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The Philosophy Behind Mutant Year Zero’s Soundtrack – An Interview With Composer Robert Lundgren

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Mutant Year Zero

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden (MYZ) is not a game that could have released if it dealt in half-measures. All aspects of this lovingly crafted XCOM-inspired adventure is touched with a sense of appreciation for pen-and-paper RPGs and RTS games alike. From its mature amalgamation of dystopian sci-fi and buddy drama meta-narrative to its tight controls and intuitive AI, MYZ oozes attention to detail. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack inspires the same sense of rebellious design and polish, all thanks to the game’s composer: Robert Lundgren.

MYZ’s soundtrack needed to be designed around two of the MYZ’s defining features, those being the very 1980s pen-and-paper source material and the game’s fluctuating pace as an RTS. “[The] music has sort of laid the foundation for the whole sonic atmosphere of the game,” says Lundgren, who sat down with OnlySP to discuss the creation of the game’s soundtrack. Lundgren had the benefit of being involved early in development, which, in his words, benefitted his score and the title itself:

“I got involved quite early in the prototyping process and started out making some musical drafts for the game back at that time. The project eventually grew big, so one could say my work grew along with it.”

“I have always been very interested in interactive and adaptive music, so my knowledge of it has been very useful in this project since I’m the one who not only composed the music but also implemented it in the game, along with most of the sound effects as well.”

Mutant Year ZeroThis adaptive quality is immensely important for a title like MYZ, where players can wait a significant amount of time before deciding on an action; this means, essentially, that the score must loop in a way that does not sound annoying or contrived. Lundgren, who usually scores for film and TV, noticed that subtle yet important differentiation between music for games and other mediums:

“When composing for TV [or] film there’s usually a timeline with a beginning and an end, with pictures showing the same thing at the same timestamp each time you watch it. The work here is mostly limited to telling a linear story through melodies, chords, instrumentation, and arrangement in order to accompany and enhance an already existing narrative.”

When drafting music for linear progression, such as that in film, a composer knows exactly which sound is going where; in a game, especially one with an open design such as MYZ, composers can struggle to reconcile a tightly constructed soundtrack with player agency. The sci-fi tinged timbres and spacey synths are evocative, but do not sound as though they overstay their welcome. The reason for the sound’s success is Lundgren’s awareness of how “the music should support the player”:

[The music should] enhance the decisions that [the player] makes while playing, while at the same time immersing the player in a certain mood. Moreover, the music has to be composed in special ways so that it can play and/or loop for a very long time without feeling annoying. I would say that the implementation of the music in a game is an equally important part as the musical composition itself and the arrangement.”

The satisfying gameplay loops of titles such as MYZ need to be complemented by a soundtrack that does not detract from these carefully curated and designed systems. A poor soundtrack can emphasis the negative aspects of a game, whereas a good soundtrack can augment the highlights.

A game’s soundtrack, however, is nothing without its engine. MYZ ran off a sound engine by independent Swedish music technology company Elias which, in Lundgren’s words, allows for “possibilities for adaptivity [that] are rather unlimited.” Elias’s engine is advertised as an engine that prioritises a sound’s adaptive qualities, which MYZ employs to full effect:

“It’s fun and challenging, especially with the Elias engine. I constantly end up with new ideas that I want to implement so it is really about focusing on what matters most for the gameplay experience. […] One big part of the work for MYZ in terms of adaptivity has been to figure out what works best in a turn-based situation where the player can actually be idle for a long time while figuring out his/her next move.”

The Unreal engine, too, was essential in the overall sound design of the project. All of the game’s sounds and ambience came from the Unreal Engine, which Lundgren has mixed feelings about:

“All the audio, except the music, in MYZ was fully implemented through Unreal’s own built-in Blueprint system, which posed a bunch of challenges since it is quite a limited audio system compared to commonly used audio middleware such as Wwise and FMOD.”

Of course, a composer’s skill and the capability of the engine can only take a title so far; if a game does not have a soundtrack that captures its uniqueness and inspirations, then it can come across as tonally anaemic. Thankfully, Lundgren was aware of MYZ’s pen-and-paper roots, as well as nodding to the decade that birthed the source material:

“Since the game is based on a pen-and-paper RPG that originally came out in 1984, I’ve been wanting to honour that heritage by intentionally marrying some kind of 80s synthwave style with more traditional orchestral instrumentation.

“The funny thing with the process is that the more the game developed graphically and story-wise during the production, the more I found myself developing the music into a more synth-oriented style.”

What is clear from Lundgren’s comments is that MYZ’s development was, from the art team to the game designers, an inclusive and passionate project. Those who soundtrack games rarely get as involved as Lundgren did in MYZ, which was certainly a contributing factor in the title’s staggering polish for a AA project.

The subtle sounds and encompassing scope of MYZ’s score act as both a comprehensive prologue and sweeping addendum to the title’s charms. In these sounds, Lundgren was able to craft a story that augmented the multi-species, dystopian scope of the main game.

Would Lundgren soundtrack a game again? Yes, he says, “more and bigger games” at that.

For more on the stories behind the best single-player games, follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.. Be sure to re-visit the site’s review of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, too.

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Interview

Piercing the VR Veil — The Creator of Myst Talks Its Ambitious New Game Firmament

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For gamers of a certain age, the name Cyan Worlds carries with it no small amount of reverence. In 1993, the Washington-based studio upended the industry with the release of the massively popular Myst, and then followed that up with an even more successful sequel: Riven.

In 2016, Cyan successfully Kickstarted a spiritual successor to Myst and Riven, called Obduction, to the tune of USD$1.3 million. We sat down with the venerable Rand Miller, co-creator and co-designer of Myst to discuss the company’s next project: Firmament.

Like Obduction, Firmament is being funded on Kickstarter. Unlike Obduction, which had a VR mode added post-launch, Firmament is being built from the ground up with VR support in mind.

OnlySP: Your Kickstarter pitch begins with the words “Firmament is the next step in the evolution of Cyan.” Could you elaborate on what this means? What is at the core of the company philosophy, and what is the evolution of Cyan?

Rand Miller: We think that our little niche is building complex, evocative spaces that feel authentic and real (or surreal). We started with simple, hand-drawn, black-and-white worlds, and we’ve evolved along with technology to make our world-space more and more convincing and immersive. So, all that is to say that VR is another step in that technological evolution that we get to embrace.

OnlySP: You’ve been very clear about the fact that Firmament is built from the ground up for VR. How does that manifest in practice, in actual moment-to-moment gameplay?

Miller: Yeah, so disclaimer first—Firmament is still a wonderful “flat screen” experience, too. Building for VR doesn’t mean we leave the flat behind. The interesting thing about designing for VR is that it causes us to rethink the interface. We feel that one of the most advanced and yet simple breakthroughs in VR is giving players hands. That’s because you don’t need instructions to know what to do with hands—you know how they work. That’s exciting to us because in many ways it gets back to our roots of a very intuitive interface that just feels natural. That’s what we want for Firmament.

OnlySP: Obduction was Cyan’s first VR-compatible title, and support was added post-launch. What did you learn about VR from Obduction‘s VR implementation?

Miller: Wow, so much! We learned how much accurate scale matters, how to optimize for VR, the complexity of intuitive hand interfaces, how comfort levels vary between players, what interactive devices are hard to operate… I could go on with more and more specific items. It was an amazing learning experience.

OnlySP: What made you decide to build your next game for VR from the ground up, and not as a post-launch update?

Miller: All of those things I listed in the previous question. Once you’ve learned the hard way, you want to take advantage of everything you learned. And it’s much easier to design for VR and simultaneously adjust for monitors. Post, although sometimes necessary, can make things much more difficult.

OnlySP: Do you think developers have solved most of the basic gameplay questions the industry has grappled with since the VR renaissance (locomotion and motion sickness, preserving agency and consistency of storytelling, etc.)? If not, what do you think are the biggest issues we have yet to tackle?

Miller: VR is exciting to me because of just how many variables there are. There are so many ways to do anything and everything that it’s invigorating—it feels like everybody gets a chance to try a new method or technique. The most confounding and therefore interesting gameplay issue to me still for VR is locomotion. Teleportation is filling the gap, but it seems like there will be better and better ways to move around in these worlds we’re building.

OnlySP: You have highlighted the fact that unlike Myst and Obduction, Firmament isn’t an entirely solitary experience. You’ll be exploring the world with a silent clockwork companion that aids in the solving of puzzles. Is the little fellow intended solely as a tool, or is the goal to nurture a bond between the player and the companion?

Miller: We hope you form a bond—like a shepherding dog is both a marvelous tool and a loved and trusted companion.

OnlySP: Firmament’s Kickstarter page describes the game as “the beginning of an exciting new Cyan universe.” Does this imply that more games set in this universe may be on the horizon in the future?

Miller The Firmament narrative is one of the most interesting that we’ve done. It’s got a wonderful base story, that the player (of course) picks up quickly, and then some… I can’t… I really want to give more details, but… it’ll be so much fun to watch people uncover the story. 😉  

OnlySP: For now, all the focus on Firmament, but Cyan’s place in history is irrevocably tied to Myst. Is Myst entirely in the rear-view mirror at this point? We remember murmurs of a TV show not long ago…

Miller: Myst is definitely not in the rear-view mirror. We feel refreshed from Obduction already. Firmament is so much fun that we wanted to give it a chance to come to life, but beyond Firmament there are some really exciting potential developments on the Myst horizon.


Despite its impressive legacy, or perhaps because of it, Cyan continues to look boldly to the future with Firmament. If that future comes to pass, Cyan promises gamers a deeply immersive narrative adventure that harks back to and is informed by that great legacy.

To learn more about Firmament, be sure to have a look at the game’s Kickstarter page. For updates and continued coverage, be sure to follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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