Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is an amazing game, mainly because it does a great job of imitating the Star Wars cinematic style. Be it the rush of stars behind a ship going into hyperspace or the distinctive hum of a lightsaber, Respawn really did everything to match the aesthetic of one of the world’s biggest movie franchises. One of the most important things to achieve is through music, and while the Star Wars sound is iconic and well-known, a good video game score should be more than just an imitation of what came before. The music for Jedi: Survivor was written by Stephen Barton and Gordie Hobb, and when I ask them what makes a great video game soundtrack, they give the same answer.
Our interview is done on a video call with each composer at a different location, so the act of him responding with the exact answer at the same time is especially surprising and remarkable – a philosophy he later explains when working on the scores for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Survivor.
Barton motions to Hob, who explains the matter. “That’s what makes a great film score,” he says. “It needs to fill the gap between the player, in this case, or if it’s a movie, the audience and the screen.” In other words, they want the music to enhance the emotion the protagonist Cal Kestis (or whoever is on screen) feels and allow the player to experience it. It’s not as simple as writing an all-purpose war theme; A fight can be epic, frantic or tragic and the music should reflect the right emotion. He reiterates that his music doesn’t need to draw attention to itself. It is an element that works in the service of narrative.
Hobb and Barton cite the film as an appropriate reference point for the franchise they are working on. While he was still writing within the structure of a video game, the music had to “feel” like Star Wars, which has a cinematic quality inherent to its roots on the big screen. They do not find that framework restrictive. According to Barton, the idea of a “Star Wars sound” has changed a lot over the years, especially recently.
“I think it’s a really interesting moving target,” says Barton. “The Mandalorian And Andor There are really good examples, I mean, of things that have expanded (voice), now where people go, ‘Yeah, that’s Star Wars.’ Ten years ago if you said to someone, ‘Hey, the recorder is going to be a really important tool for Star Wars,’ people would have said, ‘What? Really?”
Hobb, who has experience scoring EA’s Battlefront series and other Star Wars games like Star Wars: Squadrons, nods in approval. “Stylistically, we tend to take inspiration from the things that inspired the original scores,” he adds, “rather than trying to get really close to the bone on the original scores.”
With Jedi: Survivor, the duo strived to “stretch the sound a little bit further.” A good example of this is on the track “A Frontier Welcome”. After some ominous percussion at the beginning, there is a series of notes played in unison by a bassoon and some strings. Regardless of context, I wouldn’t associate a track with Star Wars until the composition passes for a classic Star Wars sound to a high-pitched, suspended woodwind symphony. The use of an unfamiliar voice in this piece is an appropriate musical choice, as it plays when Cal lands on Koboh, a planet unfamiliar to him and the audience. As Hobb and Barton say, music brings the player and game experience closer together.
In general, Survivor’s score has a much darker tone compared to Fallen Order’s score, which Hobb says has an “underlying hope”. In Survivor, Cal’s life is more complicated and the game is more defined by the oppressive nature of the Empire. Because of its thematic importance, Hobb says, he needed to create a melody to represent the omnipresence of empire.
Referring to the theme, Hobb says, “The shape of it, the outline of it, describes the sinus rhythm of a heartbeat, so you always have the feeling of something beating in your heart, you know, in the distance.” He says it contains all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – in other words, the notes don’t fit neatly into one key, so the theme is constantly changing and creating a sense of disquiet. It’s not as neat as the classic Imperial March from the original trilogy because it doesn’t represent an army of stormtroopers lined up in neat rows; It is the fear of the idea of empire and the despair it represents.
Aside from the tone, the other major change between Survivor and Fallen Order is the level design. While Fallen Order sticks to a fairly linear style of world design, Survivor has more open areas that the player is free to explore as they wish. To accommodate this, Barton says, they have more “systematic music”, built into logical systems and playlists. Certain parts of the music enter or exit the mix depending on where the player is and what they are doing.
“We knew early on that the campaign was the size of it,” says Barton. “Our most important thing is that we don’t want you to feel like you’re hearing the same piece of music twice.” Returning to the same location later in the game doesn’t mean the music will be the same – it’s again focused on emotional weight – because Cal doesn’t feel the same about that particular area after the events of the main story. For example, he says Planet Koboh starts off with a “Wild West” kind of feel, but when you get to the aftermath of a particularly tragic event in the plot, the atmosphere becomes somewhat strange and the score (with all its logical systems) adapts to reflect that. Barton says the soundtrack isn’t afraid to take a break at times, pointing to other elements of sound design in environments that immerse the player.
A feature of this systematic score design is that each musical cue does not necessarily correspond to a linear piece of music, so when it comes time to assemble the soundtrack for release separately from the game, the composer has some more work to do.
“We actually made a list independently and identified pieces of music based on preference,” says Hobb. “And then we both made our lists and compared them.” Ultimately, he cut his eight hours of music down to a four-hour album, but the process of piecing those pieces together into a narrative took months. Sometimes, he also created soundtrack-specific edits to combine several small cues into a more complete track. A music cue labeled “Jedah_700” was combined with various cues to become track 38, “The Visitor”.
Ultimately, the soundtrack to Jedi: Survivor works well for the same reason the game as a whole — it takes classic elements from Star Wars and turns them into something simultaneously familiar and novel. Hobb’s approach to planning exemplifies this perfectly.
“I’m taking an already existing palette,” Hobb says, “and now I’m painting a completely original painting of my own. But I’m using the same colors.”