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The composer reveals the team's key design goals for how the game would sound, including their approach to scale, synchronicity, and implementation.

Sander van Zanten, Contributor

March 2, 2023

10 Min Read

Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.

Earlier installments cover topics such as the scientific modeling behind the irrigation and water systems of Timberbornhow the 2D art of Songs of Glimmerwick benefited from a 3D art pipeline, and how the synergy between art and audio disciplines and a solid base of real-world data formed a surprisingly faithful televised broadcast experience in F1 Manager 2022.  

In this edition, Sander van Zanten, composer on the game Deliver Us Mars, talks about the audio pillars that defined their goals for the game's score, and how the conditions on the planet's surface itself influenced their direction. 

Hi all! My name is Sander van Zanten and it has been my distinct honor to compose the music to Deliver Us Mars. Music and video games have been a persistent part of my life since I was little, but my first voyage into the games industry started back in 2013. When I realized the words in my mind were turning into music, and after a feverish period of practicing music and getting acquainted with development tools, I thought I was ready! I found kindred spirits at KeokeN Interactive, where we’ve been collaborating together for about seven years now. It’s been a wild journey with soaring peaks and difficult lows.

At KeokeN, narrative is the foundation of our games, with the aim being to tell meaningful and thought-provoking stories. Complex philosophies and abstract ideas are difficult to relate to, and we’ve found that they are best communicated through the lens of a personal story. When we set out to create Deliver Us Mars, with a focus on themes like ethics and sustainability, we knew we wanted to give players an intimate story. In this deep dive, I’ll explore how the music is entwined with the narrative, how we managed the game’s ambitious scale, and our approach to the implementation of music throughout the game.

A lone figure looks out at a desert landscape of broken ruins in a screenshot from Deliver Us Mars.

Raising Pillars

First and foremost, we had to establish our audio pillars. Since every audio asset is an expression of the game’s style, these pillars help to set boundaries, drive creativity, and maintain consistency, setting the stage and steering your instincts.

Ultimately, we ended up with five audio pillars:

  • The sound of a fading era: Deliver Us Mars takes place in a plausible near-future where worsening environmental conditions have pushed humanity out of our habitats and to the brink of destruction.

  • A promising future, shattered: As the game’s story unfolds, the fate of various factions becomes clear and there is a tangible tragedy that unravels.

  • Hard science-fiction: In Deliver Us Mars, our aim was to remain grounded. Given the state of humanity in the game, there has hardly been time or resources available to drive technology toward cybernetics or nanotechnology. It’s all very sober.

  • An industrial swan song: In the futuristic setting, humanity is at the end of the line and we have to make do with what we have managed to salvage and preserve over the years.

  • Magnificent desolation: The Red Planet’s quiet desolation and barren majestic quality exude a sense of primal beauty. There’s elegance, serenity, and danger, in a never-ending dance.

All of these factors led to a musical style that was essentially melancholic and serene, interspersed with fragments of glory and heroism.

I should note that these pillars were created at the start of the project, although, they omitted one crucial detail: Deliver Us Mars tells an intimate and personal story that would ultimately become one of the driving factors for the game’s music.

Recurring Elements

The story introduces a number of characters and motivations that we used to create cornerstones. They helped to anchor a level in a given environment, express the unspoken during cut scenes, or amplify a character’s mood during gameplay.

The power of association is a great tool. It’s there to emphasize nostalgia and longing for family, and sometimes it can also reflect a character’s resolve. Through the use of these recurring elements across the game, the music provides additional guidance and another dimension through which to communicate the story.

These cornerstones provided us with key themes, motifs, and chord progressions, as well as instrumental templates. This, in turn, was vital to managing the game’s ambitious scope. 

Managing Scale

Deliver Us Mars was an ambitious project from the start. In comparison to our previous title Deliver Us The Moon, we wanted to create a game that was lengthier, featuring a larger cast of characters, and flashback sequences. We also wanted to use motion capture, diverse environments, and updated gameplay mechanics.

We had a small team, big plans, and a very tight schedule. This was a tried-and-tested recipe for great success, the stress aside. We mapped out the game’s story, levels, gameplay mechanics, and technical systems from the very beginning.

We followed the same process for the audio. Together with Bas Bertrand, a phenomenal audio designer who joined our team in early 2021, we categorized all foreseen audio work and matched it to the project’s overall planning. We would spend a month at a time focusing on aspects such as character foley, ambiance, cinematics, systems, voiceover implementation, optimization, custom sequences, porting—the list goes on. Music was just one part of the enormous amount of audio work that had to be done in a short amount of time.

Understanding the sounds of Mars was a lengthy but exciting process. There is research available that explores the atmospheric conditions on Mars and how they affect sound on the planet. For example, travel distance, pitch, and frequency are different from what we’re used to on Earth. In early prototypes, we experimented with various degrees of pitch-shifting. We soon realized that this turned many sounds muddy and unintentionally comical, even with subtle pitch-shifting, and abandoned it in favor of filtering.

Our filtering system (set up in our audio engine, FMOD) has different degrees of intensity. The most intense filter cranks up middle frequencies in an extreme way, while slightly boosting the lower frequencies, and cutting away the higher frequencies. The least intense filter only gives a mild nudge to middle frequencies, while leaving most other frequencies intact. Per individual event, we’re able to determine how severely it should be modulated when it’s played outside on Mars, compared to how it would sound inside, in oxygenated environments that mimic Earth’s atmosphere.

A screenshot of the protagonist of Deliver Us Mars floating in space.

In addition to the atmospheric parameters modulating our sounds, a major factor in establishing the sound of Mars was our ambiance. In addition to 3D sound sources creating a live soundscape of wind and machinery, each level features up to 10 tracks of ambient loops. The mix of these ambient loops can be changed per zone and even per room, allowing for a gradual shift in our background ambience.

One of the risks associated with an increased scope is that it becomes tempting to derail. In the interest of time and ‘getting things done’, there’s a risk that you forsake the game’s aesthetics and boundaries. The templates came in handy when we needed to return to the music.

The templates contained two crucial elements. Firstly, the themes and motifs that were written out at the start of the project. And secondly, the instruments and effects processing that were used to create the first pieces of music for the game. When we combined those templates, they formed a sonic palette—partly inherited from Deliver Us The Moon, and partly inspired by movies like Interstellar and Gravity, but above all, drawn from the audio pillars as described above. Although they were always shifting and evolving, the pillars provided an essential foundation for the 5+ hours of music written for Deliver Us Mars.

Technology, preparations, and planning will only take you so far. In the end, it’s about teamwork. It’s crucial to keep talking, especially in the trenches of late production stages. Even when the general direction of the game or a scene is clear, we had to keep talking about where our characters are in their individual and collective journeys, what they’re feeling and what’s left unsaid, how we set expectations and what we’d like players to take away from a particular sequence. This effort involves nearly every design discipline and requires diligence.


The musical direction and aesthetics form one part of the puzzle. Getting it all to work properly in-game presents another challenge altogether. These implementation challenges can be roughly split into three categories:

  • Overall implementation

  • Linear music for cinematics

  • Non-linear gameplay music

Overall, the skeleton of our music system was fairly straightforward. We created one FMOD event per level, and filled it with tracks to go with the level’s various subzones. Anything happening in the game could potentially drive the event to transition from one track to another. This could be the player’s arrival in a particular area, or the end of a cinematic sequence. But there are also situations where we use more complex gameplay actions, such as the moment you start climbing a particular wall.

Linear music for cinematic scenes comes with the challenge of synchronicity. Important emotional beats can be weakened if the cinematic music, VO and SFX don’t run in sync with the visuals. Early on, we set up a system that compared our FMOD event’s timeline with the cinematics’ timeline. If the two would drift too far apart—which could happen due to frame drops, stuttering, or other performance issues—the FMOD event’s timeline would be adjusted. Although these issues are mostly present during development and not in the final game, it’s reassuring to have a system in place that ensures synchronicity under all circumstances.

Non-linear music adds a different layer of excitement to music composition. By tracking and following the player’s actions, we can tailor the music to exactly match the right moment. We often do this by tracking progress. This can be done by measuring the distance the player has traveled from one point to another. Depending on how far the player has gotten, we remove or add additional layers, trigger new segments, or apply effects processing to alter the music.

We also track progress through player actions. For example, when launching your rocket, the music adapts based on how many launch steps you’ve completed.

The protagonist of Deliver Us Mars and a human-shaped hologram overlook a guardrail.

It Takes A Village

Ultimately, the story of the music of Deliver Us Mars is the story of one piece of a larger puzzle. Whether it’s the rich wastelands shaped by our level designers, the deafening silence played out by our actors, the bleak, worn-down metal and environments crafted by our artists, the technological edifice created by our programmers, or the tactile climbing mechanic—these factors all feed the musical machine, just as (I hope) the music inspires other disciplines.

The result is like a ladder—we all reach higher levels by lifting one another up. Beyond what we’ve learned from a technical or organizational perspective, that is what I would like to pass on to fellow developers who find themselves in a similar position. It takes a village to finish a game.

There’s a lot more to talk about, so feel free to get in touch with Bas or me on Twitter.

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