Alex Ruger: A Detailed View on Modern Games Scoring

by Markus Thiel

Based on a broad range of experience in the realms of orchestral music, film scoring, and video games, Alex Ruger’s work benefits to a great extent from an extraordinary, versatile view on composing as much as an open-minded approach to music. While always looking for new paths to explore, he has also gained an impressive catalog of references including well-known movie and game titles from Alita: Battle Angel to Death Stranding. We talked with Alex about his approach to composing and the technological challenges of modern games scoring, reflecting the complexity of wide-branched storylines.

Can you tell us something about your background? What led you into the business and especially into film and games scoring?

I'm originally from Noblesville, Indiana. As a kid I loved film scores, often eschewing my daily piano practice in favor of figuring out the main theme of Jurassic Park. The dramatic power of music and the orchestra in particular fascinated me — really, most of my early education just came from listening and soaking up a ton of different music. Danny Elfman scores, Looney Tunes, Fantasia, the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and N64 games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were all hugely important in forming my musical identity. The first music I really remember identifying with is film scores — everything else didn't really hit me until I, like so many kids, started playing guitar and got into Rock and Metal. Out with piano lessons, in with guitar!

For most of high school, my interest in dramatic music and orchestra disappeared in favor of playing and practicing a lot. By the time I was 15 I was really into Progressive Rock — partially because it's often telling a story — and was practicing as much as all my heroes famously did. I decided to follow some of those heroes to Berklee College of Music. At that time, I hadn't ever really composed and was more interested in improvising and doing session work, a career path that, unbeknownst to me, had more or less disappeared. Halfway through Berklee, a bit of a medical perfect storm hit me, and I developed severe Tendinosis — like tendinitis's bigger and meaner brother — in my wrists. I left school for a semester in order to rehab my wrists, which turned into two full years of not playing guitar. During that downtime, I began revisiting my earliest musical interests and rediscovered my life of orchestra and film scores. I began sitting in on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, studying scores, just soaking up the repertoire. And a few months later I returned to Berklee, dropped my Guitar Performance major while still retaining my other major, Contemporary Writing and Production, and was sort of unofficially adopted by the Film Scoring department — I talked my way into a lot of classes that I technically didn't have the credits for.

This whole experience made me feel very behind and lit a fire under my ass. I wrote all the time, developed my production chops, and taught myself the tech against my will because, as many people know, producing film scores on a laptop is a pretty frustrating experience. It was at this time that I built my first sample host and discovered Cubase! Looking back, it's a bit crazy, because when I got to Berklee, I didn't even know what MIDI was and had never recorded music.

A year after that, I moved to LA and began interning for Bear McCreary, which was a wonderful way to see the realities of the business close up. Shortly after that, a friend from Berklee recommended me to take over his job working for Inon Zur — a job and, I'm fortunate enough to say mentorship, which continues to this day. Inon is very self-sufficient, though, so it wasn't really a full-time assistantship — more of a "he calls me when he needs me" sort of thing. Thankfully, his mixer at the time recommended me for a vacant position working for one of my biggest influences, Danny Elfman. And since then I've been working steadily in LA, either as a composer, assistant, music editor, what have you. I've even come full circle and done a decent amount of guitar session work!

That sounds pretty versatile! Apart from film scoring you also found your way into games music. From your point of view, what’s the specific nature of composing for PC games compared to your other work fields?

Games fascinate me. In hindsight, it was always the medium I was finding myself towards, but I only really figured that out recently — within the last couple of years. Games are infinitely cool and interesting to me precisely because of the problem/challenge/incredible-thing-I-get-to-spend-my-time-geeking-out-on known as integration or implementation, meaning how one goes about defining when and where and why and how music plays in sync with the game. A short lesson for those unfamiliar: We're all familiar with the basic loop — when you get to the end, you just go right back to the beginning. Then there's techniques like branching — segments or sections of the music are played back in different orders — and layering (turning off/on or up/down certain stems), which add a good deal of complexity to looping material. All of these changes are in response to events in the gameplay, and these relationships are programmed in middleware such as Wwise or FMOD. For short, you might refer to the instructions of "what" to do "when" as a "system" for that piece of music or cue, and I find coming up with and defining those instructions to be unbelievably satisfying — it's the perfect marriage of right brain and left brain.

But what really gets me going is when the system starts defining the music, rather than just the other way around. You start getting into situations where the system is integral to the music itself. Like, take a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure — that's inseparable from the song, right? Likewise, once a system gets sufficiently complex and starts defining the music to a large enough extent, suddenly you're no longer in the land of fixed structure or linear music being chopped up and put into what is essentially a weird DJ set — instead the dynamic structure of the music and the choices it might make are just as integral as a verse or a chorus in a song. In short, it becomes chance music.

I was fortunate enough to join the Playstation music team on Kojima Productions' Death Stranding last year doing precisely that. It was nice to take a break from writing and focus entirely on one domain that I'd been itching to spend some time on, and Death Stranding was the perfect opportunity, in part because I was already familiar with Wwise, the middleware engine we used, but not to that degree of scale and complexity. Ludvig Forssell composed a really beautiful and crazy score that lent itself well to this sort of thinking. I'm really looking forward to taking what I learned there and applying it to my own scores in the future.

I absolutely love scoring linear media like film and TV — writing to picture is one of my favorite things in the world — but seeing a composition and a system come together, supporting gameplay as if it were a movie spotted that way, but constantly changing and doing something unique every play-through, is really something special.

Do you have a special approach to composing or some kind of unique workflow?

I don't have a particularly special approach to composing itself, no... I'm more concerned with creating a space from which the creative composition process can simply organically arise out of the lack of minutia encumbering it.

Exercising, keeping your mental health in check, eating a healthy diet, sleeping enough, spending time with friends and in nature are all hugely important in making sure that you actually have something to give in the first place, but this career puts negative pressure on all of that — it's easy to allow this work to swallow you whole and to never leave your studio, which is something I've had more than my fair share of, and due to that experience is something I really feel should be minimized as much as possible. Composers tend to romanticize the idea of, you know, never sleeping and doing a billion projects at once and bragging about how many minutes they can write in a day, but the objectively reality is that leaning into that too hard destroys your health and your personal life, as well as your music. And that's just no way to live or to conduct business. So you need to somehow counter that pressure as best you can. I meditate about 30 minutes every day, and nothing affects my life more positively than that. When you're busy, it can feel like you can skip it or something, but the benefits outweigh whatever time I feel like I'm wasting, always.

Beyond that, on the technical side of things, my philosophy is one of depth rather than breadth, and of a general lack of friction. We all know the instinct to buy a bunch of new gear at the start of a new project, which I think comes from a place of fear and an empty hope that new sounds or gear will somehow make our music better. But that usually just results in buyer's remorse and a fatter hard drive. So I really like diving deep into the tools I already have and seeing what else I can do with them, and only buying gear when it's really necessary.

I'm always refining my Cubase template, as I like my rig to get out of my way and to aid in achieving a certain sound as quickly as possible. I like having as much loaded up and available as I can, with one track doing one thing avoiding key-switches. I must confess that I don't use Expression Maps, as great a feature as that is. I like things to be super straight-forward, even if that means that your template is large. Though, a huge template can promote too much reliance on your bag of tricks and the associated stagnation, so I've started countering huge-template-itis by using more Track Presets with plugin chains I find interesting saved to them and mapped to Quick Controls for quick playability. I like the idea of having the foundation, the core, built out in your template — your orchestral bread and butter should more or less be laid out ready to go — I don't see the point in spending time hunting for a viola, and your bussing should ideally be set up for really wide batch stem printing. But you still need to leave space — literally, as in computer resources — to expand a good deal beyond that and let each cue follow your ear and your creativity. It's a balance and it's never perfect, but that's okay.

I'm also pretty fussy about moving fast within Cubase, which is thankfully very easy. Lots of MIDI-controller lane setups, key commands, generic remotes, logical editor presets and all, come together to make the lines between the processes of composition, programming, sound design, editing, and mixing blur and melt away. I don't really get married to this stuff so it's always in flux, always something I'm experimenting with to squeeze out a bit more speed and remove a bit more friction between the conception of an idea and the act of realizing it.

There's also the day-to-day computer-ish stuff — keeping your folder structures and naming conventions in such a way that organization occurs seemingly by itself; learning a bit of programming to do otherwise boring and monotonous, time-wasting tasks like batch-renaming files. Stuff like that. A little can go a long way here.

More than anything, maintaining a sense of play, joy, and wonder about the whole process is essential, if for no other reason than that being the whole reason I chose this career in the first place. The process of composing to a deadline can be extremely stressful, even if you do all this stuff, but ideally I'm giving myself the chance to, as much as possible, just have me and the project and the music to worry about. And then the creativity and the composing can have space to happen on its own, which unfortunately isn't something I can explain. It just happens. But you have to let it.

What do you need to get the right feel for a new project?

To get a feel for a new project, composers tend to always need some combination of story, concept art, gameplay footage if it's available. And the more I can get, the better. Likewise, the earlier I can be brought on, the better. This job is also psychological: who's making the project? Why? What are their motivations, their inspirations? At its best, it kind of feels like starting a band — time spent hanging out and not talking shop included.

Whatever the project, I really like prototyping. Having a time where you can try stuff without being so goal-oriented yet — widening the mouth of the bottle that catches the lightning, so to speak – is really important if you can manage it logistically. Often, the cool stuff you stumble on and the happy accidents you make during this period can totally define the trajectory of a project, and can really be the mortar between the bricks as the score progresses into something more defined.

On a game, putting music into the game as early as possible, so as to define the sound palette and, just as important, how the music feels in concert with the gameplay, is great if you can make it happen. Gameplay has a tempo and so does music, much in the same way that music can affect the perceived tempo of a film's editing. There's a danger in writing too much away from the actual experience of the game, in that the implementation systems might have to sort of fix the music, and you end up having to strip stuff away from it so that it better fits the gameplay or even the vibe of the game.

I dream of doing a game where the system’s scaffolding is more or less finished before even the music is recorded or mixed, so that music isn't so much edited after the fact and a system made with regards to the extent to which the music can be edited, as it is written in concert with that system concept. Practically, that's tough, as it's sort of putting the cart before the horse, and the logistics of a game's budget schedule tend to dictate that those kinds of resources just can't really be allocated so heavily towards music. But you have to deal with reality as it comes and still have an ideal you're striving towards. And one can't deny that examples where the composition, the game, and the music system tying them together are more closely married and intertwined are breathtaking — they really elevate the game in a way that nothing else can.

Speaking of dream projects, are there any composition-wise challenges — in a never done before sort of way — you would really like to encounter in the future?

I suppose that, with games at least, it all comes back to what I was talking about with regards to implementation. It's all about how fine-grained it gets — where you're writing bespoke for smaller and smaller chunks of gameplay, with more and more sophisticated systems designed to handle it in a musical manner, and enough transitional material to glue all the seams together. Leaving less up to chance on a macro level and utilizing chance on smaller and smaller aspects of the music.

The emotional power of games has hardly been tapped yet — giving a player the ability to don another's perspective, to be asked to make choices in another's shoes that they might never experience, has the possibility of expanding peoples' empathy in a real way. That, ultimately, is where I care to go "in a never done before sort of way" — to help players feel more deeply while playing a game than they ever have. We've hardly scratched the surface.