Joris de Man has told us about the process of composing music for video games and how he created the harmonies that have shaped some of our most beloved gaming experiences.
In the video game industry, where visual design and game mechanics typically grab the limelight, the significance of music in enhancing the overall gaming experience is often underestimated. Music can be a key component in the player’s emotional connection with a game. It amplifies emotional impact, heightens tension, and can be a powerful driver of narrative. We’ve had the chance to speak to Joris de Man, a renowned Dutch composer best known for his work on the Killzone series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and its sequel Horizon: Forbidden West. During the Game Access conference in Brno, we talked about the process of composing music for video games and how he created the harmonies that have shaped some of our most beloved gaming experiences.
Can you tell us about the process of composing music for games? In which stage of the game's development does your work begin.
It can start at any stage, really. But ultimately, you’d like to be in there as early as possible. So obviously when you pass the concept stage when you’re sort of early on in development is a really good time to be involved, because then at least you'll also have some conversations about how the music is implemented. There might be a list of music that you're going to write and you can talk about the style of it and you can talk about the melodies and the themes and things like that.
But it's also important to understand how your music is being used. Is it interactive music or are you just playing single pieces of music? When do these pieces play? How do they play? Are they influenced by any game mechanics? Those are sort of really important questions that you want to ask earlier rather than later, and you want to have some understanding in how it's being implemented.
I used to be more involved with implementation, I used to be more technically involved but nowadays implementation music in itself is almost a complete job. So, I'm not really involved with that side of it anymore, but I am involved with having to deliver music in a way that makes it easy to implement.
The questions you want to ask are, if we have interactive music, how does interactivity work? You've got, what I call, horizontal interactivity or vertical interactivity. So, vertical could be that music is what's called stemmed out. So, the music is subdivided into layers. So, if you, let’s say, have an orchestra, you might have one layer that’s the strings, one layer that's the brass, the woodwinds and percussion. You might even subdivide those so that you subdivide the melodies from the chords and things like that.
And what you can do during the game, is that you can sort of change the volume of those layers, so you can turn layers on and off and that can sort of influence the interactivity. But there’s also horizontal interactivity. So, you can write music in segments and you can start having these segments repeat in different ways. So, you might write 8 segments, and you might play segments one and then segment 8 and then segment 2 and then segment 4. So, you’ve got to make sure that those segments all connect in a proper way so that musically that still makes sense. So, the sooner you know the answers to those questions - which is hopefully earlier in the development - I think the better you'll be able to do your job.
What are the most helpful materials the studio can provide for your work?
I think concept artwork is incredibly important because, you know, sometimes studios send you gameplay videos and I watched a little bit of those, but it can give you some sense. But especially on a game like, let's say, Horizon: Zero Dawn or Horizon: Forbidden West, the whole idea is that it's free roaming. So, situations can occur at any moment. So, you might be watching a video of a particular event, but that event might not happen again in that particular way ever again, because that's the nature of the game.
So, for me, inspiration comes a lot from concept artwork, because at the start of development, usually there is very little. Like, in my presentation, you see that I had a little video of like really early game footage development of Horizon, and it’s basically something that looks like a big piece of Lego running down the mountain, and you're shooting bits off it that look like Lego and Playmobil.
So, the idea inspires me – this character fighting this robot - but the visuals don't inspire me. If I'm going to score that I wouldn't have come up with the music that I end up writing. But if someone shows me the concept artwork of a Thunderjaw and the scale of Aloy against how big that robot is and how aggressive he looks, then that's something that musically and emotionally I can hook into and can get ideas from.
So, I think concept artwork is, for me, probably the main thing, because that's about the only thing you've got at the start. And animations as well, obviously, you want to see how things move and you want to see what's the pace of something. And that's something you can’t necessarily get from a picture alone. If you see some of these robots and how quickly they move, that might decide the tempo of the music, for example.
How much input do you get from other game departments while composing?
Depends on the developer. With smaller developers, you might find that every department has got a point of view or an opinion. Whereas with some of these bigger projects, if you have to start taking those into account, then you never get anything done. So, it kind of gets filtered. So, the music leads or the music supervisor might collect all those comments and filter them and say, “Well, which of these are things that are actually really important and which of these are actually not as high on our priority list?” Sometimes they are really valid opinions, and sometimes they are just what people like and what people don't like. And that becomes a bit more, you know, of a discussion rather than, “Oh this person doesn't like that therefore we are taking it out.” Unless it's the game director, in which case you take it out and you come up with something new.
How does the collaboration with other composers work? Do you all have to work in a similar style or does each composer bring something completely different to the table?
That’s a really good question, and that's an interesting one. So, on Horizon: Zero Dawn there were three composers, or I should say four composers - The Flight is basically two composers - it's Alexis Smith and Joe Henson - and there was Niels van der Leest who’s a percussionist and a composer, and myself. So [there were] kind of, three teams, if you will. And the idea behind that was that we all brought something very different and something unique to the table. Niels is amazing with percussion and sort of old analog, sort of modular synths. He brought a great rhythmic sensibility to it, and was really good with coming up with all these different percussion parts. So, he got used a lot for hunting music and hunting grounds and things like that.
And The Flight are really got at sort of textural music - their thing is to come up with these amazing new sounds and then finding different ways to use instruments - and have this sort of analog/organic hybrids. But I would perhaps say that themes aren't their strong point as much as they are for me. And so that was what I could bring to the table, as I'm someone who's very thematically driven. So, I really like to come up with leitmotifs. I like to come up with themes that I can twist and reuse over the course of a game and connect to either characters or situations.
And so, bringing those different people together meant that we all had our part to play and we all had different and unique qualities that perhaps the other person didn't have. And what’s nice is that during development that starts to sort of cross pollinate. So, Niels, for example, used to be part of a Japanese drumming ensemble. So, that was really inspiring, because you go “Oh wow, this guy has got amazing drumming skills! And his drums sound amazing, I want to use some of that!” And it was really important that we didn’t just take that from him. So, I basically end up going, “I've got this piece, I need percussion, my basic idea is this, but can you write some additional parts to make this sound really good?” And he would suggest, “Actually, don't do this fast rhythm on this low drum because it won’t translate. Do that on the higher drum and then use this drum for the accents.” So that was really helpful. And the same [goes] with The Flight. And because we all shared - Sony basically had a server where we uploaded our work, but it was a shared server, so we could access other people's work. So, there would be moments when Lucas [Van Tol], the music supervisor would say, “I need you to score this piece of music, but actually the music that's been written for this bit previously for the thing that has come before, was written by the Flight and they use this texture.” - It means you can go into the server and kind of listen to what they've done, maybe take a stem or a sonic element and say, “I'm going to use that from you as my baseline and then I'm going to put something on top of that.” I would find sounds that I had created coming back in their compositions and vice-versa. So, I think that worked really well. And we kind of expanded on that in Forbidden West - we had Oleksa Lozowchuk join us and I think he sort of sits in between The Flight and myself in that he he’s got very similar melodic sensibilities in the way that I do, but he’s also quite good at the textural stuff.
You are mostly known for your work on titles by Guerrilla Games. What's it like to work with this studio?
I was with the studio when things started happening, if you will. Relationships were forged at that time that I think have just lasted for a long time. And we had a little sort of mini–Hiatus, I guess, after Killzone 3. For Killzone Shadow Fall, they decided to go a different direction musically, and so I wasn't involved with that. And there was a time when I wondered, “Are we going to work together again?” So, I was really pleased that Lucas came back to me. And Lucas was one of the people that I hired when I left Guerrilla Games as a junior sound designer. And since I left, he’s made it all the way up to music supervisor. And it was really nice for him to come back and kind of go, “I don't know if this is your bag - because you’re known for the Killzone stuff - but this is an insane game and maybe you want to work on it. And I think the reason it’s lasted is just because we know each other so well now that it sort of becomes very familiar and very easy. And I think especially on games like this, building new relationships can be quite hard. And to be honest, I'll be with them as long as they'll have me.
How did this transition from an intense FPS to an open world RPG affect your work?
Massively. As I was saying in my talk, I really had to re-examine how I did things, because I was very reliant on being able to use an orchestra for example; and so to suddenly get to the position where they said, “We like the thing you do, we just don't want you to do it with an orchestra, we want you to do it in some other way,” really forced me to re-examine how I worked and where do my themes and where does my sound come from. And it was only when I started working on Horizon that I realized - and this is something that my wife keeps saying to me, “You always do too much, you always put too much stuff in it. Just break it down to the smallest elements, like, don't overcook it!” And that was what really hit home with Aloy’s theme was the impact - I mean, I couldn't have imagined that the theme had such an impact on people and became so loved and popular, I guess - I wrote it very quickly and I didn't spend too much time overthinking it because I had a deadline (laugh). There was a trailer that needed to be done, so there wasn't too much time to overthink it. Because I love detail in things, so I will spend a lot of time putting lots of details in [music]. And I guess, what I sometimes forget, as a composer, is that in order to communicate emotion and musical ideas clearly, you don't necessarily need that much detail. And that's what really changed me with Horizon, is that you can actually do a lot less and still have the same emotional impact. And sometimes it's even more of an impact, because you're not clouding it with too many different ideas and too many things. So yeah, it was a big change and a big learning experience, but I think one that ultimately helped me become a better composer.
Which one of these projects was more enjoyable for you?
That's really hard. It's like, which child do you love more? I’m really fond of both of them, both the Killzones and Horizon. Because they both represent two very different parts of me, I guess. I hadn’t listened to Killzone for quite a while and it was only during this presentation that I played the music again. And it was quite nice to hear it again. And at the same time, I listened to some of the work on Horizon and what's nice about that, is that it isn't so dense and so full and yet it still has that emotional impact. So, I would probably say Horizon slightly edges it out, just because I think it's more original. I'm really happy with the work that I did on Killzone, but it is in essence a first-person shooter with a big orchestral score. And I think we're getting to the point now where that's been done quite a lot. Whereas I think Horizon is sonically and idea-wise just more unique, so I guess Horizon wins (laughs).
The world of Horizon is an extraordinary combination of both prehistoric and futuristic. How did you try to balance these elements while composing music?
Well, I think ultimately, it's a human story and I also think that when you're working on it, you're not necessarily always aware of all those things. It's quite hard because afterwards you kind of go, “Wow, I came up with these ideas and it sounds quite clever.” But actually, when you’re doing it, you don't necessarily think about those things. You’re just putting things out there and see what works and what doesn't work. So, it's not always by design, I guess it's more by accident and by discarding things that don't work, you sort of end up in the right position. And that's why I think as a composer you can't take full credit for it, because it's a collaborative aspect with the game developer and the music supervisor. It's almost like sculpting a head out of marble - technically that can be done by one person, but it's really helpful if you’ve got some other people standing a bit further back and saying, “Yeah, if you just take that be off there and there, then it helps.” It's quite helpful for someone to take a step back and say, “Actually, if you do this and this and that, then it will work better.”
The sequel is set in the Forbidden West with many new locations. How did this change in the game’s setting affect the music?
Well, one of the ways was that we changed the palette up a little bit. And it was quite interesting that when we were doing the first game, you sort of discover the palette as you go along. And then when you get to the second game, that palette has sort of become the guideline as to what the new music should sound like. And it was quite weird composing because you’re doing things and suddenly realize, “Actually, that doesn't quite fit the palettes that we established.” And it's kind of weird, because you did it yourself, but at the time you didn't realize that that's what you were doing. What changed in Forbidden West is that we wanted to emphasize the electronic textures a lot more to sort of diversify that. So, Horizon: Zero Dawn is quite tribal, in Forbidden West, I guess the technological side of it takes over a little bit more. So that meant more synths, I guess the balance between synths and organic sounds was edging a little bit more towards the synths than the organic sounds of it. And I think in some ways the music is less about personal growth. So, Horizon: Zero Dawn is very much about the personal growth of Aloy. So that had very strong thematic overturns, whereas in Forbidden West, you're dealing with a much grander storyline that's not just on a personal level but on a more worldwide level. And that changes the scope a bit. So I think that also meant that we ended up with certain compositions that sound a lot bigger than some of the stuff that you would have heard in Zero Dawn. So, I think those are probably some of the major changes.
The Forbidden West introduced new tribes. Where did you find inspiration for peaceful tribes like Utaru and the Tenakth warriors?
I actually didn’t do anything for those tribes. I think I did a little bit for the Tenakth and they were initially a little bit more aggressive sounding. I can’t remember, because music had more of an emotional backbone. So, I was more involved with some of the combat and interactive music, where we’ve had the different states of emotion – sad or neutral - I mean, I know neutral isn’t really an emotion, but it is in gaming worlds. But you had sad, neutral, vigorous. So those were kind of the feelings I had to come up with in those pieces of music. So those weren’t particularly connected to a tribe, they were actually connected to the feeling of the player – or Aloy – as she’s traversing the world. So that was sort of my focus and then some of the cutscene work. So, I didn’t end up doing much of the tribal stuff this time around as I did last time.
We’ve noticed the music is very dynamic based on what’s going on in the gameplay. How do you achieve this dynamic music and what’s the process behind it?
The first thing we did was that at the start of the project, we got all the composers together in a room and we picked a key. And that was the key all the music was composed in. And what that meant was that you could very easily take an element from one piece of music and mix it together with another piece of music. And it also meant that transitions were very easy. So, you could very easily go from one piece of music that was relatively gentle and go into something that was very aggressive. And because it was in the same key, the transition was very seamless.
We didn’t really have that in part one. In part one, we just wrote whatever key we liked for whatever piece, and it meant that certain transitions weren’t as smooth as others were. And one of the things that Lucas Van Tol, who was the music supervisor, did as a demo, he said, “I’m basically going to show you a level from Horizon: Zero Dawn, where we’re starting in a cave, and something sad has happened, and you’re going to walk out back into the world, and then you’re going to fight an enemy and you’re going to fight them in the sad state, because you’re upset about what’s just happened in the cave.” And when we did that with the music that we’ve written for part one, what you saw was that the music was very location based. So, the cave might have a piece of music, and outside might have a piece of exploration music, but the exploration music might not have any relation to the emotion that Aloy was actually feeling at that point.
And one of the things we actually did with the exploration music in part one, was that we wanted to emphasize nature and the beauty of everything. So, it was usually very positive. So, you could have Aloy walking around really sort of sad and destitute in this environment, and the music sounding really beautiful and happy. And what we showed with this new music system was that there was consistency between being in the cave and coming out of the cave in that it still sounded sad, and the transitions were very subtle, because it was all done in the same key. And so that was a major component that was different. And the way we achieved that was – as I said we wrote in the same key – but also stemmed out the music, which means that we had loads of layers.
Stemming usually means that you put a bunch of instruments of the same type in the same audio stream, if you will - and you might have like four or five of them - but in this case every separate element would be a separate audio file. In this case we had about twenty or thirty of those per piece of music. So, it meant that you can really strip music down. Even if it’s the same piece - and it’s a very intense piece - if you suddenly take away some of the drums and you take away a melody line, then it’s almost already like a different piece of music. And it also means you can take that little snippet and put it somewhere else. And so that's sort of how the music was able to be a lot more dynamic than we were able to do before. Before we didn't really do that; it was just one piece per action, if you will, and that was that piece of music, as it was.
In the Forbidden West we see Aloy grow. How did this impact her theme song?
We had obviously a rough idea of the storyline when we started the project. And so, I kind of saw Horizon: Zero Dawn as Star Wars where it's new, it's fresh, bad stuff happens but there's still sort of this sense of optimism. In the case of Star Wars, you follow Luke. Luke's been stuck on this goddamn planet and suddenly he's able to go into space, so that's exciting. There's a sense of discovery, there's a sense of new things happening.
So, in my mind that sort of reflected what was happening in Zero Dawn. I thought it was an incredibly clever plot device to have a start as a child because you're allowing the player to see the world of Horizon through the child's eyes and learn about it in the same way that the child would. So, I thought it was a perfect introduction. And then you follow her journey.
Now, when you get to part two, obviously you've already established a lot of stuff, and the player knows where Aloy is at. So, the scope changes and now it's not just about Aloy's personal journey but it's about everything else that's happening in the game world.
And there's suddenly the realization that there's a lot more going on than just what Aloy's been experiencing. Actually, there's this threat that threatens the whole world and not just directly the people around her.
And so, to me that felt a bit like Empire Strikes Back, you know, in the sense that in Empire Strikes Back things get a lot worse and then ultimately in Return of the Jedi they're going to get better and they're going to get resolved.
To me it felt very similar in that this is the bit where stuff gets a lot worse for Aloy and it doesn't look at this point in time that things are necessarily going to get any better. You get rid of one threat but there's still another overarching threat that's at the end of the game and isn't resolved. And so, it's like a small victory, if you will. There isn't that big resolution that you get at the end of Horizon: Zero Dawn where you kind of think, “Well, I've defeated the enemy or I've defeated the issue, and now things are okay,” actually they're not. And so, it's kind of left with an open ending that isn't necessarily happy. So that sort of resonated for me and I tried to underscore that as best as I could.
Do you think Aloy will go on a similar journey like in Star Wars?
I don't know. But I think there's only so many different ways you can tell a story so I wouldn't be surprised if there are sort of parallels to it. But the little I do know of the story is that, yeah, there are bigger fish to fry still.
Where do you think the future of composing music will go?
That's a good question. It's really hard to know because I think musically and technically we're already at the point where we can do pretty much anything. I can't think of the top of my head anything more that I would like right now.
The thing I can see - and I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing - is that there's going to be more AI involvement.So, I could see it happening that you as a composer create a bunch of pieces and that there's an AI algorithm that can create a whole bunch of variations that sounds like you or like you've written it. But yeah, just create a whole bunch of variations.
So, in essence, you don't have to, but there's still more music to work with because the thing I do know is that games will continue to get bigger and bigger. I mean, I can't even remember what the exact playtime of Horizon is currently, but the map size and the amount of play hours that you have is massive compared to games, you know, five, ten years ago.
So that trend is likely to continue and games are going to take longer to complete. There's going to be more areas to traverse and things like that. So, I reckon you're going to need more music and you might need music up to the point that a human doesn't necessarily can or want to write that much music. So, I could see AI algorithms helping in that regard.
And at the same time, it also worries me because there might be some people who say, “Well, I just have the AI do everything and we don't need a composer.” So, who knows? It's a development that I'm sort of intrigued and hesitant about in equal measure.
But I think technically, we're pretty much there in terms of what are maybe famous last words. Maybe I'm like Bill Gates saying, “You only need 640 kilobytes!” But right now, I can't think of much musically or sound wise that needs to happen for things to improve.