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The Music Behind Mortal Kombat 1- An Interview With Wilbert Roget, II

On September 19th, NetherRealm Studios and Warner Bros. Games released the twelfth main installment in their popular Mortal Kombat series. Serving as both a reboot and a sequel, Mortal Kombat 1 garnered a lot of praise from critics and delighted fans everywhere with brutally satisfying fatalities and a gripping time-altering storyline.

In addition to being one of the best-looking games in the franchise, the music set the tone for a memorable experience from start to finish. This is thanks largely in part to the brilliant work by Composer Wilbert Roget, II. I sat down with him last week to get more insight into his career, creative process, inspirations, and advice for those who want to pursue opportunities within this field. Feel free to check out our discussion below along with the full Mortal Kombat 1 OST.

1) How would you describe the process you go through when creating original music for a new project?

Every score has its unique opportunities and challenges, so I don’t necessarily begin the same way each time. But usually, game directors like to hear a main theme first, to establish the tone and instrumentation of the score as a whole, as well as principal themes and leitmotifs. Before committing to a sound, I like to start by sketching ideas as broadly as possible – it could be a notepad document with vague adjectives and phrases to explain the vibe, or it could be handwritten music sketches on paper or post-it notes.

Often I’ll use this pre-composition time to check out relevant films, bands, books, or other things that might spark some useful musical curiosity. I’ll often transcribe music by ear to learn a new genre or improve my writing in some way – for instance, I transcribed taiko drum ensemble performances before writing for Mortal Kombat 11. Eventually, this “blue sky” period solidified into melodic sketches and instrumentation ideas, and I could finally start producing music on the computer.

2) Given the popularity of the Mortal Kombat franchise, did you feel any pressure when first approached about composing music for these iconic games?

I will admit that it was a bit surreal when I first heard back from Rich Carle, audio director of NetherRealm, saying he was interested in having me demo for Mortal Kombat 11. I’d been a huge fan of the franchise ever since the original three arcade games, and the first Mortal Kombat movie had been my favorite film for all of middle and high school. I must’ve played hundreds of hours of Mortal Kombat 3 on my PC in 8th grade, and their more recent titles Mortal Kombat 9 and X were stunning in their technical achievements and storytelling.

So yes, there was quite a lot of pressure once I realized there was a chance I could work on their new title. But once I started writing, I realized that not only had I internalized the Mortal Kombat music style for decades, but also the original composer of the franchise, Dan Forden, had many of the same musical influences as me – Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Soundgarden, Radiohead, Thomas Newman, the list goes on. It didn’t take long for me to understand the “sophisticated ultra-violence” concept of Mortal Kombat music, and I could simply write in my voice throughout the score without needing to wear a conscious musical mask; it was almost as if Dan Forden had already taught me how to compose in the first place!

3) How did composing MK1 differ from composing MK11 and what challenges did you face if any this time around?

My first instinct coming into Mortal Kombat 1 was to revisit some of the themes and leitmotifs I’d established in Mortal Kombat 11, but our creative director Ed Boon specifically advised me to write new themes for every character instead – reinforcing the idea that this game represents Fire God Liu Kang’s new, rebooted universe. So the first challenge was simply un-learning many of the motifs I’d developed for the previous game, and finding new ways to underscore several of the same characters.

Mortal Kombat 1 is also more focused in terms of locales, taking place almost entirely in Outworld and Earthrealm. This allowed me to go deeper into the sonic identities of the two realms, with a more nuanced approach to the world instruments I’d eventually use. We also have a few instances of diegetic music in the score, where I took the opportunity to write small ensemble pieces authentic to their respective genres – in the OST album, the piece “Fengjian” uses a Chinese folk ensemble with guzheng, pipa, erhu, and dizi, subtly playing a variation of Liu Kang’s new theme; and “Feast of Jerrod” features oud and a vocalist singing in Greek about King Jerrod, with the chorus being a variation on Sindel’s theme and the verse becoming a leitmotif for Jerrod himself.

This was also my first opportunity to write stage music for Mortal Kombat, as the audio director requested that I score the entire final chapter for both cinematics and gameplay. I wrote three pieces that referenced different eras of Mortal Kombat music: the track “Pyramid” begins with a techno-based cue reminiscent of the first two Mortal Kombat movies from the 1990s, and later becomes a trap/EDM piece with a contemporary vibe akin to a modern-day iteration of the game Mortal Kombat 3. The final boss track, “Pyramid Summit”, is in a heavy metal style (again combined with orchestra) as a reference to some of my favorite music from the first Mortal Kombat film. All three pieces combine their diverse genres with epic orchestra and choir backing, to underscore this colossal final conflict.

4) Who’s your favorite MK character/characters?

I’ve always been a big Sub-Zero fanboy, ever since MK3! He could control the pace of the match with his Freeze ability, which I loved in a game as overwhelmingly speedy as MK3. In MK1 however, my favorite character to write for was probably Sindel. She’s in the difficult position of being a single mother to Kitana and Mileena, as well as the ruler of an Outworld that’s constantly under threats of mutiny and civil unrest.

I wrote Sindel a theme that portrays her as a strong and uncompromising leader, but also a caring parent and loving wife – it’s played on an ensemble of Mediterranean woodwinds in the second half of the track “Outworld Parade”, and the Greek singer in “Feast of Jerrod” performs her theme as the chorus.

5) Do you have any existing dream projects or franchises that you would love to create music for one day?

I’m incredibly grateful to have worked on premiere titles in many of the franchises I grew up with – from Mortal Kombat to Star Wars, Gundam, and Call of Duty – so I wouldn’t say that my goal is to work on yet another specific franchise. Instead, I’m hoping to explore new musical genres in new IP; my score to Pacific Drive for instance is particularly special in that I was able to create a unique new sound focusing on guitar, synths, “found sounds” and musical sound design, without any orchestra or acoustic instruments.

But that said, I’ve recently become a huge fan of FromSoftware’s titles, particularly Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, and of course, Elden Ring, so another dream project would be to work with Hidetaka Miyazaki on a new title!

6) What advice would you give to any aspiring composers who may want to create music for video games?

To succeed in any discipline of game development, it’s important to build real, long-lasting friendships within the industry, with other creators that you respect and get along with – regardless of their current position. Events like GameSoundCon or especially local meetups from organizations like the IGDA are invaluable resources, along with online communities on Discord or Twitter. Those friends you made years ago, even if they were just students or interns at the time, might be your closest professional allies and much-needed emotional support later.

As far as the craft itself, I encourage aspiring composers to study other works via transcription, to understand how their favorite composers write. For musicians further into their careers, my advice is simply to find a way to have fun. We can easily get mired in the stress of deadlines and content demands, but as a listener, it’s clear when a composer found something unique and interesting to play with – versus scores that were written hastily and joylessly. It’s always worth taking the time to revisit our inspirations from years past, freely improvise on an instrument or synth, or aimlessly play with a new piece of software or gear! And although I’ve been writing game music for over 20 years, I still transcribe other music from time to time – especially when starting a new project, or learning a new genre.

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