By Thomas Quillfeldt
We previously covered 65daysofstatic’s EGX developer session on the creation of their album No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe and how they worked with developer Hello Games to implement this body of music into one of the most talked-about video games of the last few years.
Instrumental to that process was a man who wears several sonic hats: No Man’s Sky’s audio director, co-composer and sound designer Paul Weir.
Laced: How did it come about that a game development studio like Hello Games hired a rock band?
Weir: “Using 65daysofstatic was [No Man’s Sky game director and Hello Games’ Managing Director] Sean Murray’s idea. Right from the earliest stages, from when we first started talking about audio for the game, Sean didn’t want a conventional game soundtrack—he was listening to their music when the team was initially prototyping the game and the intention was always to work with them.
“The details of that—what music they were going to write, how they were going to write it, how we were going to implement it—were up to me.”
Laced: In their EGX talk, 65daysofstatic emphasised that the album had to work as an album first. How was that resolution reached?
Weir: “That came from us as much as anything—it wasn’t even a discussion. We all thought that if you hire a band, there’s no point trying to make them something they’re not. Let them be themselves and write an album with the knowledge that we wouldn’t just use it in the game as is.
“There was potential for it to go wrong—people might assume that, because of the generative nature of the in-game soundtrack, we would simply deconstruct the album and try and cram it into the game. That’s not the way I work so that’s not how I did it.
“The album itself was finished about a year and a half before the game was finished but then we went back to the sessions, recorded more and used the tracks as a structure around which to build the in-game score. For the generative soundscapes, they sound like aspects of the album but they’re not actually the album itself, although we occasionally employed chunks of the album tracks as linear music.”
As the player approaches a space station for the first time, the outro of the album track Asimov kicks in:
Weir: “[In terms of album tracks playing in the game] we’d always talked about key moments but the music wasn't written specifically for those key moments. That’s my job on the music director side, to decide which bits go where.
“Perversely, I quite like that the one piece of music that’s known from the album because we used it in the trailer—Supermoon—you don’t hear any aspect of it until you reach the centre of the galaxy.”
One of the trailers for No Man’s Sky, featuring Supermoon:
Laced: Hello Games is a small, plucky indie studio. 65daysofstatic is a plucky instrumental rock band. Was there any shared mindset between the two teams?
Weir: “It helps that 65daysofstatic are pretty technical themselves and were going in that direction anyway—it wasn’t a problem to communicate our intentions to them. We get along fantastically well and our mindsets are very similar. In some ways I think they found the process of working with someone to build some software creatively rewarding, in terms of growing as a band. It allowed them to approach their music in a different way once we got down to the generative stuff.
“I go to Sheffield quite a lot to see them. They once made a comment that Hello Games was like a rock’n’roll band... I replied: ‘But you guys are the rock’n’roll band!’, they said ‘no, you’re way more rock’n’roll!’ and so on.
“Similar to 65daysofstatic, the Hello Games team was making up the rules as they went along, feeling their way. Sometimes doing things that are a little bit unexpected, a little bit odd maybe. Not always succeeding but at least having the ambition.
“There’s definitely a sense that we [at Hello Games] are driven by individuals and by characters, not by corporations, not by group meetings—we don’t do that! Even if it doesn’t always work, they’re trying to do things in a different way. [No Man’s Sky] is made by creative people, that’s it. There’s no hierarchy to the company. So there are some similarities between working for a company like Hello and being in a band.
“The ‘Hello Games way’ is to steam your way through it. We don’t sit there stroking our beards saying ‘we’re going to use this bit of music, this bit of music’. You just go ahead and you do it and if something’s really wrong… Sean will hear things as and when he plays the game. If there’s something objectionable, then obviously I’ll know about that. But most of the work will go straight in and that’s it. We’re such a small company that there’s just not the time or space to overthink things.”
Laced: Do you hope more bands will get involved in game projects?
Weir: “I’m not particularly interested in involving bands, why would I be? I’m more interested in writing music myself, thanks. I don’t want other people to do it for me!”
Laced: [laughs] You did also do some composition for the game...
Weir: “You can tell which bits I wrote because I tend to use less guitar, basically the less noisy stuff!”
Laced: Were you doing anything drastically new in the way you incorporated all the music into the game?
Weir: “Like a lot of generative music, basically [our engine] is a glorified random file player with a whole load of behaviours laid on top of it, which is linked deep into the game mechanics. I can control what plays and when and how it plays into relationships between different instruments. It’s not going to come out with anything new but it’s quite a far distance from just playing a linear track.
“It makes it incredibly easy to change behaviour, to change rules, to make music happen in different ways, to mix it completely differently, to introduce new soundscapes really easily. This is not massively new, people have played with these ideas. I think we made more use of it than games tend to.”
Laced: Is it ever difficult to get away from the technology, to step back and make sure the music fits?
Weir: “To shout about the technology we’re using for the music, that’s irrelevant to me. What I’m trying to do is to create a soundtrack that has a life, that’s sustainable.
“Ultimately, you’re happy to have music playing which reinforces [what’s on screen] and provides all the beats that you expect it to without being overly repetitious—that continual sense of relevance of the music to the game which is very hard to do when you’ve got limited linear music tracks. Technology should always be completely transparent—it’s just a means to an end.
“For many games I’ve worked on, the sound design is pretty well functional—that’s not to say you can’t do a good job but there’s not that much room for doing something which is aesthetically interesting. Everything gets reviewed and analysed.
“On No Man’s Sky, with my sound design and 65daysofstatic’s music, I had the opportunity to do something more interesting. I’ve been in the industry a while and I have been called a maverick—I cringe a bit at that but I also quite like it! Sometimes having an experimental approach doesn’t fit with the culture of a particular development team.”
Laced: It must be hard work, one person creating the sound of an infinite universe...
Weir: “Just having one person doing audio is quite mad given the scale of the project but again, that’s the nature of the company.
“Sound design and music—it’s an emotional thing. I don’t think in terms of diegetic/non-diegetic. I don’t think any sound designer sits there and thinks ‘I’m now going to make a non-diegetic sound for this scene’. You do what you feel is creatively right.
“When people comment on the audio, particularly on Twitter, it’s really nice and I respond to it. People like the rain in the game. Rain is very emotive. It’s not just rain: it’s rain on a building, rain on a window, rain in a forest, rain in a cave. It’s lush rain, cold rain—everything has character.”
Caught in a storm:
“One of the things I’ve tried to do is split things up between the sounds we can recognise instantly and the more electronic, artificial sounds. You see an alien landscape but you hear something that’s very familiar. That’s an interesting sensation.
“Across the board we’ve always said we’re Star Wars, not Star Trek—that’s certainly true of the sound design where everything’s a little bit clunky and mechanical, not necessarily clean and efficient. Star Wars—the original trilogy—their sound design was very make-do, very clunky. If you listen to it with modern ears, it’s not what you remember it to be. You have the notion that it’s really slick but it’s really not.
“I record the sounds around me, literally stuff from my house, electric tin openers, trolleys… The ladder sound is the little oil radiator I’ve got next to me because it’s bloody cold in the office when it’s Winter! There’s a certain perverse reward recording hand dryers in a toilet [for] the jetpack. I get a certain pleasure out of that.”
Laced: Can the maths be a trap?
Weir: “I’m not interested in the maths. I’m not interested in the process. I’m not a programmer but I work well with programmers and because I have that opportunity to design systems, I’m going to exploit that. I always like creating new technology to explore new ideas.
“A lot of game programming is smoke and mirrors—you want maximum effect from minimum input. You don’t want to build anything any more complex than it really needs to be because it’s always going to cause a problem. Stability is everything, as we know. The balance is that we [at Hello Games] want to do things differently but we have to be sure that it’s going to be stable and fulfil its role. You could be a big game developer and do it—Rockstar have done amazing things with their audio tools.
“The nature of games development is that the technology is continually changing and you’re pretty much reinventing the wheel in every game development cycle, unlike in film. That’s naturally going to bleed through to the audio tools. That’s kind of my thing really—to create new opportunities by creating new tools.”
Laced: The Chinese Room’s Jessica Curry, composer for Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, has regularly commented that there’s too much noise in modern media—we’re bombarded by music which constantly seeks to regulate our emotions when playing or watching. Would you agree?
Weir: “Yes, I would agree with that. Less so now but there used to be a tendency to play music for the whole game.
“You need to think very carefully about where it’s dramatically necessary. Even in a game like ours where we don’t have any structure to it—there’s no narrative—we are still quite deliberate about when the music is completely in the background, literally ambient, and where we push it forward because we want to say something, make you feel something or mark an event. That movement between background and foreground is deliberate and something I think about carefully in the games that I work on.
“Game music now is usually of a very high quality, it’s just not always that interesting. But then that’s also true for a lot of film music. I’d love to occupy a space where what I’m doing—whether it’s myself or collaboratively–is musically interesting. That’s the priority.”
Laced: We seem to be living in an age particularly ripe with retro, lots of very self-aware pastiche, creators wearing their influences on their sleeve as a way of identifying with a particular aesthetic trend or being part of a community, for instance with chiptune. Where do you sit with that?
Weir: “I personally find that slightly backward-looking—as a composer, I’m not that interested in that.
“It’s true for quite a lot of film. There was a period of considerable experimentation, from the 50’s probably through to the early 80’s. But nostalgia’s a powerful thing—we always say ‘it was better back then’. Finding your way through the medium, trying different ideas is always more interesting than going: ‘we like John Williams, let’s make it more John Williams-esque’.
“That always used to be my criticism of Hans Zimmer. You could always tell a Hans Zimmer score as it was always so obviously pastiche. He’s different now. As a music director—and I hate to say this—I think he’s a genius and is always finds interesting angles. There are a lot of Hollywood composers who are excellent at technical composition but their scores are just not terribly interesting.”
Laced: Might video games be a better medium for musical experimentation?
Weir: Sure, because we can be more experimental. At Hello Games, where we haven’t got a publisher dictating what we’re doing and we’re fairly light on hierarchy, we have the opportunity to do interesting things if we want to. Often, the bottom line [making a profit] is so powerful that it’s hard to do that—it’s really hard to do that in TV, it’s hard to do in most films. I think games are a great opportunity to try something different.”
Laced: Any other game scores you’ve been enjoying recently?Weir: “I’ve been playing The Last of Us Remastered and the music and sound design is tremendous. I thought Lara Croft GO had a really interesting soundtrack—quite unexpected for a Tomb Raider [franchise] game. I also keep restarting Bioshock Infinite, primarily because of the quality of its audio.”
You can find Paul Weir tweeting @earcom.
No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe by 65daysofstatic is available now in two-disc or four-disc vinyl editions, as well as double CD and digital formats.
We headed up to Sheffield to film this very special live video of 65daysofstatic performing three tracks from the No Man's Sky soundtrack: