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Music For Games: Composer Jeff Russo Describes Scoring “What Remains Of Edith Finch”

By: Marjorie Galas

One could say Jeff Russo is a bit of a maestro when it comes to scoring films and TV series. In the last twelve months alone, his work was been heard supporting “The Night Of”, “American Gothic”, “Channel Zero”, “Power”, “Lucifer”, “Bull” and “Legion.”   He also has two Emmy noms for “Best Score” to his name – one for each season of “Fargo” – and he’s scored the third season that will begin airing April 19th.  In fact, it was his work on “Fargo” that opened uncharted territory for him:  scoring games.

“What Remains of Edith Finch”, from developer Giant Sparrow, was initially set to be published by Sony.   While looking for someone to score the game, members of the Sony music department were enamored with the sense of place Russo captured in his score for the first season of “Fargo” and reached out to him.   Although he’d never scored a game before, Russo was attracted to the narrative of “What Remains of Edith Finch” and became attached. He remained on board for two and a half years, as the project was sold from Sony to Annapurna Interactive.  While a bulk of that extensive time delay was due to the property’s sale, there were many natural periods of down time that were the result of the project’s development.  This proved to be one of the key differences between scoring games and film or television that Russo had to adapt to.

“It was an easier schedule, but that time also made it harder,” said Russo. “Sometimes you’d have three months between (sections). It was important to go back, to listen, to tie the score together.”

The game follows Edith Finch, a twenty-something college graduate who returns to the Washington state based Finch residence after over ten years. Alone in the house as an adult, she begins to explore the rooms she was banned from as a child, insistent on unlocking the mysterious deaths of Finch family members.  The first thing Russo did was develop a theme for Edith, which he could then build upon through the course of the game.

“As she goes from room to room, she is immersed in memory,” said Russo. “I experimented with the aspects of life (each room presented): swings, a camping trip, a wedding, and pulled from the vignettes of story.”

Russo used a full orchestra to compose the score, something generally reserved for bigger budget games but something he, and the developers, was confident would best serve the story. He incorporated a wealth of woodwind sounds to build upon the melancholy tone along with horns and strings.  Synthetic sounds are also fully utilized throughout the game to help define unique aspects of the story.  Russo also created a sense of maturity in the music, helping bridge the experience of the player as they travel through the generations and see Edith’s personal development through the course of the game.

While Russo found building a score around the narration and emotional journey similar to techniques used in film and television, he did have to accommodate for user interaction. As a player enters a room, they are free to look around.  To keep the score flowing during these areas of player involvement, Russo had to build in musical loops.

“The greatest challenge with this was to figure out where (to loop the score) in the chord passage that would make it feel like a continuation, not a repeat,” said Russo.

Throughout the development process, Russo had a great amount of creative freedom to hone the score, meeting with the producers periodically to discuss sections, expectations and progress. When the entire process was nearly completed, Russo first reviewed the score with a Quicktime version of the game before testing it with and implementation of the game.  The final version of “What Remains of Edith Finch” will be available on the PS4 and PC platforms April 25, 2017.

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