Every piece of music in Rockstar Games’ Bully can exist entirely on its own. Its varied, whimsical style isn’t tied down by Bully but at the same time, intertwines perfectly with each mission in the game. On paper, anyone would think a mixture of 60’s pop and surf guitar, 70’s chase music, erratic flutes, hip-hop and cinematic influences would become a mess when actually put into practice. But its quite the opposite. Everything works in unison and flows with an ease rarely seen in some of the finest instrumental work ever created.
Played during a mission to retrieve boxing trophies for the Preppies, ‘Punishment‘ has an eerie quality to it in the game but by itself, it is a chilled exercise in funk and classical guitar. Bully‘s composer, Shawn Lee, tells me about his goal for this track. “The process was to create something with a bit of a cinematic hip-hop feel. I remember there were vocals which were inspired by the French soundtrack Le Planete Sauvage. I also had a glockenspiel, a Kawai piano and the tremolo strings which were employed throughout the score to great effect. I remember this cue was quite quick and easy and obvious to do at the time. I had to work quickly as there were always so many more cues to do.”
Ivan Pavlovich is Rockstar Games’ Music Supervisor who has overseen everything from The Warriors and Red Dead Redemption to several Grand Theft Autos and Max Payne 3. He’s the one who sent Lee an email and organised him to come to New York to compose the score. Kansas-born and London-based, Lee had a direction in place for Bully from the beginning. His challenge was to both derive tone from sections of the game and to create an overall theme for the score. “It was a bit of both I’d say,” Lee tells me, “That was certainly the overall challenge of the musical score. There were lots of different styles of music which all had to be brought together to have an overall coherent feel. Each track had its individual needs but I also had to always think about the bigger picture of the soundtrack. I did specifically compose cues for their intended use within the game.”
If there is a single, iconic track in Bully, it’s the main theme. It plays several times throughout the game and its influence can be heard in other tracks. Its never far away from the player but surprisingly, it wasn’t recorded with a theme in mind. Lee explains. “I worked very close with Ivan (Pavlovich) and he provided me with a lot of direction and valuable communication. At times we weren’t sure what certain things needed, so it was also a voyage of discovery. The main theme was composed in the first batch of tracks that I recorded. They (Rockstar) made the decision to use it as the main theme. It did capture a lot of the signature Bully hallmarks very well.”
Lee’s choice of tools for the score reflects its varied tunes. For composing and recording, he put everything but the kitchen sink into the process and like a magician, makes it all interlock and fit together perfectly. Considering the work he put into it, the score can only be viewed upon as a success. “I worked pretty solidly on the music for eight months. I started out doing four day weeks of twelve hour days then eventually five, six and seven day weeks towards the end. It was both enjoyable and stressful. A real challenge. Besides drums, bass and various guitars, I used piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, vibes, autoharp, melodica, my voice and a Kawai kid’s piano that I got in Tokyo. That was my main palette of instrumentation for the game. I also used strings and horns on a few things.”
The soundtrack has a total of twenty-six pieces of music on it. When people remember Bully decades from now, Shawn Lee’s score will be at the forefront. Its playful and challenging nature is a brilliant example of how music in games can be responsive to the game and yet wholly original at the same time. It is a special piece of work and Lee knows it. “I composed over one hundred pieces of music for the game, the soundtrack album was just a small portion of the whole score. Nothing was wasted, everything evolving to the end result. I’m very proud of my work on Bully. If they ever do a sequel, I would most certainly want to do it!”.