Last week, the long awaited and eagerly anticipated Alien: Isolation hit shelves. Garnering mostly positive reviews, the game is being hailed for its eerie atmosphere and terrifying stealth elements. And one of the elements that is being recognized and lauded is the score, which was composed by duo Joe Henson & Alexis Smith, aka The Flight.
Today, we’ve got an exclusive interview from the duo as they talk us through their process for scoring Alien: Isolation as well as their thoughts on where video game composing might go in the future.
Make sure to check out Adam’s 10 Ways to Die in Alien: Isolation!
Tell me about the process of working on ‘Alien: Isolation’. What was the first step in crafting the score and how important was Jerry Goldsmith’s original score as an influence?
Jerry Goldsmith’s score was our jumping off point. We referenced the film a lot, but were already very familiar with it. It is one of the few films that we still watch at least every year. We each have a very personal idea of what the Alien universe sounds like. Saying that, we didn’t just want to make a pastiche of the original score, so we started there but quickly moved in our own direction.
For this project we teamed up with film composer Christian Henson. One of the first things he did was an amazing piece where he expanded on the key Jerry Goldsmith themes. But from there we tried to get into new territory.
There are also some very iconic non-thematic sounds in Alien that we used throughout our score.
The game uses a lot of technology to make the music a truly immersive experience, one that reacts to what the player is doing. Considering that people have several ways of playing a game, how difficult was it to write cues that matched these different possibilities?
It is a balance. You have to be aware of how the music system is going to work, as that is the way most people will be hearing it, and it has a job to do in the overall experience of the game. At the same time, to begin with you have to try and forget about this, and concentrate on simply writing music in a musical way. It is the key challenge of writing interactive music, and one that we actually enjoy the puzzle of.
Some of the musicians who recorded the original ‘Alien’ score nearly 35 years ago were also there to perform for ‘Isolation’. What was it like working with people who were a part of the original story, before it became the phenomenon that it is today?
It was great to have some of the original players in the orchestra. One of the things we were racking our brains about was trying to replicate that iconic Alien ‘whale’ sound. We had tried using a superball on the soundboard of a piano and we had sung through a Zube Tube. However, one of the trumpet players who had played on the original said he remembered it being a conch shell. We used all three versions in the score!
Over the years, the ‘Alien’ games have long been plagued with bad reviews. Was there any concern in taking on this project?
Not really, we knew that the guys at Creative Assembly were doing something amazing as soon as we met them. They had a great idea that instantly intrigued us and were obviously putting real heart and soul into everything they were doing.
Creating a score that inspires fear, dread, and terror is not an easy task. What sounds or tones did you find sent shivers up and down your spine as you were working on this score?
Those iconic Alien sounds still scare us! The ‘whale’ sound, the menacing col legno orchestral snaps through analogue tape delays, and the unsettling aleatoric high strings. When writing the most extreme part of the score it was sometimes difficult to listen to. The player will only hear the chaos for a few seconds before he/she dies again, but we had to work on them for days.
As game consoles become more advanced, what opportunities does that allow you as composers in terms of creativity, range, and scope?
For us, it just removes any restrictions that might have come before. This is good for the industry – hopefully we can now concentrate a bit more on the musical content rather than how the technology works.
You’ve worked with some very big artists in the music industry. How do those experiences help with your scores?
We’ve come to scoring games from a different angle to a lot of composers; we don’t always think orchestra first. We usually just pick up instruments and start playing ourselves, or get some people together in a room. Working with artists has taught us that the magic usually happens when people collaborate. In some ways music has become a bit of a lonely exercise recently, with a lot of it made by people on their own on a laptop. We want to get away from this and it feels very natural to us both as that is how we have always worked.
In your opinion, what does the future of video game composing look like? What will change, what will stay the same, and what exciting advances do you think will revolutionize how composers create their work?
We hope it becomes more about the music and less about the technology. As the music systems are now limitless in scope, we hope that we can now get past that and return to thinking about what makes music engrossing and emotional. For us, that is about hearing real people playing instruments, as well as pushing electronic boundaries.
We are aware that there are some amazing procedural systems that are currently in development, but that doesn’t mean that is how all game music will be created in the future. We can imagine some types of games where this may be perfect, but hopefully there will always be a place for hearing real people making, writing and playing music.