Interview: Talking Gears Tactics With Composer Edward Patrick Smith

This past Thursday saw the highly-anticipated release of Gears Tactics - a fast-paced, turn-based strategy game built from the ground-up for PC (also coming to Xbox consoles later this year), and set 12 years before the first Gears of War. Earlier this week, we had a chance to speak to composer Edward Patrick White about his experiences working on the game's soundtrack over the past couple of years.

Pure Xbox: Hi Edward! Introduce yourself and give us a bit of background about your career so far.

Edward: Sure! My name's Edward Patrick White. I'm a film, TV, commercial, videogame composer - basically whatever needs music writing for it, I'll write the music for it. I've been doing it for some time now across a variety of different things, and my most recent project is Gears Tactics which is the latest in the Gears of War saga, and it's a bit of a departure from what people are used to with Gears of War (which is a third-person, cover-based shooter) to a top-down, tactical shooter.

Edward Patrick White, Gears Tactics Composer

Pure Xbox: How did you find the challenge adapting the Gears soundtrack to a tactical format?

Edward: It's an interesting thing - there were two principal challenges that we had when we started the project, and the first was precisely this. You know, music works in a particular way in a shooter, they tend to be less interactive, the music is more of a call to adventure - it has a different function within the game. Our game is a lot more cerebral and turn-based, so it's more like a really bloody, gory game of chess, and yet still needs to feel stressful, it still needs to feel enjoyable, and so the aim is still the same place, but how you get there is completely different. And we have to find ways of being very interactive, so that when you're being more cerebral and deciding very carefully how you're going to play your next move, the music could accommodate that, and then could scale up to the more brutal moments of gameplay as well.

So, that was the first challenge, and then the second challenge is - when people think about Gears of War music now, because it's a multi-generational saga that is seen from lots of different character perspectives, the music actually runs a gamut of different things. Kevin Riepl's original score is quite different from where Ramin [Djawadi] has taken it with Gears 4 and 5, and so our job, we felt, was to unify all of these in some way into something that felt absolutely like Gears of War, and yet where I could still have my unique voice.

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Pure Xbox: How closely did you work with developers The Coalition and Splash Damage in getting that unique Gears sound?

Edward: You know, The Coalition - Gears is completely their baby and Johnny Morgan at The Coalition was really helpful in helping to focus the vision and keep the vision pure. My day-to-day was with two guys at Splash Damage in the audio team, and we would try and meet up at least once a week and have these kind of stand-up meetings, where we would basically pretend that we were in a band together, and that meant that everyone's voice carried equal weight, and all of the successes and failures were kind of shared equally. And we would literally iterate the music on a week-by-week basis - I would go off, I would write stuff, I would come back, we'd talk about it - we'd keep what worked and not keep what didn't work. And the great thing about the number three is that you've always got some kind of a majority.

Pure Xbox: As the weeks progressed, were you getting feedback about how the game was developing? Do you get to see footage? Did things change, and were you required to alter your plans?

Edward: Absolutely. Development is development in quite a literal sense. You start off, and everyone including me felt very clear about how the music was going to function, and we had to kind of turn that on its head. Because once you start doing builds of the game and you can play it - and again, I was very fortunate because I could go into Splash [Damage] and they had me set up with a computer there, and I would go in and I would play the game, so I had a sense of, pretty much on a week-by-week basis, how it was developing, and how the music was functioning in the game.

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Pure Xbox: What was the most challenging moment you faced during development?

Edward: That's a great question.

Pure Xbox: Or did you not have any of those?

Edward: I'd love to say we didn't have any of those! I think the moment when you really feel the pinch, regardless - you might have twelve weeks for a project if it's a film, if you're doing a TV series you might be on it for longer. On a videogame you kind of think, well, we've got this luxury of time, because you're on it for years. But there's always a mad crush at the end, and that has to be managed very, very, very carefully, because that's the point where you can end up losing quality.

And the thing is, The Coalition have such a high bar - although ours is a spin-off project from the main saga, the quality bar was like - 'no, this has to match the rest of the franchise' in terms of scale and attention to detail. And we're all massive Gears fans anyway that were working on the project, so everyone involved did it for love not money, and were working weekends and evenings just because we love the project so much. So it's always a crazy crush at the end, and that's always stressful.

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Pure Xbox: In regards to you all being massive Gears fans, what was your first experience with the Gears franchise?

Edward: My first experience of Gears was in 2007 and I'd just bought my first flat in South London. I didn't have any furniture at all, but I had a TV, I had an Xbox and I had that first Gears game. And I would sit on this deckchair and I had a very young kitten, and he would attack the bottom of the deckchair whilst I was trying to play Gears. But I mean, I clocked up serious hours on that game just because I was living on my own at the time and I was allowed to do that. I've got kids now and a wife so I have to really schedule my gaming time!

Pure Xbox: As gamers, we often resonate with and get nostalgic memories for a game's menu theme in particular. When you were creating the menu theme for Gears Tactics, how much pressure did you feel, and how did you go about tackling that?

Edward: It's an interesting question, because yes - you spend a lot of time thinking about the game's cinematics and you spend an awful lot of time thinking about the music and how it functions in the game, but the menu is this opportunity to say something and really try and sum up the whole game. And yet, if you listen to the first Gears menu theme, it's this sort of really disturbing ominous drone, and so we knew we were going to have to kind of do that. And we wanted to do that because we want the first experience people have with this game to feel authentically Gears.

And then in the menu theme, that's my opportunity to say, this is the Gears Tactics theme - you're going to hear this in the cinematics, you're going to hear this during gameplay, and it's my opportunity to sow that seed so it's familiar whilst your playing the game, and hopefully by the end, you've really got it under your fingernails and it's really something that you know.

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Pure Xbox: Gears Tactics launched as part of Xbox Game Pass for PC earlier this week. How important is it to you to see your work reach a wide range of people through the service?

Edward: It's really exciting! To me, I always kind of feel like the person that you're writing for is the person who is going to spend their hard-earned cash to see the film, to play the game - whatever it happens to be. So, you want them to have the best experience possible, and you want them to feel like the money - whether they're subscribing via Xbox Game Pass or buying the game on a per-unit basis - you want people to feel like it's worth it. And even the investment of time that people put into videogames is so massive that you want people to feel like it was worth it at the end of it. It was a dream working on this project, and for me, I just hope that people enjoy it as much as we'd hoped they would enjoy it.

Pure Xbox: As a Gears fan, you're probably as excited as us to see where the franchise will go next on Xbox Series X (and PC). Where do you want to see it go in the future?

Edward: I'd love to see another Tactics game. I feel like the characters have more that they can do and more places that they can go, so I'd love to see more Tactics. And I love what they're doing with the new franchise - Gears 4 and 5 and Kait's story - where's that going to go? It's all to be played for, and I think Rod [Fergusson] had this idea right at the beginning that the Gears world is a big world. It's expressed in novels and hopefully there will be a movie. It's such a big thing and it's such a great world, that we can explore stuff that perhaps we don't even know is there to be explored yet.

We'd like to thank Edward for taking the time to talk to us. Gears Tactics is out now on Windows 10 PC, and is also included as part of Xbox Game Pass for PC and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.