This Is Halloween! This is Halloween! Immortality Composer Nainita Desai On Inspiration, Stage Fright And What Makes Games Eerie And Creepy

By Valeisha Jackson

Immortality is a lauded horror game that is currently our the subject of our Halloween series this year. The game is based on the fictional model turned actress Marissa Marcel (played by Manon Gage), who had starred in three movies from 1968, 1970, and 1999 – but which were never released. Marcel has since gone missing, creating a dark mystery for the player to solve. One of the talented creators, Nainita Desai, worked for over two years on music and sound. For Immortality, she created three different themes in the soundtrack. Throughout this interview, Nainita is interviewed by Valeisha Jackson, a Bronx intern from the New York Videogame Critic Circle. Below in the form of text, and in the YouTube interview above, Nainita describes her process of creation, her early life in music, her journey of becoming a sound composer, how Britney Spears inspired her, and more. 

Valeisha: Okay. It is amazing to meet you. Nainita. My first question for you is, what was the role of music in the early years of your life?

Nainita: Hi Valeisha, thank you for having me. For the role of music in my early life, music has always been in my DNA. I loved music from a very young age. I learned the violin and the piano at school. It is very fortunate that I had free music lessons at my primary school. I learned the violin and piano and at home I was brought up with Hindu. I’m a second generation British Asian so I used to go to the Hindu temple on Sundays and I learned some Indian classical instruments like the guitar and the tabla. At school, I wanted to be a singer. I had my own band and I would do cover versions of songs, so yeah, music was always around. I saved up to buy my own synthesizer and keyboard. I’d write tunes and play music all the time. I was obsessed with music and film. 

Valeisha: My next question is what made you realize music was your path? I know you said music was all around you but what made you driven to stay stuck with that?

Nainita: Well that’s a really interesting question, a difficult one because I was under a lot of pressure to conform to having a formal education. I went to a degree in mathematics because I was good at math and they say you should do what you’re good at. I pursued a degree in mathematics but my heart was always in film and music and I didn’t realize that composing or making music was something I could do to make a living out of. It just didn’t occur to me.

I loved film scores and I was really into video games at the time I was a teenager. When I finished my degree in math I went and did a post grad in music information technology. I did a one year course and it was the closest that I could get to what I wanted was to be a film composer. I became a sound designer. I was always very geeky and into computers, programming, coding and technology. I built up my own home recording studio as a hobby so I eventually was into recording sound. I’d have a portable recording device with me and a microphone and headphones.

I’d go around recording the natural world around me and sound effects and the environment and whenever I was on my travels on the holidays I’d go build my own sound collection. Eventually I got a job as an assistant sound editor, a sound designer on feature films. That involves putting sound effects onto films you know if you’re watching a horror movie or a Sci-Fi genre movie or anything you know and you hear the sound of cops and footsteps and sound effects, spaceships and monster sounds. That’s all created by people in audio post production in the film industry. I did that for a couple of years and worked starting off as an assistant then to big film studios in the UK and then I was really into music engineering as well.

I wanted to be around recording studios and so I got work as an assistant music engineer for some fantastic famous recording studios in the UK. After a while, I just got tired of working on other people’s music and you know engineering, producing, programming, and mixing were all skills I developed from work as a sound designer and engineer. That whole skill set that I had developed was a really great grounding and foundation for I do now because I use all of those skills. I have my own recording studio at home and I work with computers all day long. So I met a music supervisor who was a friend of mine at the time and he said, I know you wanna be a composer, and I had no idea how to do it he said, Would you like to write the music for a show that I’m supervising and I wrote the music for one episode, and that was the beginning of my journey. As a composer, I gave up music engineering and that’s how I got into music and that was and several hundred productions and shows and films later here we are.

Valeisha: That was a wonderful experience. I also read that you started playing orchestra before song writing, so could you tell me when you had your first orchestra session and how you decided to continue participating in that area?

Nainita: Oh, what do you mean having a recording session or playing in an orchestra?

Valeisha: Playing in an orchestra.

Nainita: Yeah, I mean, I love the violin when I was very young and so I played in the school orchestra, played the violin in the school. I would sing in assembly in the morning. I would sing my favorite songs with a band playing and in front of 1000 school kids and that was amazing for me. I loved it. I thought at the time that I wanted to be Barbra Streisand and I wanted to be a famous singer, but … I kind of got stage fright. Being in the recording studio was much more exciting for me than then being a performer and so I didn’t perform. Being in the recording studio and being behind the mixing desk – I found that really interesting with technology at the time it was like you can do so much with sound, you can manipulate sounds, and that was more exciting to me than being a performer on stage.

Valeisha: What inspired you to create your music? 

What has been the inspiration through all the years so far?

Nainita: Every project is different. I mean, I like working on very different projects that stretch me and push me creatively into doing things that I’ve never done before. One thing that inspires me is actually putting myself into situations where I don’t know what to do because it’s scary but it’s also very exciting and inspiring. So, for example, I worked on a film called “14 Peaks” last year about a man who climbed 14 of the world’s most dangerous highest mountains, and I had absolutely no idea what to do for that score. When I spoke to the director, I said, I like to do research and that’s what inspires me I like to dive into the world into the story and the subject matter of the project, and I find out everything I can about it. So research and watching other films is inspiration. Listen to other music and that’s kind of what inspired the characters in telling the story.

What I do is, I consider myself as a storyteller, but I tell stories through music and that’s really like a special superpower that composers have, where we have the ability to get to the heart of the story and tell a story through music and make people feel something emotionally without them maybe even realizing it. So if you’re watching a horror movie and if you’re scared, just turn the sound off and you know you won’t be scared anymore – because you know that the power of all genre movies is a lot of the times through the soundtrack and the sounds that you’re hearing. So it’s quite a special superpower. You can really make people feel something emotionally whether you’re watching a romance or an action thriller, or a horror movie. You have to be like a psychologist and understand human nature, and to be able to then bring out the right emotions in the music.

Valeisha: Well, I could really agree. I could really feel like a strong emotion and I’ll still listen to (your music) even if I’m not playing the game. But do you follow a process original before performance to get rid of nerves or performance anxiety?

Nainita: Well, when I’m composing, I follow a process – I don’t really perform on stage. It’s not something that that affects me as such but I guess I do suffer from blank page syndrome – you know, when you’re sitting in front of the computer and I’m thinking what am I going to write? That can be quite nerve-racking, getting the beginning of a project is the most scary time but also the most exciting time. Rituals? I do know I do a lot of research and think a lot about the project. You know, I procrastinate a fair amount before a deadline The best way to get me to compose is to to give me a deadline because if I have six months to do something, I will take six months to do it. If I’m given six weeks or six days to do the same thing I will start will take that time, and I will always hit a deadline. So, deadlines are a very good way of motivating me and getting me out of my fear.

Valeisha: Did you have any fear working for your new game, Immortality?

Nainita: Thanks yeah, Immortality was great. I mean, the way that we approached it was, I had long, in-depth discussions with Sam Barlow, the director on the project and we kind of worked together breaking new ground. You know, we’re telling stories and working with the nonlinear format of gaming as an interactive film with live action, a little like we did with Telling Lies, and we really expanded on it with Immortality…. I got given a script. Normally, I’m a very visually-inspired composer. I like to see examples of gameplay, some images, you know that I’ll get the film. But here, I didn’t. I was given a 400-page script to read to dive into the story. and it’s a very complex story you know multi-layered, multiple narratives, three films.

We got eight to 10 hours of film. So I wasn’t going to write eight to 10 hours of music. It just wasn’t actually possible so the way that we devised the approach to the score was to write three themes, one theme for each of the films in the game, and each theme represents the essence of Marisa Marcel, the lead character in the game, and and how she crackles with mortality so that was that was a really interesting way and we decided to use the orchestra as a basis because you’ve got three films movies that Marissa Marcel, the actress, stars in and and miss so are in terms of process, I would share musical ideas with Sam. Sam would share his musical ideas our favorite tracks, and we would be inspired by each of the films in the in the game so one film is from the late 90s, no, early 90s, crime thriller. Another film was like a Gothic movie and a movie from the 70s and another movie from the 80s – so different film genres and and we would share musical ideas musical mood boards and then come up with three themes one that encapsulated the essence of each film. So I’d write the ideas and write some tracks and then because we were working on it over two-and-a-half years so it’s quite a long by the time. We didn’t realize how much time had passed.

But I’d work on a scene and then sit on it and then come back to it a few months later and develop it further. So I had a lot of time to (work), different from my normal film and TV projects when I’m working very fast I had time to write and then come back and think about it. So that was a lovely way to work to be able to write an idea, live with it for a while, and then, you know, six months later come back to it. And then tweak it. But Sam likes to have the music before filming starts so that the music inspires him and his writing as well. For Telling Lies, he’d actually play the music to the actors on set, and that would inspire their characters because the themes on Telling Lies were written for each character, and they had their own unique musical theme that encapsulated the personality of the character. So that was really special as well to be able to have the actors riffing off and vibing off your music, which is very unusual way of working.

Valeisha: Well, did Sam Barlow have any other ideas?

Nainita: With each of the movies, like, we’ve got three themes. Religion is one of the three main themes and that connects us to the 1968 film “Ambrosia,” which is based on this Gothic novel called “The Monk.” The idea is that the film deals with life after death and the idea that some thing is pure, and that transcends life and our physical existence, and so the music is about the spiritual power of the characters. Sam and I thought it be great to have a little bit of magic in the theme, and there’s the sense of the divine in the rapture in this kind of religious feel to it. So when you think of religion musically, usually think of choirs and Sam never likes to have the obvious. Sam gave me a fantastic analogy as inspiration. He said, imagine that you’re in an art gallery and you’re staring at a religious painting long enough to feel something, long enough to feel the magical powers coming at you from the painting. So that was that’s what I was thinking of when I was composing the religion theme. I used the voices I used the choirs, but in a subverted way, an unconventional way. And along with each theme, we’d have the subverted thing, so you have the positive aspect of religion and then you have the Darkside of religion, and that would be when there’s a shift in the story and the gameplay, and then you’re digging deeper into the psyche of the the units of the game play at a particular time. That will trigger the subversion scene in the music.

Then you also have a a second theme: life. That’s linked to this 1970s thriller set in New York and it’s about the death of a famous artist and it’s about living in the moment, living life to the full and so we capture that that excitement of life. I use the saxophone, and I use a saxophone to evoke these elements of the noir movies of the 80s and the late 80s in the early 90s like “Basic Instinct” and “Body Double, directed by Brian DePalma so they were a lot of film references, film inspirations as well. It’s the same answer myself and some and then the final theme is art. It’s connected to this late 90s subversive thriller called “Two of Everything” and it’s about a pop star and her body double and that was a lot of fun because I got to write a song for the for the character from Marissa‘s character in that film and I was very inspired when I grew up by pop songs of the early to mid 90s like Britney Spears and Madonna. So early Madonna songs, really catchy sugar-coated pop. So, I wrote a song very much inspired by that. Sam said to me I want you to write a hit pop song from the 90s and I thought I don’t want to be that good. So that was quite a challenge to write a catchy song of the 90s. Sam wrote some of the lyrics as well. So I took his lyrics and develop that further and that was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that.

Valeisha: I like it sound like a lot of fun, you’re making me want to try to create my own soundtrack. But what did you learn by making Immortality?

Nanita: Oh, that’s a big question, Valeisha. I love the process it send it I mean on every project, I develop my musical skills. So I worked with the orchestra. I used the Budapest Arts Orchestra. We recorded some strings on this, and we also manipulated the orchestra sound so one of the challenges … is walking away from the picture. That’s really a real challenge for me to just work from the script and to dive deep into characters in character analysis, and to encapsulate these philosophical ideas into a single piece of music – that was hard, you know. And I learned a lot there.

Valeisha: What exactly scared you about the music that you’ve made?

To learn what frightened Nainita Desai, and what it was like to work with superstars like Peter Gabriel from Genesis, please check out the rest of Valeisha’s excellent interview with this brilliant composer on YouTube (above) or via our SoundCloud podcast.

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