Videogame music has always flirted with the alternative music industry. From the nostalgic 90s-era Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, which introduced artists such as Papa Roach and Rage Against the Machine to those of us who still didn’t have a functional internet connection at home, through to the 00s and the rise in popularity of Guitar Hero, it’s been an upward climb for the more extreme genres in music making an appearance in gaming.
These days, alternative genres are beginning to dominate videogame music as developers experiment with sound design and composition more than ever. A deeply intense, heavy soundtrack can add atmosphere and immersion to a game that would feel empty without it.
Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2
Take experimental folk outfit Heilung, who are working on the soundtrack for Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2. The Scandinavian trio base their own music on texts and runic inscriptions from the Bronze and Iron Ages as well as, lesser so, the Viking Age. The name of the band itself translates to “healing” in German, and with the narrative themes of the Hellblade series falling around Senua’s journey to heal from trauma and loss, the band already seems a perfect fit – and that’s before you even dive into their involvement.
“They approached us with an idea that rang very true within ourselves and the way that we work, because they’re working with healing but on a different platform,” Maria Franz, who joined Heilung shortly after its formation, says with a smile. “We were really aware that we had so much in common and really connected. I remember being fascinated by that.”
Heilung as a collective met in the early 2000s from a “living history scene” where they would reenact historic events. “It started with Kai [Uwe Faust] wanting to record some poems in my studio at the exchange of tattooing,” Christopher Juul explains. “It became a collaboration on art and music.” Heilung is not only a music project, he tells us, but a multimedia project with visuals, animation, and books with no limit. “That only felt natural to us to start collaborating outside what we normally do such as movies and videogames.”
Their collaboration with Hellblade series developers Ninja Theory came after a video of one of their live rituals went viral. “Tamim [Antoniades, co-founder] and David [Garcia Diaz, audio director] stumbled upon that video on YouTube and were like, ‘Oh my God, this is who we need to work with on the next game,’ and they reached out,” Franz says.
The trio then went on to travel to the Ninja Theory studio in Copenhagen where they showcased their working methods. “We took some artifacts we had in the studio and started playing around with it. Kai sang some, I sang some, Chris played some and spent an hour mixing it together and doing magic to it. David and Tamim were just sitting there,” she says mouth agape, chuckling. “We also became really good friends. They’re really nice people.”
Collaboration is at the heart of everything Heilung does and they hope that players will be able to hear that in-game. “When we create our own albums we go out into nature and record actual sounds,” Juul explains, “and this is very much how Ninja Theory works with this game to make it as immersive and natural as possible.”
That immersion takes different forms, but Juul goes on to explain that this shared vision for collaboration and nature led to the band recording sounds in Iceland, and more specifically a lava cave. This led to the creation of a soundscape that just wouldn’t be possible for a regular vinyl.
“The idea of being able to move your head inside the music, you know, like literally when you are moving your head inside the game you can change the perception of the sound and where different elements of the music are placed relative to you is something you cannot really do with a stereo,” he says. “That has been a really interesting path because that truly captures the essence of being in, for instance, a lava cave, because you are there. When you put on your headphones we are actually there in that location for real, singing, and you will hear it as if we are there.”
The passion and love Heilung has for Hellblade 2 and the Ninja Theory team is evident from the way its members talk about the process, the people, and the environments before even having seen any imagery from the game. As the creative process is still ongoing, and the band are obviously under non-disclosure agreements prior to its release, they’re limited as to the extent of the information they can reveal and discuss. “If you could look in our heads now you would be, ‘Oh!’,” Faust says with an open-mouthed, amazed expression. But that doesn’t stop Heilung from teasing us. “I can say something,” Juul says. “We are going to be playing the game much more than you think.”
“An easter egg for another time,” Franz adds.
The technicality and depth of Heilung’s involvement with Ninja Theory and Hellblade 2 runs much deeper than just music. Along this “fantastic journey” the band have been on, they’ve had the chance to bounce ideas back and forth with the game’s developers in a “ping-pong” process. It’s something they consider to be a gift and believe the end result will be something amazing.
Destiny and Halo 2
However, Heilung’s journey differs strongly from Misha Mansoor’s involvement with the Destiny series. Mansoor, a member of progressive metal outfit Periphery, states from the very beginning of our chat that he could “never” be a videogame music composer, despite having his work not only in Destiny 2, but on the Halo 2 Anniversary soundtrack too.
“I’ve put a lot of hours into Destiny,” he laughs. “There was a strike that had a song that I just loved. I thought it was a really well-composed song. These strikes have these boss battles and it’s the culmination of a long mission and you always hear the song. I just thought it was epic and fitting,” he says, before mentioning that he thought it would “make a good metal song.”
He took on the project with zero expectations: “I just did a cover of it for fun, but to the exact same tempo. I was using it as a reference track because I wanted to get all of the layers and all the little details.”
When his version of the Sepik’s Prime theme was posted online, Mansoor said people liked it. “As it turns out, they [Bungie] were working on an expansion,” he says, which was the Rise of Iron DLC for Destiny 1.
“I guess the developers just found it, and were using it as a placeholder for this one part of a raid that they were working on and they actually asked me if they could license it.” Mansoor laughs, “Yeah, I didn’t realise that’s how that worked.” In the end, the music wasn’t used for the raid in the original Destiny, but the original strike was revamped and reprised for Destiny 2, which now features Mansoor’s version of the track.
“It’s funny how that worked out. I’ve been involved with a couple of Bungie-related things by accident,” he says. “In this case it was just that I was a fan.” Mansoor is referring to the Halo 2 Anniversary soundtrack, which came about due to pre-existing relationships with Finishing Move, a production company working on music composition and sound design for TV and videogames, which Mansoor tells us does a lot of work with 343 Industries and Microsoft.
“They just did music for The Callisto Protocol and they did Flight Simulator and they do these big games,” he explains. “This [Halo 2 Anniversary Edition] was, I think, one of the biggest games they were doing at the time. Funnily enough I have never played Halo, but they were explaining that in the original game they licensed an Incubus song and a Breaking Benjamin song and they just didn’t want to have to pay to relicense those,” he laughs, “But they wanted these high energy rock and metal songs.”
As Mansoor explains, the rock and metal genres are tricky to work with and easy to get wrong unless you “live and breathe” them. When Finishing Move realised the limits of its capabilities, it approached Mansoor for help – something he was never really credited for.
“It’s interesting, I never got properly credited for it which I probably should be more mad about, but I kind of don’t care,” laughs Mansoor, referring to the final tracks that are on the soundtrack – Breaking the Covenant and Follow in Flight. “Luckily in the YouTube comments, people seem to know that it’s me.”
Despite his positive experiences, Mansoor is adamant he’d never want to pursue writing rock and metal for videogames further. “I think I would rather just be fed these little morsels and get to experience it for what it is. Seeing what Mick Gordon went through, I don’t know exactly what happened there and I’m sure there’s two sides to every story, but there’s one side there that’s got a goddamn table of contents. You know what I’m saying?”
Mansoor is referring to the well-publicised argument over working conditions and pay that has been taking place between Doom series composer Mick Gordon and developing studio Id Software.
“Knowing Mick, I’m a bit more inclined to believe him, and knowing what this industry is like – it kind of tracks,” he adds. “I don’t necessarily want to interact too much with that side. I like that I get to flirt with it a little bit and enjoy the fun stuff and not have to deal with the dark side of being a videogame compose.”
In terms of games he’d love to contribute to, the Final Fantasy series tops the list due to the immersive feeling and emotive response it triggers in him. “I think a lot of people might be quick to write videogame music off but I think the pieces of music that have affected me most in my life might be videogame music, which says a lot,” he explains. “You spend so much time in this world, in this game, and you form these emotional attachments to the story.”
There are, of course, instances where video game music contributors actually don’t have a hand in the composition of the track at all, as is the case for Merry Kirk-Holmes of To Octavia who was approached to feature on the Sonic Frontiers soundtrack seemingly out of nowhere. “Our drummer was a big fan of the series, but I was not too familiar with it or the soundtrack,” he says. Kirk-Holmes’ vocals feature on the main theme for Sonic Frontiers, I’m Here, but he’s still not entirely sure how that happened.
“We got a message from someone with no followers, nothing, and they said they were from Sega and had heard about To Octavia and wanted to get me to sing on a song, and we instantly thought it was a scam but asked them to email our managers,” he laughs. “They did, and it turned out to be completely legit.”
However, Kirk-Holmes’ creative input stopped at writing the lyrics and performing the vocals. It was Japanese-American hard rock band Crush 40’s Jun Senoue who was producing the track, and had a particular interest in emerging artists. Through this interest, Senoue heard Kirk-Holmes’ band and reached out.
“[Tomoya Ohtani] arranged the track and I tried to stick as much as possible to his guide melody,” Kirk-Holmes says, “They were okay with the first thing I put down,” he continues, noting that the process was “painless” and the only changes being requested were down to his Australian accent. Kirk-Holmes himself is an RPG fan, and loves the direction Sonic Frontiers has taken, but if you were to ask him what he would love to lend his vocals to next, it’d be a WWE game.
It’s clear then that there’s huge variation in the industry, down to how much creative input an artist has when working on videogame music, especially when that isn’t their main involvement in music and they all have primary projects. The roads in are varied and often unexpected, and it seems that artists are scouted for game music rather than actively seeking out these opportunities and putting themselves forward for them.
The rewards are different, the possibilities are endless, but there’s a definite shift in metal and alternative artists being asked to collaborate with game developers, as opposed to having their already released music imported into games. There’s much more creative freedom afforded to external contributing artists than ever before, and that in itself is incredibly exciting.