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Creating the iconic soundtrack for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

We speak with the musicians behind the unforgettable soundtrack to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a game that reshaped the landscape for video game music.

Jack Yarwood, Contributor

September 21, 2021

12 Min Read

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was a watershed moment for video game music. The sequel to the popular PlayStation title released in November 2001 in North America, and featured a bold, cinematic score that combined orchestral and choir music with genres such as breakbeat and jazz.

From the word go, the director on the project, Hideo Kojima, wanted the sequel to sound like a big Hollywood movie. So, in order to accomplish this, Konami brought onboard the Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who had worked on huge films like Armageddon, The Replacement Killers, and Enemy of the State. Gregson-Williams didn't work alone, however, with the score representing a joint effort between him, the producer Rika Muranaka, and Konami's in-house sound team--most notably, the composer Norihiko Hibino. The resulting collaboration was an ambitious score that mixed high-quality acoustic recordings with electronic samples, to create an epic sound that still retained the ambient and dynamic qualities of its PlayStation predecessor.

Over the course of the last few months, we've spoken to those who were involved in the creation of this score. They told us more about how this collaboration came to be, the challenges they faced in regards to memory, and the philosophy behind the game's approach to dynamic music.

A Hollywood Sound

The first Metal Gear Solid game released on PlayStation 1 in 1998 to critical acclaim. Konami's sound team (Takanari Ishiyama, Gigi Meroni, Kazuki Muraoka, Lee Jeon Myung, and Hiroyuki Togo) composed the score, with Tappi Iwase providing the main theme and Muranaka contributing the credits song entitled "The Best is Yet to Come." Excluding some exceptions, the majority of the game's soundtrack boasted a synthetic sound, with sampled strings being used intermittently in order to boost tension and emulate a more cinematic approach.

With the sequel, however, the team was targeting Sony's next-generation console, the PlayStation 2, and were therefore presented with a much larger budget and more lenient hardware limitations. As a result, Kojima and his team, who had initially been reluctant to do a sequel, began conceiving ideas to enhance the audio experience for the next installment.

"Because we were so successful with Metal Gear Solid, Hideo said 'Okay, we have a budget, maybe we can hire a Hollywood composer,'" Muranaka says. "We went to Media Ventures (now known as Remote Control Productions), which is Hans Zimmer's studio. We originally wanted to get Hans Zimmer, but he was like 'No, I can't do it for that kind of money'--he's so expensive, it's ridiculous. So Hideo asked me to try and get in touch with Harry, because Harry was working for Hans Zimmer too in that studio at that time. At that time, he was still an upcoming composer, but he had done Enemy of the State, so a lot of people had started to notice him."

"I hadn't considered doing video games at all," reveals Gregson-Williams. "I don't think at that time, many filmmakers had, so I didn't really have a precedent for it. I wouldn't have had a desire for it necessarily, had Hideo not himself approached me. I had heard of him. I knew what he was up to and he approached me by email, I think. Flattery will get you everywhere. He really liked the way my film scores were shaping up and would like his game to sound like that. I didn't take much persuasion at all. At the time, I was under the care of Hans Zimmer. He wasn't dismissive about it--but he did say, 'Watch out, you're here to try and build a path to being a film composer.'"

Gregson-Williams realized as soon as he came on board that the setup would be different to what he was used to in film. For one, he wouldn't have footage of the game in front of him as he was working, so had to rely primarily on Kojima's vague direction, which was often hard to interpret.

"I would start the week with an email from him saying, 'Do you think you could send me 30 seconds of 'sneaky?'" says Gregson-Williams. "And I would send back--and this had to be done through a translator--'Sneaky? What kind of sneaky?' He'd say, 'In this instance, imagine you're being watched, but you don't know that.' So I'd say, 'So very down-tempo and tense and spare' and he'd be like 'Yep.' We'd build a picture ourselves of what I was doing. He obviously knew how he was going to deploy this music in the game. But I didn't."

When it came to the soundtrack for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Muranaka was arguably the glue who held the music side of the project together. She acted as a producer and uncredited music director on the game and was a go-between for Gregson-Williams and those at Konami. She often spoke to both parties and helped communicate more clearly to the English composer what Kojima and Konami expected from the music. She also sourced the orchestra which contained musicians from the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan orchestras, and ensured that the material Harry provided could be shortened, lengthened, or looped to match the sound team's needs.

"I had to try to understand the concept of what Hideo wanted to do with the music," says Muranaka. "He's not a musician, he's more of an artist. So he goes by feelings -- [nothing] tangible. He would just say, 'Can you write me four tracks of an action sound, a sneaky sound, somebody trying to chase you?' It's not really musical direction. So I had to try to get [inside] Hideo's mind and [guess] the concept in his head. I had to come up with the tempo and maybe the concept…I talked to [Harry] directly and said, 'Maybe this is what he wants,' he'd write me a sketch of it, and then I'd come back maybe three or four days later and I had to say, 'Can you do this?' or 'Can you do that?' I was writing with him basically."

The E3 2000 Trailer

Gregson-Williams and Muranaka put together a nine-minute "sizzle reel" for the 2000 E3 conference, as one of the first things they contributed to the project. This was the event where Kojima revealed real-time footage of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty to the world for the very first time. According to Gregson-Williams, composing this longer piece of music gave the project direction and streamlined communication with those in Japan.

"We built that and what we ended up with was something that very strongly thematic," says Gregson-Williams. "It kept coming back to [Tappi Iwase's main theme] through different iterations, but there were also action moments, there were also sneaky moments, there were also tense moments. All these things happen within that big piece that was one continuous piece of music.

"After the E3 thing was over, we were both able to refer to that a little bit. So, for instance, after that, when he would ask me for an action piece--'Imagine you weren't detected and suddenly you were detected and there's a shootout…'--he'd be able to say, 'You know minute five or six in the E3 thing where the drums come in, I really like that; use that as your starting point.'"

Muranaka estimates that Gregson-Williams composed 14-16 three-minute tracks in total for the game (not including the E3 demo which featured the roughly nine-minute composition). You'll find many of these tracks on the game's official soundtrack release, including the tracks "Opening Infiltration," "Russian Soldiers from Kasatka," "Olga Gurlukovich," and "Big Shell." All of these combine orchestral strings with pulsing synths that help to build a sense of tension, intrigue, and dread during Snake and Raiden's infiltration mission.

This was a sound that Gregson-Williams had previously experimented with on the soundtracks for films like Armageddon, Enemy of the State, The Rock, and Antoine Fuqua's The Replacement Killers. According to Muranaka, after the recordings were done, she would take these tracks, edit and mix them in ProTools with a Solid State Logic interface, and then send them over to the Konami sound team in Japan as stems. This gave the audio team the freedom to rearrange, reuse, or remix the live recordings, depending on their needs.

Gregson-Williams wasn't the only composer on Metal Gear Solid 2, though. Konami also brought onboard Norihiko Hibino to help compose more music to fill the game's two chapters that place on a Tanker in the Hudson River and a large decontamination facility called Big Shell, approximately 30km from New York. Hibino had previously worked on the music for Metal Gear Solid for the Game Boy Color in 2000 (confusingly not a remake), and had experience with composition and performance from his career playing saxophone on the Tokyo club scene.

"Metal Gear Solid 1 was already trying to score cinematic music with the internal sound system on the PlayStation, but there was still a big limitation of memory size," says Hibino. "In Metal Gear Solid 2, not only we could use full streaming (even 5.1 surround) on the cinematics but we also could utilize much more memory to allow acoustic instruments in the in-game music as well."

While Konami used Gregson-Williams' music for most of the cutscenes, the company tasked Hibino compose a soundalike score for the in-game music. This is most evident in the alert themes (detect, alert, evasion, caution, and sneaking) that Hibino composed for The Tanker chapter, which has its DNA in the original E3 trailer that Gregson-Williams had made. These tracks feature stabbing synthetic strings, and pounding reverberated drums, but use a greater number of pre-recorded samples, loops, and synthetic instruments.

For the Big Shell alert themes, he was given greater level of freedom. Here the music deviates from the musical direction that Gregson-Williams established, incorporating elements of Latin jazz and bop into the score. Not only do these two themes helped to draw a clean divide between the distinct settings, but they also reflect the unique physiology of the two protagonists (Solid Snake and Raiden) and how they react to pressure.

These two themes cycle through their various states the game depending on the AI and whether the player has been detected. This was a different take on writing music to what the Japanese composer was used to, prioritizing depth over melody.

"I think most Japanese game music relies on 'melody' instead of 'depth,' just like animation or ukiyo-e in Japanese arts," says Hibino. "I think that relates to our cognitive system in sound, as Japanese has vowels on every word, and that ends up in quite monotonous depth with only pitch up and down, which is well expressed in melody. Instead, English has quite a unique mixture of vowels and consonants, which make dips, spaces, and attack, that create 'depth' in sound. I think people in the Western world more likely see these things and express feeling in 'depth.'

"The beauty of the music of Steve Reich is in repetitive build-ups that create depth, which may not be appreciated by most Japanese listeners. Since Metal Gear Solid 2 was targeted to the Western market, I realized I had to be careful of that cultural difference, and make music to include as much depth as possible."

According to Hibino, he would often start by writing the alert music first, and then alter the tempo and strip layers and instruments away to mirror the change in the character's stress levels. To fight the memory limitations, Hibino would try to keep the sample sizes short, which he claims was a solution inspired by the work of artists at the time like DJ Krush and Fatboy Slim. From using this method, he could introduce more sounds into the mix, without necessarily going over the game's memory budget.

Can't Say Goodbye to Yesterday

Besides Hibino's and Gregson-Williams' contribution to the soundtrack, Muranaka also contributed one song: "Can't Say Goodbye to Yesterday." This was one of the few tracks on the soundtrack to contain a main vocal, with the late American jazz singer, Carla White, performing the lead. It came about when Kojima asked Muranaka to create a song that represented New York, the final location from the game.

Originally, the team had planned to audition for singers, but when Kojima heard Carla White's voice, he knew straight away that she was the right person for the track.

"Hideo was like 'we want something New York, so we're going to go to New York and hire a singer,'" says Muranaka. "I put together auditions, and so 10 of us went to New York and we tried to find a singer because he was looking for a particular voice. Then I found my friend Carla White's CD. He listened [to it] and immediately wanted to hire her. [Carla and I] hung out a lot, but mostly we just went out drinking and had a blast. That was a good time."

Players will likely see "Can't Say Goodbye to Yesterday" as the perfect ending theme for Metal Gear Solid 2, due to its evocative sound and how it reflects both Raiden's journey throughout the game and Kojima's complicated relationship with the series moving forward. At the time, Muranaka didn't know just how fitting the song would end up being.

"Hideo didn't want to do a series or franchise like Final Fantasy," says Muranaka. "So he kept fighting with Konami, because Konami were like 'It's a hit.' That's what the business people say. Hideo being an artist, he wanted to make a different video game. But it became so successful that everybody wanted a sequel. That's a kind of hard position to be in. It becomes someone else's game."

When Metal Gear Solid 2 released, the reception to the game from critics and fans was phenomenal. The game won countless accolades--including the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences award for Best Sound Design in 2002--and has subsequently appeared on several publications' lists of the best video game soundtracks of all time. Since then, it's become commonplace for the top composers in the world to pursue a career in video game music, but at the time Konami was at the forefront of this innovation, as Muranaka is now proud to say as the person who brought Harry onboard.

"What we were trying to do at that time was very new," says Muranaka. "Nobody was hiring composers from Hollywood…After that, it got big and everyone tried to hire composers from the film industry. But we were the first to hire Harry Gregson-Williams…We changed [the sound of] video games."

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