The music and the mystery of Robert Holmes

Posted by Ingrid Heyn.
First posted on 02 September 2006. Last updated on 29 November 2010.
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The music and the mystery of Robert Holmes
Holmes is an accomplished musician as well as the game producer and composer for Gabriel Knight.

This article was based on an interview originally conducted in June 2006.

About the author

Ingrid Heyn is a professional opera singer who also writes and designs websites for a living. Her hobbies include medieval sword fighting, computer adventure games, reading, coffee, horse riding, strawberries, coffee, astronomy, coffee, and too many other things to mention, including coffee.

Heyn is the coordinator and organizer for the Gabriel Knight 4 campaign, a fan based project designed to attract media attention to the Gabriel Knight series and to encourage by every means the making of a fourth game in the series.

For more information, visit The Gabriel Knight 4 Campaign.

For anyone who has ever played Sierra On-Line's Gabriel Knight, the name Robert Holmes immediately calls to mind the somber sweetness and moody darkness of the games’ music. There are few in the industry who are so instantly recognized by their music as the highly talented Holmes, whose work as a performing musician garners him even more fans. He has been working with a band, involved in several songwriting collaborations, and producing further work for other clients. This busy schedule seems to suit him well, as he is also looking forward to working again with his famous wife, Jane Jensen, on a future project that has recently received much media attention. Despite his demanding commitments, Holmes had found time to be interviewed by me, talking about his experience of music in games, the impact of changes in technology today, the role of music in films, the possibility of another sequel to Gabriel Knight, and other future projects.

Few computer games have created such a rich atmosphere of mystery and adventure as exemplified in the Gabriel Knight series, and it owes its thanks both to the intricate and spine tingling plot and the powerfully lyric music. The brooding tones of darkness and courage are wonderfully combined by these elements, as though they have grown out of each other. Wife/designer Jensen wrote the plots, and husband/composer Holmes composed most of the music. Interviewing Holmes was a fascinating experience, in which he discussed some of the most exciting aspects of music’s role within Gabriel Knight.

The Gabriel Knight trilogy created a specific atmosphere that was very moody and mysterious as well as bad boy sexy with the character of Gabe (or Gabriel). As today's feverish popularity of books and films are focusing on precisely those elements that make Gabriel Knight so taut and fascinating—with mystery, historical secrets, the supernatural, and so on—I wanted to know to what extent Holmes thinks that music contributes to creating such an ambience. Holmes replied,

"I (of course) think it's more important than anything else! Actually, I believe that one feeds the other. I have found with games as well as film and other media, that there is a very interesting phenomenon that seems to occur. Great content, whether it's visual, story based, or technical-seems to absolutely influence the quality of the music created to support it. The richer the emotion and depth in the content the more the composer has to react to and draw from. This was certainly the case with all the GK series for me. There were some many levels of great work to pull from in the stories, the characters, the visuals, the textures of the environments, etc. So yes, I believe it can help create the ambience undeniably, but usually that doesn't happen in a vacuum."

I nodded to myself, thinking that this is exactly why the Gabriel Knight series of games create such a powerful atmosphere for the player.

I could not help wondering what Holmes felt about the degree to which the ambience of Gabe himself, the whole persona, was affected by the music he had created for the games. He told me,

"I like to think that the music served as a critical leg on the table. Could GK have been as great with other music? Certainly. But it would have been different, and I think we all love it for exactly what it was. I do think that as Jane and I were working so closely together as both the games and music came to fruition that the relationship between the elements was very close and that helped create the quality of the relationship of the music to the game."

It is certainly true that the Gabriel Knight series is quite strikingly and intricately organic, in the sense that the story and music seem to resonate perfectly to create exactly the right mood. Holmes was faced with a remarkable challenge in the second game in the series, where the plot required him to write portions of a 'lost' Wagnerian opera. I asked him whether he focused on using leitmotifs and themes in the same way as Wagner did. He surprised me! Holmes replied,

"My attraction to using motifs with characters and places come from being very influenced by the great composers of Hollywood's golden age. Brilliant artists like Max Steiner, Newman, and Bernard Herrman, and John Barry have done this much better than I ever have. And of course they are all influenced by the classics and the fathers of that movement."

It is a fascinating thought—all of these strands of musical influence interweaving with each other, even styles that may seem light-years apart. He added,

"The best I can describe in terms of writing for character, is that it's almost easier and more prevalent in the GKs to treat the rooms and environments as characters and write for those. With the exceptions of something as pointed as Mosley or Ludwig, where the characters are so ripe and easy to react to. I consider those two some of the better instances where the music was definitely led by their personalities and attributes."

When I asked about further games involving something similar with the music, Holmes quipped,

"I'm trying to talk Jane into doing the next one all based in Hawaii, so I can have the texture be ukulele based!"

He grinned and added,

"It's really hard to know until we see what the story needs in any specific game. I do think it's very cool to have it integrated at those levels, and musical based puzzles would be very cool! I would absolutely love doing something as closely knitted as the opera was. It was a pretty demanding challenge, but I think all of us involved in it are still pretty proud of it. Though I still expect Wagner to show up at the end of my bed some night with a very displeased expression on his long dead face!"

Despite what Holmes said, I rather suspect Wagner would feel it was only right that he and his music would be referenced among the most popular adventure games ever made. I admit that playing the second games of the series (The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery) was an especial kick for me as an opera singer, since it is the only computer game in which a 'lost opera' is included as an important part of the plot!

The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery was quite different from Holmes's first experience with Gabriel Knight. In the first game, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, he was both the composer and the producer, whereas in the second game he worked as the composer within a team. I asked him which method worked best for him. He replied,

"I think GK1 was the best scenario. In that case, as I was working as the Producer for the game as well, I was more connected to the team and every aspect of the games development and evolution. The momentum of all that served as a daily stimulus and fed my creative process. I also felt, as much of the team only knew me as their producer that I had something to prove creatively to earn my stripes as that part of the team. It was great to have a desk set up in the middle of the team where part of the day I spend as producer, and then I had keyboards set up at my desk as well, and I would just turn around and write music whenever it came to me."

As a musician and composer, Holmes had already had experience composing music for a computer game; he had written the music for both Inspector Parker and Booby Trap. He admitted that the experiences were totally different to the approach taken in Gabriel Knight. He said,

"They started off similar as Jane and I would put our heads together and talk about direction, etc... but those games were much more victimized by what is politely described as 'Design by Committee'. By the end of the process, there would be many people who were not necessarily creative in nature chiming in and offering feedback or even influencing decisions. One symptomatic line of feedback I still chuckle over was 'There's too much space between the notes...' Good times."

Unsurprisingly, the question of a fourth game in the Gabriel Knight series came up. There has been quite a move of late to promote this possibility to the copyright holders of the game series (Vivendi Universal Games). Music was a very important aspect of The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery in particular, although Holmes's music was always strikingly effective and atmospheric throughout the entire trilogy of games. I asked Holmes about whether he could see a special approach to the music he had create if the next sequel were to be made. He knew I was probing, of course, and bantered,

"That's a sneaky question... Like all the games, it would absolutely be defined by the emotion and texture of the setting, characters, and story. Though regardless of those, it would certainly attempt to retain the level of darker emotion and melodic horsepower other past scores."

Holmes's musical background is more pop and rock than the intriguing styles he uses for the Gabriel Knight series. He admitted,

"When I was MUCH younger, I remember playing the famous Whiskey a Go-Go in Hollywood, and that particular band was very much a throwback to melodic vocal pop à la The Beatles. The first line of the review in 'The LA Times' the next morning called me a gifted McCartney look and sound alike. I was both flattered and crushed at the same time!"

He modestly added,

"I have since had a friend who plays with Paul, and have been fortunate to see him live several times. I would be able to die a happy man, if I could ever write just one melody as memorable and wonderful as his work with The Beatles."

Certainly to fans of the Gabriel Knight series, Holmes has already created that memorable and wonderful music. For many, Grace's Theme represents a perfect melding between idea and emotion.

Holmes has just finished doing some live playing with a band in Seattle, US and a variety of work for commercial clients as well as other songwriting collaborations. Still, he mentioned frankly and humorously,

"I know a certain game designer who says she may have some work for me soon, but we'll have to wait and see."

It is possible that this could be the much delayed Gray Matter, which Jensen began working on some time ago, only to see the project stopped before it reached fruition. It is more than likely now that Gray Matter may finally see the light of day. Perhaps we may see the next Gabriel Knight sequel made as a result of Gray Matter. Whatever the case, it is certain to be an incredibly exciting development. Holmes was enthusiastic about the innovations and changes that affect music in interactive media today, which he said would 'absolutely' affect the sort of music he would create for a game now. Holmes replied,

"There is so much more possible these days in terms of layering and non linear approaches. Also, the depth of the sampling and rhythmic tools available lead to new and very cool combinations texturally as well. And the ability to do digital quality recording at the level possible today is so cool compared to the old analogue days. It's a very fun period to be involved with music and musical tools these days."

I was fascinated to hear Holmes's perspective on music created for games and films today, particularly music focusing upon the fantastical or the mysterious. He commented,

"There are so many cool things being done in scoring these days. Stewart Copeland (ex Police drummer extraordinaire) is doing some really cool work with rhythms and textures. Also, some of the thriller films coming out of Japan and the East are taking some fresh and interesting approaches, as they are attempting to sound western in some cases, but it's inherently different and fresher due to their perspective. It's very similar to back in the 60's when the British bands tried to do American blues and R&B and it came out as something brand new."

I suppose it was inevitable that there would be a discussion of The Da Vinci Code phenomenon (both book and film), particularly since it took many elements already treated thematically in a taut and incredibly powerful way by Jensen in Gabriel Knight. I spoke to Holmes about the growing conviction in the gaming community that this is the right time for a new Gabriel Knight sequel to be created. It has been quite a gap since the last game in the series (Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned) was published, and to successfully bridge that gap would certainly take a cohesive approach in conveying the atmosphere and mystery to the narrative of another Gabriel Knight. He replied,

"I think the goal of the music in broad terms for any future GK would be attempting dual goals. On one level, the music is a key agent and opportunity to create some sense of continuity and continuance or belonging to the overall series. Think about a revival of any TV series you know and love. If they came out after a long period of time, with an entirely different approach to the music, at some level, it would undermine the joy of revisiting the old friend you know and love."

He went on to say,

"Another aspect of the music would be to bring the series forward and make it more current in its use and treatment of music (all of course within whatever dramatic or thematic texture the game would be set in, of course). You could say these goals are at odds with each other, but to me the fun would be to try and accomplish both at a highly functioning level."

Any future direction for the Gabriel Knight series would certainly be more than welcomed by the still growing fan base for this game which has remained dormant in publishing terms for some time. Holmes himself admitted that,

"I would love to see many more iterations of the game, as I do feel they are truly special. I think it could actually be pretty entertaining to see those characters age together over time... I have always felt, and feel even more so now, that GK is an incredible property for film and television! Much more than any other franchise that has been taken in those directions from the gaming world. Jane could do some killer work with the characters in those arenas, and I would certainly love doing the music for those realms as well."

Clearly, Holmes is very aware of the 'vastly underutilized wonderful intellectual properties' in the series of Gabriel Knight!

The unfinished story of Gabriel Knight remains a source of high demand among fans. Certainly the prospect of films and television excites the imagination, and a fourth game in the series is eagerly awaited, even after all this time. Perhaps the most wonderful aspect is that game creator Jensen maintains her strong vision of the story and characters, and has excellent creative input from Holmes, whose wonderfully atmospheric music remains a benchmark for game composers and whose friendly personality, intelligence, and genuine modesty make him among the most likeable of musicians in the industry.

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