Share this article

Composer Matthew Carl Earl Discusses His G.A.N.G. Award-Winning Honor of Kings Theme

By Superpixel
Apr. 3, 2023 updated 04:40

Contributed by Jordan von Netzer

The 2023 Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.) Awards took place on March 23 and, for the first time since 2019, were in person at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It’s safe to say that God of War Ragnarök dominated this year’s awards; they won 14 categories, including Best Foley, Best Original Soundtrack Album and Sound Design of the Year. It was the Best Main Theme category that had people talking, though, as it was one of the two ties of the night. The tie was between Honor of Kings “HaiYue Theme” (TiMi Studio Group, Tencent Games) and God of War Ragnarök (Santa Monica Studio, Sony Interactive Entertainment).

The man responsible for the award-winning Honor of Kings theme is composer Matthew Carl Earl. Matthew serves as the lead composer and part owner of Hexany Audio, a Los Angeles-based game audio production studio. Some of his other credits include Critical Role, Moonlight Blade and Arena of Valor. In the below exclusive interview, we spoke to Matthew about everything from his G.A.N.G. win to where he got the inspiration for the HaiYue Theme.

Matthew Carl Earl at G.A.N.G AwardMatthew Carl Earl at G.A.N.G Award

You took home a 2023 G.A.N.G Award for “Best Theme Music” for Honor of Kings HaiYue Theme, tying with Bear McCreary's Main Theme for God of War Ragnarök. Big congrats! Why do you think these two scores resonated so much with players?

First off, I have to say Bear’s score really is amazing, absolutely deserving of all the praise it’s been getting, and I’m incredibly honored to have even tied in the Best Main Theme category!

I think players resonated with the God of War Ragnarok score so much because of its intimate, honest approach in creating a beautiful world that the players can immerse themselves into. There is a juxtaposition where it feels visceral and raw, yet polished and thoughtful. This is why I feel the listeners also loved HaiYue. Her character is beautiful and graceful, yet she has so much trauma and darkness in her past. Playing with these contrasting emotions really guided my hand in writing the music.

The Hexany Audio team

How is the HaiYue Theme different from some of the other themes you have done for the game?

HaiYue’s music is quite different from the other music in the game because her character is also quite unique. She was the final boss of the year, so the folks at TiMi really wanted to make sure this music was special. This gave me the drive to dive into her story and come up with something that would give her the music she deserved.

Her story is full of abandonment and sadness, hope and let down. HaiYue isn’t an “evil” character in the truest sense. She really just has so many conflicting emotions battling inside of her, and this was the sound I wanted to convey most.

How would you describe the music you created for HaiYue’s theme?

If I had to describe HaiYue’s music in a phrase, I’d say “beautiful anxiety.” It is all about conflicting emotions; peaceful yet tense, harsh yet soft, dark yet light. I tried to achieve this by using lots of thick, romantic chords, big wide voicings, and lots of extended tensions in the music, with piano, cello, violin, and flute being featured the most. Very fun music to write! Once I put enough notes into the chords, it felt like you couldn’t hit a wrong note. Once I found her harmonic sound, her music started to just flow out of me.

Musically, where do you get inspiration for the Honor of Kings score?

I get my musical inspiration for the Honor of Kings score from all over. I’m a game composer first and foremost, so I listen to lots of game scores. Honor of Kings, even before me, had a history of music I could draw inspiration from. Many of the stories and characters in the game also come out of famous Chinese history and fantasy literature, so trying to immerse myself a bit in the Chinese culture helps a lot. Also, lots of romantic and early 20th-century era western music from folks such as Ravel, Debussy, Puccini all tends to make its way in there.

Honor of Kings HaiYue

Honor of Kings was first released in 2015, with new expansions being put out regularly. Have you worked on the game since its initial 2015 release, or did you come in at another time?

I started work on Honor of Kings in early 2016, so about a year after the initial release. Since then, I’ve worked on it continuously, and it’s become one of my all-time favorite projects that has vastly influenced my life and the way I write music now.

Do you think the game has changed at all from the initial release?

I do feel the game has changed a lot, especially in regards of the attitude towards the story, art and music. It feels like in the last couple years TiMi has really turned the worldbuilding knobs to eleven!

This has been super fun as a composer because I’ve been able to dive deeper into these characters’ lives and musical themes than ever before. For example, I recently scored a beautiful cinematic about the character Zhao HuaiZhen, whose musical theme I also wrote; he’s in love with a girl he grew up with named YunYing. During the scenes they share together, I was able to use YunYing’s theme melody as a romantic callback. Later on, his teacher Jiang Ziya, shows up, and I got to adapt Obadiah Brown-Beach’s original theme that he wrote there. Super fun stuff!

Honor of Kings HaiYue

A little backstory on the character of HaiYue, she was an abandoned kid hunted by hungry beasts. A god saved her by giving her divine power and made her the sibling of the Moon. How did this backstory influence your creative process, if at all?

Oh man, yeah, her story is brutal! Nothing could really go right for her. As a child, she was abandoned by her tribe in the wilderness during war times. Even though her mother secretly fed her for years, she was still weak and pale, nearly died. She was later rescued by a god who granted her immense power, but only to ensure his own victory in the war. She sees him as her savior. After the god's defeat, she used her powers and beauty to deceive people and gain their support to revive him, but failed. Eventually, her true lover, who had been following her as a warrior, sacrificed himself to save her life, and she finally realized her true love. So yeah, this was just begging for some heart-wrenching stuff.

The team at TiMi came up with some vocabulary that we would try to use to influence the music and also some vocabulary that we wanted to avoid. For example, we knew we wanted her music to be beautiful, paranoid, powerful, lonely, and anxious. While at the same time avoiding anything dark, depressive, evil, happy, too soft or too sad.

Kind of a complex prompt, honestly, haha. So, I decided to approach this music harmonically. The harmony sets the tone for the whole music, so if I could just nail the harmony, it would all come together. I started messing around with super wide voicings of some beautiful chords with lots of rub, like minor 9s and 11s, Major 7ths and 9ths, tossed random tensions in for some extra spice, toplined it with some unrestrained romantic melodies in the solo instruments and then it all started coming together.

Matthew Carl Earl and Hexany Audio Sr Composer Obadiah Brown-BeachMatthew Carl Earl and Hexany Audio Sr Composer Obadiah Brown-Beach

We heard you learned Chinese because you have worked so much on the game. Can you talk about this more?

Sure thing! Yeah, I figured I was doing so much work with Tencent and other Chinese companies that I should just learn the language! I went pretty hard into learning. It took over my whole life. I went into a full binge of Chinese culture for a few years, learning the language, traveling to China, watching practically only Chinese movies, listening to only Chinese music, and learning Chinese instruments for a while. I actually met my wife in a language exchange program. She wanted to learn English, and I wanted to learn Chinese, so we studied language together for about a year before we ended up dating. Finding a pretty girl who doesn’t speak your language will make you learn fast; I tell you what!

I’m not kidding when I say working on this game has changed my life. It really has brought me so much!

Because you are an American scoring a Chinese video game, how have you educated yourself on Chinese culture?

Yeah, it’s an interesting place to be in. There are tons of Chinese culture that make its way into the games that require authenticity and honesty in the music. Often drawing inspiration from classical Chinese history and stories like the three kingdoms period during 220-280 AD and what the Chinese call “Si Da Ming Zhu,” which are revered as the “Four Great Classical Novels.”

China has an incredible history spanning 5000 years; It’s one of the oldest civilizations on earth. As a “lao wai” or an outsider, to not try to gain an understanding of some of their culture would be foolish when working in their mainstream.

You can learn more about Matthew at Mattew Carl Earl

You can learn more about Hexany Audio at Hexany Audio