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Inspired by Journey, Lost Ember Tasks You With Exploring a Gorgeous Fallen World From a Different Perspective

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The world of video gaming is as diverse as it’s ever been, and that’s part of the reason why a game like Lost Ember can be made. Adventurous in its premise, it takes inspiration from games like Journey to create something where the setting plays a major role and where the main characters are all animals, who you control to explore your surroundings and uncover the secrets that the environment is holding.

The game, developed by independent studio Mooneye, is in the early stages of development, and the company is planning a Kickstarter campaign in the near future to allow them to work more closely on it to make it as good as it can be. I spoke to the team, made up of CEO Tobias Graff and his colleagues Maximilian Jasionowski, Pascal Müller, Matthias Oberprieler, and Florens Huhn, about how they’re finding the development process and their inspirations for the game, among many other things.

ONLSYP: Hi guys. Could I begin by asking how you all got started in the gaming industry, and whether you are all video game fans?

Tobias Graff: We all have different backgrounds. My first steps were at Goodgame Studios in mobile and browser game development. I studied media/computer science, basically programming with design mixed in to it. It wasn’t really game focused, but I kind of made it game focused by turning all my projects into games. So I started pretty early with school and university, then started to work for Goodgame in 2012.

ONLYSP: So, was that something you always wanted to go in to after university?

Graff: Yeah, definitely. I had programming in school and always planned to open my own studio one day. Then two years ago that dream came true.

ONLYSP: Is that the same for all of you?

Maximilian Jasionowski: I’m the designer and, actually, I only started working on games two years ago. We studied together and everything got started here. All my projects before were always games related, though, whether they were concept art or design. But this is the first actual game we’re working on apart from two little ones before.

ONLYSP: How did Mooneye get started? How did you all get together?

Graff: We met each other studying for Master’s degrees at university. We studied game development, and the point of that study is to make a small game in three semesters and to form a team to make it. For us that game was Lost Ember and pretty soon we found out that we worked really well together, and then we just founded a company, I think, three or four months in.

ONLYSP: What are all your respective roles in the company?

Graff: Pascal and I are programmers. I do a little technical art as well. Maximilian is our concept artist and art director, and Matthias our 3D artist. Then a friend of ours, Florens, writes the story and dialogue; he’s the narrative designer. So we have pretty clear roles.

ONLYSPWhen you got started did you have a clear idea of what sort of games you wanted to do?

Graff: I wouldn’t really say clear. It changed a lot over the first couple of months when we just worked on concepts and ideas, and tried some stuff out, and after that it became pretty clear. We changed a lot of things recently, but the general idea was maybe set after half a year or so. We had our game and our basic mechanics set up, and we all wanted to make a different kind of game, not a standard or classic one with lots of combat or points or high scores and stuff like that, but a rather relaxed game and a cool experience. That’s the basis of Lost Ember.

LostEmberScreenshot03

ONLYSP: When you did the smaller games was the aim always to work up to making Lost Ember?

Graff: The smaller games were just mobile games, and with the first one we basically just wanted to actually finish a game and publish it to see how the whole experience was, how the market reacts and what’s behind that. We realized it’s pretty hard and with the second game it was similar. We had a partner for that who originally planned to work with us and to develop a platform for this game, but unfortunately they went bankrupt so it was pretty much dead from that moment on.

ONLYSP: Has the shift from mobile games to PC gaming been difficult?

Graff: We never really wanted to be a mobile developer; we were always more focused on PC and console games, and the mobile stuff were just experiments. We just wanted to see how that market works, but we always aimed at the PC and console market.

ONLYSP: Did you find the mobile market works in an easier way than the PC market?

Graff: Well it is easy to just get your game out there, but it’s definitely not that easy to get people to see your game so without actual marketing or a publisher; you’re just invisible.

ONLYSP: So can you explain a little bit about Lost Ember, where the idea came from and why you decided to do it?

Graff: Yeah, it was a long process. The first idea that we had was just that we wanted to do something with animals and walk around in a world and experience that world from a different perspective than our own. Using animals, you can see the world in a different way. We just tried a lot of stuff with different animals and pretty soon we had the idea of switching between all of them.

We got that idea from a game nothing like Lost Ember: a racing game called Driver 3, where you can switch in to other cars. Around the time that we first came up with Lost Ember I played that game and then we kind of mixed that mechanic of switching in to other animals or people in to the game. The idea was born to control different animals and to have all these different perspectives in the world. Then we just needed a story and a world for it. That took a long time; a few months ago we changed everything again and now it’s a completely different story and a mostly different world, so it has been a long road to get to the point that we are now.

ONLYSP: Is that because the previous story didn’t work with the mechanic or did you just think it needed changing to work better?

Graff: At first our idea was to cut the story in to four or five smaller episodes to make it less work and more manageable for a small team like us — divide the work up so that you can have a full game earlier. We made a story for that so it had cliffhangers for different episodes but then we realized that it’s not that easy, and making multiple episodes, even if they are way smaller, is still a lot more work. It’s a lot more to organize and difficult to think of everything that happens in every episode.

After that, we changed the format and immediately felt much organized and just more comfortable handling only one game instead of five. But of course, it meant that we had to change the whole story because it was designed for different episodes and was pretty complex. We couldn’t tell that story in one five hour game so we cut and changed a lot of stuff to make it work in the new format.

ONLYSP: From what I’ve seen, the game seems pretty open world…

Graff: Well we don’t really have complete open world; there are just open segments and then there are linear segments that lead to open segments again where you can fly around as a bird or as other animals, but it’s not one big whole open world.

ONLYSP: What appealed to you about Lost Ember as a story?

Graff: I don’t know, actually. We had one big meeting where we discussed different ideas and different setups. It was a whole day that we just brainstormed about that and then somehow, I don’t remember how exactly, but we landed on lost old cultures that you can get to know and we invented the whole flashback, memory mechanic. I’m not sure how we came to it, but it was one of the ideas that we liked most.

Jasionowski: It came from the idea that we only have animals and there are no humans left, so this was one starting point. We had different ideas and finally landed on the Inca culture.

parrot

ONLYSPSo that’s been a different process entirely to the making of the game — more research. Was that fun to transfer in to the game?

Graff: Yeah definitely. It was really interesting to just learn about the old cultures for one thing, because it was really interesting to see how they actually lived and what they did, but also to try to think like they did […], to get in to this mindset of an old culture and think of stuff that we can put in to our game from our culture.

ONLYSP: When is the game set?

Graff: The time of the current world is not set to any date, really, but the memories that you have are from a long, long time ago.

ONLYSP: So when you came up with the stuff from a long time ago, what did you use as your reference point or did you just come up with something that would look good?

Graff: Mostly our narrative designer read loads of different stuff about different old cultures from our world, like the Inca and Maya, but also every old culture there is, basically. So we mixed a lot of stuff together, took parts from different cultures, and tried to find something that looks natural as it would look in these old cultures, despite it being a fictional world with a fictional culture.

ONLYSP: So under all the greenery is the ruins of an old civilization?

Jasionowski: Yeah, everything is really beautiful, but underneath it there is a story about the old civilization and how people lived. It’s actually apocalyptic scenery, I guess, but in a beautiful way.

Graff: It looks like paradise, but there’s actually a fallen culture underneath it.

ONLYSP: Was that the catalyst for your mechanic where you go back in time?

Graff: Both things came at the same time; we had this idea about old cultures, and how we can include that idea in the game without actually just including an old culture that you play as all the time.

ONLYSP: Are your animal characters learning about the old cultures or is it just the player learning?

Graff: Well the wolf learns it, too. The wolf is the main character all the time, and the wolf is the one that finds out all the stuff.

ONLYSP: Since your main character is a wolf, I was intrigued by how you tell the story. Is it told in language or is it more visual?

Graff: Both, actually. Lots of stuff we just tell through paintings and things like that, but other parts are told with a narrator. Actually you have a companion with you that guides you through the world and he is the one that shows you the memories. He is basically the last soul of the old world and witnessed the fall of this world. If you find artifacts, ruins or other key elements, you can see his memories and he tells you what he saw or what happened. That way you get to know the last years before the fall of this civilization through the eyes of this one person.

ONLYSP: How did you make the environment interesting to look at but also one that pushes the story forward?

Graff: We just think about key themes and visualize the different scenes, thinking about what a particular scene can tell you and how it can do so in the most natural and understandable way. We go scene to scene, basically. We set up these different scenes and we know what you will see in each of them and what moment of the story it can tell you about.

Jasionowski: We also are really playing a lot with colors and lighting, using contrast to bring out different emotions. For example, if you want to express something dark, we’d use something like a cave where everything is bluish and cold.

LostEmberScreenshot09

ONLYSP: So would you say that the major aspect is exploration?

Graff: Yeah definitely. You are moving through the world with different animals, whether that’s on the ground or in the water; there are many ways you can move around. You really have to use those to find certain things and to find the story elements so exploration and playing around with the possibilities you have are definitely the key elements.

ONLYSP: And is there any combat at all?

Graff: Not much really, no. We’ll have scenes where there is a little more action where you have to do something, but no direct combat system.

ONLYSP: The mechanics stay the same for the whole game, is that right?

Graff: That’s correct. The mechanics stay the same but you have different animals to choose from. When you are in the jungle there are birds and when you are in the mountains for example there are different animals, and fish in the water. Different areas of the world give you different possibilities. The basic mechanic that you can switch in to any animal stays the same, but the animals that you can switch in to change during the game.

Pascal Müller: Basically the mechanics always support the story. We have a story and we then talk about what kind of mechanic would support it and not the other way around. It’s not a generic shooter game that thinks about the mechanics first and the story later, so the mechanics support what’s going on.

ONLYSP: Have there been any games that have inspired you?

Graff: For the general gameplay the most inspiring game was probably Journey. Just the way the game is, it lets you explore the world at your own pace and you don’t have to fight or collect coins or anything like that, you just have to walk your way through the world and get to know the story and then you find some extra stuff that tells you more about the world.

Müller: Dear Esther and Shadow of the Colossus are also inspirations.

ONLYSP: Expansive environments and a slow pace then. Does it play with as slow a pace as Journey does?

Graff: At times, definitely. There are really times where you just move around slowly and have time to explore everything. There are also faster scenes that push you forward a little but in general I’d say it’s similar to the pace of Journey.

ONLYSP: So when you first started making it what would you say the main challenges were for you?

Graff: Well the main challenge for the company as probably for most companies was just getting the money to actually work on the game […]. We had to do lots of contract work and side jobs and stuff like that to be able to work on Lost Ember a couple of days a week and to finally afford this office that we are in now.

The second problem was just probably to plan that far ahead, we’ve never worked on such a big game before so it was difficult to estimate how long we would need to develop it. Our first deadlines went out of the window very quickly, we didn’t know anything that we were doing and to actually get a feeling for how long this stuff takes took us a while.

Gohardani: As you’ve gone through the process have there been new challenges every step of the way?

Jasionowski: There was always stuff that cost a lot of money that we didn’t plan and then we had to deal with that and struggled to just keep the company afloat.

Gohardani: Did you have external help to work on things like music?

Graff: Our music is produced by Solid Audioworks, who worked on all the Grand Theft Auto games for example. They came pretty soon to the team, we were just working for a few months on Lost Ember and just had some early concepts and very early videos, but they both were immediately hooked and from that pretty early moment on the sound and music was handled by them.

Jasionowski: It was really unbelievable for us when they wrote us the email after coming from Rockstar. We didn’t really believe them.

Graff: Until we visited them in Scotland and we finally believed they really were the guys they said they were.

ONLYSP: Did it come out of nowhere or did you approach them?

Graff: No actually they approached us. Pretty early when we got the concept we were featured in IndieGame magazine. They ran a competition on Twitter where they asked different developers to submit their games and then they would choose games to write about for a year. We wrote them and they chose us and then the first article they published in the series was apparently read by Will and Craig from Solid Audioworks. They liked what they read and they just wrote us an email out of nowhere and it was amazing.

ONLYSP: Would you say the music and the sound effects are big aspects of the game?

Graff: I think in most games sound and music is a really big aspect but it’s often underrated. It definitely is very important in Lost Ember because we try to make the player feel certain things and have different emotions at different parts of the story. Those emotions are best emphasised through music and through sound so it’s really important to have the right music at different parts of the game in order to ensure that you feel the right things.

ONLYSP: So from a graphical sensibility I’ve looked at a lot of the pictures and they are very pretty and I was wondering how long that took you to create and whether it was a process that you talked about and deliberated on for a long time.

Jasionowski: Yeah it was. We have different styles and we tried different things, working for a few months until we landed at the style we have now. I think it took about four or five months to get to the fully rendered style that we wanted. Before that, we wanted to use a 2D-like style that looked a bit like it was painted, but then we changed it after three or four months because we thought it would work better. It was easier for us to do and it put the nature in the foreground.

Graff: It’s a vivid world and we thought it worked best with a more realistic but still stylised aesthetic.

ONLYSP: Did the style evolve over the course of a few months?

Jasionowski: Yeah. We couldn’t plan it really because we didn’t have two months beforehand to just do the concept art.

Graff: We went and started to develop something and then everything, from the game itself to the concept and the style just evolved over time through just working on it.

LostEmberScreenshot13 (1)

ONLYSP: I read on your blog that recently you’ve had a few funding problems.

Graff: Yeah we had different stuff from just legal advisers that didn’t advise us that well, as it turned out. Different taxes and fees you have to pay as a company that we didn’t fully know about and stuff like that, but that’s all resolved, finally.

Müller: We could still use a little bit more money but we’re safe now.

Jasionowski: The biggest problem is that we have our sidejobs and we are there for half of the week and we just have two and a half or maybe three days a week to work on the game so it’s been a long process.

ONLYSP: Are you starting the Kickstarter to speed up the process or is it just for more funding?

Graff: At the moment we all have side jobs and do contract work and stuff like that and that of course slows the development down and doesn’t give us any security and planning for what can happen in a year or so. With Kickstarter we hope to get the money to actually work on Lost Ember full time and to just have a few months that we can totally focus and totally plan time in for Lost Ember and not have to think about contracts we need to do. Just give us a free head and speed up the development.

ONLYSPWhen would you start the Kickstarter?

Graff: We don’t have an exact date, yet, and still need to prepare some things, but we think we can start in a few weeks around early October.

ONLYSPDo you have a rough idea of the sort of goal you want to go for?

Graff: Yeah we still have to plan a lot of stuff, like what our stretch goals are and what we can offer as perks for the pledges. We have rough ideas but nothing more.

ONLYSP: Have you been to many conventions and conferences with the game?

Graff: We’ve been to some, we went to Gamesweek Berlin with Amaze festival. We showed Lost Ember and a small VR demo that we made for it too. We were thinking about maybe playing around with VR and make some kind of VR mode but we’re not sure if it works. The first demo of that we showcased at Amaze and feedback was really cool, apparently everyone loved it. Someone from Epic Games actually played it and just two weeks after that we had a HTC Vive in our office because they just wanted us to keep trying and working on that VR mode.

We also showed a short pre-alpha demo at Gamescom very recently.

ONLYSP: What sort of feedback did you get? Have you had much feedback in general?

Graff: Even though it’s not nearly finished, there were times where we had huge queues and big crowds watching people play the game. We even had a few people tell us that our booth was their favorite at the whole thing!

We’ve also had great feedback for the videos and the screenshots that we’ve put out, it’s been really overwhelming. Our new teaser that we released just a few days ago is already at 70,000 views and still counting.

Jasionowski: It’s a great feeling that we have this newsletter and subscription button on our website and currently the phone is ringing every couple of minutes which is unbelievable, with people wanting to get news about the game.

ONLYSPYou mentioned that you were dabbling with the idea of VR. Would there be much that you would have to change about the game in order to make that possible?

Graff: Probably. We still have to try lots of stuff but it’s a third person exploration game with different perspectives and that makes it difficult to move to VR, where you have to be in first person ideally. Maybe we’d have to change the whole camera system but we still haven’t really tried it a lot so we’ll experiment more. Maybe it’ll work but we’ll see.

ONLYSPSo you’re not thinking about that at the moment?

Graff: Not as a main goal no. We’re thinking that maybe we can do it if it works and if people respond to it but it’s not the main goal that we have with Lost Ember.

ONLYSP: How much of the game is ready so far?

Graff: It’s not that easy to tell because as soon as the mechanics are done the rest won’t be that much more work, but I’d say around 30%.

ONLYSP: So you’re still in the early stages then.

Graff: Definitely. We hope to release hopefully in late 2017 or early 2018, so it’s some time away.

ONLYSP: Would you be looking for a publisher next year or would you put it out yourselves?

Graff: It would be great to put it out ourselves. We are already talking to some publishers but at the moment we hope to be able to get funding from Kickstarter to keep creative control and really make the game we want to make without the pressure that comes with a publisher. But we also already talked to publishers who seemed very open minded, so maybe there are ways in which we both can profit from one another.

ONLYSP: Is that going to be part of the Kickstarter campaign, to try and release it yourselves?

Graff: Yes. If we get more than we ask for then we’ll try to put that in to marketing and distribution and maybe do it without the classic publishing deals but just with a PR partner or something.

ONLYSPWill the game just be released on PC or are you going to consoles as well?

Graff: We’re aiming for PC, PS4 and Xbox and maybe even the new Nintendo whatever that will be but definitely consoles as well.

ONLYSPIs that whole process difficult, will transferring it be hard for you as a team?

Graff: I hope not, we’re working with the Unreal Engine 4 so most parts of the game theoretically can be transferred to different platforms but there is some stuff still to do to get it to the PlayStation store and implement all the PlayStation and Xbox hooks and whatnot. But I think that’s manageable compared to the whole game.

 

Mooneye Studios are announcing a Kickstarter campaign this fall during which they will tour across Europe. However, they won’t start the campaign until they have 5000 subscribers for their newsletter. To make the campaign more interesting, the person who can recruit the most subsscribers that back the Kickstarter campaign will win a special $300 Lost Ember set on release. You can get a little more info at http://www.mooneyestudios.com/blog/50-lost-ember-kickstarter-challenge

Features

From God of War to Darksiders: A Journey Through Epics — An Interview With Composer Cris Velasco

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Cris Velasco interview (God of War, Darksiders)

Music has always been a crucial aspect to consider when building the atmosphere of a video game. Whether it is a part of a blockbuster or an indie game, music adds texture and feeling that makes them feel complete. Cris Velasco has had an extensive career in scoring games, and has worked on titles both big and small, including the God of War trilogy, Mass Effect, and Darksiders. He spoke to OnlySP about his career in games and delved into some of his work more specifically also.

HARD BEGINNINGS

Unlike a lot of musicians who start their musical journeys at a very early age, Velasco only really started to get involved in music in his college days, when suddenly it appealed to him in a way nothing else did. “I had just started going to my local community college where I grew up, not knowing what I wanted to do or study. I was taking a variety of classes and one of these classes was a music appreciation course. It just sounded fun and easy honestly, and one day in class when we were studying the classical era and the professor played Mozart’s 40th symphony. I had this epiphany in class and I instantly realised that’s what I wanted to do.”

He had, however, a long way to go before that dream could become a reality.

“It was kind of crazy because I couldn’t read music, I had no formal music training at all,” Velasco said. “I had played electric guitar in a death metal band, but this Mozart symphony just evoked so many feelings and it moved me, so I stayed on at that school for another year, only taking music courses. Theory, ear training, history. I took piano lessons and learned to read music, and then I put a portfolio together of some short symphonic work that I had written during that time and wound up going to UCLA on their composition programme. That’s how I got my start in music, but it wasn’t until my mid twenties really.”

Coming to love music so comparatively late is definitely unusual for career composers like Velasco, but that passion led him to pick it up exceptionally quickly. Having initially fallen in love with Mozart, Velasco soon found another love: soundtracks.

“Even when I wasn’t studying music, I’ve always loved the film scores of John Williams, especially Star Wars, growing up. A New Hope was the first LP that I ever bought. Actually, when I was learning classical music and getting my foundation in that, I did listen to a lot of film scores and I leaned more on the horror side. The score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a big influence on me, as well as Chris Young’s Hellraiser music. Those definitely pushed me towards feeling like I might want to write music for some sort of visual media.”

At first, like a lot of composers, that media seemed like it should be film, and Velasco proceeded accordingly, scoring student films while at college. They were not the satisfying creative experiences that he wanted, though, and he soon realised he could explore the musical themes he wanted to in the world of video games, even if his memories of games in his childhood did not support that view, at least initially.

“I grew up playing games as a kid, as far back as the early Atari days. When I went away to school I didn’t have much time for it so I set games aside for a few years. When I did, the music was still not great in terms of quality, or implementation.

“In the short time I took off playing games, they seemed to have really evolved. It was from that moment on that I knew that I wanted to score games. I had been thinking more of film scores, so I had done the typical route of scoring student films, and trying to find a director that paired well with my music and personality, but I just couldn’t find it while I was in school. It was a bit frustrating because I wanted to write these big epic orchestral sagas and that just wasn’t needed in the time I was at school.”

That transition was not a smooth one though, and neither was the transition to full-time work in music. Again, Velasco’s route was perhaps unusual when compared to his counterparts.

“You hear about a lot of composers that instantly found their market within the first six months, and are immediately doing amazing projects, but for me it was a really long, tough road. I graduated and then it took me around seven years to land my first project,” Velasco explained. “I had to have a number of horrible day jobs. I did everything. Every restaurant job, I roofed houses, I actually went out to a forest and was cleaning wells. I was lowered down into a well and I was pulling boulders out! That was horrible!

“I worked at a women’s clothing store for one day until I quit. My final, final job was maybe the worst of all. I was a telemarketer, and…I was maybe the world’s worst telemarketer because I just didn’t care. I knew what a drag it was to get harassed by these guys on the phone, so I would call up and basically ask if they wanted the thing, and if they said no I would just tell them to have a good day and I’d be out, so there was no hard sell from me! While I was doing that, I had an opportunity to pitch for a game based on Battlestar Galactica. It was my first real pitch opportunity that I’ve had in my entire life, and it was actually due that day! That was kind of unheard of and the situation has never happened to me since.”

That bolt out of the blue was a long time coming, and Velasco knew it was a shot he had to take.

“I’m not exactly sure what the backstory was on that but I assume I came in quite late on the project. I called work up that morning, they knew I wanted to be a composer, and I told them that I had this opportunity, that this was my chance, and that I’d need the day off. They said no, so I just quit. I was sure I could find another horrible job, but I am quite sure that I wouldn’t have found another opportunity to pitch on an awesome video game project.

“The game was based more on the original show from the ’70s, not the reboot. So I listened to the old Stu Phillips scores again a little bit, then I wrote some music and turned it in, and about 30 minutes later the company called me. It was Vivendi Universal, and they told me that they loved my pitch but unfortunately they had already just hired somebody about an hour ago. It was crushing to say the least. I decided then that I had had enough. After seven years of chasing this carrot, I had my shot, I didn’t get it, and I was just tired.”

At that point, hopes of a career in music may have had to fall by the wayside.

“I needed something else,” Velasco explained. “I thought I would continue to do music as a hobby, but I was done as far as the professional arena was concerned. I was going to go to culinary school; during that time I had learned that I loved to cook. The very next day though, these guys called me back and said that they were listening to my pitch again and that they heard the passion behind it and did really love it and wanted to give me a shot. So they gave me one cinematic to do. It was maybe a three-minute piece of music, and from that one piece I was suddenly able to pay my rent and my bills for the entire month. Just with that one piece of music. I felt like I had made it!”

Suddenly, victory was snatched from the jaws of resignation, and Velasco was able to start to build the career he had wanted since his college days. His work started to snowball from there.

“That was my goal all along. When I could pay my bills writing music, that’s when I would feel like I’d made it and was successful. So I was totally overjoyed. I wrote that music, and I gave it my absolute best effort. Turned it in. They loved it and gave me another one to do, and then they just kept sending me tracks to do, they were loving them.

“After a couple of months, they told me that they had just let their original composer go and asked if I could step in as the lead composer on it. That really transformed my life. From that moment on I have been a professional composer non-stop. I have had almost no downtime since that first game.”

THE BALL STARTS ROLLING

His career so far is a remarkable story, and not that much later Velasco became involved in a project to match it: God of War.

“I think I worked on four projects total for Vivendi after that. Following those four, I had spent all these years trying to network and make friends in the industry, and that is still true to this day, that most of the work comes from people that I’ve met and worked with over the years, so it’s so important to continue to network.

“I had met a guy a few years prior to that who ended up working at Sony as the head of audio. He invited me over for lunch and was talking about a new IP that they were just starting. He couldn’t say what it was, but he thought it would be right up my alley and told me he would love for me to pitch on it. That turned out to be God of War and that was my first legit triple-A project. It really helped launch my career.”

Once the ball started rolling for Velasco, he was just going to gain traction from there. All he needed was that first massive project. Working on something as huge as God of War was a new experience, but it did not feel any different for him.

“At the time we didn’t know it was going to be huge. It was only later when it came out that it became crazy, but at the time it was just my next project. Nothing particularly special about it in that sense, other than knowing that it looked really cool and that I got to finally write in this big, bombastic style that I’d been wanting to. Ever since then I don’t know that any projects have ever felt different to me. No matter if it’s something huge like Mass Effect or Borderlands, or I just recently worked on a bunch of music for Fortnite, they’re enormous franchises but they’re just my next project that has my attention. I don’t treat something that costs $100m to make any differently than I would an indie project.”

This idea speaks to Velasco’s process, which is the same no matter what he is working on, no matter the budget.

“I’m not necessarily even seeing that much from the game when I’m working on it. I just spend as much time with the project as possible. If it’s early on and there’s not even any gameplay I can see, I will just ask for tonnes of art, whether it’s in-game or just concept, and I just really learn as much about it as I can, see as much as I can and then I imagine what the experience will be and just go from there. I start hashing out some thematic ideas or just textural ideas and figure out what the sound of the score is. In the beginning, if I have a lot of time, I’ll really take it and not rush into it. It’s just a case of wrapping my head around the project and making it sound different from what I’ve done before and different from other games that might be in the same genre.”

A franchise such as God of War has a strong sense of identity, both in terms of its setting and time period, but that does not necessarily have an effect on Velasco’s thought process when coming up with a score. Indeed, a lot of aspects of the game remain unknown for large parts of the process.

“The setting and time can affect the score, but sometimes we’ll make a conscious effort to go against the grain and do something unexpected,” he said. “That either works nicely or is a trainwreck, so then you go back to the drawing board. Often I have to write some of the score before I’ve seen how the game might play. It’s a daunting task but I’ve worked on so many games at this point now that it’s really muscle memory. It’s very second nature. After talking to the audio director about the scope of the game I can pretty well imagine how it’s going to play out. It’s not totally overwhelming to try to write without seeing picture anymore.

“I am often asked if I want the script and usually I don’t really care to get it because…I’m much more of a visual person. If I’m reading a book I don’t necessarily hear…I don’t start composing a score to it in my head, I’m just fully engaged by the story, but if I’m watching something that doesn’t have a score in it or even if it does sometimes, I find that my brain is actively trying to compose to it. So the script to me is…I’d rather just get the main beats, I don’t need to read all the dialogue choices between every character. That just bogs down my process, it’s a little too much information.

“I did a project last year I think called The Invisible Hours, and that one is all story. There are these seven intertwining stories, kind of this murder mystery, Agatha Christie thing, but it’s so fascinating and there’s no way to understand the game without reading the script, and each character had their own script so there were 7 of them. That absolutely blew my mind. That was the first time I’ve enjoyed reading a script for a game. It was expertly done.”

CONTINUED SUCCESS AND GENRE BENDING

Around the time Velasco was working on God of War III, a new franchise came along, something else with an equally massive scope: Darksiders.

“I had heard of Darksiders and saw some of the covers on game magazines, so I knew about it and I had tried to pitch for it. The audio director, funnily enough, happened to be the same guy that got me in on God of War. He had switched over to THQ and was head of audio there. So I knew about it but the developer had an in-house guy and told me it was all being taken care of internally. They told me they’d get me in on something else, but I thought that Darksiders looked super cool and I really wanted to do it.

“I don’t know exactly what happened but that composer wound up getting let go from the company, and it turned out that they were also unhappy with a lot of the score, so I got brought in to do a replacement. It did feel like it could be the next big God of War type franchise.”

Since the franchise came along at the same time as Velasco was continuing to work on God of War, whether the two overlapped in his mind was interesting to hear about.

“I think having two scores that I worked on, probably not simultaneously but in close proximity, meant trying to come up with something that felt unique to one, instead of just a knockoff. Honestly, I’m not really sure how well that was pulled off for Darksiders because a lot of the references were God of War. Even today I’ll write something that uses that big, epic, orchestral, choir, pounding percussion aesthetic and even though to me personally it doesn’t sound anything like God of War, I’ll still get comments out there going ‘This sounds like God of War!’

“You kind of just shrug it off like The Dude in Big Lebowski. ‘That’s just, like, your opinion man.’”

Velasco then returned to the franchise for last November’s Darksiders III, and since the early days the sound has evolved, and branched out.

“For Darksiders III, I did want the sound to evolve from what I had done on the first one. I didn’t do the second but I know, while it was still orchestral, it had some more hybrid moments that the first didn’t have at all. So I wanted the third game to be, in my mind, kind of a mix of the two, and an exploration of how that sound would be carried forward. Still very orchestral, but there’s a lot more synth work in it.”

This decision had little to do with the story itself, but was an artistic decision to bring a different mood to the game, apart from one small nod.

“There was one small reference to the first Darksiders score,” Velasco explained. “There’s a cinematic early in the game where you see War all chained up, and Mike Reagan and I had co-composed War’s theme for the first one. It never makes an appearance again as far as I know, so I did give it a little hint to the theme right there, but other than it’s all brand new material. Nothing from the first two.”

Those are not the only major franchises that Velasco has worked on, however. He was also part of the team who worked on the Mass Effect 2 DLC ‘Arrival’, before going on to work on Mass Effect 3 and a handful of its DLCs.

“I first came in on the second game. I did way more for the third game but on 2 there was…I think I worked on two DLCs. I didn’t work on the main game. Again though it was a matter of the composer being let go for whatever reason, and the audio director at the time was someone I had worked with previously at Ubisoft. He just called me out of the blue and said that they were in trouble and needed a new composer  because they had this DLC coming out. He asked me to do it, and those are my favourite gigs, where I don’t have to pitch and instead they just ask. It’s just a no-brainer. Do I want to work on the biggest franchise at the time? Absolutely I want to.”

A certain sound and aesthetic is associated with science fiction games like Mass Effect, but Velasco insisted that he tries to steer clear of genre conventions when writing for a specific project.

“At least from a compositional standpoint, I don’t treat games differently no matter what the genre of the game is. I just try to write the best music that I personally can for the specific project. It’s all about the colours and the timbres of the game though. With sci-fi we tend to want to go 80s retro. Mass Effect kind of brought that back and it’s stuck. These synths playing arpeggios in a Tangerine Dream way for some reason, in our collective brains, sounds like sci-fi. If you play it for someone who hasn’t played video games or ever seen Blade Runner…what does it sound like? Something completely different.”

Horror is another genre synonymous with certain sounds, and Resident Evil is a franchise with its own storied musical history, but Velasco’s work on Resident Evil 7 was more influenced by a musical movement called musique concrete rather than the genre itself. He explained what that meant, and how it affected his score.

“There was a Japanese composer named Takemitsu who was famous for his music concrete scores. Basically, if you recorded a bunch of different sounds to tape and then cut them up and edited all these different bits of tape into one piece…so there might suddenly be a female vocal which gets interrupted by static or an animal noise and then some percussion maybe…then you can layer all that on top of each other. What they did was also reverse the tape so everything is played in reverse, or you can stretch the tape out and then play it back slower and then record it slower.

“Basically, we used all these avant-garde techniques that are just trying to be different, but did it in a way that’s very cool, that’s what they wanted with Resident Evil. I had only briefly studied that back in school, and I didn’t care for it back then, like a lot of experiments in the 60s it just wasn’t for me musically. So I had to reacquaint myself with that, and now listening to it all these years later I could understand the beauty in it and also how that could be extremely effective in a horror score. So that’s what we did. I had to learn how. Before a single note of the score was written I went in to the studio and recorded tonnes and tonnes of string effects. Then we created our own software sampler to play these back and we had a sound design guy that did things like record a beehive that was swarming with bees, and all kinds of really cool sound effects, and then I recorded a couple of vocalists as well, not doing anything melodic, just doing vocalisations, just sound effects. Then we took all of that stuff, the string effects, the bees, the vocalisations and then in a puzzle sort of assembled this musique concrete score.”

This process certainly seems like a very interesting and innovative method for formulating a horror score, while managing to capture the unease and tension that is often required of music in games of that ilk.

“It feels both dissonant and really engrossing and gripping at the same time,” Velasco added. “Especially when you’re in the game, it really makes it worse or better depending on your perspective!”

That unique style meant that Velasco did not take any influences from other horror media, just letting the method do the work instead, and add to the immersive experience.

“For me it was its own thing. There are some melodic moments, and typically I prefer a horror score that has melodic moments in it, but on that game it was really supposed to just be more visceral and scary. No melody to hang your hat on, you know. Just hit that fear centre in the brain. Especially with the game’s VR capability. Lots of people that haven’t tried it, but I implore them to try it because it’s just taking gaming to the next level and it is amazing how within five seconds your brain accepts that this is your new reality. I guess gaming is more of a passive participation, in VR it’s full-on active participation. Not something I would do before bed!”

Quite apart from all of Velasco’s talent as a composer, he put down his eventual success in the industry to one thing in particular: networking. The relationships he has built in his career are what has allowed him to continue to get roles on interesting projects that he would want to work on.

“My number one rule that I recommend to everybody is ‘don’t be an asshole’. It seems like a no-brainer but you would be surprised. When I was at BioWare for Mass Effect, I had a new guy to work with called Rob Blake. I got to know him really well and he wound up leaving for a new start-up called Phoenix Labs and two years later when they were ready to get the ball rolling he called and asked me if I would do the score to their new game Dauntless. I’ve worked on that with them on that for three years.

“It goes to show that the community is so small, at least in audio. The original developer or publisher is that fresh dandelion, and then you blow on it and all the spores scatter out. If you’ve made strong personal connections with a handful of those spores, you’re gonna probably wind up working with them again. Then your own network just grows tremendously over the years. It definitely helps me sleep at night knowing that I’ve made all these friends that are doing amazing stuff and that there’s a better than average chance that I’ll get to work with them.”

Darksiders III is out now, as well as the first DLC for the game, entitled ‘The Crucible’. Velasco has also worked on a VR title for TequilaWorks entitled Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son, for which no release date has yet been announced.  

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