Interview: Mark Morgan, composer on Wasteland 2, Fallout, and Planescape: Torment

Article by Andy Chalk

Mark Morgan may not be as "instantly recognizable" as composers like Jeremy Soule , Jack Wall or Jesper Kyd , to name just a few, but to a certain subset of gamer nerd-dom he's easily the equal of any of them. He has more than a dozen titles to his credit in a career that began in 1995 with Dark Seed II, but there are three in particular--Fallout, Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment--that established him as one of the most unique and memorable talents in the business.

And yet Morgan's work in videogames represents only a slice of what has been a remarkably varied and successful career in television, film and even as a member of the band Starship. "In the mid-nineties, I was working mainly in television when an agent friend, Bob Rice, heard the score I was doing for a network show called Prey," Morgan recently told me. "He thought that vibe might translate to videogames and introduced me to a few developers. After doing a couple of games, I discovered that the medium offered a great opportunity for me to explore my goal of writing a score that was minimal, immersive and put the player emotionally inside the game."

His soundtracks for Fallout and Planescape are particularly distinctive because the developers specifically wanted to avoid a conventional orchestral score. "Although Planescape: Torment had some orchestral elements, it still came from an ambient place in order to tell the story, whereas Fallout was simply a very dark ambient game," Morgan said. "The developers knew they liked the ambient vibe, so based on some of my prior work they approached me to explore the possibilities for these games. With Planescape: Torment it was a conscious decision to be more thematic but keep it ambient."

Yet after 1999, the year in which his work appeared in both Planescape and Civilization: Call to Power, Morgan effectively fell off the face of the Earth, at least as far as gamers are concerned. He provided some music for the Giants: Citizen Kabuto soundtrack but otherwise appeared to have moved on to other things. It would be ten years before he returned to games with EA's 2009 release Need for Speed: Shift.

"During that decade, I found myself writing music for television again. Then out of the blue, Charles Deenan, who I had worked with at Interplay and was now at Electronic Arts, asked me to contribute some tracks for Need for Speed: Shift. I had always wanted to do that genre of game, so I jumped at his offer. Soon after, I was offered Prey 2, which I co-wrote with a fellow composer, Jason Graves," Morgan said. "The experience rekindled my love of writing for games. And luckily, soon thereafter I got a call from Brian Fargo, for whom I had worked when he was CEO of Interplay. He was now running inXile, and asked if I wanted to work on Wasteland 2, followed by Torment: Tides of Numenera. Since I had worked on what were essentially the prequels to both of those games, I was thrilled to revisit them."

Morgan said his approach to creating game soundtracks is "collaborative" but the specifics of the process depends on the individual game. He cites Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Trent Reznor as some of his many influences, and added that architecture, specifically the Minimalist and Modernist movements, has played a huge role in his work and "profoundly influenced" how he writes music.

"I am moved by the simplicity in modern architecture. With its space and restraint, you can see it all without being detoured or interrupted by things that don't matter," he explained. "To borrow a quote, 'Subtle enough to not intrude, but bold enough to not become irrelevant.' That's kind of my goal. As this relates to games, I want to effect the player in subliminal ways by keeping them in the moment."

He also allowed that his rather sudden re-entry into the field is driven in part by the emergence of a strengthened indie sector, which has rekindled his interest in gaming. "With the advent of crowd-funding, smaller independent developers can make the style of games that avid gamers want to play. Without the constraints of 'corporate-think,' this freedom translates to the music as well," he said. That gamer sensibility is reflected in his participation in a third game, Stasis, a far more modest Kickstarter project he asked to take part in simply because he thought it looked cool.

"When I first saw the visuals I was hooked. The creators of Stasis, Chris Bischoff and his brother Nic, have such a passion for their game it was infectious," he said. "After seeing their teaser on Kickstarter, I emailed Chris to see if they had a composer. He emailed me back that they didn't, so I talked him into letting me do it."

Despite his early association with the franchise, Morgan said he hasn't been asked to take part in the next Fallout game, although he'd "love to do it" if he could. Neither is he aware of the status of Prey 2, which he is no longer actively involved with. "I don't have any idea of how the gameplay was working out but visually it seemed really cool. I loved working on it, but for me personally I felt I hadn't quite found the sound of the game yet. Before we delivered the final score I had always planned on reworking almost all of my tracks and adding the vibe I thought was missing, but I never got a chance. There were also quite a lot of time gaps between portions of the writing which, to be fair, does happen in many games, but I wish the process could have been shorter and more focused. That said, I think if you played Jason Graves' tracks and mine as a whole score, it had the makings of an interesting soundtrack."

As for the future, Morgan said he's never really sure what it holds, but he sounds happy about his recent resurgence in games. "A lot of the music I'm asked to do style-wise is a departure from what I do in TV, so it's really satisfying from a creative point of view," he said. "I also love the fact that, at least with the games I'm working on at present, I'm asked, 'Can you make it even darker?' That always works for me."

So far it's worked pretty well for us, too. Of the three game projects Morgan currently has on the go, Wasteland 2 is expected first; no release date has been announced, but it's well into beta testing. Stasis should come next, nearer the end of the year, while Torment: Tides of Numenera is slated to arrive in 2015. To find out more about Mark Morgan and his music, hit up markmorganmusic.com .

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