After more than two years of teasing screenshots and tantalising gameplay demos, No Man's Sky has finally launched. The level of excitement and expectation surrounding Hello Games' procedurally generated space explorer was unparalleled, and a large part of the reason why the game's transformative soundtrack.
I'm referring to Sheffield-based post rock collective 65daysofstatic, who helped Hello Games set imaginations alight with their track Debutante, which served as the backdrop to the game's unforgettable E3 2014 trailer.
Since then, the band has been hard at work creating a very unconventional soundtrack, one that's being ripped apart and reassembled by No Man's Sky's universe-making algorithms as we speak. How did they do it?
IBTimes UK sat down 65daysofstatic's Paul Wolinski to find out.
IBT UK: Having previously scored a movie in Silent Running, how did you feel about making the leap to video games? Is this uncharted territory for you?
Paul: Yeah, it's pretty uncharted. The thing about the movie soundtrack we did... it was more of a live score, so it was a little bit different to writing a record, but also a little bit different to writing a soundtrack for a brand new film.
There's no doubt that video games are a very different kind of model. Especially this particular game, because it needs an infinitely long soundtrack that responds to player actions. So I suspect that even if we had done a game score before, this would've been significantly different.
I imagine for even the most seasoned composer it would've been a leap into the unknown?
That's a good way of putting it. We were definitely up for the challenge. We'd been doing some sound installation work anyway, which is probably the closest thing from a composing perspective. That helped us think less linearly, in terms of placing music in space rather as opposed to conventional song form.
It sounds like that was the perfect lead in for this project, then?
Yeah, there were so many different facets to this game, and that was a really big chunk of it. Even when we started writing complete songs for the record, because that's where we started, we wrote them knowing they were actually going to be the eventual end point.
We knew we'd be ripping them apart, so we kept a close eye on the various ingredients we were putting into each track.
I mean, when we first came on-board [Hello Games] were happy for us to literally just write songs for them. They didn't want to pressure us into getting too involved but we were the exact opposite. It sounded fascinating, and it made sense to write specifically for their system as the vehicle, instead of composing songs and putting them through a glorified remix engine.
How close did you get to Hello's audio systems?
We were left to our own devices initially, but when the audio director came up to Sheffield towards the end of the project, he'd bring this super-powerful laptop and open up some software – you know, the sort you see in bad hacking movies, just code everywhere.
He'd run the game inside that system, and we'd see all the code flickering past. There was no way they could just give that to us, so what we ended up doing was actually building our own version of the game's audio system.
[We built] it in ways that we understood, because we can work with other bits and pieces of software. So we worked really closely with the audio director on a conceptual level to understand what their system would do.
How did that system make it easier for you to bring tracks over? Was it like a halfway house?
Yeah, but it wasn't even tracks we were exporting across. It'd be pools of wave files. And because we'd built our little systems – which ran on similar rules and logic – we could create soundscapes from what we were making.
That was the only way to do it, otherwise there'd be no way for us to hear what it'd be like in-game. It was a bit intimidating. And I won't lie, the game is coming out soon and we've played it a little bit, but it's impossible for us to have heard every combination of everything that we've written.
It's kind of amazing that the people who wrote the score will never hear it in its entirety.
Yeah, it's a weird one, but I like it. I like how we've been forced into thinking about songwriting in a very different way. Getting systems like this in front of people means a song is no longer one definitive thing on a record. It's this nebulous, live concept.
So what was the core of the album? No Man's Sky is packed with features – from trading, to mining, to combat – so it'll be different things to different players. With that in mind, was it possible to have a single driving concept?
I think the thing for us was the scale of it. We figured as we were coming out of the project that we'd been more interested about capturing that sense of scale from the inside out. [We didn't want to] create this grand, soaring sci-fi score - like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar – which almost seem to be looking at the universe from the outside in.
They give you a sense of enormousness, but we wanted to imbue our score with that sense of loneliness and isolation. Make it about a single person, if that makes sense?
So, without being too much of a downer, as if you wanted to show players how obsolete they are in the grand scheme of things?
[Laughs] Absolutely. Yes.
Not to be too pessimistic or anything...
Well the game is so hopeful. It's so beautiful and warm, we felt it was our duty to inject a bit of bleakness into proceedings. And actually, as beautiful as the game looks, it seems refreshingly difficult if you want it to be. You can find yourself on these incredibly hostile planets where everything's trying to kill you, so we wanted what we did to have that edginess.
Looking at your creative process as a whole, did you approach this as you would any other album? Is there a lot of preparation at the beginning, or do you like to dive straight in?
Well, the very first deadline we had was very tight. We wrote most of our songs in about three months, and the last 65days album took 18 months. So it was a real trial by fire.
As far as the brief itself went for us, Hello Games said they just wanted the next 65days album, which was weird in itself because we always try and do something new. But as we progressed it became clear that wasn't the case.
There's a spectrum to what we do, and some of it is a bit abrasive, and some is a bit warmer. It became clear they wanted the latter, rather than some of the weirder stuff.
But did you manage to sneak any of the weird stuff in?
Oh yeah. Loads of it. There's a three-minute drone track on the album, which we kept pushing, expecting them to eventually knock it back because it was too noisy. But they never did, and it's all gone into the game.
Obviously, some of the tracks are a very deliberate nod to our older stuff. For example we wrote Supermoon (above) very fast, and that was intentionally similar to the launch trailer track, Debutante.
When you look back on the project, what's the most rewarding aspect?
I think it's that all four of us in 65days are really proud of what we've made.
We've been proud of all our records, but there's usually a moment when they come out that we're itching to get on tour. Then when you're on tour you're head sort of moves on to the next project, because the album you've just made becomes this fixed, concrete thing.
This is the first record where we've not been desperate to take that next step. Don't get me wrong, we're looking forward playing it live, but the open-endedness of it, along with the methods we've picked up that'll help us make music in non-traditional ways, are really great.
To be honest, there just feels like there's still so much potential there for us to explore.