My Favourite Game
The award-winning film and videogame composer on Speedball glories, slap-bass solos, and the joy of Taito’s Chase HQ
Composer Daniel Pemberton on slap-bass solos and Chase HQ
Daniel Pemberton is an Ivor Novello-winning and multi-BAFTAnominated composer responsible for scoring TV shows and films including Peep Show, The Man From UNCLE and Steve Jobs, as well as videogame soundtracks such as LittleBigPlanet and The Movies. Most recently he’s worked with Rex Crowle on Knights & Bikes. Way before that, though, a 14-year-old Pemberton found himself doing a work experience placement under a game designer called Peter Molyneux.
That work experience must’ve been fun. Yeah, that was weird! It was at Bullfrog, which was about seven or eight people at the time – before it got bought by EA – in a little cramped office in Guildford, designing levels for Populous II. And who would’ve known that little office would’ve spawned the Guildford gaming empire?
Did the music of the games you played as a kid have any influence on your development as a composer? I wasn’t mad on a lot of videogame music growing up. I definitely think it’s interesting, but I always used to joke that every Sega game soundtrack was written by a guy who loves doing slap-bass solos. I think the first game musically I thought was really cool, and doing what I wanted videogame music to do, was Xenon 2. They brought in Bomb The Bass, and that was really exciting because it showed videogames could merge with all these other art forms and could have really great soundtracks. People probably know that track better now from that game than they would from the original release. Then, when Wipeout came out, I think that was the moment you could really see what you could do with the impact of music.
Before that, which games hooked you? In the Amiga era it was probably Speedball II: Brutal Deluxe, which is one of my favourite games. I used to play it with a friend of mine, Ben Speed, and I’d beat him all the time. I loved a lot of the stuff the Bitmap Brothers did because I thought they were doing something that felt very cool and very different in the way they presented it. And I also loved arcade games – I used to play a lot of Taito stuff. Chase HQ was one of the games I absolutely loved. Every time I go somewhere and there’s an arcade, I try to find it. The Amiga version is shit.
So when did those two worlds coalesce for you, professionally? I started writing about videogames when I was 13, which when I look back on it now is actually really weird. And I used to run the cheats column in a magazine called GameZone, which was the follow on from Zero. That got me enough money to buy a synthesiser, and that was the overriding factor in gaming music’s influence on me as a composer. It was weird because I was composing for TV and games at the same time, but they were two different sides to what I was doing. But doing The Movies was pretty important. I went in to see them and they said, “We’ve made this game and we basically need the last 100 years of film music – can you do that?” And I was like, “Um, yeah?” So I basically had to teach myself incredibly quickly how to mimic 100 years of film music. That was probably important to me as a composer.
Do you still get much time to play? The problem with everything now is that it’s so time-consuming. I find there are loads of games I’ll get two-thirds of the way through and then something will happen with the film or project I’m on and I have to leave my routine – of playing that game for a couple of hours every day – for a month or two, and when I come back to it I’ve forgotten everything. I go, “Oh, shit, I can’t remember what to do…” And then I just go and play something else.
“I knew that videogames had got to a level of artistic power when playing the first MGS”
Which game has had the greatest impact on you? I don’t think I can answer which is my favourite. But my all-time favourite videogame experience was a Metal Gear Solid one. I knew that videogames had got to a level of artistic power when playing the first MGS, and I rank that as one of my all-time top ten entertainment experiences, alongside seeing Vertigo for the first time. It’s that realisation games are a medium that can easily compete with the greatest works of music, the greatest works of cinema and the greatest books on an equal level. I felt, when I played it, videogaming had achieved something new, and that’s always been a very powerful moment for me.