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

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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