[In a new interview, Game Developer staffer Jeff Fleming sits down with Half-Life 2 mod Neotokyo's soundtrack composer, Ed Harrison, to discuss making the music for the impressive-looking game mod.]
Studio Radi-8’s recently released Neotokyo mod
for Half-Life 2 is getting attention for its fresh spin on team-based shooters. Set in a near-future urban Japan whose streets are ground zero in a covert civil war, Neotokyo is rich in tech noir ambience and cyberpunk gadgetry.
In addition to its carefully-tuned gameplay and sharp art direction, the world of Neotokyo is given further depth by Ed Harrison
’s haunting soundtrack -- which seems to oscillate between furtive dubstep and soaring elegy.
Based in Australia, Harrison spoke with us about creating Neotokyo’s unique music:
How far along was the Neotokyo project when you came on board?
It was in the very early stages. I read a post on a forum scouting for talent to work on an anime-inspired mod, and my interest was perked. I was just starting to explore anime and thought it would be really interesting to write some music for a project like that. Neotokyo
is not the kind of game that really relies on a soundtrack, but the level of creativity the team has put into it has made it an inspiring project to explore musically.
Did you do any sound design work for the game in addition to the soundtrack?
I did a lot of sound design for the original proof-of-concept version of Neotokyo
, and bits and pieces for the final release (such as the ghost sounds). The final push to finish such a large soundtrack and release it was daunting enough that, at the time, my focus fell away from sound design and settled squarely on the music.
Sound design is something I love and want to do more of, though. I'm also currently wrapping my head around C++ so that I can explore the implementation of sound and music in games too.
Were the visuals and environments largely set or did they evolve as the music evolved?
The visuals have evolved a lot over the course of development, and I was trying things out early enough in the project for there to be a definite co-evolution.
I’m curious about how small, individually remote development teams are organized. What was the primary way for everyone to stay connected? How was progress tracked?
I'm sure every team self-organizes in its own unique way. In this case, the foundation was an IRC channel on which the developers would talk and otherwise idle. Being a hobby-project, the team generally took a "when it's done" approach to schedules, and the only thing keeping any of the team members in line was their own desire to be there. I think the project has succeeded solely because the people working on it are passionate about it.
“Departure” is a particularly evocative track from Neotokyo. How was that piece composed and recorded?
That was an interesting one. It was composed specifically for the mod's trailer
, while the trailer was being created. By that stage the soundtrack was already very developed so I knew what musical vocabulary I wanted to use. It's one of the more directly evocative tracks because the trailer was obviously intended to make a quick impression, and convey some of the energy behind Neotokyo
in a short space of time.
I didn't have specific trailer visuals to score to when I started, so I came up with the general idea and climactic section as a starting point. As I didn't have a chance to record new strings for the track, I chopped up layered violins I'd recorded for another Neotokyo
track and constructed the string section over the climax by editing and placing the audio. I also used some other source material from Neotokyo
tracks such as vocal samples and viola.
The lone viola line early in the track is actually one of the parts recorded for “Footprint.” I thought it would be nice to bring some familiar elements of other tracks into the trailer music. The intro and outro ambiances are made of sounds I originally created for “Out” and “Carapace.” Otherwise the process was the same as most other tracks—construct a first draft in Reason, mix and add live elements in Pro-Tools.
You’re releasing the Neotokyo soundtrack through CD Baby. Can you tell us how that has worked out for you? It seems like a really effective and under used way for game composers to raise awareness of their work. Has it been profitable?
CD Baby offer a great service by taking all the hassle out of selling music without handing away a ludicrous percentage of returns. Amazon Advantage, for instance, takes a 55 percent cut. I had to accumulate and spend a few thousand dollars initially on printing and packaging, and there have been a whole array of expenses I didn't foresee such as shipping boxes of CDs internationally.
But amazingly, there's been enough interest that the project has paid for itself, and is actually bringing in some profit. It's not the sort of money I could live off, and I'll be out of CDs soon enough, but for a small-scale release it's been a great success.
soundtrack was never about selling anything, and I mainly wanted to put the CD out for a sense of completion and to have a tangible representation of my work. That people have supported it as much as they have is a bonus that I'm both grateful for and surprised by.
What are you listening to at the moment? Are there any video game soundtracks or game composers that are particularly inspirational to you?
I've been influenced by a lot of game music since I've played a LOT of games over the years. The LucasArts point and click adventures had some great music which inspired and influenced me in the early days. Grim Fandango
is one of the most musically remarkable games ever created.
Lately I've been listening to a wide array of music, from the broken hip-hop of Flying Lotus and Harmonic 313, to Joanna Newsom, to Shostakovich concertos and atmospheric electro-jazz like Triosk.