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Sounds of Eden - Behind the Music of Mutant Year Zero
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:17pm 30/01/19 | Comments
We chat to the composer behind one of the surprise gems from 2018.

Developed by independent Swedish studio The Bearded Ladies, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden features a distinct soundtrack to match its impressive look. A post-apocalyptic style that blends the familiar with the sci-fi and the fantastical. A world where pig-men and talking ducks converse with humans in a makeshift city called The Ark - a home base of sorts that also serves as one of the last places that survivors can call home, in a dangerous world full of threats.

“It sort-of evolved, as time went on, towards featuring a much more synth-based sound,” Robert Lundgren, composer for the post-apocalyptic Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden explains when asked about the stark, warm, and analogue synth sounds featured in the soundtrack. A blend of styles that draws on several eras, most notably with the synth-heavy music of the 1980s and the modern-day genre known as synthwave. “In the end, whenever I brought in more synths into a theme, the team would say ‘Oh, that's good, more synths. More like that’.”

For many out there the reaction would no doubt have been similar, as this is a genre and setting that feels tailor-made for synths. Think John Carpenter, Vangelis, Brian Eno, and others. Based on an existing table-top pen and paper game, it was the look and feel of the world that first inspired Robert’s dive into electronic and synth sounds for the soundtrack.

“The darkness of the forest levels that you explore, plus the fact that we were bringing in a lot of retro elements, all factored into it,” Robert recalls. “As you play the game you can pick up artefacts like an old Commodore 64, which itself is tied to the 1980s. The spookiness of the forest in combination with the retro stuff that the game constantly references. I'm a big fan of that style, and because I play a lot of Fallout games, I probably drew a little bit of inspiration from that too.”

“In the end, whenever I brought in more synths into a theme, the team would say ‘Oh, that's good, more synths. More like that’.”

Created by a small team of veteran developers who worked across titles like Hitman and Payday, Robert Lundgren’s work on the sound design and music was a key part of Mutant Year Zero’s development. A turn-based, story-driven strategy game that is one-part XCOM, one-part Fallout, and another part its own thing. Working throughout the course of the game’s development Robert’s work changed and evolved alongside the game -- to create that final synth-heavy sound.

A sound that is perfectly encapsulated by the main title theme, which as Robert notes was created during the early stages of development but was then altered as the soundtrack begun to take shape.

Listen to 'Main Title'

“It was more of an orchestral theme at the start, but it still had the same melody,” Robert tells me. “When I had finished all the pieces, I went back to the more linear pieces like ‘Main Theme’ and ‘End of the Road’ which is the credits theme and changed them to match the whole synth-based sound of what the music had become. It’s a process where the sound is being constantly developed as the team develops the game. Testing the engine and playing sections, I developed the music in the same way. So, in that sense it's really been more music development, rather than music production.”

“I didn't necessarily know a lot about synthwave when I started,” Robert adds. “I just did what I thought sounded cool at the time and as the music evolved from a more traditional orchestral way of thinking, using arpeggios and synth lines that complemented the orchestral stuff made sense. The thing that people call synthwave, is not exactly ‘80s music either. It's ‘80s but still very modern.” A true statement that reinforces a lot of the difficulty of categorising electronic music in general. Throw in some vintage analogue synths and one might instantly try to date a piece, but like all the best synthwave out there the music in Mutant Year Zero isn’t beholden to an era it’s a mix of inspiration and using the advanced music tools available today.

The specific inspiration behind a sound or piece of music, is naturally a hard one for artists to pin down. Without a specific design document to work from, creating the music is often a process that evolves naturally or without conscious thought, jotting down each step or milestone. That said, Robert was also able to draw on his own past loving the synth sounds found in the music from artists as diverse as Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, and a few lesser known Swedish synth-pop bands.

Developing the sound and creating the music for Mutant Year Zero, Robert also investigated the original pen-and-paper role-playing game and others to find out what players were listening to when sitting down to play. “I know a guy who is a game master for pen and paper games,” Robert adds. “He's got some play lists on Spotify and there turned out to be quite a lot of synth-based music on those lists. That was good because, it meant the direction it was taking would satisfy them as well.”

“I didn't necessarily know a lot about synthwave when I started. I just did what I thought sounded cool at the time and as the music evolved from a more traditional orchestral way of thinking, using arpeggios and synth lines that complemented the orchestral stuff made sense.”

Creating music or the soundtrack to a digital game, especially one featuring rich characters and an immersive world as its setting, one might look at movie or television soundtracks as a like for like. Although one can indeed listen to the Mutant Year Zero soundtrack as a linear collection of tracks, the in-game music reacts, and changes based on player behaviour. Utilising the Elias Adaptive Music engine to create the soundtrack and music, players will hear similar yet very different sounds when exploring the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Mutant Year Zero.

Listen to 'Forest of the Ancients'

At its most basic level this results in musical pieces broken up into various parts that can be arranged and triggered as a series of loops. It also means that seamless changes in tone and tempo can happen when engaging in combat or other activities.

“The engine controls all the changes in the music, and that itself makes it easy to make these pieces feel like part of the game,” Robert says. “It's quite simple, all of these pieces are essentially looping, some of them are 32-bars long, some of them are longer than that. But, in order to make 32-bars feel organic and not like a loop you have to do some tricks.” Some of which, from a musical perspective are as simple as not dividing equally – in a traditional pop-like fashion. If a loop is 16-bars, divisible by four, to add variety one of the tricks Mutant Year Zero’s soundtrack uses it to make changes on an off-beat - the ninth bar or the seventeenth.

“You can't work in exactly the same way as you might when writing a traditional song for example,” Robert adds. “As the engine takes care of a lot of the changes, you really have to think about how you compose the music. With loops it can quickly become too predictable and generic, especially when you make game music that’s mostly just supportive and there to be the background. Because of that I like to bring in more random elements.”

One of the added benefits of using adaptive music tools is the ability to change individual elements without having to recompose or re-record minutes of music. This encourages experimentation and fosters creativity.

Listen to 'Search For Hammon'

“As an example, when you reach a combat situation in some games, usually the orchestra arrives musically in full force. I didn't want to do that here. Even though there are drums and sounds that are necessary to sell the tension I tried to develop the synth sounds, make them more dissonant in the combat situations. Not simply play with melodies and tempo but more like playing with chords and synth sounds in interesting ways. It brings in that unpredictability that you need for the player not to separate the music from the game.” The ideal scenario, as Robert sees it, is for the player not to hear the score at all. Metaphorically speaking. Instead the music becomes another part of the game and overall experience of playing. A part of, rather than separate entity.

“As the engine takes care of a lot of the changes, you really have to think about how you compose the music. With loops it can quickly become too predictable and generic."

It’s a design philosophy that can be heard throughout Mutant Year Zero’s soundtrack. This is not to say that there aren’t any direct comparisons that can be made to other scores or soundtracks across other forms of media. The music created for the cinematic sequences is very traditional in structure, drawing on orchestral movements – with the added touch of electronic sounds. As heard in the Main Theme piece, there’s a clear melody presented – a theme that can be heard echoed and arranged in different ways throughout the entire soundtrack. In the same fashion often heard in film soundtracks.

“I actually got a lot of freedom,” Roberts notes of the process of being part of a small team of close nit collaborators on an indie project. A fact that led to Mutant Year Zero becoming the largest game project he had ever worked on. Not in terms of size, but in its creative freedom to explore ideas. “Everyone is wearing several hats across the team, and we're quite small always working on something. We didn’t have a lot of time to give each other feedback on what we were doing – but in a way that can also be a very positive thing.”

“With that level of creative freedom throughout the process,” Robert concludes. “It all quickly became very personal, with the game feeling like my baby so to speak. Putting that much creativity into something, without someone constantly asking you to change things, is challenging and wonderful. As long as the rest of the team is happy with what I do of course. Their reinforcement is what drives one to move forward.”

As a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Robert Lundgren created the soundtrack for Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden using a mixture of analogue synths, instruments, software, and digital production techniques alongside the development of the game.

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