We've had a busy few days introducing people to the aesthetics of Private Eye at the Brighton digital festival. Today however, I want to share with you our approach to another core aspect of the game, the soundtrack.
From the outset Jake and I knew that we couldn't approach the score for PE in a traditional or linear way. Set pieces that are triggered at key events like 'in-combat' and crossfaded to and from a looping background ambience would be too blunt a tool to properly support the intricate, narrative driven gameplay.
Instead we wanted the music of Private Eye VR to track the player's interaction with the environment, to support and help evolve the narrative in a subtle, cinematic way, and most importantly to immerse the player more deeply in the rich and atmospheric world of PE.
To realise our goal of a player driven soundtrack we've crafted a completely bespoke music sequencer. The sequencer is tied directly to player input, where every action that can advance the narrative can also manipulate the soundtrack, placing the player at the heart of the experience.
Over several months of development we've honed the dynamic sequencer and it's implementation in the game and we now have the platform to deliver a fully dynamic score. The challenge then is to write music that makes sense of the technology, that feels composed to scene even though the timings of the scene are entirely beyond the control of a director.
My approach to this has been to rethink my usual compositional process. Without fixed timings to hang the composition around my focus has shifted towards layering and texture and away from the traditional, horizontal fixed structure.
Each composition begins life with a focus on the underlying narrative and emotional content of the scene. From here I produce a series of sketches that map out the narrative arc, highlighting or underpinning the emotional contours. Once I'm happy with the compositional ideas I then set about writing contrasting layers of material that are linked thematically. The individual layers of the composition are all driven by the player's input via the music sequencer, effectively allowing the music to be sculpted by the player's interaction with the environment. The resulting music is moulded in various ways dependent on the particular combination of musical elements playing at any given time and this ultimately depends on where the player is and what they're doing in the environment.
Let me show you a few sections from two different compositions. The first piece comes from our first build demo of Private Eye and was used to underscore the 'desk scene' an investigative, puzzle solving section of the game where Sam is piecing together forgotten parts of his life, piecing together his existence before the life changing accident that has left him paralysed, one memory at a time.
AT THE DESK
This is the main theme that I wrote to accompany Sam's investigative work at his office desk. It focuses on a core ensemble of piano, strings, percussion, solo trumpet and electric guitar.
Often during the course of a scene the music needs to ebb and flow and changes in dynamic are important to keeping the music interesting whilst remaining unobtrusive. By stripping out instruments and thinning the texture the music can sit in the background a little more comfortably.
As the narrative direction changes the music must also move in a sympathetic way. This next texture introduces bowed gongs, a technique involving the bowing of the gong with a violin bow. Coupled with a variation in the piano part and underpinned by sustained strings this texture sounds much more ominous.
As well as dynamic changes the music needs to be able to shift its emotional direction too. This excerpt is a little more neutral in tone than the previous clip and contrasts well with the darker material.
In order to highlight certain key features of the narrative I construct contrasting sections that can be triggered at key events. These interludes are essential for moulding the composition to the player's decision making process.
The second piece comes from a later iteration of Private Eye. In this scene Sam is able to freewheel around a hospital environment where he is undergoing treatment for his injuries and phycological examinations exploring the onset of amnesia.
This is the main theme that I wrote for the hospital scene. All the parts are performed together as one ensemble from start to finish. However, to control the composition more individual textures are needed.
Hospital Investigation - Theme
Stripping away all the other instruments but the piano produces quite a troubled atmosphere.
This example is a percussion only texture. Having just percussion is a good way to provide some respite from the melodic features of the composition.
This example demonstrates what happens when the previous texture is combined with a modified piano part and a clarinet. Adding the extra instrumentation moves the composition forward and provides new features to concentrate on keeping the music interesting.
This texture focuses on the clarinets with a subtle undercurrent of the harp, vibes and solo french horn. It has a hallucinogenic quality as the clarinets are processed with a delay creating lots of overlapping notes.
The last texture is another interlude and can be crossfaded to at a given moment to highlight a change in drama.
Whilst a lot of the composition for Private Eye is designed to be structured by the player there are times when I get to compose to a fixed structure. Sam's fateful car accident is a nice example of the more traditional approach to composing to picture.
I'm really excited about this compositional method. I'm excited by the prospect of creating a score that sympathetically follows the narrative, creating a unique and compelling VR experience.
As we look towards our Kickstarter campaign my mind is focused on the possibilities of this player structured music. It's our aspiration at Private Eye to have all the music recorded by lives players, because ultimately there is no substitute for the unique talents of real musicians working in a beautiful sounding studio.
This is where the backing of the Kickstarter community becomes essential. I hope that we can demonstrate to you the potential of Private Eye VR that we can convince you of the artistic virtues of this project and that when we launch the Private Eye Kickstarter campaign in the very near future, that we can count on you to help us bring this amazing VR experience to your headsets.
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Stay tuned and thanks for reading.