Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, Chris Wallace dives into the musical universe of Petri Alanko, who’s behind games such as Control, Alan Wake and Quantum Break
How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score?
Well, as early as possible, and if they allow, I’d gladly be available when they’re first putting the pieces together – brainstorming. It’s a precious tool, as even though something they’re discussing isn’t going to be in the final production, the ‘tone of voice’ or ‘the events that lead to’ type of discussions are the ones that matter to me most. In some cases, the events of these sessions produce an emotional impact that provides a profound foundation for – to use a saying from the fragrance industry – a base note. Of course the script will change, and the characters will change, but the essential ingredients are there. The finished character will be a little like meeting an old friend after, say, 20 years. The same with the environment; it has changed compared to the initial talks and ideas, but there’s that something that remained and evolved.
Also, those talks and early script versions usually provide a lot of ideas for raw sounds, which, in turn, act as timeline anchors: returning to some early recording or a raw sound or an instrument sample/recording is a portal to the origins of the story. If I’m stuck with something I’m currently writing, sometimes going through the original recordings helps you through.
It can be misleading, though, if you’re not careful. Be prepared to kill a few darlings and prepare for a course change, edits, takeouts. Don’t love anything too much. This, however, requires a special superpower: you need to be able to switch yourself from the creative person to the analytical person, without a delay. You need to be the agent and the manager and the artist, all at once, and the role switching will develop in time; the more years you play this gig, the more fluent you will be.
What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
Well, things can easily get out of hand quite quickly – or become repetitive in the gaming world. One needs to be really prepared for the amount of material needed, it is surprising how complicated things can get, unless you are really meticulous with the naming and the versions, stems, clips, intros and outros. The first experience I had long ago with the dynamic content and playback engines was a true door-opener to me. I was very pleasantly surprised by the seemingly random, yet controlled, output of the shorter stems I had provided. I got so taken by the WWise engine that I even considered using it live with a band I was touring with. Initial tests were really rewarding, but the tour manager talked me out of the idea: “C’mon, you pretentious little sh*t, the stuff needs to be used by the roadies or the keyboard tech if you fall ill or die!” Obviously they were worried about the looks of the UI, I guess…
Does your approach differ between writing for a multiplayer title as opposed to a single player narrative-driven game?
I tend to think that multiplayer games require a slightly less abrasive surface, drama-wise. They sort of require a little less, due to the natural forming of in-game communications, be it communication by ‘character gestures only’ or tied together through a headset. It depends, really, and there are no rules.
I personally prefer single player games, as I like the singular aspect. With more protagonists on screen, the emotions can get a little cluttered.
With regards to the triple-A and indie comparison, I don’t actually separate the two. Of course the budgets are different as well as the assets reserved for marketing, recording sessions etc, but the essential core procedure is similar. The composing method is similar, the production side probably differs a little but the audience shouldn’t notice the production values, it’s not their concern to worry about. I’ve learned some tricks that probably aren’t audible to ‘civilians’ that speed up the production a lot and ‘cut corners’ in a way that reveals itself only when looking at my audio workstation timeline… if you’re knowledgeable enough.
Sometimes you can use the orchestra or the solo artists or sections, sometimes you use the sample libraries, sometimes it’s the combination, but this isn’t actually dictated by the budget: if it requires something, I can fit it in, be that one single soloist or a section – or a whole orchestra. In both cases, you just need to know what you’re doing.
How has the role of the composer evolved in games over the past years in your experience?
I ran into the most important issue back in the day. A long time ago, the clients acted towards the end of the production cycle: “OH GOD. WE NEED MUSIC OH GOD, OH GOD!” Luckily, that rarely happens anymore (but it still does), and people tend to be more proactive. I’d like to think they themselves have noticed the importance of appropriate, fitting music. The value of understanding the outcome of perfect music for your perfect product is more than the sum of the two: as music is the vessel of emotions, the right piece in the right place turns your work into a diamond. A little like a kiss and a good song: both are perfect as is, but with some suitable timing, the combination can bring tears into your eyes. In a movie, with some background story thrown in, the whole cinema audience will cry – and this, in my opinion, emphasizes the importance of the background stories in gaming. Don’t neglect the histories. You have one, the characters need one too.