With new downloadable title I Am Alive about to burst onto our consoles, composer of the game Jeff Broadbent took a few minutes to chat to HPM about exactly what to aim for when creating a rich atmosphere for a game where tension is key.
I Am Alive has been a game that has been on many gamers radar for a very long time under its various guises. Now it’s nearing release it appears to have quite a lot of people talking about its unique atmosphere which of course, a lot of it is down to the sound design and the music scoring. Tell us how the project come about for yourself?
I first got involved in the pitch for the game in Winter of 2011, after contacting the audio director and learning about the project. I created a custom demo showing different approaches for the gameplay music, as well as a couple of main theme concepts, and based on those samples I was selected to score the project.
In such a taut and tense game that relies on its atmosphere, the scoring is paramount. How do you try to tap into the game world you are scoring for?
Taking the time before any composing begins to understand the game, the back-story, and the emotional content is very important. For I Am Alive, I learned as much as possible from the developers, looked at concept art, and was even reading Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road at the time. I try to immerse myself in the concept of the game in many different ways. One can draw inspiration from all different sources, and I find that in addition to visual concept art and learning about the game, reading related literature can really put you in the mind frame of the characters and their situations.
In the game a lot of ambience is used which fit the desolate landscapes perfectly. How did you find the type of sounds you were looking and what did you use to get there?
I started by envisioning the environment the main character finds himself him. The audio director Zhang Lei had the idea that the music could represent the materials and environments of the game. A musical example he shared with me was Ingram Marshall’s composition Fog Tropes, which incorporates the tones of a fog horn into the ambient musical soundscape. In I Am Alive, we used a similar approach for certain parts of the game. For example, in one section of the game you find yourself in an abandoned and crumbling pier park. For this music I used materials such as large bell tones, creaking ambiences, and bowed metals, which are elements associated with that environment. By using reverbs, distortion, delays, pitch shifting, and other manipulations, the audio was transformed in various ways. In addition to these natural/organic elements, a variety of synthetic tones and electronics were also used for variety and more foreboding colors.
Is it much harder to create an ambience that doesn’t completely take over the experience, but actually contributes to it without the player knowing, than writing straight motifs that stand out? Is there an art to ambience?
I wouldn’t say that either is harder, as they each have their challenges. In more traditional, motif-driven music, you are working to craft tuneful, memorable themes, using more typical instrumentation and harmonic approaches. When creating ambient music, the character of the sounds themselves is essential, so great care must go into sound creation and combinations. There certainly is an art to ambience – a lot of great modern music by composers such as John Luther Adams, Brian Eno, and Morton Feldman is very ambient. It is like impressionist and abstract visual art, where the beauty lies in the combination of color, shape, and texture. With music, you are using aural colors to paint the soundscape.
For the motifs themselves, and the more dramatic compositions and themes, did you have ideas for particular instruments to take the lead from the start or did it develop organically?
While I had ideas of the emotions I wanted to convey, I didn’t start with particular instruments in mind. We experimented with different approaches to get the appropriate instrumentation. For the main theme of the game, solo piano presenting an unsettling motif proved to be effective. For the music representing the man’s longing for his lost family, and his interactions with the child Mei, a combination of solo oboe, strings, gentle ambience, and piano were used. We found that these instruments could present emotional, yet simple and not excessively dramatic musical expression.
You’ve stated before that the project allowed for you to have a lot of creative freedom. Is there anything in particular you’re especially proud of or something that we can keep an ear out for that’s unusual?
I personally enjoy how a unique approach to both ambience and rhythm was achieved. For example, when the player is climbing and becomes fatigued, an interesting combination of aleatoric string techniques and sound design elements was used. For the tension music throughout the game, unique rhythmic elements fade in as the player approaches a dangerous situation. To sum up, I’m fond of the unique sonic elements in the game, and how the score conveys a sense of danger in a post-apocalyptic world, as well as the human emotions of hope and connection.
After I Am Alive, do you have any other works in the pipeline? Also, are there plans for a soundtrack release?
I’m currently preparing to score a big game in a couple of months, and am also working on some trailer and action music for a couple of production companies. As for a soundtrack release, I hope that we will see the music released via soundtrack, but at this time I can’t say for certain.
Finally, in the event of a world ending disaster, where would we find you and what would you be up to?
I’d probably be stocking piling food, water, and ammunition, while playing I Am Alive in a fortified bunker at an undisclosed location =)
Higher Plain Music would like to thank Jeff for taking the time to talk to us and wish him best of luck with the game and his musical future. We say the location would be his recording studio!