Video games like Super Mario and Grand Theft Auto have never been Tom Griffith’s forte. For more than four decades, music has been his game.
So when the former jingle writer was asked to compose the soundtrack for Prominence, a video game developed by Bay Shore-based Digital Media Workshop that debuted last month, he couldn’t have imagined that it would be such a winning assignment — his playing skills aside.
“I was not very good at the game,” he says. “I did not come to it as a gamer. I really approached it as a musical project. As I got into it and saw the game developing, it became very exciting.”
And even though video gaming is a youth-oriented industry, Mike Morrison, head of Digital Media Workshop and developer of Prominence, knew that the 66-year-old Griffith was the right man for the job. Morrison had been the engineer on Griffith’s 2007 CD “40 Years Later,” and was impressed with Griffith’s musical talent and pedigree. During those recording sessions, Griffith told Morrison about his early career creating jingles for everything from Campbell’s Soup to M&M’s, as well as the “Welcome to Miller Time” tune for Miller High Life beer.
“He was doing the soundtrack of my television upbringing. So we bonded over that,” says Morrison, 45.
To create the music for Prominence, Griffith had to watch the game on a computer screen while composing, which was a bit of a challenge, he says. “It’s kind of like working on a film, but a film sort of unrolls and spools in front of you and you watch and get impressions,” Griffith says. “With this, you have to play the game or you’re seeing some storyboards. And you have to get the right feeling at that moment, like a little bit of loneliness here, or a little anticipation there.” (For more information on the game and where to buy it, go to prominencegame.com)
Prominence, which took about eight years to develop, is a sci-fi game in which players have to solve puzzles to help salvage a failed interstellar mission to colonize a new world. The big challenge for Griffith was in creating the right intonation, one that would not sound like a sci-fi cliché. “We didn’t want to use a lot of symphony things like strings. It didn’t seem appropriate,” he says. “And we didn’t want to go as far as [the 1971 movie] ‘The Andromeda Strain,’ where they used no instruments and had all these bloops and bleeps and synthesizers. We developed this palette of sounds that were a little synthesizer and metallic to create some precision and movement.”
Griffith says a key selling point for him is that the emphasis with Prominence is on using brain matter rather than blood, guts and gore. “The whole idea that kids are exposed to solving problems through violent means first and foremost really bothered me,” Griffith says. “With this game, you’re able to sit down with your kids and solve these problems together, and nobody gets killed, there’s no violence, no gore. That was really important to me.”
PLAYERS OF ALL AGES
Video gaming has always been a more youth-oriented industry, a fact that wasn’t lost on Griffith, who was somewhat concerned that he might be perceived as “the old guy” among the game’s co-creators.
“A couple of times I said to them, ‘Does it seem weird to you that I’m 20-something-plus years older than you guys? It’s like working with your dad or something.’ And they said, ‘No, you’re just you.’ And I think I get that from my mom. She passed away at 104 but she was always up for something, engaged in life and had a lot of younger friends,” Griffith says. “Obviously at 104, everyone is younger than you.”
Griffith needn’t have been concerned. As far as his co-workers were concerned, he’s ageless.
“I met Tom at 26 and he was 48,” Morrison says. “I wasn’t expecting to develop the kind of relationship I have with him. That same sort of connection applied to Prominence. His most powerful asset is his ability to connect with people and creatively work with them. He can work with almost anyone.”
Among those is Kevin McGrath, the game’s lead programmer. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘It’s not how old you are, it’s how old you feel.’ Tom is an example of someone who feels young,” says McGrath, 45, who lives in Joplin, Missouri. “You can tell it from how he acts and thinks. While he might be 66, he always meshed in perfectly with myself and Mike. Tom has a fantastic, positive attitude and I think a lot of his ‘youth’ stems from that.”
THE MUSIC MAN
Griffith, who grew up in Old Bethpage, came to Prominence with a rich musical background that started when he learned how to play guitar at 13. As a teen he played in bands, then went to Fordham University for two years before dropping out. (He did eventually finish his education at Empire College in 2006.) After Fordham, he lived in Mississippi for a couple of years and immersed himself in Southern rock, and then briefly lived in Los Angeles, where he worked on a few recording projects. “Moving to L.A and being in a studio sort of upped my game because I could see the quality of musicianship and see what it took to make a song sound good,” Griffith says. “I wanted to learn how to play guitar better and to write better songs and that really helped me on a technical level.”
But after L.A., he returned to New York, where he found work in the world of advertising and jingles. As a jinglemeister, one of his mentors was Bill Backer, the ad man responsible for Coke’s famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” campaign.
After he and his wife of 32 years, singer Martha Trachtenberg, moved to Huntington in 1996, Griffith began working as a teacher’s assistant in music at the Montessori school his son, Michael, attended. After three months, the principal suggested Griffith take the training to become a full-fledged music teacher. He stayed with the school for 11 years.
In 2007, Griffith, who has performed with Trachtenberg at many local spots, including the Folk Music Society of Huntington, put out a CD, “40 Years Later,” which Newsday reviewer Rafer Guzmán called “The best songwriting of 2007. In these funny, poignant, sometimes angry songs, various boomer characters take stock of their lives 40 years after the Summer of Love. Griffith’s disc is like a little novel that gets better with each read.”
Griffith says he’s about to embark on recording a new disc and he’s been producing and writing original material for some local performers. And, of course, he’s hoping Prominence will prove to be a winner in the gaming world. His favorite part of the experience, he says, was sharing ideas with Morrison and McGrath and getting to wear several hats. “Working with Mike and Kevin has been great. If they needed dialogue, I’d make dialogue suggestions or Mike would make some musical suggestions. Working with a small team like that provides those opportunities.”