Checking the Score: Until Dawn

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

One of the most versatile — and prolific — composers working in video games and other visual media, Jason Graves was responsible for an astounding three high profile scores in 2015: the Victorian flavored The Order: 1886, Evolve and Until Dawn. What’s truly surprising is just how musically impressive and distinctive each score is. Evolve’s soundtrack is the most experimental of the three, employing (as stated on his website’s bio page) a “myriad of percussion instruments, guitar effects and found sound recordings to produce an atmospheric, edgy score that reflects team choice and gameplay states through music.” The score focuses less on harmony and melody than tone color and rhythm, reflecting the high-tension action of the gameplay. In some ways it extends the techniques Graves pioneered for his groundbreaking score to Dead Space and its sequels.

In contrast, the scores for The Order: 1886 and especially Until Dawn are much more traditionally cinematic, with orchestral tone colors dominating the cues. For the score to The Order: 1886, which takes places in an alternative history Victorian England, Graves Jason spent six days at Abbey Road Studios recording unusual ensembles (low woodwinds and low strings only, no violins or brass), a low men’s chorus, solo string instruments and experimental percussion. Indeed, in cues like “Galahad’s Theme” and “The Darkness Within,” it is dolorous violas, cellos, and basses that carry the burden of expression.

Perhaps the most melodic and affecting of the three scores, Graves’ soundtrack to the critically acclaimed Until Dawn is a horror-themed project that largely eschews the easy musical cliches of the genre. There are relatively few nails-on-a-chalkboard sections of screeching strings or jump scare percussion. Instead, Graves channels in some small way the classic suspense music of Hitchcock-composers Bernard Herrmann or Miklos Rozsa, with rolling and eerie diminished chords and a feeling of restlessness (“The Shadow of the Mountain”). Graves sees the music in terms of it being a character in the drama and this aesthetic approach can be heard throughout.

While there are some cues that use distorted, distant piano, extended playing techniques and processed sounds, the most affecting cues are the most “cinematic” and traditional: the cues “Chris and Ashley” and “Mike and Jessica” and the “Icicle Elegy.” While the game itself is unabashedly an homage to teen slasher/horror films, Graves’ relatively understated, genuinely emotional and cliche-free score contribute to the success of the project. Coming soon after his score for the Tomb Raider reboot in 2012, Graves is on a creative roll of epic proportions.