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Game Profile
 Written by Alex Van Zelfden  on October 05, 2010

Special: We talk to composer James Hannigan.

Stream music from LotR: Aragorn's Quest as you read.

Think back on The Lord of the Rings films for a moment and you'll probably agree that the music of the series was at least as big a star as any of the popular actors who brought J.R.R Tolkien's writing so vividly to life. Across the vast landscape of Middle-earth, from the quiet moments to the earthshaking battles, Howard Shore's film scores brought the story's emotion to the forefront in memorable fashion. And with a handful of Grammy and Academy awards as well as a successful concert tour of music from the series, it's safe to say Shore's take on Tolkien resonated with audiences.

While none of the subsequent video games based on the franchise have had music budgets to match the lavish productions of the films, the scores for titles like Battle for Middle-earth by Bill Brown and Jamie Christopherson and Lord of the Rings Online by Chance Thomas have been surprisingly solid in their own right. With this month's release of The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest adding a new chapter to the musical saga with an original score by British composer James Hannigan, we took the opportunity to find out what went into writing for such a legendary property.

A Ranger from the North
James Hannigan has been composing music for games since the early 1990s including classics like Freelancer and Evil Genius, and has won numerous awards for his work ? most notably a British Academy Award in 2000. He turned out to be a remarkably apt choice to score The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest not only because of his sheer musical talent ? reaffirmed by recent titles like Red Alert 3, Command & Conquer 4 and the current Harry Potter games ? but also because of his love of the game's subject matter.

?I've always been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, having first read The Hobbit as a boy and I very much enjoyed the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings as well,? he confesses. ?It was a great honor to be involved in the project, not only because I'm a fan of The Lord of the Rings in general, but also because the team over at Headstrong is so talented and committed to making great, entertaining games.?

Having worked with developer Headstrong previously on projects ranging from their Reign of Fire game to Nintendo's recent Art Academy, Hannigan was already a comfortable fit with the team when he started work on The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest. ?The brief was initially not to be overly dark or sinister with the music, so as not to scare a younger audience. But, at the same time, it was felt that the music shouldn't be childish or patronizing either,? he recalls.

?It was important to play things straight and attempt to capture the spirit of adventure for combat taking place in the various Middle-earth locations,? Hannigan continues. ?In essence, the goal was to maintain a suitable style fitting into the wider world of The Lord of the Rings while keeping a sense of fun and action going while engaging in battles and, in between, convey a feeling of place. I wouldn't say the music is aimed at any particular age group, and hopefully it adds to the universal appeal of the game.?

Stream the montage from LotR: Aragorn's Quest

Preparing for Battle
Although a few pieces of Shore's music from the movies make an appearance in the game, Hannigan's score worked to bring something new to the series as well as support the unique requirements of the game's action. ?We started fresh, but were obviously mindful of the need for music to gel stylistically with existing music from The Lord of the Rings films,? Hannigan agrees.

?Having said that, this is a gaming experience and not a film, so the goals and function of the music can be somewhat different. For example, there's less of a narrative built into the music because it's driven by the gameplay itself and the various situations you find yourself in, rather than being scored to picture and unfolding moment by moment as in a film.?

Instead, various pieces of music had to be created to support whatever action might be happening at a particular time, and the game was then programmed to recognize which pieces to use as things unfold dynamically for the player. ?There's an interactive music system at work in the game, which allows music to seamlessly switch between states without creating the sense it has stopped or changed abruptly,? explains Hannigan. ?Without giving too much away, this involves creating different versions of tracks that are essentially connected, yet serve different purposes.?

?For example, the music may crossfade or appear to morph between the states of exploring and combat, hopefully without losing much in the way of continuity thanks to having these closely linked tracks in synch. This can be a bit challenging, as it means that you have to think about how each track relates to its counterpart at all times! Any changes you make to one must be reflected in the other or they won't gel.?

A Penny Whistle for Your Thoughts
While the game's music budget tragically did not have room for a live orchestra, Hannigan produced a solid facsimile with sampled instruments, and went the extra mile to record a few live musicians as well to breathe a bit of life into things with their performances.

?We had a handful of soloists playing violin, cello, various penny whistles and percussion instruments for the game, along with the Pinewood Singers,? Hannigan says. ?The Pinewood Singers are an excellent choir I've had the pleasure of working with a number of times before ? for example, on some of the recent Harry Potter games. It was also a pleasure working with Tony Hinnigan on the project, who is one of the best Andean woodwind and whistle players working today. It's him you can hear playing the penny whistle in the soundtracks of films such as Titanic and the pan pipes of The Mission.?

By the end of the project, Hannigan had written well over an hour of new music for the game, ranging from tranquil exploration music to epic battle pieces. ?The music is mostly location based, so what you hear often relates to the atmosphere of a given place and the situation there,? says Hannigan. ?There are some themes, but they relate mostly to locations ? for example, such as Rivendell or Rohan. There's a somewhat Celtic, folksy style to some of the more atmospheric, exploration-based tracks, which I think contrasts well with the heavier combat music and, say, some of the ethereal and mystical music of Rivendell at the other end of the spectrum.?

?I especially liked the music of Rivendell, which I felt was suitably atmospheric and ethereal at its most minimal, yet managed to transition quite seamlessly into soaring combat music when required. The aforementioned interactive music system worked well here, in that the music manages to be closely linked for each situation yet the tracks themselves somehow manage to operate in very different ways when heard alone.?

With this latest project in stores this month, Hannigan has already started on an unannounced action-adventure game, as well as completing EA's upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest will certainly remain a fond memory for some time to come.

?It's such a pleasure to be involved in a project that is as much fun as this to play and make music for,? he says. ?I'm a huge fan of action-adventure games in general, so there's nothing I'd rather be doing than this sort of project. And this game I think is unique in terms of the perspective it takes on The Lord of the Rings lore. The concept of having the different modes of play, such as horseback combat and the option of co-op in all these great The Lord of the Rings battle scenarios is very exciting.?

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