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Interview

Building a Lovecraftian Video Game with Frogwares’ The Sinking City

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In this Spotlight interview, we speak to a veteran developer about what it means to take inspiration from the page and turn it into an on-screen reality. 

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (better known as H.P. Lovecraft) spent most of his life in the North-Eastern United States, but the eldritch tendrils of his work stretch deeply to all dark corners of the Earth. While Lovecraft’s writing failed to support him financially during his lifetime, it has gone on to influence myriad artists, writers, and designers, and is now synonymous with Gothic ambiance and spine-tingling psychological horror.

With its atmospheric mix of dark horror and early science-fiction, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos weaves twisted tales of ancient artifacts, all-powerful entities, ghastly creatures, and the pursuit of forbidden knowledge – as a variety of protagonists across multiple stories seek to understand the indescribable and solve the mysteries of the Old Gods.

Lovecraftian influences in video games are widespread, ranging from the biggest AAA flagships to Early Access indies, all following in the footsteps of pen-and-paper adventures like Call of Cthulhu (1981), as well as a multitude of board and collectible card games, as they reimagine weird fiction in new and exciting ways. The manifestation of these influences are as diverse and interesting as the source material, even within the same game, borrowing not only place names and scenarios with a knowing wink, but narrative themes as well. Recently, Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 4 ran the gamut. Dunwich Borers, an optional (but highly-recommended) “dungeon” in the northern part of the game’s map, is an overt reference to a cornerstone of Lovecraftian fiction, The Dunwich Horror, where a fictional Massachusetts town is plagued by the results of a misfit family’s devilish rituals. Meanwhile, in The Secret of Cabot House, the Lone Survivor meets an unhinged but powerful family dealing with the troubling discoveries of a desert archaeological expedition – reminiscent of Lovecraft’s The Nameless City.

Lovecraftian themes are bubbling under the water-line in mainstream gaming, but few big-budget games put the mythos front-and-center. Ukraine-based studio Frogwares, known for the Sherlock Holmes series, are trying to do right by Lovecraft and in their recently-announced game, The Sinking City, they are electing to use the Cthulhu mythos not just as a backdrop, but as an anchor, grounding both the game’s world and mechanics in Lovecraftian lore.

“I think we’ve been through maybe three or four different steps in the life of the studio – starting with a handful of people, now we’re close to 80”, says Wael Amr, Frogwares’ CEO. “We’ve moved from having very specific teams that don’t communicate with each other, to now, where people aren’t working according to speciality anymore, but according to the needs of the game.

“In terms of business, we’ve turned from selling CDs and DVDs at retail to the digital era – everything’s changed, with a lot of crises in the games industry, but we’ve always stayed away from that, being independent and making our own games. We didn’t have to work by the rules others lived, or died, by.”

Founded in 2000, Frogwares are a well-established studio with a dozen releases to their name. Working independently, they’ve seen the games industry change and grow but have always tried to stay true to their strengths and make interesting games.

“The development community [in Ukraine] was mostly outsourcing until 2008,” Amr explains. “Mostly for Russian publishers, there were a lot of studios. But with the 2008 financial crisis, this part of the industry vanished in a few months, replaced by people making casual and mobile games. And that’s still the case today. There’re a few big studios like Wargaming, CryTek, Ubisoft, and us. All those other mobile companies are making games but from our side of the industry, they’re not really games: mobile games, gambling apps, stuff like that.”

Horrors rise from the deep in The Sinking City.

Horrors rise from the deep in The Sinking City.

A deep appreciation for Lovecraft’s work underpins Frogware’s drive to build a focused experience based on the Cthulhu mythos, and a desire to properly portray its sense of an interconnected, shared world inspired The Sinking City’s setting. In one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu, the narrator alludes to the fate of the protagonist in an earlier story, Dagon, as he studies, “cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity” around the globe.

“To sum up, it’s a Lovecraftian, open-world investigation,” says Amr. “We’re well known for creating investigation games with the Sherlock series, and [the Cthuhlu mythos] is a great setting for investigation. But we wanted to do a free adventure, where it’s possible to create your own investigation the way you want to make it. That’s where the open world comes from.

“We’ve worked with Lovecraft on many occasions – we dedicated two games to it, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened in 2006, and Magrunner: Dark Pulse in 2013. I’ve always wanted to create something in the universe, and I believe it’s a great, underrated, underused setting. And I think investigation is the right way to look at it, as opposed to an action or horror game which could be pretty good but probably wouldn’t cover all of the things we wanted to say about the city.

“The Lovecraft Universe is a fantastic setting for games if treated with the adequate nuances and subtlety. Starting from idea of free investigation in an open-world, we thought about what would make a Lovecraftian open-world, and thought, ‘Well, an urban area, a flooded city.’ It comes naturally if you think about it.”

To further emulate their favorite works of Lovecraftian ficition, Frogwares are enlisting the help of original pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu scenario designers – talented writers with decades of Lovecraftian experience to keep the lore in check. Originally released in 1981, and in its 7th edition as of 2014, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing-game is closely associated with veteran game designer Sandy Petersen (Doom, Age of Empires), the game’s main author during his time at legendary tabletop RPG publisher Chaosium (RuneQuest). Inspired by their experiences with the game, Frogwares are hoping to bring of some Call of Cthulhu’s themes to The Sinking City.

“We’re working with authors of Call of Cthulhu scenarios from the ’80s,” Amr says. “It’s like when you’re young, you admire some rock star, you play guitar, and then one day you play with them. We played scenarios written by these people, and now we work together. The idea is to get the campaign to a place where, in an investigation, you’re finding elements of the next or the previous one.

The Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG

The classic RPG has seen multiple iterations.

“These guys know their canon – they have the mythos at their fingertips – so they actually help us a great deal to integrate that canon into our game mechanics, as well as with other aspects of the Cthulhu mythos, whether it’s ghouls or any kind of related monsters, or creatures, or people, or insanity levels within the canon. All of these writers are well-educated, and I love the way they integrate and mix real and fictional elements so that when you read their work, your mouth is watering from a creative point-of-view, because you know that you can take it and create something that resonates very deeply.”

Frogwares are also drafting in help from the wider design community in an effort to make The Sinking City feel more like a lived-in, working environment, rather than a shallow sandbox with an urban lick of paint. Urbanism represents the fusion of urban planning and urban sociology, and urbanists study every aspect of how settlements work to find and maintain a delicate logistical balance. To create something which feels authentic, these are the people to have on-board.

“My favourite Lovecraft story is At The Mountain of Madness,” Amr explains. “But it has a very specific setting, and probably would make a full game by itself. But someone else can do that. It’s not what we’ve chosenin order to make a game that allows very deep investigation and a lot of crossed investigations. They require people, facts and events, and Antarctica isn’t the best place for that – unless you focus on penguins.

“In most of Lovecraft’s stories, you don’t feel the crowd, but it’s there. The story is embedded in larger areas, big cities, and that makes them possible, the fact that you have a different perception of things that’s different from everyone around you, and that fact that what you’re looking for is going to harm you – but it has to remain secret. You can’t go around the city with your guns or your papers claiming that you’ve found something extraordinary.

“We’ve created levels of various sizes in our previous games, but when it’s time to think about a city, it’s time to get out of the studio and discuss things with urbanists and architects – it’s not a skill you naturally have, how to build a city.

“It’s been extremely insightful and extremely informative, and I really love this part of the work.

“We made a post on our website with one of the guys we work with, Konstantinos. He conducted a study for us about Lovecraftian urbanism and how to show a Lovecraftian influence on an urban area. Besides that, we’ve conducted different studies asking questions like, ‘What is a city,’ ‘How do they work,’ ‘What makes Paris, London, or Kiev different from one another,’ and then on top of that, ‘What does it mean when that city’s flooded?’ For example, there was a big flood in Paris in 1910 and at the turn of the century, there was a big flood in London. When you look at the pictures, when you read the testimonies, you begin to understand how much it affects people’s lives and how it changes the city.”

The Sinking City of Oakmont, Massachusetts, serves as the setting for the game and builds upon aspects of the Cthulhu mythos. Sharing similarities with Lovecraft’s own fictional Massachusetts settlement of Arkham, Oakmont consistently links back into the canon – its institutions for higher education, for instance, have links with Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

“If you want to build a unique place with a lot of stories, you have to make it a city,” says Amr. “You’re a private investigator looking for your father, who holds a role in ancient history and archaeology at the Oakmont University, which is affiliated with the Miskatonic University of Arkham. At the start of the game, you’re simply looking for him. He’s disappeared and you have to use the city to discover the rest.

A character explores the flooded metro in The Sinking City.

A character explores the flooded city.

“Investigations are what we’re good at and what we like, and moving from a megalomaniac character like Sherlock Holmes to something Lovecraftian isn’t that different. But instead of creating a very linear, detailed story like in Sherlock, we’re going for something that’s less overtly explained, where how you understand what you see is open to interpretation one way or the other. So, we’re using certain mechanics that’re similar to the Sherlock games, but ones that’re relevant to the open-world situation and the narrative situation of the Lovecraftian investigation.”

From its cracked cast of deranged characters and grisly monsters to its foreboding, Gothic tone, Lovecraft is horror through-and-through. Frogwares aren’t ignoring this constituent part of the Lovecraftian experience and are trying to weave aspects of psychological horror into The Sinking City.

“In Lovecraft, the terror is self-inflicted,” Amr says. “It is an extremely powerful feeling. But if you show a lot of monsters, you quite naturally have to fight them and beat them, which is quite disrespectful to the canon. Could other people do that? Maybe. But I’ve not seen it. I mostly see games that’re trying to stay respectful to the idea in Lovecraft that you cannot win, and there are things above you that you cannot understand. What matters is if it’s well presented. Does it come across well to the players? That’s another story – a question of form, rather than game type.

“It’s among the numerous pillars of the game, but I wouldn’t qualify [The Sinking City] as a horror game.”

He continues: “In Sherlock Holmes we explain things down to the slightest details, but it’s never enough. We’ll always have players saying, ‘What about this,’ or ‘What about that?’ In Lovecraft, you shouldn’t explain everything because that’s part of the terror first and foremost. However, while the narrative [in The Sinking City] is going to be less linear, it’s not going to be less deep. The protagonist and NPCs are major talking points here at the studio, and we’re working hard to create something that is very surprising.

“The Lovecraft stories can sometimes have these characters that’re very powerful, but a little bit of an idiot at the same time, or half-crazy, which makes them less powerful than they could be. That’s very good ground for a super-interesting narrative.”

With any complex source material, it can be difficult to adequately portray its subtext to a player, and some of the cheesier attempts at evoking a Lovecraftian setting could be seen as cynical in their ham-fisted application of the mythos – throwing fish-men and cultists at an aquatic setting and calling it Lovecraft. However, Frogwares have faith in the game development community at large and, while everything might not always go to plan, believe that designers generally have the best intentions.

“I personally don’t know a game that focuses on killing the full bestiary of the Cthuhlu mythos, so I don’t think that people are denaturing the ideas,” Amr says.

“Many games have elements that’re totally right, and from many different genres, which shows just how interesting the mythos is – from adventures, to shooters, to RPGs and action games, they can all have things that resonate. It’s not always about having some documents to read, or something very canonical. It’s also about emotion.

“You have to question whether they meant it, whether it’s an Easter Egg or another little addition to the game, because that makes the difference. What we aim at doing with The Sinking City is immersing you inside a Lovecraftian experience from an investigative perspective.”

Monolithic creatures attack in The Sinking City.

Nightmarish creatures have taken hold of Oakmont.

“A Lovecraftian game is probably more of a developer’s idea than a publisher’s idea,” he goes on to say. “The vast majority of developers love what they do. Maybe they don’t do well as well as they could, like all of us, but the vast, vast majority of developers are people that want to do good. You know, the quick exploitation of a topic, I don’t see that too much – in our part of the industry. If you get into cheap mobile games, that’s different. I’ll give credit to anyone who’s trying to create something that’s a bit more intellectual or a little bit different.

“Something that’s disempowering also – because that’s something that’s very interesting with the Lovecraft theme – you move away from the canon of the super-muscular man who’s going to settle everything with bullets. Looking at a game this way, from the perspective a doomed character – I wouldn’t even say hero, just character – is by itself in opposition to the dominant commercial canon, which, in my view, is already by itself a good start.”

Above all, Frogwares are making best use of their considered, narrative-focused approach to game design as they try to create a free and thoughtful adventure which draws on source material that they genuinely admire.

“Our goal is to show that open worlds can be about something other than action,” says Amr. “Open-world games today are all about very dynamic mechanics: all driving, all fighting, or both. Our purpose is to create a game where investigation is the primary component of the open-world.

“Dozens of games have Lovecraftian elements, whether they say it or not. The strength of the Lovecraft universe is that it has universal value, whether you’re incorporating it into the narrative, or characters, or monuments, or side-quests, it can be everything that you want it to be.

“Lovecraft is very subtle, and we as a developer are working on the form of things. We are working on the presentation of things – we are a visual art. Why things work or don’t work sometimes? If there was a formula, I probably wouldn’t do games – I wouldn’t be allowed to,” he jokes.

“It’s a fictional world that you’re playing in, with its own logic,” Amr concludes. “In this world, there’s a part that you see and a part that you imagine. This is why we wanted to have a Lovecraft setting, because by not explaining everything, you leave part of answering the narrative’s questions up to the player. What we loved with Crimes and Punishments and The Devil’s Daughter, our current Sherlock Holmes game, was at the end of the case. you had to choose a suspect. We broke the usual link between the man and the machine because in the game, we don’t say if you’re right or not. Therefore, it’s the player against themselves, against their own theory, against their own judgement, their own emotions. I love that because we’re using the game to make the player reflect upon themselves.

“Many writers have said that they thought it would be easy to judge people, but it’s not, and after three cases I felt guilty for them. I think it’s a great achievement as a game maker have people say that about your work, because they feel for the people they sent to gallows without absolute certainty that they were guilty.

“In The Sinking City, part of the world isn’t going to be told to you, so you’re going to imagine it, and Lovecraft is great for that. We all know paranoid people who think they’re surrounded by robots and they’re the only human. That’s interesting because the way they see the world is different from yours. The way that people are going to interpret the rest of the world in Oakmont, how it works, why the flood is here, what is happening to their character and how they’re going to leave it, it’s a free investigation, a free adventure. In a sense that you’re choosing how you want to do it, you’re not going to be told how to do it in the game. I hope it’s going to be fascinating. For us, this is what we aim at doing. The computer or the console is just support for the player’s imagination and if we succeed, I’ll be very happy.”

Frogwares’ latest release, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, releases on 27th May 2016 for PS4, Xbox One and PC. Find more from them on their official websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

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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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