23 Feb Development Diary 9: The Music
Music is such a powerful tool for driving emotion, often more so than art, dialogue or plot. So it makes sense that it should be part of the creative process from the start. Like every other aspect of the game we wanted to find a style that felt interesting and different in Hellblade.
The style of music says a lot about your game. A big orchestral score is probably the default choice for a lot of games and movies. It suggests a particular kind of product: the big Hollywood blockbuster experience. That is not what Hellblade is about.
Another obvious choice is to focus on the setting which in our game is a clash of Celtic and Viking cultures. We felt that a traditional Celtic sound would put a cultural barrier between you and Senua and would make it harder for the player to embody her journey. As for the Viking side, who knows what music would have sounded like in 700AD in Norway?
Rather than focusing on setting the music should tell a story or give an emotional resonance. Hellblade is about Senua’s dark journey into a strange hellish land to fight a clan of Vikings. Any number of style choices could tell that story. Think of the impact of non-conventional styles of music for independent movies like Drive or Reservoir Dogs.
In the end, it does come down to personal preference and practical reality. Ideally, the game should have a musical identity all of its own. After all, we do aim for a similar ideal for visuals and gameplay. So how do we find someone that can deliver that?
I personally have had little involvement in the music side of our games as this has generally been the remit of our Audio Director. On Hellblade, we don’t have an Audio Director on the team so I had to get hands-on with the music development.
I haven’t studied music, I don’t know the correct terminology and so I am very aware of my limits. But I do know the story I’d like the music to tell, and can articulate feeling through analogy. We all can. In your mind, the searing pain of a cut has a sound, as does the drone of depression, and the roar of rage, etc. And in these terms I can help steer.
But for this to work, the musician has to be on the same page and you need a level of innate understanding that allows you both to push and explore beyond the basic needs. I had this with Andy LaPluega.
If we were doing a traditional commercial AAA game, I would put my preferences aside but a lot of Hellblade is driven by our personal influences. I knew for sure that Andy could do the Viking battle music but unsure about other styles. But I thought it might make sense to put some faith in his musical ability and see what he can do. After all, that is a demand we put on ourselves, to work outside of our comfort zones so why not do the same with Andy?
By now you may have noticed a pattern in our approach be it art, characters or gameplay. We start with a germ of an idea, explore freely beyond the obvious choices, focus on key motifs and then develop a cohesive whole. This approach seems to work for all creative endeavours, and it seems to work for music. It is an approach that depends on having creative faith in people who have a burning desire and ability to explore and push beyond convention.
I put faith in Andy’s ability and he gave it back with some deliciously dark and inspired songs. There’ll be more development and exploration in music to come but based on the work so far, I’m glad we have him on board.