Massive Attack and Master Chief: Neil Davidge On Scoring Halo 4

Games Features Massive Attack

British composer/producer Neil Davidge, best known for his work with trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack, has delved into a wide variety of projects throughout his career. Over the past decade, he’s increasingly focused his creative efforts beyond production work, including film scores for movies such as Push, Trouble The War and Clash of the Titans.

Over the past few years, Davidge decided that he wanted to pursue new artistic endeavors. In a simple twist of fate, that desire emerged around the same time as his management was introduced to Microsoft and Xbox music supervisor Kyle Hopkins. Unbeknownst to the composer, that happenstance encounter would soon lead him to become the composer for Halo 4—the latest installment in the iconic first-person shooter franchise that comes out today.

“I think he was a bit of a fan of Massive Attack and my work,” Davidge recalls, “and was very interested in the fact that I had been scoring movies and was looking to kind of branch out from album production and working for Massive Attack. Unknown to us, he went back to Seattle and had a chat with the guys from 343 [Industries] about the possibility of me scoring Halo [4].”

Halo 4 marks a huge shift for the internationally acclaimed video game series, one that won’t include involvement from Bungie—the game’s original developers. They split from their parent company Microsoft in 2007 and were replaced by 343 Industries.

“At the time, they were looking for a composer. They had a big list of composers, major Hollywood composers that they were looking at, but they were anxious to find something a little more unique, a little more individual,” he says. “They felt like they should investigate further and look outside the box, which is why they came to me.

“The audio director himself is a bit of a Massive Attack fan himself,” he continues. “100th Window is one of his favorite albums of all time, so we immediately kind of hit it off when the two of us met.”

Davidge would soon agree to collaborate with 343 Industries, who were also working in place of the franchise’s first-generation employees. In his case, he would be following in the footsteps of composer Martin O’Donnell, who Davidge credits for giving the game its longstanding cinematic reputation.

“The score of previous Halo games were integral to the games, and in some respects it’s really helped [the series] connect and grow beyond the kind of status a game is normally expected to have,” Davidge says of O’Donnell’s past scores. “I guess Halo is like the Star Wars of video games, and the music was a big part of that.”

Not only did Davidge have to follow up one of the most essential scores in gaming history, but he also had to seek inspiration outside of the game itself. 343 Industries kept the game’s development plans close to its vest.

“Because of the secrecy that surrounds a game like this…they weren’t [initially] allowed to give me any visuals, they weren’t allowed to tell me some of the major points of the plot line,” he recalls. “I came back to Bristol with absolutely nothing except for the experience of sitting down with these creative people—these very passionate people in Seattle—and seeing some of the artwork they’d been working on and hearing some of the ideas that they had about the plot and around the characters, the ways in which they wanted to expand on these characters, and some of the new characters that were going to be coming into the game. So I had some memory of these but I had no visual reference material, no gameplay, no script.”

In place of these resources, he relied on a handful of still images and artisan impressions. He eventually received some video clips of the gameplay—albeit in its early beta versions—but that didn’t come until he was far into composing his score.

To find more inspiration, he immersed himself in some of the series’ accompanying science-fiction books, learning in detail about the Halo universe and, in a way, creating his own understanding of the unreleased game he needed to score. As Davidge puts it, he forced himself to write “from his gut.”

“I didn’t have a lot to go on other than that,” he acknowledges, “which is kind of hit and miss. I ended up writing maybe two or three pieces for each major theme and then sending them off to Seattle, at which point they’d kind of pick their favorite. Then between us we’d evolve that so it actually worked for them.”

Without a clean project slate or specific musical direction, this back-and-forth introduced a new challenge into the composer’s creative process. Rather than viewing that artistic limbo as a downside to this kind of collaboration, Davidge believes that it was an invaluable experience.

“You have personal ambitions as an artist,” he says. “I think that’s necessary to actually do this and be authentic when you are creating music for a project like this, but you have to also be able to take on the ambitions of the rest of the team.”

Davidge had his own vision for Halo 4’s sonic direction—one that placed his own spin on the game’s soundtrack, while also remaining faithful to the franchise’s musical traditions established by O’Donnell.

“I was keen to establish my own take on the game, on the story, but coming at it as a fan of the game and from listening to the music Marty did for the franchise for many years,” Davidge says. “It was a part of me, it was part of a landscape; it was something I associate with Halo. So yes, it had an influence on me, but I was very careful to not make it a direct influence.”

“I didn’t want to do a pastiche,” he adds. “I wanted to find my own fresh direction, an original direction, and kind of evolve the sound of the game. I wanted to modernize it in some ways, but keep some of the classic cinematic storytelling aspects of the game and do it in my way.”

In scoring the game, Davidge had agreed to deliver approximately two and a half hours worth of original material to 343 Industries. To get there, however, he presented seven hours of original composition—which the developers then spliced to fit the game. Davidge estimates that he worked 80-90 hours per week for 18 months.

“It is a huge commitment,” he says. “I would say a big part of it is that I was actually a fan of the game. I felt that because the music had been very important in the previous games that I would have the opportunity to do something serious for it, that there would be a serious budget for it, to go to London to work with a good orchestra, that I would have the necessary budget to produce it to my satisfaction.”

It remains to be seen how this new chapter in Davidge’s career will be received. If the experience has shown him anything so far, it’s reaffirmed his faith in video games as artwork—something he hasn’t always believed with resounding conviction.

“I think in the past I may have been a little more cynical toward me scoring a video game,” he admits. “I might not have considered it to be a work of art. But that has changed considerably over the last few years.”

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