I recently had the opportunity to chat with composer Kevin Riepl, the man behind the soundtrack of the upcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines. Riepl’s work can also be heard in games like Gears of War and Unreal Tournament, as well as several horror films, including Silent Night and Cabin Fever: Patient Zero. Colonial Marines is a different beast in that its considered a sequel to Aliens, which obviously has a massive, devoted fan base, so there’s a definite bar to live up to. Kevin and I discuss those expectations and more after the break.
BD: Let’s start off with the most obvious questions – are you a fan of the Aliens films, and which do you think is superior: Alien or Aliens?
I am a huge fan of the Aliens films. To me, asking which one is superior is like asking me, ‘which is better; rock and roll or classical?’. To me they are both superior films and executed their stories in two totally different methods. Alien is like a horror/suspense film as if you’re locked in a dark cold building with a crazy murderer, whereas Aliens is an Action/Horror film as if you’ve called in the police force to handle this crazy murderer and hunt down his henchmen. Both have stories we can relate to in two totally different ways. Subsequently the films stand on their own without one being superior than the other.
BD: I’ve heard you’re a gamer, so what game are you playing now?
I just finished Far Cry 3 and I am currently playing The Cave.
BD: You’ve worked on the horror genre in the past with films like Silent Night and the upcoming Cabin Fever: Patient Zero; are there any horror games you’re particularly fond of?
To be honest, I never really played a horror video game that I’m fond of. I am not saying none exist, but I just never came across one that affects me the way films do in the same genre. I hear the Silent Hill franchise has some of the best to offer, but I think I missed the boat on those. I never got around to playing them. There is one that I do remember liking a lot, it was Nocturne back in 1999.
BD: Perhaps what’s most interesting about ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines’ is that it’s considered a sequel to James Cameron’s Aliens – did that make it intimidating in any way to work on this title?
At the onset of composing for the project it was pretty daunting knowing I’d be following in the footsteps of James Horner’s Aliens score. The more Gearbox and I discussed the music before moving forward there was agreement to also reference Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien. During the story of Aliens: Colonial Marines, environments that were in both Alien and Aliens would be revisited for this sequel. Therefore, we thought bringing back or paying homage to music from the first two films would be essential in helping link the story together.
BD: How did you go about making sure ‘Colonial Marines’ sounded familiar to fans of the films while making sure it had its own identity? Was that difficult?
It wasn’t necessarily difficult to create the score with this in mind. The tough part was finding the balance of how much of the score would be inspired or influenced by the Alien and Aliens scores and how much of it would be me and new material. Once the balance was agreed upon, it seemed to be a smooth process throughout.
BD: Do you have an artistic process you use when composing a video game soundtrack? Is it better to be familiar with and have seen or played the game, or can that get in the way?
I don’t have a definitive approach I use on projects, but it does always start with deciding on what type of sound palette or instrumentation the game calls for. It always helps when starting composing for a game to have some media assets to help kickstart the creative process. I always ask for concept art and a script if there is one. Very few times is there game footage available when being brought on to a project, unless I’m brought on later in the development process. Anything I can get my hands on related to the game would always help my creative process. With Aliens: Colonial Marines there was a huge amount of material to rely on for inspiration early on. Anything and everything from the first two films came in very handy when sculpting the sound palette for this score.
BD: A soundtrack is obviously a very important element of a video game, but it’s arguably more critical in the horror genre; are there any specific emotions you wanted to make the player feel while they’re playing the game?
In horror, it’s always essential to have the player or viewer feel uneasy throughout some of the gameplay. For this game I approached a lot of the tension and suspense in the same way Horner and Goldsmith did for the subsequent films. A lot of times that is, staying out of the way of the sound design and letting the tension build via sound effects and environment. Music will then help build and release the tension. I also wanted to convey a sense of ‘badassery’ during the moments you’re taking out xenomorphs left and right.
BD: You’ve worked on the soundtracks for several hugely popular gaming franchises – including Gears of War and Unreal Tournament – is there are specific game or series you’d really like to work on in the future?
For a long time the thought of working on a game based in the Alien universe, let alone coming right after Aliens, was always at the top of my list of games I’d love to work on. For future work, I always love to work on any game that challenges me to step outside my comfort zone of composing. Games are changing and new IPs are being created every year, so I can’t be specific about a game or franchise I’d like to be a part of. But if Guillermo Del Toro ever produced a game I’d definitely want to work on that, hands down.
For more on Riepl and his work, check out his official website.