The Game Changers
In 2006, Nobuko Toda ’03 was working on the music for the fourth installment of the blockbuster video game franchise Metal Gear Solid when she called her former classmate Kazuma Jinnouchi ’02 to ask him to help her score the project.
Jinnouchi, who at the time was an arranger and indie pop-rock guitarist gigging around Tokyo, hadn’t done any professional work as a screen scorer. Moreover, years prior, as a new student at Berklee, he had dropped any nascent idea he had harbored of pursuing film scoring after feeling overwhelmed by an introductory class. Sure he wasn’t up to the task, Jinnouchi declined Toda’s offer.
But Toda knew what Jinnouchi could bring to the project. As students, the two often had found themselves in the same classes and would listen to each other’s music and give feedback. After graduation, they stayed in touch and occasionally worked together. In addition to knowing the quality of Jinnouchi’s musical ideas, Toda knew that he was capable of working long hours in a demanding production environment, which is just what she needed in a collaborator on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
“All the orchestral things I could just teach him afterward,” Toda said during a recent interview from Tokyo.
Swayed by his friend’s insistence, Jinnouchi went through the demo process at Konami Digital Entertainment, makers of Metal Gear Solid, and got the job. The only thing left to do was to learn how to score a game. “All these scoring things were so new to me, so Nobuko pretty much taught me how to write to the visual,” Jinnouchi said.
The game was a hit, and the two continued to work together for the next five years as in-house composers at Konami subsidiary Kojima Productions. In 2011, Jinnouchi left the company to join the team making the latest Halo game, one of the industry’s most famous franchises, at Microsoft’s 343 Industries. A member of the in-house audio team, Jinnouchi served as an additional composer, music editor, music director, and music programmer on Halo 4, and brought in Toda, who was by then a freelancer, as an orchestrator and score producer.
For the next release in the franchise, Halo 5: Guardians, Jinnouchi was the composer, and Toda was the game’s orchestrator and executive music producer. That game was the biggest Halo launch at the time, bringing in over $400 million in sales in its first week. (For comparison, the highest-grossing movie in history, 2009’s Avatar, had an opening week of $137 million.)
Jinnouchi left Microsoft in 2018. Today, he and Toda both work as freelancers, and have collaborated on Marvel’s Iron Man VR and many animated series, such as Ultraman, Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045, and Star Wars: Visions. They’re currently working on a Japanese animated film as well as a major superhero franchise video game, due out in 2024.
During a busy August that found one or both of them in Tokyo, London, Prague, Kuala Lumpur, or Seattle, Toda and Jinnouchi dialed into a video call to talk about their music backgrounds, scoring a franchise game, trends in video game music, advice they’d give to aspiring video game composers, what they listen to when they drive, and more. Jinnouchi, who’s lived in Seattle for 11 years, provided some translation for Toda, who’s been primarily based in Tokyo. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your early experiences with music. How old were you when you began playing instruments?
Kazuma Jinnouchi: This goes back to elementary school, but I originally wanted to start taking piano lessons just because I was fascinated by the instrument by watching my teacher play. I was really small at the time…so my parents didn’t know if I would continue to be interested in that kind of musical instrument, so that request got rejected. Later, when I was in the third grade, I was looking at this picture of the flute. I think it was in the newspaper. And I thought it looked really cool…I made the request again: “Hey, if it's flute, can I go take lessons?” and then they said yes.
Nobuko Toda: I grew up in a very poor family. My father reduced his own allowance so that I could learn to play the piano and organ. When I started attending classes, my father picked up a small foot-pedal organ from somewhere and I played it every day. I had an electronic organ and the piano. I don’t exactly remember how I started playing those instruments, but my mother told me that when I was very young I pointed out a picture of an electric organ in the newspaper and said I wanted to play it. I started playing for fun. I also would read picture books and then write original music to the book. I really liked to make storybooks too.
For quite a while I was self-taught on the instrument. The same for composition, for writing music. But when I wanted to enter a competition for electric organ performance, the requirement was also to perform my own music so I was writing for that every year.
How old were you then?
NT: From middle school to high school, so from around 11 or 12 to 16 or 17. My dream was to be a performer who toured abroad.
Kazuma, what was your involvement in music at that age?
KJ: I was continuing to take my flute lessons throughout the rest of my elementary school and middle school years, and then I started getting into coding, [into] programming things, because all my friends were playing video games on the Nintendo system and I had asked my dad if he would get me a Nintendo system for Christmas, and the answer was no.
But he was interested in computers and bought a computer, and showed me how to program things. He told me, “Hey, if you want to play a game, you can make your own.” I wasn't very good at it but it was a lot of fun. At a certain point, I was comparing my program, which somewhat looked like a video game, to the Nintendo games…and one thing that came to my mind was, “Oh, my game doesn't have any music in it. I need to start composing music.” So I got the sound module, like one of the early hardware MIDI modules in the mid-’90s. I installed the sequencer on my PC and then started playing notes. But I couldn't play keyboard at the time, so I was playing flute and then coming up with a melody and just entering notes one by one.
I started thinking, “Oh, I need to learn how to write harmony.” I was already 16 years old, and I knew it was pretty late to start playing piano…but a lot of friends were starting to play guitar. I thought, “Oh, if they're starting to play an instrument now maybe I can catch up.” So I got my acoustic guitar, and the way I composed was playing a flute and coming up with a melody, and then playing guitar on top of it to come up with a chord, and I was just sequencing those one note at a time.
Did you want to major in film scoring when you entered Berklee?
KJ: So initially I wanted to go for a film scoring major because when I was in high school [during a year abroad] in the U.S., one of the classes I took was a music tech class. My teacher gave me a Three Stooges [clip]. We had to write music for it. It was a lot of fun doing it.
But when I first took the intro to film scoring class [at Berklee], I sort of realized that the major was built for someone who can already write music, and I was still struggling to write a proper harmony. I thought that was way too advanced for me.
My father told me, before going to Berklee, that I can go to whatever school [I want] but that should be the only school [I go to] because [my parents] won't support me financially beyond that. So I was thinking in a very practical manner: “Okay, if I go out in the professional world I probably want to be in a studio environment and do the writing. And I need to be able to write in lots of different instrumentation”…so I decided that the contemporary writing and production [major] matched my requirements pretty well.
[Also,] after the first day at Berklee, going through auditions and getting shocked by all these talented students, my mind when I chose the major was, “Okay, if I can make a living in this world, I'm okay with really anything.”
"I was getting ready for Berklee when the phone rang in my room. I wouldn't know anybody in Boston, so I didn't pick up. But the phone rang again and then I picked it up, andand on the other end of the line was John Williams."
Nobuko, what was your plan when you entered Berklee?
NT: I had applied for a scholarship at Berklee and was asked to go through an interview. I came to Boston for that, and at the hotel where I was staying there was a group of Japanese people who came to see a John Williams [’80H] concert. I got to know this Japanese group and went to the John Williams concert all three days that John Williams was in Boston. I was very moved by that concert and wanted to say thank you to John Williams, so I went back to the hotel and wrote a composition on a piece of paper. The piece was called “For John Williams.” I put some wrapping ribbon on the score sheet and wanted to hand the music [to Williams] in person, but he happened to not come out the back door that day, so I handed it to the security guard.
I went back to the hotel and was getting ready for the interview at Berklee when the phone rang in my room. I wouldn’t know anybody in Boston, so I didn't pick up. But the phone rang again and then I picked it up, and on the other end of the line was John Williams.
I got really excited so I don’t remember much of what I said, but I remember that John Williams gave me a compliment on my composition and invited me to his Tanglewood concert and told me where he is staying. I wrote a letter and brought it to [his] hotel. Since then we’ve been exchanging mail.
Until I met him, I had only hoped to enter the Film Scoring Department and write one piece of music that could be played in an orchestra, but from that day on I became more eager to learn film music in earnest.
Wow, not everybody is nudged to go into film scoring by John Williams. So when did the interest in video game scoring develop?
NT: After graduation the plan was to go back to Japan, and in order for me to be able to start living in Japan I had to find a job. One of the job postings I saw was from the video game company Konami for an in-house composer’s position at the former studio called Kojima Productions.
I met the director in the interview, Hideo Kojima, the famous game director, and he told me that the game they're working on [Metal Gear Solid] is very cinematic and they were looking for a film-scoring–capable composer who can contribute to close to eight hours of cinematic music.
He asked me, "Do you usually play games?” I said, ”I don't.” [Then he asked,] “Do you know Metal Gear Solid?” I said, ”No.” Kojima and I talked about our favorite movies for about 30 minutes. Then he got up and said, "I'll be waiting for you," and walked away. I was surprised that I was hired.
And then you brought in Kazuma. Tell me, how do you typically work together?
KJ: Well, it really depends on the kind of projects because our writing style is very different. So, for example, the recent project that we did, which was Disney+ Star Wars: Visions…Nobuko would do more of emotional character themes and then I would do more action-oriented cues. And then on other occasions where we will be doing electronic-heavy scores, Nobuko will be more functioning as a music director, producer, music editor, and production coordinator, and I will be doing a lot of synthesis work. So it really depends on the requirements of the project. It's really never the same.
NT: We’re very different writers. I’m more orchestral and then Kazuma is more on the electronic [side].
KJ: I mean, we’re both orchestral and electronic, but I lean more towards electronic and the production side of things, and her strength is more on the direction and producing and based on the impression she gets from the project.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process for starting a new project? How do you typically approach it?
NT: Usually we are given opportunities to hear from the director about the vision of the project, which can be a pretty lengthy conversation, but we get to know the project, its basic concept, or the general feel or concept of what the story is about. And then we go back and discuss how we can approach it musically. Sometimes that involves some demoing between the two of us. And then we iterate on a musical concept until we have something thematic. Sometimes we come up with one, and sometimes it's 20. And then we present.
KJ: So, in a project like Halo, how the music was approached was that video game story details are developed simultaneously. When you jump into the project pretty early on, sometimes all you get is a one-pager document of “Hey, Chapter One, this happens; Chapter Two, things go sideways,” and things like that. It’s a very vague description of what happens. In those kinds of situations, we work on what we call the suite. It's a collection of long musical pieces that have lots of different musical elements that represent either the whole story or each chapter. And then that sort of becomes the concept of each scene…and then we present that to the art department or narrative department in the hopes that they get inspired by us.
Does the game ever change based on the music that you write?
KJ: I’d like to think that that happened before. I think there are a few conversations where [someone said], “Oh hey, I like your music and I added a little detail based on what you wrote.” It's a very collaborative process. Sometimes a few people came back to me with lots of enthusiasm and [said], “Hey, I listened to your piece, and we were thinking about this,” and “Hey, can you add this kind of musical element to this?” That kind of going back and forth really unifies the tone.
And then, with Halo you're also inheriting a franchise, so how do you keep the same DNA of the music that its former composer, Marty O’Donnell, wrote and bring that into your iteration of the game?
KJ: Well, in the case of the Halo projects, that's where the Berklee harmony study really came in handy. Marty was incorporating a very unique harmony approach and some [unique] phrasing as well. But it's really not the specific sequence of notes that you need to hit; it's really the feel that you need to get right. So even if you're writing your own chord progression, it still needs to feel like it's part of the Halo franchise. So I would go back and analyze his piece…all the harmonic technique was analyzed and incorporated and sometimes altered. And, of course, the melodic content needs to be present as well, and it needs to be present in the right context. If you mess up what's happening in the background of the melody, it feels wrong, so you kind of need to understand the musical language that Marty was using and then make your own.
That's an interesting way to think about it. It's as though you're using the same language but you're saying something different with that language.
KJ: My view is that I had to learn his language first and then be able to [tell] my own [story] in that language, because the story is evolving. We're not repeating the story so we can't be just repeating, “Hey, I copied Marty's piece; doesn't it sound like Halo?” In order for the new content to make sense, storywise, we have to come up with our own voice. So I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the musical DNA comes from the previous game, but the remaining 40 percent or 30 percent, that's an opportunity for your own voice. And music placement is also really important. It needs to be placed in the right moment in order for the game to sound like Halo.
Berklee is expanding its video game scoring offerings and the Screen Scoring Department is introducing a new major, so I wanted to talk a little bit about the video game industry. What excites you about scoring games today, and what do you see happening in the video game scoring world that wasn't happening 10 years ago?
KJ: Compared to when we started, I think there's a lot more creative freedom because of the advancement of the toolset. Back when we started at Konami, it was all command-line tools that we had to be familiar with to get the music playing in the game, and now it's almost like DAWs like Ableton Live. You can visually program music, and that's really exciting.
NT: At the same time, with the ability of making music interactive, some of the beauty we had back in the old days—just the linear music playing over and over, which became very memorable—doesn't really happen anymore.
KJ: The implementation of the music used to be a lot more simple back in the old days. You would have a single WAV file just looping over and over, whereas today you have all these individual chunks of music where you can let the program decide what to play so it really matches your gameplay, but musically it's sometimes more difficult to make it memorable.
And what are some trends in the industry that you see growing over the next several years?
NT: The 3D audio, the immersive audio experience, that's becoming more and more capable. In VR we are already working in more than stereo even though we only have a stereo environment, but we are heavily looking into immersive three-dimensional audio space. We are assuming that the kind of tech aspect of change will be happening more and, in fact, in the production we are in right now, we are exploring that [3D audio]. The tools are always advancing.
But that's definitely the area we can explore. Because of the interactivity, there is no reason that we shouldn't be placing music content in the speakers other than stereo. And so it really needs to be worked together with the game design and level design.
KJ: I would like to think it's going to be less hectic to get music into the game, and less process to achieve better results, but you never know. That's kind of my hope.
NT: Also, I see more potential in the mobile environment because of how handy the device is. One of the biggest companies in Japan is mobile-based. Their fan base is 100 percent mobile, and so having seen that I see more potential in those platforms.
"I think the door will be more open to many different genres. Whatever fits the game.... Studios and audiences are really open to any kind of musical style."
How does scoring for VR differ from scoring something like Metal Gear Solid?
KJ: Well, it's really the point of view. I do find VR to be somewhat similar to a first-person shooter game, because you kind of have the same viewpoint. What you're seeing is the character’s viewpoint.
This is just my way of approaching music for this kind of video game, but where possible I tend to back off musically, or not use music at all…not overload it with musical content, because you really need to experience the environment so when you come to the climax, that's when you have really big, strong themes. That kind of contrast is really effective in the game. But if you're working on games like Metal Gear Solid, you are watching the character and you’re an observer, so you sort of experience whatever the action is from a very different point of view. From my experience, you have a bit more room for musical expression if you're observing the character.
Another thing to consider in the first-person experience is that the sound effects are pretty loud, so you need to watch out for it and you don't want to fight with the other sounds. I mean, this really applies to anything with sound effects. This is something Nobuko taught me over the years: You see an explosion and you know there will be tons of sounds, so why do you need to have tons of instruments here? You can just back off a little bit and make room for it.
How do you see music evolving in the video game world? Are you starting to see new musical influences in video games?
KJ: I think the door will be more open to many different genres. Whatever fits the game. There’s no “Hey, [there are] lots of orchestral soundtracks, we should do this as well.” I feel that studios audiences are really open to any kind of musical style.
A lot of Seattle-based composer friends of mine are very diverse, and the people that I do know personally are very musically diverse; some people work on electropop game scores, then some people just work on orchestral things, and some people are doing jazz scores.
NT: One of the trends I’m sensing happening in Japan is that a lot of audiences are going away from traditional orchestral sounds and [toward] more heavily produced electronic elements. Some people don't even really like organic elements. I mean, probably from a U.S. point of view that might be a very niche thing, but that's definitely one area of musical interest. Also, music that doesn't really incorporate melody in a traditional sense is already happening in a lot of different mediums as well.
Geographically, where do you see the industry growing most?
KJ: I don't really know the answer to your question, but just speaking of the West Coast, there are a lot more indie studios than 10 years ago. For example, a lot of my ex-colleagues at Microsoft left big corporate and started their own [studios]. And there's multiple of those in Seattle. I see more small studios doing interesting things.
NT: I have experience working with Singapore-based studios that have huge fan bases as well. And there are a few companies in Tokyo, relatively new companies, that managed to get very big fan bases.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into this industry, or what do you think a video game scorer today needs to have to succeed in the industry?
KJ: I can talk a bit more on the technical side of things, but this also applies to working on film. The content is built on the technology so understanding the workflow, terminology, and language that's used in the production would be definitely helpful. Again, that continues to change because of just the nature of the industry; it just continues to evolve, so I think that being able to adapt to new technology and ways of composing music [is important]. And then, of course, being able to write good music is important. But, yeah, just understanding the medium, and then, especially for video games, if you really understand it, it really helps you write more functional and more effective scores.
And then getting to know who works on what games [is important]. Luckily for video games, there are lots of conferences and people usually like to talk to people. And so getting to know the developer and understanding what their requirements are, and letting people know what you're up to and what you want to do, is really important.
NT: [My advice is] to be an in-house composer.
NT: When you work on a video game, from the director and designer side, you are part of the development team. Of course, you’re the composer and you're part of the music, but before that you are part of the development team, so just really understanding where you stand compared to other people who make the game is really important.
KJ: We both learned that way of working by being in-house for many years, and so we know what it's like to be in crunch time in the studio and trying to finish a game in a shippable quality. It may be hard to get a sense of what that's like from the outside, but being part of the development team really means that you understand the process.
I forgot who gave me this advice, but someone early in my career said, “If you get to become an in-house composer, make sure you go through more than two companies; that way you learn different cultures and how different companies ship the game,” and that was very true.
Nobuko and I were both fortunate enough to go through big studios that release games worldwide, and [for which] there has to be achieved a certain level of success. There’s an expectation of the quality that we need to hit. At the same time, in a pinch, [we need to know] what needs to be a priority during the development and what needs to be cut off.
Does working in film and TV help you with your video game scores?
KJ: I think so. There are elements that don’t really apply in film that you learn in games and vice versa, but I think creatively it really helps. And more than just going between different mediums is working with different directors. They all have different methods of conveying the message, so knowing different approaches and then being able to have those options creatively as a writer and producer is really helpful.
NT: I, on the contrary, feel that my experience in game music composition [helps] when composing music for film and television. Because the story is consistent, it is easier to psychologically manipulate the music, to place musical features…. Above all, we don't have to create music that has 10 branches in one story. [Laughs.]
What do you like to listen to when you're not working?
NT: I don't want to listen to anything. I like silence. Whatever musical ideas I have in my head, I don’t want to be distracted [from them] by listening to some other music.
Do you ever listen to music?
NT: Only when I drive my car. The music provides me with a certain level of distraction so that I don’t get very tense.
What about you, Kazuma? What kind of music do you like to listen to in your free time?
KJ: I recently went back to listening to Vince Mendoza. He’s a really amazing arranger. I first bought his CD when I was at Berklee and was blown away with his writing. I listened to his album again recently and I keep going back to it; it’s just so inspiring. A couple months ago I was listening to a Japanese big band writer named Miho Hazama. She's an amazing writer. I was listening to her album and it's really great.
I listen to music on my own sometimes in the studio just to distract me from whatever I’m writing so that I can listen to my music with a fresh ear. I don't really listen to music when I drive because it becomes a little distracting and dangerous for me. I start following the harmony, and I tend to miss a few things when I drive if I do that, so I thought that was a little dangerous.
NT: When I listen to orchestra when I drive, the same thing happens. It just gets [to be] too much. [Laughs.]
This article appeared in the fall/winter 2022 issue of Berklee Today.