Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory in tune: Music composer speaks

Amon Tobin chats about working with Sam Fisher's next outing and his musical score for the stealth sequel. Plus: new footage

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Amon Tobin, a legend in the world of electronic music and the guy tasked with creating the soundtrack for Chaos Theory. Tobin's been recording and performing his own unique brand of warped electronic compositions since the nineties and beat out famous names like Lalo Schifrin (who's worked on numerous Hollywood movies such as Mission: Impossible 2 and scored the last Splinter Cell game, Pandora Tomorrow) to work on the Chaos Theory score.

In many ways it was a brave move for Ubisoft to shun established composers, but it's worked brilliantly. Tobin's score, which samples the gentle sounds of acoustic instruments before electronically dragging them backwards through a hedge, perfectly reflects the fine balance of stealth and action that makes Sam Fisher tick. Quiet moments in that shadows are mellow and ethereal, while the drama of being spotted or taking out a patrolling guard brings heavy bass and crunchy riffs crashing through the speakers.

Here's what Amon Tobin had to say about his work on Chaos Theory.

This is the first videogame you've created music for. How have you found the experience and has it differed from your normal creative processes?

Amon Tobin: The music in the game has to adapt to what the player does, so that presents all kinds of new problems. There was a lot of work to be done on transitions and layers which have to work both independently and together as different levels of intensity arise.

Are you a videogame fan? What are your experiences of gaming?

Amon Tobin: My experience of gaming is mainly playing Commodore 64 games when I was a kid. I used to rent out old games for a pound from the corner shop near where I lived and tape them. More recently I've been getting into games like Tekken and Halo.

What videogame soundtracks have you been particularly impressed with in the past?

Amon Tobin: Aztec Challenge had great music as did Green Beret and Ghost 'n' Goblins but those are all very old. Recently I've noticed a tendency towards 'new metal' licenses in games that are generally pretty poor. On the other hand there are games which use licensed music in really creative ways like the Grand Theft Auto series.

Were you a fan of the Splinter Cell series previous to working on Chaos Theory?

Amon Tobin: I was pretty crap at Splinter Cell actually but was always impressed by the graphics and the level of detail in general.

Do you feel the characteristics of your music suit the Splinter Cell series in particular? Why?

Amon Tobin: You'd have to ask Ubisoft this question as they approached me to score the game. As far as I was concerned I looked at Chaos Theory as a contemporary spy thriller and so drew on my love of vintage spy thriller soundtracks to for inspiration.

What influences particularly inspired you?

Amon Tobin: I've always had a soft spot for the John Barry approach of lifting instruments from the geographical location of a scene, so throughout the game where the player appears in Japan or Central America I sourced instruments appropriate to the area. Consequently there are some interesting touches like cool flutes and acoustic guitars on the soundtrack.

Did you have an opportunity to experience the game during composition, or did you work mainly from design documents?

Amon Tobin: I pretty much worked from movie files of testers playing the unfinished maps and some extensive notes.

Does scoring for a videogame throw up any particular problems or challenges?

Amon Tobin: Creatively I had all the freedom in the world but technically it was very difficult. It's tough to design music that has to change at any moment from one level of stress to another, and still have any coherence. There is an element of accepting that it is a videogame and not a movie and that therefore not everything is going to work perfectly, but I'm pleased that my score is as complete as it could be given the complexity of the arrangements and the limitations of the consoles.

How does it feel to hear your music within the context of the game?

Amon Tobin: Very strange. I have yet to see and hear the final thing but the demos have been a weird experience.

How important do you feel the interplay between the videogame experience and the musical score are, both in Chaos Theory and in general?

Amon Tobin: I think it's a great opportunity to enhance the interactive experience but also think there are plenty of times when no music is necessary. The same goes for movies. Hopefully in the future we'll see more actual scores in games and fewer compilations of licensed tunes. It takes a lot more effort on the part of the developer but is far classier.

Your music has a very darkly electronic and ethereal quality that is in stark contract to a lot of the clichéd, discount-bombastic orchestral scores many games go for. Do you feel games need to explore more diverse musical genres and influences?

Amon Tobin: I think as games evolve they will become more adventurous with music. It takes some courage on the part of the suits but really has to happen in order for things to progress. There's always a tried-and-tested route to success that won't cause offence - but won't generate much interest either.

Your Chaos Theory soundtrack will also be released as a standalone album. Do you see a stigma attached to videogame soundtracks?

Amon Tobin: I'm anticipating a lot of resistance from the people who like what I do. At the end of the day I really don't care if my music gets heard at the New York Knitting Factory or in an advert for nappies. I judge what I do on the quality of the music itself and not on the perceived credibility of the context it's heard in.

Can you foresee videogame soundtracks becoming far more mainstream, in the same kind of way that movie OSTs are today?

Amon Tobin: It does seem that the gap between games and films is ever narrowing, with more big actors appearing in games and more CG characters appearing in film. Whether or not this translates to soundtracks remains to be seen but it looks like it's going that way at the moment.

Do you plan to work on videogame soundtracks again, and are there any games or game series that you'd particularly like to score for?

Amon Tobin: I'd love to do Halo 3 as Halo 2 is probably the game I've played most since it first came out. But in general it would depend on the project itself and how much freedom I had.

Thanks Amon; and don't forget to check out the new Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory footage downloadable below that finds Sam Fisher in action and discussing his love of his clandestine operative walk in life.

Amon Tobin's Chaos Theory: The Soundtrack to Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, will be available from February 7 on Ninja Tune. You'll also be able to get a hold of a special limited edition mixed in 5.1 Surround Sound in March.

Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory movie
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