Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Martin Stig Andersen, who worked on the soundtracks of the recent Wolfenstein entries, Limbo, Inside and Remedy’s Control
Can you tell us more about your organisation and approach when you work on a game’s score?
Working independently as opposed to in-house, I mostly get involved around the pre-production period. This is when the developer has a clearer idea of the project and what it needs musically. Typically, I’d start working on a project a year or two before shipping. I’d rarely work full time on a project during the entire production.
Ideally, I’d have a build of the game in my studio, although that’s often difficult to arrange with the developer due to security reasons. Alternatively, I’ll have the developer’s music integration project (such as a Wwise project) available in my studio, along with concept art, video captures, scripts and so on, and then occasionally visit the developer to play the game and help with implementation.
How closely do you work with the sound designer(s) when you write music for a game and how important is this for you?
I always try to encourage some overlap between music and sound design, and the developers I’ve worked with so far have been into the idea as well. In my two most recent projects, Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Control, the developers provided various SFX and recordings that I could manipulate and integrate into the score. For example, on Control I had a whole bunch of materials which the audio lead Ville Sorsa created for SFX using a Eurorack system. On Youngblood I also did some source recordings for the sound designers for SFX creation using an electroacoustic instrument called the Resonant Garden which I’ve also used in the score. This kind of overlap really helps binding the game’s sound world together.
What are your typical challenges when writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
In linear media you always know what happens next. In non-linear media you don’t, and the music has to accommodate that. There’s always a tradeoff between a score’s inherent musical logic and its level of interactivity. On Wolfenstein I aim at making the music respond to changes in the game state within say, two to five seconds, which rules out the existence of elaborate musical themes. At other times I prioritise materials having longer musical structures, at the expense of interactivity. Generally, a five minute cue would consist of around 100 segments, stitched together in real-time by the game, with overlapping pre-entries and tails.
On Control, the Remedy audio team took interactive music to the extreme. Here I was asked to deliver a number of compositions and assets used, edited into stems, or grains. So, for example, rather than building sample instruments in my sequencer I would build them in the music implementation software Wwise to be triggered by the game.
The audio team at Remedy then built a system that would try replicating my above compositions in real time, corresponding to a vast amount of input from the game, such as game-state, distance to closest enemy, your health, and so on. One could argue that the game becomes the composer! This approach is similar to what I did in Limbo and Inside. I like to call it meta-composition in that we organise how the game organises the sound.
When arranging the music for linear listening for the Control soundtrack release, I actually captured materials generated by the Wwise project and mashed it up with my compositions before polishing. It reminded me of when I did the Limbo soundtrack release and had to play the game in order to capture a specific part of the score, as it was ‘composed’ by a game mechanic.
“One could argue that the game becomes the composer!”
How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio?
As I’m always asked to come up with something unique for any given project, it comes with a great deal of creative freedom. If the developer wanted a specific, predetermined style, they wouldn’t have come to me in the first place. When a developer is looking for something unique for their game it’s important to do a lot of experimentation, trusting your gut feeling. I usually don’t present mockups or too much work in progress as it’s difficult to imagine the final result. I prefer to wrap it up properly before presenting it. The music should speak for itself, and I allow the developer to listen without accompanying descriptions. It’s always tempting to explain and justify your choices but doing so disturbs the listener. You want the developer to listen and associate freely, without preconceptions.
Does your approach differ between writing for a big triple-A title like Wolfenstein II vs an indie game such as Limbo or Inside?
All games have different needs. Usually on indie games it’s easier to get permission to have the game engine available in my studio which allows for more hands on and control in terms of implementation. Also, as they’re usually smaller scale projects I can be involved in different parts of the audio production, doing both music and sound design for example. Triple-A development is inspiring, and challenges you to go new places. It allows me to focus on composition and sound production, which I love. Whether indie or triple-A, my experimental approach is somewhat the same, with an equal amount of creative freedom.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work as ambient music designer on Shadow of the Tomb Raider?
I was asked to occupy the midfield between music and sound design, making soundscapes for the game’s underwater environments. I mashed-up materials from the game’s score with sound effects provided by audio director Rob Bridgett. Rob had done a lot of interesting recordings of the ‘Tomb Raider instrument’, a sonic sculpture created by Matt McConnell for 2013’s Tomb Raider. Convolving and interpolating those sounds with materials from the score resulted in some muffled, eerie textures that I would process and compose into sequences, creating a sense of claustrophobia.