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A Deep Dive into the Revamped ‘Dead Space’ with Composer Trevor Gureckis

When EA first released Dead Space back in 2008, the sci-fi, survival horror video game quickly scared up legions of dedicated fans. One of which just happened to be composer and producer Trevor Gureckis, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Fueled by its evocative design, intense atmosphere, potent scares, and engaging gameplay, the property soon spawned multiple sequels, movies, and print releases. Due to this persistent popularity, it wasn’t so much the news that EA would be releasing a new Dead Space game after a 10-year hiatus that had fans gagging, but more that it would be a revamped remake of the original Dead Space game.

Like the original, the new 2023 Dead Space is a third-person shooter game that follows a 26th-century engineer named Isaac Clarke. Sent on a mission to repair and investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding a stranded mining ship called the Ishimura, Clarke also uses the opportunity to locate his girlfriend, a doctor named Nicole Brennan. However, Clarke quickly encounters an army of creatures known as Necromorphs and some truly villainous survivors, making his task a bit trickier than he initially anticipated.

Keeping the source material close to its metaphorical heart, Dead Space brings back many original elements while evolving and expanding others to keep pace with modern gaming standards. And then some features blur the lines between past and present. One of these is the game’s soundtrack. Initially composed by Jason Graves, the sound of Dead Space is an iconic and influential feature of the entire franchise. Knowing full well they had to get it right, the new team of developers at Motive Studio did not take the task of scoring the game lightly.

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Trevor Gureckis composed the score for the remake of the original ‘Dead Space’ game. Photo by Ben Norman.

Cleverly, the team decided to bring back large swaths of Graves’ original soundtrack while infusing it with a modern, fresh companion that would breathe new life into this reimagined but familiar world. To execute this unconventional assignment, the developers called upon the skills of Trevor Gureckis. A producer, musician, and composer, Gureckis’s credits include everything from interning with Philip Glass to producing the electro-pop band My Great Ghost and scoring films like Bloodline, Voyagers and The Goldfinch. He also frequently collaborates with M. Night Shyamalan, scoring Old and the Apple TV+ show Servant.

Not only did Dead Space require Gureckis to work with Graves’ pre-existing music, he also needed to create new, complementary pieces supporting the expanded narrative and action sequences that still retain his unique stamp and style. A true challenge, any way you slice it, I decided to chat with Gureckis to investigate this impressive endeavor and why it was a vital career adventure for him to embark upon. [Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

I’m eternally fascinated by the paths that lead folks into the realm of film composing, as no two are alike. Tell us a little bit about yours. 

Trevor Gureckis: I studied piano performance at University of Texas at Austin. I was totally planning on being a concert pianist to some degree or a professor — that kind of route. Then the last couple of years, while getting my four-year degree, I got into composing and listening to composers that were [still] alive. I started being curious about writing music myself, so I started to write some stuff.

Then I went to Yale for my masters in composition. So then I was like, “All right. I’m going to be a classical composer.” I was very much focused on symphonies, orchestral music, and that kind of universe. Again, in an academic setting. But in the two-year program, in between, I had a summer where I worked for Philip Glass as his intern. I got to see sort of what [being] a working composer was like. I’ve been a fan of his since high school, but he also does media stuff like film and advertising. But he was really focused on his operas, symphonies and all that.

So at that time, I decided to start a company. I was like, “I need to maybe not go the academic route. Maybe I could start something that has a foundation.” That foundation being something that could be the grounding from which I could build other things, you know? So I started that with another composer named Jay Wadley. He and I have a studio here in DUMBO, Brooklyn, called Found Objects. We have been doing this for…I don’t know. The years keep adding up. [Laughs] 12 years? 15 years? Along the way, we got into doing some film, TV and just tangents off whatever kind of came along. Just in the same way random tangents come along, [that’s how] I got working on Dead Space, too.

I was always interested in doing video game stuff. I even went to [the Game Developers Conference] in 2008 and met Jason Graves when he was getting all the awards for Dead Space. I was so excited about the score as a gamer myself. I had played Dead Space and was excited about hearing this really awesome orchestral music in this format. So it was pretty crazy to then be like, “I’m working on this game now?!” Well, I’m done now, but…[Laughs]

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A screenshot of the new ‘Dead Space.’ Courtesy of EA.

That’s pretty wild. So you were really familiar with this property and the music long before this project ever came about?

Yeah, yeah! I didn’t know much about the remake aspect of it, but I knew about the three Dead Space games and the mobile game. And I was definitely familiar with the score. It was definitely a path for my composition career where I thought that maybe one day I’d get into gaming. I thought there’s a lot of really great work being done all the time [in gaming], which is obviously true. And I do a lot of film and TV stuff, but it’s really exciting to just start getting into games now.

So, how did you actually officially become involved with Dead Space? Did your prior knowledge and experience with the game factor into you landing the gig?

They were looking for some really specific elements for the remake. I think when they started out, it was like, “We have some narrative things that we want to explore.” It was about how it would be great to think long-term across multiple chapters about Nicole’s character, where she plays [in] and explore things that they felt they didn’t get to do in the first game. Maybe this would be an opportunity to do that here with a remake.

So, when I was doing interviews and auditioning for it, I was like, “Well, first of all, I played this game.” That was a big selling point. They were all super excited to know that. I think there’s just a lot that’s offered in the lore of Dead Space. And with the remake, there are some cool ideas that we were trying to do. And then some of them were familiar with my work on Servant. I think some of that music and the scoring aspect of it might have played a role in terms of them knowing who I was, at least.

This revamped version of Dead Space seems to pay loving tribute to the 2008 game in various ways, including utilizing some of Jason Graves’ original music. How exactly is his score involved? What did that mean for you as the new composer and where you picked up the metaphorical musical torch?

So, I didn’t do any of the implementation of the music in the game. For instance, there’s an 18-minute selection of playthrough, the whole opening sequence… where it is all the original score. It is a great, kind of classic Jerry Goldsmith kind of scene, but it’s by Jason Graves. [Laughs]

We were very careful to ask the question, “Does this fit the DNA and the sound world that Jason Graves has created?” So some of the first things that I did were to take a step back and go like, “All right. What are the main story points? What is the main lore? What are the main things that we’re going to try and hit along this 12-chapter journey?”

In doing so, I was able to write these five, six-minute suites, which was really nice. They were big pieces with the full orchestra. Then we recorded it with choir, brass, and an 80-piece orchestra that had violin, cello and all this stuff creating new themes. But at the same time, we would always take a step back with the audio director and music director. We would always make an assessment and be like, “Is this Dead Space enough?”

That’s also sort of an assessment we made of a couple of very influential sonic scores and styles of music that are important to the Dead Space kind of sound. I mentioned Jerry Goldsmith, but [specifically his] Alien [score] and James Horner’s Aliens [score]. Also, 20th and late 20th-century Polish composers like Lutosławski and Penderecki, or even Ligeti [Austrian-Hungarian composer].

Stanley Kubrick used their music in his films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that’s how a lot of people are familiar with extended techniques and people playing their instruments in strange ways. I mean, it sounds scary now, but like to them, they were writing music that was interesting and emotionally compelling. But Stanley Kubrick was putting that to a picture that was terrifying or eerie, you know what I mean? The context was being smashed together in a different way.

Those kinds of performance techniques and notational styles were the kind of references that could bring about the sound of that world, which is the alien thing that’s in the Dead Space universe. So that’s always part of my remake score. I always have those textures. I always have strings doing glissandos, brass hits, stingers, and all this kind of stuff. Because I mean, I think that’s what was established and what we would expect it to be while playing the game. But also, that’s the sound of the reference that they were coming up with.

How did the interactive aspect of the game factor into your approach and scoring process?

The actual implementation of expectations about what a player is going to do is always something that comes up, because we don’t know if a person is going to run over there or even be a good player. [Laughs] And are they going to follow the directive? Or, what if they’re just gonna run around and just start banging on the ship for a while? So there are bumpers and stuff that have space, so that it is loopable.

There’s sort of a methodology for game music that I learned in the process. But also, I didn’t have to do that hard work of actually implementing the music where, “When the player walks here, start this cue.” That kind of thing. So there were a lot of cues that were more about me creating textures and a sonic universe. Then I would give them just like, a ton of stems.

From there, a team of music editors reconstructed what they needed in order. So it’s, “Maybe it’s too much music here, so let’s do less in this section and then do more here.” They were controlling it for the game and play-testing that experience. So in that way, I didn’t have to get into that very difficult composition, but I was very aware of that fact.

We definitely talked about… different levels of intensity. Out of four layers of intensity in general for the game, layer two is where the game kind of lives — where generally everything is just not going well. But then, when you get attacked by something, it jumps to four, and then it slowly brings you down. So it was sort of like this automated system that runs this emotional manipulation [laughs] that affects what’s going on in the game and how it works. I definitely had to learn how to make my “repeat sign” work for the whole orchestra, so that it sounded seamless to go from that way to that way, and this way to here to the middle, and all those kinds of things.

Doing film, I just had to do a cue which went from beginning to the end and then I didn’t have to think about it. But doing these cues that were based on the looping structure, I definitely had to pay more attention to how they connected to the middle of another one, or the bumper of the next one, or to the leap up to the next phase. All this kind of stuff was in the anticipation that the player is going to trigger off different steps.

This new game brings back Isaac, the main character in the original Dead Space, although he has evolved a bit since that first introduction. How did this expansion of an established character impact the music, and how did you approach scoring him?

What I took from the new approach in general with Isaac was his relationship with his girlfriend Nicole, who is on the ship or not, and his relationship with the ship as well. I feel like a lot of times with the score, when we recorded it at Ocean Way in Nashville with these big orchestra cues, the size of the orchestra and the number of instruments playing with the constant cacophony could get kind of distant. So I would work on finding moments and opportunities to have close mic things — a closer mic’d violin and piano, things that bring a little bit of a closer experience.

There are also a lot of things in the game itself. There’s a whole breathing system that was developed in this one for when he gets really amped up or fearful. His heart rate goes up, and all this stuff is actually automated in the game. So, it’s kind of inspired by just trying to get in his head a little bit.

There’s also this bigger, almost teleological concept of this corruption, which happens across the whole game, where Isaac is essentially going on a descent to hell as he is getting deeper into the ship. One of the things that we developed were these corrupted pieces of music or corruption stems, that would be added as you went along. These are things that happen in the original as well. He would see things or hallucinate, people would be there, and then they wouldn’t be there. It gets more and more trippy, essentially.

So, I wanted to achieve that. I wanted to be part of that as well. So I’ve got some corrupted elements that are always part of distorting reality for him. That’s a long-term goal across the entire game. As you get closer to the end, things really get out of whack because you/him, Isaac, is thinking that he’s talking to people that aren’t there. And the same with other people that are with him. So we thought it would be great to have a musical representation of that.

It has been interesting to see more film and TV composers like yourself work on video games, and it feels like games are finally getting “critically” appreciated as an art, as they should. Would you agree with that as someone who not only works in this industry but has also been a fan for so long? What convinced you to take that career leap?

I think games are an incredible experience. I have a two-year-old, and having a toddler is very busy. [Laughs] So my hobby is playing video games. Like, right now, I’m playing Cyberpunk 2077, and it’s great to be transported into that. I mean, the music plays a huge role in that. There are so many good songs and the score in that, they all kind of create a universe that you can live in.

And there’s so many variations of engagement with a video game and how far they go. Like, how many hours, right? It’ll probably take me, like, eight months to finish Cyberpunk! All the people that work on it, all the skill and the craft to put it together, the art behind it, it is just such top-level craftsmanship. And I think it is absolutely the same with the music. I think that it is clear now that that is the case with the music.

One of my favorite scores is from Mass Effect, which was my favorite game. Well, three or four games, right? That is another one that transports you to another universe. You’re setting up the original vibes that you get when you hear the music for a Star Wars series or something. I think games can have that place. Music has the role of giving you that instant recognition of being somewhere and of that experience.

It’s great that it’s now being recognized for the Grammys. It has its own category, which is long overdue. I’m super stoked on the idea of doing more of this. It has been really exciting to work with different people with different points of view about how music works and functions. And it’s refreshing. I’m sure video game deadlines can be crazy sometimes, but in this case, they gave me a lot of time to get it right, which was really nice. It was a lot of high pressure, but I got to take my time to do it. Oftentimes with TV and movies, it’s like, “We’re mixing in two days.” So I appreciate the attention to [detail] and ensuring everything is done well in video games. I hope to do a lot more of this work.

Your career is really fascinating, as it appears you are very smart about recognizing and seizing opportunities. Which, can be a scary or risky thing. What has your approach been for choosing which fork in the road to take? Do you have any advice for folks who may find themselves in similar career situations?

It’s hard to make that decision. I’m definitely very much of a “follow the path” [person] and follow whatever comes in front of you, because you just never know. I mean, my company, Found Objects, it mostly does music for advertising, sound design, and stuff like that. I don’t write much music for advertising anymore, but I used to be on the ground writing for advertising like, every single day and building that. All I did was spend time doing that. That was my full-time job, building that structure.

Then eventually, it got stable enough that I could step away a little bit, hire people, and do more things away from it. That’s how I was able to do an indie film project that didn’t pay that well, but I was able to do it because I had enough income coming in from the advertising work. Jay and I, we set up an infrastructure for us to build careers off of. That’s what we’re trying, and we’re hoping that this is.

But even then, before Kanye West went absolutely mad, in 2015, I did a thing with [him]. That was cool. I mean, it’s not cool anymore. [Laughs] But, I used to be really into pop production. Now I’m super into big orchestra and electronics that are all in that world, you know? I think you just take what comes and see if you can see the connections ahead and see what you can learn from them. You just never know when these things [will] come back.

Some of the relationships that I’ve had that have been really fruitful for connecting me with projects are relationships that are eight years old. It’s like, “Oh, wait. You’re talking to me!?” You know what I mean? It’s not that I did a TV show now or something. It’s because I used to work for Philip Glass. Seven years later, someone recommended me for another gig. It’s that long, slow-burn kind of relationship.

It’s also kind of a lot with a lot of projects going on. Then something kind of goes, and then it’s like, “All right. I’ll take this one because this one has potential.” And then I’ll take something that sounds like a lot of busy work, but it does provide some feeling that you at least have a lot of things in the fire.

That’s smart. It sounds like you’ve been good about continually diversifying and planting those seeds, so you then have the luxury of making the decision you actually want to make. 

Right? Exactly. But it’s hard. When I finished Servant, it was like, “Oh, crap. I don’t have a TV show.” So now I just started a new one. You gotta keep going. And diversifying is definitely a good thing. It gives you lots of skills. That way, whenever the random thing comes in, you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. I know what sidechaining is.” [Laughs] You will have some knowledge of it.

Dead Space is now available both digitally and physically via EA for PC and current-gen gaming platforms (excluding Nintendo Switch). In addition, Gureckis’ music for the game is now available to stream on all major digital platforms via Lakeshore Records.

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