Originally written for Clash in August 2016. Read the original article here.
To call No Man’s Sky one of the most highly anticipated gaming releases of 2016 is perhaps something of a mild understatement. First announced by Sony at E3 in 2014, the open-world adventure game has developed from its modest roots as an independent project in to an ambitious, sprawling sci-fi epic that would make the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov proud – and the hype surrounding it has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Set in a procedurally generated universe, which unfolds in real time as players explore their surroundings, No Man’s Sky effectively offers gamers the unique opportunity to traverse a limitless playground, facing untold elements as they fight to explore and survive an unprecedented game world quite unlike anything else attempted in video games before.
Underpinning the action is a striking sonic soundscape from purveyors of sublime synth math rock, 65daysofstatic, which marks their long-awaited scoring debut. With its seamless blend of complex loops, lush sound textures and melodies, the score sees their efforts reworked through No Man’s Sky’s unique music engine, creating an absorbing self-generating soundtrack that can be heard in countless different iterations. The game is accompanied by the release of 65daysofstatic’s new double-album, ‘No Man’s Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe’, which brings together 10 tracks of original music alongside a companion piece of ambient soundscapes.
I recently sat down for a chat with Joe Shrewsbury, one quarter of the Sheffield four-piece, to discuss the daunting challenges associated with scoring a sprawling universe.
It must have been pretty surreal to see your first job working on a video game score snowball in the way that No Man’s Sky has over the past few years. How has it all been for you guys?
It’s been a phenomenal experience. It’s definitely one of the biggest things we’ve been involved in. I think we’re quite proud that we came at soundtracking via the back door and No Man’s Sky turned out to be the size it is. The press stuff is pretty full on, but again, it’s nothing that we’re not totally up for. It is interesting, the attention that we’re getting back. Put it this way – I’ve never been in Total Guitar magazine before. I’ve been in a band for fifteen years now and they’d never been particularly interested in us before, so that’s nice. It’s nice to be part of the conversation.
What year did you actually get involved with the game?
We were approached in late 2013, although we actually started writing music before we definitely knew we were going to be on it because we just knew that there wouldn’t be that much time. So we wrote the record from summer 2014 and we finished mixing it last spring, and 2015 to now we’ve been doing the procedural audio.
I guess it’s kind of interesting being able to start on a project early like this, because for you guys I guess it’s a win-win. You’ve got an album’s worth of material regardless of whether it takes off in to a bigger project. Not many composers have that luxury.
It is unique. Firstly, you have to remember that when we started writing the game was coming out a year earlier than it is now. And so all that procedural stuff would have been very difficult if we’d have had to have deliver it on time and I don’t think we would have been invited to collaborate in the same way. There’s nothing contractually that says Paul Weir [No Man’s Sky’s Audio Director] had to include us in building the procedural audio and there’s nothing contractually that says we had to work for the last year on that music. That was simply something that we were all interested in pursuing because we were all interested in the game being the best it can be.
I guess that gives you a sense of how dedicated everybody has become to that project. It’s one of those things where it’s worth going above and beyond to be a part of, I suppose. But conversely, the more cynical of your readers might point out that it might just be a really clever way to get an album made. [Laughs]. Because if the game’s rubbish, our album’s still good.
True, I guess. But a lot of blood, sweat and tears go in to making an album. There has to be a far easier way to get an album out, I’m sure.
Completely. But it has, in some senses… it’s easier than trying to get money out of record labels these days. The whole project has mushroomed in to this huge thing. It has taken two and a half years of our lives, I suppose, but in a really great way. We’re in a really positive place and I think everyone’s really excited about the game and the album coming out. There were some frustrating moments, but it’s been incredible to be a part of it and nothing but good for us as a band.
I understand you guys initially came on board because the guys at Hello Games wanted to use your music in one of the trailers, right?
Yeah, so they contacted us to license a track called ‘Debutante’, which is on a record we released in 2010 called ‘We Were Exploding Anyway’. That was just a standard license request and we agreed to that, but we were completely intrigued by what little they mentioned about the game, so we asked to hear more. And we got back this really enthusiastic email almost like a film director a film director pitching an idea to a bunch of execs. And three or four screenshots of the game, which was recognisably No Man’s Sky rendered to a much lesser degree than it is today, but nevertheless pretty exciting.
We were at a point where we were trying to get soundtrack work and, so we said that we’d be really interested in talking about it if they didn’t have anyone else lined up and we had a meeting with them. But it turned out anyway that Sean Murray, the head of Hello Games, had been playing 65’s back catalogue in their weekly meetings over the past couple of years, so in that sense it was serendipity, I think.
Aside from the reference material, did they send you a proof of concept as to how they saw your music being used? Did they show you how the music would be implemented in the game’s systems?
No, it’s been far more chaotic than that. And I suspect they intentionally didn’t give us much gameplay, or many specifics. They basically said, ‘Go and write a 65 record, and we’ll go from there’. I mean that’s an oversimplification – we were writing more than a 65 record, but we knew that Sean wanted music that was, I suppose, linear compositions that had a frenetic sort of energy that 65 has and that it had motifs and melodies and hooks that were recognisable and catchy, but we also wrote a bunch of soundscape stuff at the same time, which is reflected in the double-album release.
The truth is we didn’t really differentiate between the two in the sense of work. We just took some of the work further and let some of it be more minimal and more abstract. But that first year of writing, there was no audio engine for the game. There was nothing. And we knew it was being built and we knew a little about procedural audio and so I think that was where the real struggle was – we had to convince them, not only that we could write this score for them, but that we were a band that was uniquely qualified to collaborate on the procedural stuff.
And what was the feedback process like? Presumably, a year in, you had the full album in place?
I think we had a ten or eleven month deadline to finish the record. We went for a few meetings with Sean, we talked about a bunch of influences and things that we found interesting, we went and we wrote sixteen or twenty sketches of music, we recorded them quite badly and we sent them over to Hello Games and said, ‘How’s this?’ and they said, ‘Yep, carry on. More of that.’ And we just ran with it. We sort of knew they wanted us to be 65 and I guess, in that sense, that we took it upon ourselves to try not to do what 65 had done before and do what 65 might do next.
But yeah, the feedback was minimal and I think once they knew what the basics were, they were pretty happy to let us run. And I think that’s pretty unique in terms of game or film music. I’ve spoken to people who’ve had pretty bad experiences with execs getting involved, but we were protected from that and I’d like to think that they did that on purpose.
Like you said, I guess the element of trust plays a big part in that. It’s interesting talking to other composers who work on games that deal with big open worlds like this. Often they won’t see a script. Sometimes they won’t receive much more than guidance on a particularly mood or tone.
That sounds amazing. We didn’t even get that, but we did have the trailers, we did have the aesthetic, we did have the understanding of a little bit of the scope of the game… Plus, that initial trailer was cut to 65 and so we knew a bit about the mood they were going for. I think we just wanted to take that and push it to greater heights, whether that be cinematic, uplifting stuff or to get some dark stuff in there and some really sad stuff. Space is definitely a good backdrop for all those emotions.
People have often referred to your sound as being quite cinematic. Have you been approached to do film scores before?
There have been a couple of things that didn’t work out, but not that we were particularly notable approached for, no. We were in talks with some guys once from a Russian film years ago, but that didn’t happen. But it’s interesting to hear people say stuff about us being cinematic, because I don’t think we have always been cinematic in the way that Mogwai are cinematic. We were always quite wilfully scrappy and punky when we were in our younger days and I think it’s only in recent years that we’ve curtailed that to the point where… You can’t keep the freshness of your youth alive in later years and get away with it with any sort of sincerity, so we had to grow in to something else… I wouldn’t have embarked on a project like this when we were 24 or 25, because we just wouldn’t have been able to respond to it. It would have failed. So I think it’s come at a really good point.
The non-linear aspect of the game is interesting because your work is obviously at the mercy of the game’s systems. While you were recording the album, you were presumably factoring in the idea that this was going to be the visual accompaniment to an interactive experience, right?
That’s factored in, but we’ve cultivated in the band a really healthy attitude to records and music in general and arranging music in that we’ve lost the control freak elements of our early years and I think we just see a record as a snapshot, really, of music as it is in specific place and time… We made it the best record that it could be, given the time and the money that was available and we wanted it to run as a record, hence the tracklisting, but we also wanted to represent all that extra stuff, which is the second album.
The actual process of putting it to the game was almost completely separate. We then took those sessions and stopped thinking about it in a linear manner and started to think about it ‘horizontally’, as it were – as component parts, loops, phrases, motifs and we just used what we’d recorded for the album as a jump off to record more, but in a completely different way.
What does that entail?
You’re no longer composing in a traditional sense… You’re looking for textures, you’re looking for interesting sounds. You’re looking for interesting ways to represent melodies and rhythms. It’s incredibly enjoyable as musicians to do, because you’re literally just making noise and recording it, rather than having to worry about putting that noise in to a form people will recognise, let alone buy… Making albums is enormous fun, but being freed from that is incredible because without those constraints you can just concentrate on individual sounds and how they relate to each other and that just puts you in to different headspace really.
So, say you’d given Paul a piece of music that he particularly liked, would he then ask you to send a stem of that piece and then look at how expand that into a much longer piece?
Initially, Paul was using stems – album stems – but we quite quickly moved on to… we’d take a melody like, say, Supermoon. There’s maybe two or three main melodies in that which are supporting parts and you’d take them and just provide variations of them and then you might take those twenty variations and process them through synth or you might take the MIDI for those twenty variations and stick them through a modular synth and stick them out of an amp and record that, so you have these endless… Well, they’re not endless at all. That’s the whole point. You’re trying to give the impression of endlessness, but it’s not. It’s a library of audio… We established pretty early on that Paul would get final say but that, for the most part, the game was being based on our music, so we were trusted. We were given that responsibility. And we took that responsibility incredibly seriously.
And I guess one of the things that must have been really interesting was finally seeing how it was rolled out across the game. At what stage did you actually get to experience that?
That happened about three weeks ago.
Oh, wow. That late in the process?
Yeah. And it was brilliant. Paul came to visit us and he brought his computer and we played No Man’s Sky for about six hours. And it was incredible. It was really, really great fun. This was the day after they’d signed off on the game to Sony. I mean, we had been in the game a little bit in the couple of months prior to that to check that the audio was working, but never in a way where we had time to look around… So, yeah it was the last two months when we started to hear the music in the game and it was really only very recently that we got to check that it all worked, by which point it was too late anyway.
How do you feel the album stands up against hearing the music in the game?
I think people who buy the game and listen to the record will hear this really nice resonance between the two things, because the game largely doesn’t play the compositions on the album. They are in the game at specific points, but most of the time the procedural gameplay and the audio that’s being generated is unique, but it’s also reminiscent of the album in a really strange way where the human brain understands that it’s listening to those components, even though they don’t quite happen in the same way. And we didn’t think about that before doing this, but it’s very interesting.
Is it quite scary surrendering your work to a system where you no longer have any control over it? It’s sort of at the mercy of the player.
No, it’s not scary. It’s really exciting. Firstly, we have the record and we had creative control over that, but we’re not particularly that precious about the audio itself in game. We just wanted it to be as compelling as it could be and to some extent, you’re working within the constraints of what the software can actually do, and that was Paul Weir’s responsibility and we could only work with what we had. We just had to make sure that the raw audio that went in there was as interesting and as emotional as possible.
It is nice to know that all those individual elements come together in the game and work and that was very scary initially. I suppose it is conceivable that the game will spit out iterations of music that aren’t particularly good, but we’ve done everything we can to sort of avoid that. I mean, it’s not Skynet. It isn’t sentient. It isn’t Philip Glass’s brain in the game making music. There are controls in there. It’s part of a conversation about procedural music and I think that, in a year or two years or ten years, someone’s gonna come up with something that is even more procedural.
And you’re taking the album on tour later this year?
Yes! We won’t be playing all of it in the Autumn. We’ll be playing the new record. Some of the soundscape stuff is playable live. Some of it isn’t. Some of it’s more studio-based stuff. The first half of the record is clearly full 65 stuff and translates really well to being played live. We’ve got a large back catalogue to represent as well, but certainly the big tunes on there will be out there live. We are talking about doing something more purely No Man’s Sky- based live in the spring, which might involve some more visuals doing more procedural abstract stuff live, but we’re just trying to figure out a way to make that really interesting. So the Autumn tour will have the new stuff there, but it will be a more regular 65 show.
It’ll be interesting to see what the audience demographic will be there and to see fans turning up who’ve hopefully discovered you through the game.
Man, honestly, that would be the greatest thing that could come from this whole thing. Obviously, being involved with the game and getting to go through that creative process has been amazing, but if a couple of hundred extra people turned up, it would be so, so good for us. So I hope the people playing the game want to hear the music in that way.