Tommy is uncredited on Metroid Prime.
So, how did you get into the video game industry, particularly into the position you’re renowned for today?
Well, when I turned 21 years old, I got my car and drove out to California because I grew up on the East Coast, you see – Massachusetts in New England. I didn’t have any money, no place to stay, no job, no friends… nothing, I literally left my mum, dad and brother crying on the doorstep.
Once I got to California I went straight to Hollywood because you know, that’s what you do. And I took a look around; I was on Hollywood & Vine looking up at the Capitol Records building and thought ‘Wow! This does not look like it does on television!’ (Laughs) Anyone who’s ever been to Hollywood will know what I’m talking about – it’s not all glitz and glamour, especially in that part of town. Luckily Orange County was more what I imagined California to be like with the fancy cars, beautiful girls, beaches and palm trees.
On my first day I picked up the newspaper and managed to get a job selling keyboards in a guitar shop; I started work the next day. Despite that though, I was actually homeless. The first three weeks I was in California I was sleeping under a pier by the beach and I had absolutely no money or anything.
In my second day I showed up at work in this new guitar shop, and my very first customer happened to be a producer at Virgin. They were starting a video game division at the time, and I was wearing a Turbografx T-shirt, which back in around 1990 was not a very common thing. We got to talking, and he offered me a job there and then.
I was hired as a games tester the next day, so in three days in California I managed to get into the video game industry! (Laughs) That was almost 18 years ago and I’ve been doing it ever since.
How did you make the leap from games tester to composer then?
I basically bugged the vice president of the company every single day, and I’d say ‘Look, whenever you need music, just let me know and I’ll do it for free! And if you don’t like it you don’t have to use it’. Of course it was a new company so it didn’t have many projects back then. If you remember Virgin’s heyday back in the early 90s we made some excellent games out of the small number of people we had there.
Must have been an exciting time. What was your first project and how did you approach it?
The first project that came up was the original Prince of Persia
. My whole approach to music, even back then, was that I didn’t feel that video game music had to be a bunch of kiddy, merry-go-round bleeps and bloops that played constantly in 45-second loops in every single level.
Don’t get me wrong, that kind of music works for some games like Mario
, but with Prince of Persia
I was really thinking, ‘Why does every single game have to sound like that? Is it because of the technology?’ But if it is the technology, there are always ways around that, like different core progressions or different keys of music that you can switch from.
I also wondered ‘why does there always have to be music playing in a game?’ Why not remove the music and let the sound design carry it, then when something special happens like fighting a guard or opening a door to the next level, you can trigger the music. It makes it even more dramatic, and that was my whole thinking from the start of the project, to make the audio experience more dramatic and use different elements of music in order to create certain moods and situations.