!
OCR came much later, once I’d already started my professional career. I rarely remix other composers’ music simply because the game scores I love the most rarely “need” remixing – their production and orchestration is already, in my mind, perfect. So the very rare cases where I’ve arranged pieces have been cases where I could ask, “What would _____ have done if he had access to modern production means?” I would then try to be as faithful as possible to that vision. Otherwise, OCR for me is mostly about the community: almost all of my gamer friends are from OCR, and I try to be active in the community and in meetups as much as possible.
Chris: In 2008, you co-founded the highly successful sound production company Impact Soundworks with fellow OCR veteran Andrew Aversa. For the uninitiated, can you tell us more about the music libraries this company offers? Could you tell us more about how you explored the instruments and cultures featured in such libraries?
Will Roget: Impact Soundworks has always been about creating libraries with more depth than what’s already available, taking on subjects that haven’t been done before, and presenting them in the most user-friendly ways possible. Even for things as simple as keyboard mapping, we’ll take lots of time perfecting over many revisions. I think the reason behind our success (besides, of course, Andrew being an incredible developer and businessman!) is that all of our projects start with us asking what *WE* want, and working towards that. I think it’s that personal attention that’s led to the success of the new wave of composer-led developers like Impact Soundworks, Cinesamples and Embertone.
We always start by asking what we personally want. The first ISW library, Impact: Steel, wasn’t even meant to be commercially-released – I just wanted metallic percussion sounds played with the same attention to detail you’d expect from an orchestral instrument. Some friends on an online forum suggested I sell it commercially, and Impact Soundworks was born.
My most recent release, Vocalisa: Slavic Women’s Choir, was in development for several years’ worth of research, prototyping, recording/editing/programming. My idea was to distil the sounds of a Bulgarian traditional choir into its most commonly-heard components, and give users extremely easy access to them. As a result, composers can create very convincing ethnic-choral performances in this powerful and unique musical style, without any prior knowledge of the language.
Chris: After working on several game projects, you became an in-house musician at LucasArts between 2008 and 2013. During your early years at LucasArts, you were extensively involved in music editing and implementation for Star Wars, Monkey Island, and Indiana Jones titles. Could you elaborate on the technical and creative challenges of such roles?
Will Roget: For Monkey Island 2: Special Edition, my job was to figure out how to replicate the original iMUSE music interactivity from the 1991 game, but using live instruments and digital audio instead of MIDI. It was a pretty terrifying task, what with some 200+ transitional segments to work through — the game could switch between music tracks with unique transitions on every measure — and about two hours of music to arrange and implement. We did it with a combination of brute force, three amazing arrangers (who by the way are all on OCRemix, Andrew “zircon” Aversa, Jeff Ball and Dan Reynolds), and some brilliant programmers. But after painful stomach ulcers and 100+ hour weeks for pretty much the entire duration of the project, I basically promised myself I’d never work so hard on a game soundtrack again…!
Most of the Star Wars games used a combination of original music and edited music from the films, and so a big part of my job was to edit together new pieces from those film scores. For example, I might cut together several different pieces to fit a cutscene or trailer, or even edit cues together to form in-game loops. On The Force Unleashed 2, we even worked the film scores into our beat-synchronized interactive music engine, which was particularly challenging as John Williams does not record with a click track.
Chris: You were involved in the composition of the award-winning soundtrack for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Could you tell us more about your responsibilities and how you managed them with the rest of the music team? How did you ensure the music of this huge production lived up to expectations?
Will Roget: I was just one of five orchestral composers on this project, and even then I probably wasn’t supposed to be! Long story short, I was about a year or so into my time at LucasArts, and I caught wind that they were looking for a fifth. When I was initially hired, they were quite clear that I wouldn’t be writing any original music there. But I couldn’t give up on that chance, so I sketched a little town theme on paper on the bus ride home that night, orchestrated it on my PC, and brought it in the next day to show our music supervisor. In the end they gave me about an hour of music to write for The Old Republic, which coincidentally was also my first live-recorded orchestral soundtrack!
As far as the team aspect, honestly we all had very different styles and I think that’s what makes it such a powerful soundtrack. We each interpreted what Star Wars sounded like differently, and tried to remain as faithful as possible – imagine five different photographers capturing the same scene from different angles. We were mostly independent, though there was quite a bit of crosstalk. For example, I wrote a piece for Organa Castle in Alderaan, which then Lennie Moore developed into the rest of the Alderaan music based on my melody. Similarly I wrote a few pieces using Gordy Haab’s Republic theme, and Jesse Harlin and I each split the music for Tatooine, Taris and Nar Shaddaa half and half. Mark Griskey was our lead composer, writing the principal themes as well as a mountain of ambient and combat tracks.
Chris: At Lucasarts, you served as a composer of several other Star Wars titles. Could you tell us more about your approach to music development? What were the main highlights for you?
Will Roget: I think my most significant contribution to Star Wars music, unfortunately, was the game that was cancelled and abandoned, Star Wars: First Assault. On that title, our goal as a dev team was to present Star Wars from a different perspective than the films, focusing on the foot soldiers rather than the Jedi or Sith. This gave me a very interesting opportunity to depart from the typical Star Wars score, and do interesting things like painting the Imperials as heroic self-sacrificing soldiers and the Rebels as honourable ragtag guerrilla fighters struggling to save their diverse homeworlds. I introduced lots of ethnic world instruments into the Rebel faction’s music to show their diversity, and used an unusually-sized orchestra that focused on lower-pitched, gritty instrumentation rather than “expensive” sounding high brass and winds.
To tie in with Williams’ sound, I made sure to use plenty of rhythmic and textural references to the Star Wars musical style. We also recorded the score at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra — the same group and studio that recorded all the Star Wars movie scores since Episode V!
Chris: In April 2013, LucasArts was controversially after 31 years of game development. Could you share your thoughts about Disney’s decision? What was it like to experience this closure first-hand?
Will Roget: This was a difficult time, as one might imagine. I put everything I possibly could into the Star Wars: First Assault score, and I couldn’t have been more proud of what we achieved on that title as a game team, so to see it all thrown away was devastating. To make matters worse, music for games is an outrageously competitive field, and I knew right away that it could take a very long time before I even made a dime as a freelance composer. It was tough to fight off the depression and pessimism initially, but having fellow ex-Lucas friends around made the transition much more bearable. It’s hard to imagine a more tightly-knit team at such a large company.
Chris: Now 18 months after LucasArts’ closure, it has been announced that you are the lead composer of the new Lara Croft and Dead Island titles. How did you manage to get both of these massive gigs in such a short time? Despite all the problems it presumably caused, do you think the shutdown could inadvertently be good for your career in the long-term?
Will Roget: Oh absolutely. Truth be told, I was itching to go out on my own for a little while – the stability and “comfort” of an on-staff position honestly scared me in the final year or so. I felt like I wasn’t growing enough as a composer, and since the only original music I wrote was always associated with John Williams, it often seemed counterproductive to making a name for myself. So getting a little push out the door, plus some severance money to start my own business, was definitely helpful!
For Dead Island 2, getting hired by Yager was a very involved process. They are very careful about whom they bring on to their projects, and so I had to do not only on-spec demos but also phone and in-person interviews with several of the team. They actually flew me out to Berlin for that! In the end it made sense, as my involvement is much deeper than a typical outsourcer and I worked to develop the music interactive system on-site in Berlin as well.
For Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, I also am doing a lot of the music implementation work in addition to composing the score. It’s great having that opportunity as it puts you much closer to the work, with more personal investment and better insights on what kind of music will make the game feel more fun to players.
Chris: The soundtrack for Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris will be released at the end of the year. Can you give us a preview of what we can expect from this soundtrack? What was your musical direction for the score? How did you record/implement the music?
Will Roget: Temple of Osiris will be the first game in the Lara Croft franchise to have an original score, and so the direction was to have a new musical identity separate from the original Tomb Raider titles as well as the 2013 reboot. Although the game takes place in Egypt, our audio director Alex Wilmer suggested that I start by creating a new main theme for this franchise that could be used in any context moving forward. Working on that theme, we were able to derive an orchestral palette and melody that served as the basis for the rest of the score. I would say my Lara Croft score’s closest relatives are probably John Powell’s Bourne Ultimatum score, Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Vagrant Story, and of course John Williams’ Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Recurring melodies for each of the characters were a big part of the score, as was the use of ethnic instruments indigenous to Egypt and surrounding Arabic countries. I worked with some absolutely incredible soloist musicians from around the world, playing the mijwiz, sipsi, oud, kemenche, and several Arabic and North African percussion instruments, in addition to various orchestral instruments. I performed flute solos myself, and used a bit of my Slavic choir sample library as well in key moments. Many of the performers were also brilliant improvisers, and so I made sure to incorporate this into the score as well for an even more authentic sound. The end result is a new take on Tomb Raider music that’s a bit different from the classic scores and the reboot, but still attempts to capture the sense of adventure we’d expect.
For implementation, Crystal Dynamics actually just loaned me a PC that had all of the game design tools set up and ready to go. Once again I worked closely with Alex to develop the interactive music system, as well as adding tons of custom-scripted musical moments throughout the game. I made sure to play through every level in the same way our players would (i.e. no cheating!!), so that I could gauge which areas were hard, where players might get stuck, what the emotional current would be, and so on. I think music can help make the game more fun when used appropriately; I asked myself “Yeah but is it fun?” many times when making various composition and implementation decisions throughout!
Chris: While parallels might be drawn between Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, on Dead Island 2 you look set to explore uncharted waters by working on a more horror-influenced project. How are you rising to the challenge? Will you be following Pawel Blaszczak’s approach for the original or taking new directions?
Will Roget: Well actually, if you look at the trailers and gameplay footage of Dead Island 2, it’s clear that the game isn’t necessarily going in a horror direction. The idea behind Dead Island games is to give players beautiful, gorgeous locales to vacation in… while simultaneously killing zombies with friends. In DI2 we took this a step further with the music direction: instead of an orchestral score, we are using music that reflects the sound and mood of our three California locales. I worked very closely with the team at Yager to develop these unique “virtual bands” for each area, again focusing on the fun and excitement of zombie-killing rather than trying to scare the player.
Chris: Despite these high-profile roles, you have stayed true to your roots by continuing to contribute to OverClocked ReMix and their spinoff OverClocked Records. What inspired you to maintain such close links? What was it like to reunite with Andrew Aversa on the recent Kickstarted album Balance and Ruin and SoulCalibur V?
Will Roget: Arranging the Final Fantasy VI opening for Balance and Ruin was actually my first “gig” after the end of LucasArts. I was approached by Andrew Aversa, the project lead, who basically said, “Could you please do the very first track on the biggest OCR release to date? You have six days, by the way!” As you could imagine, it was about as intimidating as it gets, with Nobuo Uematsu’s original material being so near and dear to me. But ultimately I just asked myself what Uematsu would have done if he had live orchestral resources, and I arranged the music with that in mind – expanding on certain sections based on the Impressionistic and classic-cinema references I believed he was making. I also used it as an opportunity to refine my new orchestral template, which formed the basis of several scores I’ve done throughout the year.
For SoulCalibur V, I actually was only called in at the very last second to orchestrate the intro movies, also on behalf of Andrew Aversa. Basically my job was to look at his project file and his mockup MP3s, and arrange it in full score in a way that was as true as possible to his original vision, while taking advantage of live orchestral forces. I didn’t attend the recording session in Australia, but I did have the opportunity to listen in on the session remotely.
Chris: You’re also attached to a crowdfunded indie project, Super Roman Conquest. What’s it been like to reunite with the LucasArts team on this project? Can you tell us more about what we can expect from the game and score?
Will Roget: I had a great time writing for Super Roman Conquest actually! It’s a labor of love between two ex-Lucas guys, Matt Boland and Tim Temmerman, and I was called in to replace another ex-Lucas composer. I’m still working on this score actually, but what I’ve written so far was a contrast against my Lara Croft score – both of them concern ancient Mediterranean civilizations, but for SRC I of course used instruments associated with ancient Rome, as well as a men’s choir and a different harmonic flavour. Matt and Tim are very knowledgeable about music, so it was quite straightforward finding the right “sound” for this project right away. The main theme from the game is below:
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Wilbert Roget II. Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your projects past and present? In addition, do you have any message to your readers and fans around the world?
Will Roget: Thanks for interviewing me! I really hope everyone enjoys Lara Croft, Dead Island and Super Roman Conquest. I had a wonderful time working on each of those very different projects this year, and I think they each offer something special and unique to gamers. Take care!
Posted on September 15, 2014 by Chris Greening. Last modified on September 16, 2014.