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Dungeons, Detail and Design

Composer Steven Coltart on writing music for gaming…

The way young people experience music is changing. October 2018 saw the publication of the findings of a YouGov survey in association with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which showed the increasing influence of video game music and its value as an access point for classical music.

This access point is valuable both experientially and creatively, as opportunities open up for composers to work in sound design.

In this month’s guest blog, The Music Workshop Company talks to composer Steven Coltart about his work writing and producing the score for Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier.

Steven has worked extensively across film, games and television, but Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier provided a hitherto unique opportunity for him…


Can you tell us a bit about the game?

Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier is a narrative adventure game of conquest, betrayal and survival. When the fates of a tribe of apes and a band of human survivors intertwine, two worlds collide as their precarious existence hangs in the balance. It’s out now on PS4XBOX ONE and PC.

So how did you approach writing the music for this game?

Unlike with other games I had worked on, I treated this project as close to possible as a linear film score. From the off I was opposed to using any loops, menu theme aside, and instead all music was bespoke composed for the different pathway options. That became quite complex on the longer scenes, however the end result is far more filmic due to this approach.  

Crucially for this game I was involved across full production; not only composing the soundtrack, designing sound effects and ambiences, but also employed as audio lead. This included personally implementing all my music into Unreal too. 

Having this level of control and understanding allowed me to have attention to detail across both creative and technical areas. I believe the composer also implementing is quite unique on a project of this size, but in my opinion, is one of the strengths in the soundtrack’s success.  

I can see this process becoming more commonplace going forward. 

Steven in his studio

How do you retain your artistic creativity and freshness when you’re working within an existing franchise?

I have a signature “Coltart sound” that is consistent across all my video game, film and television work – an emotionally charged, cinematic sound –  something that offers a standout, gives my music uniqueness, an identity in a crowded market.    

There are a couple of themes that I’m particularly happy with which recur in Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier: Toms Burial and We Go Home.

Regarding the Toms Burial theme, a listener posted to my Twitter account: 

“There’s so much pain in it.” 

It’s a melancholy that’s ambient (so as not to distract from the storytelling) but has enough detail to give listeners enjoyment when playing the original soundtrack in isolation. That’s something I kept in the back of my mind across the full soundtrack: Does the music sound as good away from the game as it does supporting the game play in it?  If so, I’ve done my job.

When you’re recording your own sounds, can you tell us a bit about what goes on behind the scenes?

The game was developed at Ealing Studios, but lots of the sound designs in game were actually recorded on location in Norfolk. This included getting access to record at Norwich Castle* capturing sound designs such as skull handling and hall/ dungeon ambiences.

The game features several snowy scenes, and I headed out into rural south Norfolk countryside for the perfect snow recordings, both during daytime, and at night to ensure attention to detail, and immersion. Going above and beyond with these original audio recordings aided the cinematic storytelling.    

*Special thanks to John Holdaway, Anne Brown and Dr. David Waterhouse!


Steven works across games, film and television. See/ hear what he is up to at his website, https://www.stevencoltart.com/ and on Twitter @ColtartMusic

He has also personally developed highly current, specialist game audio content, which he currently delivers within the music department at The University of Hertfordshire.  The course has ongoing graduate success due to the implementation of audio middleware and UE4/ Unity.

If you or one of your students would like to know more about a career in game audio, check out the course specifications to find out more. 


If you would like to know more about The Music Workshop Company or book one of our bespoke workshops for your school or workplace, contact us today.

Music for Video Games – Exploring A New Classical ‘Access Point’

A new survey by YouGov, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), shows video games as an important access point for young people to experience classical music.

The research, which included children aged six to 16, found that 15% said they listen to classical music “when it’s part of a computer game I’m playing”, while only 11% said “when I go to music concerts”. In fact, technology and screen-time seems to be the first place that many children hear classical music, with film tracks and television forming the basis for most exposure.

The managing director of the RPO, James Williams, believes that video game music is as valid an introduction to classical music for children as a live concert.

[Image: Takosuke]

In an interview with the Telegraph, Williams said, “I think exposure to orchestral music in all its forms is a fantastic thing. It is encouraging to hear that there are platforms and opportunities for young people to engage with orchestral music, albeit in different mediums. It is about sparking their interest.

“What we are finding is once we have lit that fire there is a real desire to carry that journey on and explore. If [computer games] are the trigger and the catalyst that can only be a really positive thing.”

Video game music is an area that has grown in popularity in recent years, becoming as sophisticated as film music in its execution. It attracts high salaries and prestigious composers including those like Hans Zimmer who are primarily known for their film writing. Music from games regularly features in Classic FM’s annual countdown of the UK’s favourite classical music. In Classic FM Hall of Fame 2016, Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy soundtrack reached number 17 while Kingdom Hearts by Yoko Shimomura was number at 30.

Recognising this popularity, Classic FM partnered with the RPO in 2017 to present a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall called PlayStation in Concert.

According to Williams, the concert attracted audience members who had never been to a live classical music concert before. “This is in no way undermining Beethoven and Brahms which are still the core repertoire,” he explained, “But we are embracing all these new opportunities, they are access points for new audiences.”

Williams also stressed that the music is of high quality, and that the RPO’s inclusion of video game music was not a dumbing-down. The past five years have seen a real acceleration in video game music, and the music industry is always keen to explore new initiatives. At the same time, Williams reflects that teachers are no longer encouraging music in the way they used to, citing research which found that less than a third of children are exposed to classical music at school.

Williams said, “The thing I found most alarming is the fact that in those schools that didn’t encourage music, the number who went on to discover other music fell dramatically. That is a worrying trend.”

Film composers who have worked on video games:

Hans Zimmer

Considered to be one of the greatest, and certainly prolific, film composers, Zimmer is responsible for the scores to movies including Pirates of the Caribbean, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, Backdraft, True Romance, Gladiator, The Last Samurai and Inception. He’s collaborated with many top filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, Ron Howard, and Christopher Nolan.

He’s also worked on soundtracks for video games, notably with Lorne Balfe on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. When asked whether video game music was still art, he said, “Absolutely, that we can’t even question anymore. When movies first came out, maybe they were in black and white and there wasn’t any sound and people were saying the theatre is still the place to be. But now movies and theatre have found their own place in the world. They are each legitimate art forms.”

Joe Hisaishi

The Japanese have long been known as pioneers in the video-game world. Icons such as Pac-Man and the Nintendo brand came from Japan. It makes sense, therefore, that one of Japan’s most critically acclaimed film composers also writes for video games.

Hisaishi has written music for films including those of animator Hayao Miyazaki (famous for Spirited Away). He also composed the soundtrack for the fantasy video game series “Ni No Kuni.”

Harry Gregson Williams

Williams has worked as a film composer on films including the Shrek franchise and The Chronicles of Narnia. He has also written for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and the Metal Gear series of games.

In this short video, Williams explains the process of writing for games:

 Video game music inhabits two traditionally male-dominated worlds, music composition and technology. While there is focus on addressing gender bias in classical music composition in general, it’s interesting to note that many successful video game composers are women too.

Female Video Game Composers:

Winifred Philips – Composition credits include God of War, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, and the Little Big Planet series.

Yoko Shimomura – Kingdom Hearts

Rika Muranaka – Metal Gear Solid

Shinobu Tanaka – Mario Kart’s “Rainbow Road” track

Hayat Selim – Initia: Elemental Arena, The Solar System

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