Interview with Nima Fakhrara

When the story choices of major videogames seem limited as such to modifying weapons, choosing spells and roaming territory to collect kills and prizes, the ever-evolving narratives of director David Cage was evolutionary for the genre. With character decisions leading to entirely different stories and fates in “Heavy Rain” and “Beyond: Two Souls,” Cage made it seem like fate itself was in the player’s hands as a choice in dialogue, or the decision to act violently or thoughtfully was the gateway to an any number of ever-branching realities.

In fact, the appeal of Cage’s games hearken to the dinosaur of print with the kid-centric series of “choose you own adventure” books, where a flip of the page could lead to a completely different path for a character – if one’s whose journey was limited by the number of pages. But beyond this novelty, Cage’s futuristic games also offered heady food for thought about the nature of humanity itself, a theme that now offers any number of possibilities within the storylines of three androids seeking their place in the world of “Detroit Become Human.” As part of its novel approach, Cage has hired three different composers to embody the synthetics that the player puppet masters, with Philip Shepard (“The Fear of 13”) the voice of the servant Kira and John Paesano (“The Maze Runner”) the synthetic Spartacus named Markus.

Launching our voyage into “Detroit” is Nima Fakhrara’s Connor, an ersatz Blade Runner tasked with unconvering his fellow androids’ increasingly violent malfunctions. Possessed with explosively rhythmic and eerily brooding voice as our choices allows, Fakhrara takes us through the clues and confrontation of a hostage situation for a soundtrack whose retro sampling will steadily recall the synth heyday of Vangelis and Hans Zimmer, all with Fakhrara’s own distinctive sampling that makes his “Detroit” work distinctively mesmerizing.

Hailing from Iran, Fakhrara has impressed with both his instrument-making skills and his talent for capturing uncanny subjects with “The Signal,” “The Pyramid” and “The Girl in the Photographs.” His game work also contained a haunting approach that would lead him to “Detroit” as Fakhrara dealt with his country’s regime change in “1979 Revolution: Black Friday,” then created the immersive musical experiences for the VR games of “Blindfold” and “Fire Escape.” Now the composer’s love of electronics rivets us into the headspace of an android discovering the importance of true flesh and blood for a city and score that pave a multiple-choice way to a brave new future of video game composing.

Tell us about your musical beginnings in Iran, and what led you to composing in Hollywood?

I was born in Iran and grew up learning Persian classical music and the instrument Santoor, with some of the masters in the field such as Maestro Saeed Sabeet, Faramarz Payvar, and Parviz Meshkatian. During my studies, due to the restrictive nature of the “Persian Classical Music” repertoire, I always believed there shouldn’t restrictions set on music you want to play or write. A musician should be able to explore the far boundaries as well as how to break these boundaries and explore the unfamiliar spaces. Therefore I always tried to create opportunities to and explore something fresh and new. After moving to the U.S., I wanted to be a performer of Persian Classical music and create a chance to introduce Persian Classical music and the Santoor to the western culture and incorporate it into the music and create something unconventional. Unfortunately, I realized performing Persian classical music doesn’t have many financial opportunities so I tried to discover a new field within the sector I love so much.

Nima and the Santoor

One of my other passions was movies and Hollywood action films. In Iran, due to the sanctions, my family would have Hollywood produced films delivered illegally by a gentleman called “the video guy” in VHS format. “The video guy” would provide the bootlegged movies door to door in a briefcase to households willing to take the risk involved in the transaction. When I moved to the U.S., I stumbled upon the film “Black Hawk Down,” where I noticed the use of Middle Eastern music complimenting Western sounds, particularly Hans Zimmer’s use of Persian Classical musicians such as Ali Tavallali playing Tombak within the score. After listening to this score, I realized there could be something within the world of film music where I could explore the possibilities I always imagined. That led me to work and learning from some of the most significant composers and musicians in the film music world.

How important was your time spent assisting composers like Christophe Beck (“The Seeker”), Mychael Dana (“Rendition”) and Hans Zimmer (“Sherlock Holmes”)?

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to work as an intern and assistant for these fantastic composers. This experience allowed me to be in the same room with some incredible filmmakers and understand the ins and outs of the film music industry. I tried to sponge up everything I could from these great composers. Michael Levine, Christophe Beck and Hans Zimmer were absolutely integral mentors of mine and I hope to work with them again in the very near future.

You began showing a particular ability for horror and science fiction. Are you musically attracted to the genre?

Nima and his studio

Being an admirer of the composers mentioned above and following their paths on how to succeed in the field of film scoring I realized I had to be a chameleon and be well versed in different genres. The fantastic filmmakers that I have had the fortune to work with have allowed me to work within the horror and sci-fi genres. Nick Simon, an excellent director and a good friend of mine, gave me one of my first opportunities to score his film, a thriller called “Removal,” that allowing me to experiment with orchestral sounds in the film. Within the thriller / horror genre, I become part of the storytelling aspect because the music is usually at the forefront. It got me excited to see the different possibilities of sounds that can be incorporated in these genres. With that said, I like projects that can explore new sounds and techniques that break the boundaries of todays music.

But to answer your question a bit more precisely, I like project that I could have the opportunity to explore new colors including but not limited to experimental orchestral works, vintage, modern and modular synthesizers and create custom instruments.

Your first major studio score was for 2014’s “The Signal.” Do you think the “retro” electronic feel of that soundtrack, plus the idea of “meta human” characters would be a precursor to “Detroit Become Human?”

The music, especially the exploration of custom instruments became an essential factor of both projects. One of the first conversations I had with the creators of “Detroit” was exploring custom instruments and creating new colors. Connor is an android, and just like humans, build androids and program them to do what they want, I wanted the instruments constructed to give off the same effect for the score; as if the sound was made solely for the android.

Were you a gamer before you first started scoring them? And what was the biggest difference you found between that realm and live action?

I am a big gamer. As a young kid, I had every gaming console imaginable, especially the Commodore 64, which for me was hours and hours of fun. I have also been fortunate enough to be able to work on games and franchises that I have been a fan of the game, as well as the creator, before creating their music and being involved with them, such as “Resident Evil” and David Cage.

To acclimate yourself with director David Cage’s multi-choice styles, did you played “Heavy Rain” and “Beyond Two Souls?” And if so, what were your impressions of the games?

I have been a big fan of David Cage and his storytelling style within the video game world and have followed his work and played his games. I always thought David’s way of storytelling is very fresh and new, which always fascinated me. I was excited to have the opportunity to work with him.

How did you become involved with “Detroit Become Human?” And what do you think it was about your music that made you ideal to take on the role of Connor?

I received a call regarding the project from Mary Lockwood, who was the music supervisor of the project. She was inquiring about my interest for the game, and as a fan of the project and the company’s previous works, I said yes without hesitation. The worlds of exploring custom instruments, as well as the sound synthesizers, were essential factors discussed with David and Mary at very early stages of the score. I like to explore new worlds of music, colors, and sounds, which are very difficult to verbalize. Creating new colors for a new world, especially the world of an android, was vital for the project.

David Cage

While the other android characters of Kara and Markus as rebels as such, how did you want to get across the idea of Connor as being the authority figure in the group?

Connor is an android officer who is questioning the world and the unfamiliar emotions he is having throughout his entire journey. The idea of an android being able to have emotional feelings without programming and go beyond the scope of its build was the driving force for the score. The other androids are rebels, but Connor is a little different. Although he is always in pursuit of the mission at hand, he is also trying to figure out if what he is doing is right and I had to make sure I address this self-doubt through the music.

Sci-fi has long been fascinated by the idea of androids that perceive themselves as human. What do you think that “Detroit” adds to that mix, especially when it comes to the music? And was it a given that your score would be predominantly electronic?

In today’s world, androids, robots, and AI are more relevant than ever before. In the game, the androids are a norm within households, providing an avenue to ease the lives of any individual. We already have virtual assistants and such, but I can see technology growing to this extent in our current world within the next 10-20 years. With the music, I wanted to create something that feels real but also stay true to the world of “Detroit” with the artificial vibes. David and the creators encouraged me to explore the sounds of this “future” world without any limitations. Most scores that you hear these days consist of prominent orchestral sounds. For “Detroit,” not only did I choose to forgo an actual orchestra, but I tried to record each instrument in different ways to give it the robotic authenticity I was looking for. I utilized orchestral instruments but made sure they all have an electronic feeling and factors to them such as an electric violin and cello.

Were you given the chance to play any of “Detroit Become Human” before starting the project?

I received videos and original story ideas. I also had the 3000-page script that David wrote that consisted of the different outcomes that the story can take. One of the more critical factors of this project was to make it feel like a storied journey and focus less on the fact that it is a video game. Although people are playing each character, we wanted them to live in a world of “Detroit” and really become immersed in the game.

The game starts off with your score for a hostage situation involving Connor, which was the first footage shown from the game a year ago. How important was it to nail that sequence?

The hostage scene was the first scene I scored for the project. This scene is essential as it introduces all of Connors themes and motifs in an abridged excerpt. Without giving away too much of the story, by the end of the scene, Connor begins to question different philosophies which become essential throughout the rest of the score and story.

Could you talk about the evolution of the score as the game progressed? How long did it take for the whole project to be completed?

As Connor’s story develops so does the score. You hear more and more “emotions” within the music, with more organic instruments as the pendulum swings from the robot android to the emotional Connor. I did that by transitioning from a heavy electronic score to more of a noir natural feel – which I still created with electronic devices. I worked on “Detroit Become Human” for about a year, which provided me ample time to build and create many different instruments.

Was it dizzying thinking of all of the story “branches” that the score could go off into at any given second? How was that accomplished both melodically, and technically?

Connor’s journey evolves and changes as the player makes choices, so the music had to do the same. Since the musical approach from the beginning was to think about branches, and I how I would create them, it was all planned and the score written with that in mind. Collaboration with the sound team of Mary Lockwood and Aurelien Baguerre was critical. They allowed me to write music the way I wanted without thinking about restriction. Once I developed the music in full, we delved a bit deeper into how these branches will feel and sound.

How did you split your musical character of Connor the score’s other composers Philip Sheppard (Kara) and John Paesano (Markus), while going for a soundtrack that was cohesive?

It was an interesting creative choice to not allow access to the music of the other two composers so that we could each stay true to our characters. To our pleasant surprise, the score is very cohesive, and I have to acknowledge the vision of the creative team that had this plan and executed it flawlessly.

Could you talk about the gear, and sampling that went into the score, especially when engineering a cool “Blade Runner”-esque sound at points?

The primary instrument for Connor is a Vintage Moog Voyager. I created most of the melodic elements of the score with a vintage Juno 60 and an Ob6. The majority of the electronic rhythms I composed with a combination of the multiple Moog Mother 32’s and the custom Connor Guitar I built.

The Connor Guitar

The idea of the Connor guitar was by thinking of what a sub-harmonic guitar can sound and how I would be able to create that sound. I had a conversation with my welder, whom I have worked with before, and we mapped out a 20-foot guitar with a contact microphone attached to it. Another instrument that its sound is used for is the rhythmical elements, especially when Connor is investigating, are two instruments that a great company out of Portland called Resonant Garden and Masculine. These are electro-acoustic instruments with modular synthesizer abilities. I modified these instruments a bit as well to stay true to the world of Connor.

The Garden Resonator

What was the importance between varying your music between rhythmic action, and the more interior, emotional aspect of the score?

The importance of keeping the music accurate to the environment as well as the changes that occur as the character evolves was some of the most difficult and challenging parts of the process. The way I handled these changes was through creating thematic ideas and making sure these ideas can shift and evolve to whatever is necessary so the music stays fresh.

The Mescaline

Tell us about your use of strings in “Detroit?”

As I mentioned, I didn’t want to use the orchestra. However, I still wanted to achieve some emotional tone that can translate into an “artificial emotional.” The instruments that I used consisted of un-amped electric violins and cellis. The Electric string instruments, unless played with amplifiers, do not make noticeable noise. They create a faint sound that I manipulated to meet the emotional needs. I also used a solo acoustic violin, and a viola. These instruments were also modified. I customized and restrung the violin to have the range of a viola, and the viola restrung to have the range of a traditional bass.

How did you technically map out how the music so it could spin off into different variables with Connor’s story? Or were you going for more of a cohesive sound?

To achieve the cinematic feel as well a cohesive sound, the initial planning of why and how each one of the branches can change was part of the thematic approach. Since the preparation came early, the thematic writing became easier without thinking of what the musical branches would do.

How did you want to get across a sense of Connor’s discovery about his place in the world?

The discovery of new ideas and philosophy by a human is always exciting and surprising yet unexpected. As human’s, we are taught to discover and be curious. But for an android like Connor, this is a deviancy from the mission. So the discovery of new philosophies for Connor can be described as new beginnings and new ideas that are open-ended.

What was it like to finally bring together Connor and his music with the other main characters? And did you meld your music with the other composers when doing so?

To my surprise when I heard the music of John and Philip, I was happy that our sounds were somewhat similar, not compositionally but by way of musical production colors of the score. Once again, without giving too much away, there are sections of the game where the music from the different characters had to cross over. So by mixing the music of the Kara and Markus and adding elements to and from each other to make the scene change was necessary.

Given all of the variables, how long did your music actually end up being, along with the rest of the score?

I believe I wrote about 2 hours of music, give or take. But it is difficult to calculate as the branches had to be developed and fleshed out.

A theme of “Detroit” is of androids being “outsiders.” As an Iranian in America, can you personally relate to that? And do you hope to be given a project that would return you to your Middle Eastern roots?

I would love to work on a project that takes me back to my roots! There are times in certain circumstances where I can definitely relate to Connor and the feelings of being an outsider. There are many challenges carried by individuals who immigrate to America. As a Middle Eastern composer in the entertainment industry, there are certain scenarios you have to face daily where you have to prove yourself as an individual, on both a musical and personal level. At the same time, these experiences have allowed me to have a unique take on different projects and adjust the music accordingly to fit the situation, and for that I am grateful. This makes me different, my experiences, my culture and where I come from, this gives me my unique voice.

The most important task I have as a composer is to stay true to the story, environment, and authenticity of the project. Although I use different styles, I still like to incorporate the unique sounds of Middle Eastern instruments to convey fresh music that breaks the monotony of today’s scores.

I do hope that I get the chance to reflect on my roots and score something where I could showcase the true culture of the environment where I grew up. It is very important for me to give back to my heritage and create something that is reflective of my upbringing. The Middle Eastern culture is a beautiful one with fascinating stories, and I would love to be able to tell one of those with genuine authenticity for a complete experience.

What do you think that “Detroit Become Human” shows about the future of video games, and what comprises the idea of “playing” them?

The world of video games and VR has evolved into a storytelling platform, and that is very important to understand. The creators of video games and VR are creating things that they sometimes can’t convey in the traditional format. I believe we are in a world that the idea of platform bending is near and we have and will see that progress soon.

Given how quickly “Detroit” might be over if Connor were played in a gung-ho manner, would you recommend that people use the most introspective choices to hear the most of your score?

No actually! I recommend the player to play the game however they choose, and it is their choice and decision on how to go about their journey. But I do recommend to go back and play it again with the opposite set of rules to get the full effect of the game. Like I said, no two stories end up being the same, and as a result, the games goes beyond the traditional linear story mode to add a variety for people.

Get a download of Sony Interactive’s deluxe edition of “Detroit Become Human” HERE, and receive its multiple character scores as part of the game.

Listen to Nima’s original android “Signal” on Varese Sarabande HERE

Visit Nima Fakhrara’s website HERE