Behind the music of Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most interesting games of 2017, certainly, and possibly of the last few years. So much went in to establishing the world that Aloy and the Nora inhabit that every single conceivable nuance was crafted with meticulous care and attention.

One such area of the game was the game’s music. We asked a few questions to the teams behind the soundscape – composer/production duo The Flight, Ivor Norvello award winning composer Joris de Man and music supervisor at Guerrilla, Lucas van Tol.

What you’re about to read is a real deep dive in to the process of not only scoring a game but also how collaberative teams and studios come to make decisions, how The Flight made YouTube videos to show the motion capture artists how to play the instruments in the game and the story behind Aloy’s Theme. There may be mild spoilers ahead so you have been warned.

How did you identify the three pillars of the game to represent musically – machines, tribes, and nature?

The Flight: It wasn’t so much a matter of us identifying the three pillars of the game; these were explained to us by Guerilla on day one. It was ours and Joris’ job to translate these into the musical sound of the game. We focused on the nature of the world first, a beautiful place full of colour and space, you can hear this in a lot of the exploration music.

The machines are the dark side and most contact with them is when you are fighting, so we needed this music to have a hi-tech, metallic edge. The tribes were humans, some of them quite primitive and naive, some more advanced. We tried to make their music reflect their level of advancement at the same time as keeping it all quite organic sounding.

The juxtaposition of the lush world, hi-tech machines and primitive people is what made this game such an exciting prospect.

Joris de Man: This was one of the challenges the composing team faced, and that we spent a fair bit of time figuring out, both musically and sonically.

The machine world was the easiest: cold, mechanical textures using circuit bent synths, glitching and stretching, and metallic overtones that were achieved running percussive loops through impulse responses of iron and metal objects being struck.

With the tribes, the first thing we thought of is how tribal people would play music – it’s likely that the first things they would do is hit stuff, blow on it or use their voice, so those are ideas we explored. But it was also clear that as this world features never-before-seen tribes after humankind is more or less ‘restarted’, that we couldn’t approach instruments in a traditional way.

Guerrilla made clear we should steer away from any music or style of playing that would pull it towards any particular ethnicity, so instead we looked at playing instruments in different ways – cellos with plectrums and the back of the bow, bowed guitars and piano strings, that sort of thing.

Soundwise, Lucas van Tol (music supervisor) also suggested we’d go for a much smaller and more intimate sound, and a bit less polished, as opposed to the big blockbuster sound that some games go for, with focus on solo Instruments and ‘found sound’, rather than bigger ensembles.

Last but not least, I knew Guerrilla wasn’t overly keen on flutes, especially high ones (as far back as the first few Killzones I’d always have to turn the flutes and piccolos down in my demos!), so instead I looked for the lowest flute I could find; a Contrabass Flute. Even though it’s a metallic instrument, it sounds quite tribal and has this wonderfully deep and raspy tone that breaks up in a really interesting way when overblown. So those elements took care of the tribes’ pillar.

Nature was arguably the easiest – distant pads and ambiences, and wide, spread out chords seemed to work well. I also created a pad sound by sampling myself blowing really softly on a Thai bamboo flute, so that it barely created a pitch, but with lots of air. That was put into Kontakt and Omnisphere so that it could be played as a pad sound and in the latter, granulated to create more textures. 

Lucas van Tol: Long before we approached Joris and The Flight, a short document was put together. Sort of a recipe list of things that Mathijs de Jonge, our game director, and the sound team wanted to focus on. Part of that list were those three pillars. We quite literally translated that to robots -> electronic, tribes -> rough, unpolished sounding music with simple instruments and nature -> organic, lush sounding elements. What that meant exactely, was what we wanted the composers to find out through a music test. Joris and The Flight came up with solutions that seemed to ‘click’.

Once you found these inspirations, how did this dictate what instruments to use in the score, and at what points?

The Flight: We talked in detail to Lucas at Guerrilla, who already had strong ideas about instrumentation and feel. We discussed Aloy, the world she lives in and the story path that she follows. As the world was split into zones for each of the tribes, we thought about what instruments may be found in each of them in order to give each one its own aural stamp.

We tried to use existing instruments in different ways, almost imagining how they would have been played by people just rediscovering them. One of our key sounds were bowed resonator guitars layered up with different sizes of harmonicas. We called this our ‘Horizon orchestra’!

Joris de Man: The palette on my music settled on analog synths, cello, contrabass flute, found sound and Circle Percussion, who Niels van der Leest (diegetic composer) had introduced to us. The final piece of the puzzle was Julie Elven, who, after the first E3 trailer’s music, received such an amazing response, became more or less the musical voice of Aloy.

So for the cutscenes, if the scenes signaled an emotional turn for Aloy, her voice and permutations of Aloy’s Theme (as heard on the main menu) seemed like a good choice.

Anything action-based benefited from Circle Percussion, as that would give you an instant aggressive and tribal sound, and if the development of the story focused on the machine world or technology of ‘the old ones’ (the previous civilisation), circuit bend or glitched analog synths were used. 

Lucas van Tol: In the early stages of Horizon’s development, I asked Niels van der Leest, someone I had met a couple of months earlier and a professional perccusionist and game composer, to put together a presentation about tribal instruments. We knew where our game would be set approximately, and we had a bit of information about our tribes. By combining that information, you could thus extract what kind of materials tribes would have to their disposal and how they would play that.

For instance, the Nora have very basic musical knowledge, so their music had to be relatively simple. The Carja were much more sophisticated so we could put entire choir pieces there, for instance. By using Circle Percussion, a Dutch epic drums theatre group, we could combine all kinds of drumming sounds in our diegetic music as well as in our soundtrack – and all composers could ‘use’ Niels, who used to be part of Circle Percussion, to record live percussion tracks.

The score at times feels like it’s referencing the in-game past and a measure of sorrow, whilst also keeping a harder, more action filled pace. How did you balance this?

Joris de Man: Part of this was handled in the cutscenes, where there was much more room for thematic development. The past, the meaning of Horizon Zero Dawn and Aloy’s backstory is a vital part of the storyline, so there was plenty of scope to explore that musically and I really enjoyed writing thematic material for that, with motifs I could reuse in different situations. 

But the balance between action and more ambient scoring during the game was also largely dictated by the various regions and the type of encounters.

Lucas did an excellent job describing the various regions to us, the tribes that inhabited them and how they differed. Some tribes had not yet gotten into metal forging, and so focused on leather and wood, whereas others were more advanced, so the music needed to reflect that.

Lucas van Tol: What worked really well is that we talked a lot with all our composers. We sent over as much information as we could. Entire tribe guides, playthroughs, artwork… I have a desk in the building where the game is actually developed. I see the game slowly coming together.

That is information that an external composer unfortunately doesn’t have. So a big part of the supervision role is to make sure they get as much information as possible. To feel as much as a part of our team as we can. The more the composers understand the game and the story, the more easily they can play with that and find the nuances in that. And from my side, I knew how and where I wanted to script the music in and how its transitions should work. So in the end, the composers didn’t have to worry about where the music should go or how it should work technically, I was able to brief them on that quite clearly so that they could focus on writing the actual music.

The Flight: The main thing for us was keeping a sense of loneliness. Aloy is alone on a quest to discover her mother and her origins. She has so much she doesn’t understand, and much hardships along the way. This game is not just a story game though, there is a lot of action too, and thus a lot of more uptempo music. The balance between the two wasn’t really our remit – it is down to the arc of the story and the game designers. We just needed to make sure that the two sides worked together to create a coherent sonic experience.

Aloy’s theme has a bittersweet tone with a progressively busier and busier crescendo. How did you approach composing for her character?

Joris de Man: I was lucky that John Gonzalez, the lead writer, created such a wonderfully rich and deep story, with well-rounded characters. Aloy is a complex character, who meets much adversity throughout her story arc; but she has this gentle strength and sensitivity that I wanted to portray in the theme.

The main theme was originally created for the first E3 trailer, and so to work to picture it needed to build to a crescendo…but Guerrilla soon realised that it would work well as a main menu theme also. For the longest time it was considered placeholder, with me potentially writing something else for the main menu, but seeing how people responded to it and how well it set the tone, it would have been foolish to try and replace it. 

Lucas van Tol: I remember that initially we were a little bit unsure about Aloy’s Theme. It was so different, and so outspoken. We loved it, but would ‘the players’ like it as well? That was a big learning moment for me. Don’t make anything for ‘the players’, there is no such thing. Make something that intuitively you think works, and that is what Joris did.

We all fell in love with Julie Elven’s voice, and it sort of transitioned into the idea that Julie would become Aloy’s musical voice. Any time something emotional happens to Aloy, Julie will be there to support her. The epilogue track is one of my favorites, and I really think it is because Joris and Julie have taken you on a journey that concludes there. It’s because of Aloy’s Theme and all those other pieces that that moment lands so well.

This score sees a bit of a departure from your previous works in being such a unique and vast world that’s a lot more open to creative interpretation. How do you feel this has differed from your previous work in approaching scoring the game?

The Flight: We are lucky to have worked on such varied projects. Before we started Horizon Zero Dawn we had just completed the score for Alien: Isolation, which is dark, claustrophobic and pretty terrifying, but also coincidentally a story about a lone woman searching for her mother.

Whilst working on Horizon Zero Dawn we also scored a Channel 4 documentary series about children with mental health disorders. Though these are all very different projects, in the end we are just writing music, we still usually sit down, pick up an instrument and start playing.

Joris de Man:Horizon Zero Dawn was hugely challenging on many levels – having had history with Guerrilla Games on the Killzone franchise, where the music had to match the intense gameplay and was an aural assault on the listener with a massive live symphony orchestra, Horizon Zero Dawn couldn’t have been further away from that type of scoring and sound.

It required a very different approach, and I had to allow myself to write simple, effective themes and background music that had a very different pace and intensity. The palette too, couldn’t be further apart, with just a few soloists and found sounds, so the challenge was to do a lot with relatively little, and allow the music to breathe without needing to take centre stage.

At times it was quite challenging and a bit outside of my comfort zone, but I relished the opportunity of sonically traversing this unique landscape, and ended up in places I wouldn’t have had if we’d taken a more traditional, blockbuster-style approach. 

Lucas van Tol: This was my first project supervising the music – luckily I had a lot of help from the sound team and our producers, and people within Sony. However, I did integrate the music for Killzone 2, 3 and Shadow Fall, so I was pretty familiar with the process and Joris his work.

But we wanted something completely new here. I was interested in seeing what would happen if we would force Joris to go into a direction he had never been in, at least not for Guerrilla, to see what would happen.

A couple of things happened. He nailed the style, but he also accidently provided a solution for the huge amount of music content we wanted to have. His initial pieces were very rich, very full. I soon realized that although it was beautiful, it would be too much to hear all the time.

So instead I asked for all the stems of the songs, and we started to create more content out of these stems. Often we would find entirely different sounding songs by choosing the right stems. As a bonus, we now had a musical soundscape that could take the spotlight or kind of linger somewhere in the background. There suddenly was a natural flow that worked really well.

… And Finally.

Joris de Man: There’s a nice example on the soundtrack of how, during the course of the game, some of the music developed over time.

The first is the Prologue – there’s a demo on the first disc called Papoose that was the original demo for the opening cutscene, composed to just a section from the script. It became clear, once the scene was storyboarded and put into an early animatic, that the pace and vibe was quite different, but thematically there were a few bits in there I thought worked well. You’ll hear some of those bits (like the main flute melody) back in little snippets in the final Prologue piece.

Secondly, The Flight and I collaborated on a few pieces, which started as a piano sketch from myself that the Flight worked into a full production. I thought it was really interesting to hear our different approaches to sound and production and how it played to our different strengths.

Lucas van Tol: A fun thing to note is that our composers also did the motion capture for our diegetic music vignettes. The three musicians in Meridian are Joe, Alexis and Niels, as are the priests and the drumming trio at the Nora festival. We played the music on set and they synced their mocap to it.

Talking about the music group in Meridan, there’s also a fun story about that. We originally were confronted with three concept art pieces of instruments. We had no idea what they would sound like or how they would be played. So we approached The Flight with the question if they could ‘sell’ those instruments to us, to make a little Youtube tutorial video to show us what these instruments were about.

They did an excellent job, the video was both entertaining and informing, and from that point on we knew we were dealing with a Kuna Bass, a Braumdrum and an Iron Pendulum.

The Flight: We always think music is best when created by groups of people. On Horizon Zero Dawn it was fantastic to be able to collaborate with Joris, Niels and the amazing audio team at Guerrilla. We are proud to have worked on what we feel is a beautiful and genuinely unique game.

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