Graeme Norgate Interview: Composer of Goldeneye and TimeSplitters (July 2011)
Graeme Norgate is a veteran sound director, composer, and hailing from London. Since entering the industry in 1994, Norgate has pioneered the audio of numerous influential projects at different companies: Rare's Goldeneye and Killer Instinct, Free Radical Design's TimeSplitters and Second Sight, and Crytek's Crysis 2. In the ever-changing world of game production, Norgate has experienced several disappointments in recent years, but has recently returned to the forefront and continues to be celebrated for his past scores.
In our latest interview with the veterans of Rare, Norgate takes us through the highs and lows of his career in game audio. He highlights the contrasting demands of retro and current game production, reflecting how the shift caused the demise of Free Radical Design. He focuses in on specific projects such as TimeSplitters and Goldeneye, noting musical inspirations, technological considerations, and collaborations along the way.
Interview Subject: Graeme Norgate
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Support: Steve Burke, Grant Kirkhope
Chris: Graeme Norgate, we greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today. Like many of your Rare contemporaries, you initially worked with various bands. Could you tell us more about this background? Did it help you reach out to mainstream audiences when you came to video game scoring?
Graeme Norgate: It was another outlet for writing music. I actually started with a love of video game music and I first tried to get into the Amiga market in the late 80s. I made the mistake that I've since told others not to do... I wrote a few songs on the Amiga and decided I was experienced enough to contact games companies. Hewson gave me a chance to convert the music from Cybernoid 2 on the C64 to the Amiga, but I was out of my depth.
So with the frustration of wanting to do that, having a band to write songs with was very satisfying. We were never going to make the big time, although I reckon as a 19 year old I probably believed we would. The world just wasn't ready for us, haha!
But mainstream we weren't. In fact, the last band I was in, Autogeddon, was the polar opposite of mainstream.
Chris: You mentioned that you've been a fan of video game music for some time, enjoying the music of Commodore 64 classics so much that you remixed them. Could you tell us more about how you came to embrace video game music? Were these experiences what eventually led you to become a composer at Rare?
Graeme Norgate: They certainly helped guide my career path. Even before the C64, in my Sinclair Spectrum days, I knew what I wanted to do after school was something to do with computers and music. But I hadn't decided what yet by then. Along comes the C64 and with it these amazing pieces of music — usually with terrible games — and that was it for me.
I never got to grips with composing on the C64. I hadn't heard of Rock Monitor or some of the other music programs, and instead I struggled with Commodore's rather oblique BASIC language.
When the Amiga arrived though with it's MOD Tracker program, that was the key to the door. I spent the next three years writing and writing... mostly terrible stuff, but it was a form of self tuition, getting all the rubbish out of my system.
Chris: At Rare, you debuted with the score for the fighting game Killer Instinct and its various adaptations. Could you tell us how you developed an intense yet accessible sound for this title alongside Robin Beanland? Looking at the score relative to other fighting games, what do you think were its most successful and innovative features?
Graeme Norgate: Well, it wasn't technically very innovative. To be honest, I think it borrowed a lot from the Mortal Kombat series, where the tune pace would change when a players health was near a KO.
It sounded its best in the Arcade cabinet, of course. A shame as I imagine most people played it on the Super Nintendo, where it certainly wasn't a showcase for the original audio!
Chris: Your score for Blastcorps is one of the most light and poppy of those you scored. Could you share your inspirations for this cult classic? Did Nintendo's lighter games at the time influence your approach?
Graeme Norgate: Ironically no... The Stamper brothers saw Blastcorps as me being a "dark" composer and, even though at the same time I wrote my poppiest stuff for Donkey Kong Land, it was seen as a negative at the time... until Goldeneye sold millions of copies of course, then it was all fine again.
Back to Blastcorps though. It was my first game where I had full control over everything, and I approached it (rightly or wrongly) like Killer Instinct and Timesplitters. As in, tunes were written for locations rather than plot and character themes. A band's album rather than a film's score if you like.
Chris: Many fans also look fondly at your score for Goldeneye. Looking back at the title, what factors do you think made the game and score so successful? Did you anticipate that it would be a smash hit while working on it?
Graeme Norgate: Personally, I didn't anticipate the success it had. I really don't think anyone did at the time. It's hard to be subjective on a game that I've worked on day in day out for years. Of course, I was delighted that it went on to be such an iconic game.
I'd say the fondness comes from how much people played it, plus the fact that we had a hell of a leg up by having the rights to the theme tune. It's such a classic track with so many hooks — both Grant and I were very lucky.
Chris: The score for Goldeneye was quite dark and ambient in its approach, yet still proves an entertaining listen. How were you able to achieve this dual role so successfully? How were you able to integrate so many memorable melodies and rhythms into the game's moody soundscapes?
Graeme Norgate: A strong theme will work in many varied styles. James Bond has so many to choose from that it made our job so much easier. The soundtrack had to work more like a film... so we had the occasional bombastic action piece, but they were complemented with more laidback tense tracks.
Also Eric Serra's score for Goldeneye was quite a departure from what had gone before and was fairly dark itself. I did "borrow" a couple of his ideas... playing the guitar riff on timpani for example. I remember driving home from seeing the film on it's release thinking "now there's an idea I'll be trying tomorrow".
The mistake in that sentence was the fact that the film was out and the game wasn't... not for another 15 months. Ahh well, it was worth the wait I'd say.
Chris: Last year, Goldeneye was remade for the Wii by Eurocom together with a new score. You were apprehensive prior to the release, saying that 'Eurocom better bloody do a good job'. Now the remake has been released, what is your verdict on the game and score? How would you have approached it differently if you were in charge?
Graeme Norgate: That was a very tongue-in-cheek comment that has been picked up by a lot of people... The truth is, I don't own a Wii and haven't seen the game, but with David Arnold in charge of the score, I'm sure it was a belter.
Obviously, I'd have loved to have revisited the game after all these years. Activision actually approached Free Radical a couple of times in the past with a view to doing Goldeneye again, but as it turned out, they weren't that serious about it and Eurocom were a tried and tested developer for them to use.
Chris: According to Grant Kirkhope, you were also key to developing the sound of another first-person shooter, Perfect Dark. Could you elaborate on your intentions when creating the background music for the dataDyne stages? Is it correct that you were only responsible for two tracks in the final score and, if so, would you have liked to have offered more?
Graeme Norgate: Well, I'd made some ground work on Perfect Dark and had made a palette of intruments that I was intending to use for the game. I was happy with the work and felt it was hitting the right direction.
I would have like to have written more for it, but I left about mid way through development. When the game was released, it was interesting to hear what Grant had written using the sounds I'd created... the boy done good!
At the same time, I was working on Jet Force Gemini and ironically had written a lot more for that game. Most of the music, quite rightly, got scrapped when Robin Beanland took over and started from scratch.
Chris: After Goldeneye, you left Rare to co-found Free Radical Design with three others, including the legendary Dr. Doak. What were the reasons behind this big move? What was it like to move from Rare into smaller independent studio — exciting or daunting?
Graeme Norgate: We were young, naive and, after Goldeneye, probably a little arrogant. Only joking!
There were five people who formed Free Radical — four had worked together on Goldeneye and the fifth, Lee Ray, had joined us from the Perfect Dark team. We worked very well together and wanted to see if we could achieve success by going independent. It was incredibly daunting but also amazingly exciting too...
It was not a decision I took lightly. Internally, my mind changed so many times whether to stay at Rare or leave into the unknown. In fact, the morning I left Rare, I went back to a colleague's house, drank whiskey, and shook from head to toe wondering what the hell I'd just let myself into. Luckily, the next 10 years were a decade I'll never forget.
Chris: Free Radical Design impressed right away with the PlayStation 2 launch title TimeSplitters. How did you complement the unique concept and diverse environments of this title with your music? In what respects did you build on the sound of Goldeneye and in what respects is the score unique?
Graeme Norgate: I say the scores are very far removed. Goldeneye was very firmly spy-based and featured variations on the many recognisable themes from the films. Timesplitters, on the other hand, was a complete toy box of a game... different time zones, areas, characters, a real mish mash. The look and feel was over the top, so it gave me free reign to go the same way with the score.
Chris: On TimeSplitters, you were responsible for all aspects of the sound, including sound effects design, voice recordings, and final sound editing. Was it challenging to have so many roles in a project or did your diverse activities at Rare set a good precedent? How did you persevere to produce a polished final product?
Graeme Norgate: Looking back, I'm not sure how I managed it. Doubly so with Timesplitters 2, which was a much bigger game with more levels, cutscenes etc.
It was that crossover period where you had one guy doing the "sound" for a game. In the 80s, that would just be a couple of tunes and a handful of programmed sound effects. As we progressed through the 90s, it got more, but like you mentioned, at Rare, it was still at the point where one or two people would work on a project and work on each category of audio.
At the start of Free Radical, I was incredibly controlling and wanted to take care of every aspect. Thankfully now we're 12 years on, the roles are very much more clearly defined.
Chris: TimeSplitters 2 built on the foundations of the series to offer even more diverse compositions. Could you tell us what resulted in this approach and where your inspirations came from? Did technological innovations facilitate some experimentation here?
Graeme Norgate: I'm pretty sure a few "inspirations" are easy to spot. It was a harder game to write for. As I'd just spent the last 12 months writing nearly 30 pieces of music for TimeSplitters, I wasn't sure where the next game's worth of music was going to come from. Somehow it did emerge luckily for me, but inspiration wise, there are a few obvious ones, like the Neo Tokyo level, Wild West, and Notre Dame... I'm sure it's what Mozart would have wanted....
Chris: While you're best known for scoring main console titles, you have been involved in the portable adaptations of Donkey Kong Country and TimeSplitters 2. Could you share your experiences with such projects? Do you enjoy working with limiting hardware or do you prefer today's consoles?
Graeme Norgate: Coming from the 8bit days and being so obsessed as a child with the Sid Chip, working on the Game Boy was like a dream come true. I only wish I could have done more. I like working with technological limitations because it makes you concentrate on what's important: the melody.
Also, you have to work a lot smarter to make your work stand out. Dave Wise was helpful with my first Game Boy title. I'd be working on a tune, and he'd drip feed me little tricks to improve the overall sound. "You can repeat the melody 3 steps forward at a 3rd of the volume to emulate an echo", and voila, your lead melody now has a lovely tight delay that makes it sound a lot wider and smoother.
Chris: Second Sight is your most introspective score to date and features numerous remarkable compositions. Was it challenging to develop a more subtle approach for this title? What sort of elements did you use to explore the mind?
Graeme Norgate: I wanted to convey the slim grasp on reality and sanity that the lead character was experiencing as the narrative progresses. I'm glad that it worked. It was helped by the fact that I was worn out mentally at that time, having worked at full pelt for nearly a decade. I was probably losing my grip on sanity too!
Chris: Your final scores for Free Radical Design, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect and Haze, seemed strongly influenced by modern action scores. What inspired this change of direction following your more direct and individual scores previously? Was it satisfying to work with co-composer Christian Marcussen on such projects?
Graeme Norgate: Haze was completely scored by Christian. By this time, I was managing audio staff and taking care of speech and sound design. Also, with TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, Christian took care of most of a lot of the single player and all of the cutscenes. This game and Second Sight were being developed at the same time, and I just didn't have the time to solely take care of both projects.
Christian was an amazing find. Any brief I threw at him, he got and came back within a week usually with a score that would blow my socks off!
Chris: It's reasonable to say that the industry has been tough on both of your former employees, Rare and Free Radical Design, in recent years. How do you feel about these developments? Do you feel their declines have been caused by internal problems or shifting industry demands?
Graeme Norgate: Tough, that's true, but no more than for most of the industry. We're at the end of the old school of game development and on the cusp of something new I feel. Game development budgets have got so out of hand that we see a big studio release a game, it does fairly well, and then the studio goes under because it has a full development staff at an alarming burn rate but not firm new game production...
With Free Radical, we had all our eggs in the LucasArts basket. We told them the game was going to take longer to make than first thought and they stopped paying us. There's only so long you can keep going when your burn rate is nearly 2 million dollars a month.
We had a handful of projects on the go at the same time, but unfortunately, on their own, they wouldn't have saved the company. I'm happy that Crytek were able to at least keep some of the people on and save their jobs. There's a number of studios in the area that helped our ex-staff take up positions. A horrible time, which still hurts if I think about it too much.
Chris: Now that Free Radical Design has become part of Crytek, we're interested in learning about how you are doing these days. Was it a relief to you that Free Radical Design was saved and its talent was recognised by such an aspiring company? Are you currently focusing your attention on sound direction these days or is there hope that, one day, you will compose for another project, e.g. a new TimeSplitters?
Graeme Norgate: As for now, we're a smaller audio team, just me and Ross Tregenza at the moment. Although I'm concentrating again on sound design and dialogue, I've written more music the last couple of years than in a long time... only this time, for myself and as a remixer. I'm finding it fun again.
With Haze and Battlefront, we were struggling with the tech. Getting anything to work at all was an arduous task. But with Fmod and the Cry Engine, workflow is a lot faster and smoother... not without problems, but so much more time for creativity. Most of the implementation is now within our power and not reliant on programmers and designers, so the world is our oyster.
As with Christian, Ross was a fantastic find. We make an incredibly strong team able to bounce ideas off each other and keep enthusiasm for audio high. An important point to make, because not everyone involved in creating games is really that bothered at all about audio. Sad but true, has and will always be the case... But to use a cliché, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, so we have to be very squeaky indeed.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Graeme Norgate. Is there anything else you'd like to say about your works for Rare, FRD, and Crytek? In addition, is there any message you'd like to send to fans around the world?
Graeme Norgate: And thank you for the questions and allowing me to bore you with my drivel!
What I would say is thank you to everyone who emails me or comments on various sites about my work. I'm constantly amazed at the positive response from people — it makes it all worthwhile!
Chris: Graeme, our pleasure. You're too humble!
Many thanks to fellow Rare veterans Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke for helping to organise this interview. To learn more about Graeme Norgate, visit his personal website.