Video Games’ First-Ever Grammy Winner Talks About ‘Civilization’ and Music

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Thanks to Tears for Fears, we know that everybody wants to rule the world. And the long-running Civilization strategy game franchise lets you do exactly that. But what good is global domination without a great soundtrack?

The 2005 hit Civilization IV got “Baba Yetu,” as its rousing, anthemic theme song, courtesy of composer Christopher Tin. Tin originally wrote the orchestral track for the game and included it on his 2009 release Calling All Dawns. That CD won two Grammy Awards, including one for “Baba Yetu,” making it the first piece of music composed for video games ever to win the recording industry’s highest honor.

As Civilization gets ready to move to Facebook in the form of Civ World Tin talks about what it feels like to be a Grammy winner and the special challenges video game music needs to rise to.

How did you feel when you first heard about the Grammy nomination for “Baba Yetu”? Did you ever think you would win?

In a strange way, getting the nomination for the Arrangement Grammy was a bigger surprise than actually getting the win. In the nominations round, you’re competing against literally hundreds of songs across all genres. I was frankly stunned that I got into the top five in a category that traditionally favors jazz artists. Once you’re in the top five, though, you’ve got a one-in-five chance, so your odds are much higher. As far as the Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album, that too was a surprise, but less so than the Arrangement Grammy, simply because it was a smaller category.

When were you approached about contributing music to Civilization IV? Were you a Civ fan before this?

I’ve been a Civ fan since the original Civilization, and so when I got the job to write for it, I was thrilled. It was, in fact, my first ever video game job. I got it because I ran into my old roommate Soren Johnson at our five-year Stanford reunion—he told me he was a video game designer, and was designing Civilization IV, and brought me on board.

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The Grammy organization’s changed the classification of some of its categories to include music originally composed for video games. Many people see this as a consequence of your win. What do you think about the category changes?

While I’d love to take credit for the Recording Academy adding ‘Video Games’ to its category names, the truth is that those sorts of decisions take years to make, and that was probably well in the works before I won. However, the timing was certainly convenient for a great news story.

I think it’s a great step forward for the video game industry as a whole to get acknowledged alongside film and TV as a dominant visual medium.  And likewise, hopefully the renamed categories will encourage more Academy voters to consider voting for the handful of video game scores that are submitted every year. (It’s a bit of a misconception that video games were excluded from the Grammys until now—they’ve always been submitted, but in far fewer numbers than film and TV scores.) I think the biggest step forward for the gaming industry, however, would be if a video game score were to win a non-visual media category like Best Instrumental Composition, or a video game song to win Song Of The Year.  Maybe the fact that ‘Baba Yetu’ won an Arrangement Grammy will help pave that path.

Tommy Tallarico and the Video Games Live crew have made “Baba Yetu” a staple of their set list. And you conducted it live for the first time at this year’s E3. What does it mean for you to have a piece of music live such a long extended life outside of the original framework?

I’m thrilled, and I certainly owe a great deal to Tommy Tallarico and Video Games Live for helping popularize the song outside of the game itself.  Tommy was also the one who introduced me to Alfred Publishing, who has sold tens of thousands of copies of the sheet music to amateur and school choirs, which led to hundreds of more performances of the song. I’m obviously thrilled with the success that it’s had, and it really opened up new doors for me—for example, as a recording artist. Because I had millions of people already exposed to ‘Baba Yetu’, it was a no-brainer to re-record it as the overture to my album ‘Calling All Dawns’. And that process of re-recording the song and releasing the album is what eventually led to the two Grammys, which have literally been a defining moment in my career.

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You’ve also created sounds and written music for Microsoft’s Surface touchscreen operating system and Apple’s GarageBand software. What kind of mindset do you have to be in to create audio that invites users to experiment with technology?

I think that music should help to make technology products invisible. By that, I mean that the ideal technology product is one that isn’t reminding you that you’re interfacing with a computer—it’s one that integrates more seamlessly into your user experience. So by that token, when I was working with Microsoft, I was constantly pushing for sounds that were more acoustic (some might say ‘organic’), as opposed to synthetic sounding. I think the ideal goal for a technology product is not to be seen as a technology product, but rather, a lifestyle product.  That’s what I try to facilitate with my music.

What does video game music have to do differently from film or TV scores?

At its basic level, game music has the technical matter of conforming to the non-linear nature of games… being adaptive to gameplay, being able to loop, and so forth. But beyond that, I like to think of writing good game music as no different than writing good film music, concert music, or pop songs. All music has to tell a story, suit the circumstance, and be engaging to the listener. And the tricks that we employ that work in one medium will often work in the others. So rather than emphasize the differences between media, I personally choose to look at the commonalities of these various types of music, and emphasize those in my work. That, in my mind, is the path towards making video game music that can successfully make the jump into the mainstream.

Do you play many video games? If so, have you noticed any trends in how musical composition happens for games? What do you think is impressive? What do you wish were better?

I don’t play all that many games, outside of the ones I compose for. When I do, they tend to be more casual games—Wii games, Rock Band, etc. I think by now, it’s well established that video games have the technical resources to match the sound quality of big-budget Hollywood films, and I see a lot of my colleagues taking full advantage of that. And I hope that over time, the types of games that we see in the marketplace allow for a much wider palette of genres and styles of music. I think part of the reason that ‘Baba Yetu’ was a breakout success in game music was the fact that it sounds unlike a lot of the game music out there, with its world-music influence. But other than Civilization, it wasn’t a song that could be written for a lot of other games. My hope is that more games come out with different premises that allow for more unusual types of music to be written.

What are your favorite pieces of video game music? What do you think of games like Limbo, that only use sound design but very little actual recorded music?

I’d say that my favorite game soundtrack by far is for the Katamari Damacy series. I’m a huge fan of what those Namco guys did for those games, as well as all the popular Japanese rock and pop artists who participated in those soundtracks. When I first heard those soundtracks, it blew open the doors for me—I suddenly discovered J-Pop and the whole Japanese music industry, and it was mind-blowing.

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As far as stuff like Limbo, I think that games that don’t use music, but only use sound design, are great as well, though. I think there’s a lot of creative use of sound out there, and it’s great when a game exploits it.

With Civilization World launching on Facebook and “Baba Yetu” accompanying it there, thousands of new ears will be hearing your music for the first time. Where should people go if they want learn more about your music?

Not only will Civ World feature “Baba Yetu,” but it will feature my entire album ‘Calling All Dawns’! If you want to purchase or learn more, you can go to my website, You can also find out more about my next album, a collaborative project called Stereo Alchemy—ten ‘decadent electronica’ songs with lyrics based on poems by Victorian poets (like Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and others).

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