This month saw the release of Rockstar Games’ highly anticipated interactive detective story L.A. Noire. The game is in many ways a dramatic departure from the open world playground approach taken with previous releases like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. The sandbox is still there, but the structure of your experience within it is much more linearly arrayed around a core narrative. This is reflected particularly well in the game’s music, a five-movement composition that follows protagonist Cole Phelps as he moves between crime desks in 1947 Los Angeles.
“There are several sort of narrative arcs to the story as you go through each crime desk,” said Andrew Hale, the soundtrack’s co-composer alongside Simon Hale, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “In terms of the approach [with the music], it was exactly done like that.” Hale went on to liken the process of composing the score with the work he’s done on movies, such as last year’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
“We were worrying about the specific mechanics of what would go where later on,” he said. “[The composing phase] was much more about setting a mood. It was less mechanical and much more of a freeform kind of process.”
The soundtrack nods heavily to film noir. There’s jazzy instrumentation like the lone trumpet, a musical motif that syncs with Cole’s unfolding story, and more melodaramatic “big” moments in the score's dueling swells of brass and strings. Hale admits that the genre was a big influence, not just the classics of the 1940s and 1950s but also more recent interpretations like Blade Runner and Taxi Driver.
“It was a case of trying to do something that still felt accessible to the modern game player,” he said. “We didn't want to make it too obscure or too strongly focused just on hard swing or jazz. I think the orchestral score helped to do that.”
What’s interesting about the music of L.A. Noire is, as unique as this very cinematic score is in comparison to previous, license-heavy Rockstar releases, it also still shares the same sense of style that resonates across the company’s entire catalog. This is no accident. It’s the job of Rockstar soundtrack supervisor Ivan Pavlovich to make sure that each game’s music lives up to a certain set of high standards.
“I think it's the same approach that we take for the music as the studios making the games take for the actual games,” he said. “It's the Rockstar idea of paying so much attention to detail and creating a world that is authentic. We try to do the same thing with the music. Just creating music that feels authentic for the type of game that you're playing.”
At times, this means making some difficult choices. The video game business has quickly snowballed into multi-billion dollar industry, and Rockstar sits among the most respected content creators. For musicians especially, word of a new game from the company represents a potential opportunity to have their music heard by millions during hours-long play sessions.
“There are times I've had people ask me if such-and-such artist can record for the game,” Pavlovich said. “They hear that we're working on a certain game and they want to do a song for us. They may be a big band, but… rather than have a song that could be a huge song, it's much more important for us to have a song that works in context.”
In the end, it all comes back to that constant Rockstar push for authenticity. “They do it time and time again. If you're talking about Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, any of our other games, you see the amount of research and the amount of detail that goes into every single part of this world that's been created is pretty amazing,” Pavlovich said.