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MAKING IT HUGE IN VIDEO GAMES

Memoirs of Composer Chance Thomas

Chapter 15 - Sneak Peek Excerpt

THE LORD OF THE RINGS

A loud knock at the door startled me. I was reviewing a newly mastered soundtrack album, lost in a dance of sonic colors, oblivious to the world around me. Shaken from my reverie, I pushed the pause button and opened the door, welcoming Daniel James into my studio. Daniel was new at Sierra, hired to assist with the design of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth Online (MEO), the company’s top secret online game. 

First impressions are unfiltered, and with a glance I liked Daniel already. He was a lanky Brit with mischievous eyes and a crooked smile, topped with a messy mop of brown ringlets, scraggled in every possible direction. Cradled in his left arm was a pile of books. 

He plopped the books on my desk. “Your summer reading material,” he announced.

Unevenly stacked from top to bottom were five thick paperbacks from Ballentine Publishing: The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, and The Silmarillion. It was a formidable stack! 

Daniel announced that he was dead serious about making MEO into a truly spectacular game. He raved about the source material in the books, unrivaled in all the world of fantasy. "Besides," he explained, "Sierra’s video game license is based exclusively on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, so everyone on the game team needs to be thoroughly versed in this literature."

As Sierra’s Senior Music Producer, I'd been appointed to tackle MEO as my next project. It was a dream come true, an appointment I'd lobbied for vigorously.  

Daniel and I spent the better part of an hour discussing his vision for the game, and I told him I looked forward to receiving my marching orders. He pointed an eager finger at the pile of books on my desk, and said, “Orders received!”  

For the next several months, I disappeared into Tolkien’s web of fantasy – Hobbits and wizards, Orcs and Uruk-Hai, Elves and Dwarves, warriors and kings. Threading magically through it all was music. My mission was to understand with authority how J.R.R. Tolkien had envisioned music throughout the breadth and depth of Middle-earth, across all of its ages.  

Each day I spent long hours researching and annotating Tolkien's books for everything they revealed about music. I found passages describing specific musical instruments used by various races. I found passages describing vocal tone qualities. I found more than 60 different songs in the books and studied them all, including song forms and styles. It was fascinating to read about the impact of music on characters, personality traits, and even the environment. I sought to capture the author’s magnificent vision, interpret it in contemporary musical terms, and give it pure expression through the music in our game.  

From my literary notes, I drafted a 26-page Tolkien Music Style Guide. This Guide provided guardrails to keep my creativity from drifting wildly or even mildly off course. It insured that my composing and producing efforts would remain aligned with the literature, always in harmony with Tolkien's vision.  

Let’s dig into the some of those details...