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Pop CultureAugust 18, 2016

The music of No Man’s Sky: talking politics while making loads of noise


Comprised of over 18 quintillion (yes, that’s a number) planets, No Man’s Sky is a seemingly infinite game. Sarah Illingworth spoke to Paul Wolinski from 65daysofstatic, the Sheffield band behind its soundtrack – also the band’s new album – to find out how you go about creating audio for a limitless game.

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How did you guys come to write the music for No Man’s Sky, and what was your direction? Write an infinite, limitless soundtrack?

We were on tour somewhere, and we got an email asking if one of our old songs could be used for a videogame trailer. We get emails like this relatively regularly, music being used for something or other, and we always check out the project, just to make sure it’s not being used for anything terrible. So we got some more info about the game, and from the very beginning it was clear to us that this was going to be something brilliant. They sent through some concept art, that explained what they were trying to go for. And we said, Yes. Use this old song for your trailer by all means, do you have anyone to do the soundtrack yet? Because if not we should probably talk about it. They didn’t, and so we did. It turned out that Sean Murray, the chief architect of the game, had been a 65daysofstatic fan for forever, and they’d been using some of our music in the early stages of development. It was just really serendipitous. We’d been looking for a soundtrack project for a while, and I still can’t believe how perfect this particular thing is for what we enjoy doing. We jumped onboard fairly quickly.

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The first meeting that we had with them, we went and we were totally ready to write some sort of space opera soundtrack, if that’s what they wanted. If they wanted to get an orchestra in we’d work with that, we’d do whatever they wanted, to serve the game. But all they told us to do was to just go away and write a 65daysofstatic record, and that would be fine. It was really flattering, but at the same time a bit confusing at first. Because, working on a soundtrack project, often music is designed not to be heard – it’s not necessarily a driving force in an obvious way, it’s got a subservient role to the action. And that’s not how we write songs when we write records. It was a bit of a balancing act, to figure out exactly what they wanted from us; what they thought a 65daysofstatic soundtrack would be versus what we thought it would be.

The thing that made it more complicated was obviously the infinite nature of this game, and the fact that they wanted an infinite soundtrack. In the beginning they were happy for us to not worry about that at all. In fact, this first meeting with Sean and Paul Weir, who’s the Audio Director, they said to us, So yeah, we’re going to try and make the soundtrack infinitely long, but you guys don’t have to worry about that – you can just go away and write some songs, and we’ll sort out the technology behind it once you give us some songs back. That was really nice of them, but it was such a fascinating idea, and as a band we’d been thinking for a while about different ways to play with form when it comes to delivering music. Because albums are great, and touring is great, but we’ve always felt like it would be nice to push where bands can exist, beyond just those two disciplines. Non-linear music of an indefinite length was something that we really wanted to get involved in. So we said, No, tell us how it’s going to work, because we think we can write something more appropriate if we get involved in the technology behind it. I don’t regret saying that! It’s been hard work, but it’s been pretty exciting.

The game itself is procedurally generated – as you move through it the visuals form around you. And the music does the same?

If you think about a game like Grand Theft Auto – even though it’s a huge area of game, it’s a city that you can walk around in. That’s been manually designed by designers and that exists on a hard drive somewhere as lots of 3D models. But with No Man’s Sky, the way that they’ve made it – literally the size of the universe – whatever you’re looking at at the moment, it generates instantaneously, moment by moment. You’re never inside an actual 3D model that somebody’s designed, it’s literally just what you can see, and it’s all algorithms instead of pre-made blocks. Therefore they can fit so much more, and all of it can be different and unique.

“We’ve always felt like it would be nice to push where bands can exist” As far as I understand what is meant by saying procedural audio, the soundtrack – I’m not sure if it technically counts as that. It’s certainly infinitely long, and might be better described as generative music, because it is being generated moment by moment. But I think what’s most interesting about it is they really wanted to give it a sense of identity that wasn’t just ambient, electronic bleeps and bloops. That’s how it normally works, the music is literally generated instantly in the game, that way it can always be different. But obviously the problem there is that it can only ever be electronic, and we’re a band. We use electronics a lot, but we also use loads of really noisy guitars, and drumkits and pianos and things. They wanted all of that realness of the sound within the game, so it basically involved us writing loads and loads and loads of music.

We wrote the songs because it was going to be the next 65daysofstatic record, so we knew we had to be proud of it as a standalone thing. For people who don’t care about videogames, who didn’t even know it was a soundtrack, this record needs to work in its own right. I think we’ve done that, and we’re really proud of that. But when we were writing those songs we always had one eye on the future, where we’d be pulling them apart again, into their ingredients of melodies and textures and sonic palette, and the instruments that we’d used and so on. They were designed to complement each other, and to fit together in lots of different ways. Once we’d written the songs and mixed the songs and finished them, we pulled them apart again. It’s kind of like variations on a theme or something, but of a set of dimensions. Not just variations on a melody, but variations of sounds and soundscapes. A library of noise, basically.

So you made the 10 tracks for the soundtrack, and your album, and then created a library of extra effects and sounds?

Essentially, but not just extra sounds – extra melodies, and rhythms and chord progressions. There’s the songs in the various ways you can listen to them, and build them, but then there’s more material that isn’t technically any of the songs, but still kind of fits. Like the glue that will fasten two songs together, but sometimes it’s just completely different tangents. There’s a lot going on in that. The good thing for us was, we still weren’t ultimately responsible for making it work inside the game. The audio director had to do that. We got to do all the fun creative stuff, and we worked with him on some of the logic of how the audio brain of the computer game would choose these elements, and put them together in new ways to make new soundscapes. We worked with him on that, and made some suggestions which were taken onboard. It’s been such a supportive and creative environment; the freedom that we’ve been given and the trust that’s been placed in us has been phenomenal. I hope we’ve pulled it off.

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To clarify, the songs and the sounds are pulled together by algorithms, and that’s what drives the music?

Yeah, that’s where our control ends, is as to how these decisions are made about how it’s going to work within the game. If the computer is going to say, Right let’s play this kind of song, then we’ve been involved in the rules that will govern how that decision is going to be made, but the choice is made by the actual people making the game, as to what moments might trigger that particular combination of rules that will then generate some audio. It’s a balancing act between making stuff that you know is going to work better in certain environments than others, but knowing that you have to hand all of this off, and not know for sure exactly how it’s going to play out in the game. I know there’s going to be moments where, maybe the finished tracks will play, or maybe a few stems of the finished tracks will play. For example, the first time you might discover a space station, or the first time you land on a new planet – or presumably the end of the game – there’s going to be all of these moments where more fully formed music comes in, separate from the generative stuff. I guess we have to play the game to find out how it all works.

Have you played it at all?

Actually, this week – we got to play it for a couple of hours for the first time. It was really exciting. We were trying to concentrate on the music, but were more just excited to – just like, existing on this planet and trying to figure out how to fix that ship, all of these things. It’s a very visceral experience. Because of the nature of the game we barely heard 1% of the music that we’ve actually put into it, because there’s no way to actually get a handle on it unless you play it for 100 hours or something.

It sounds like it’s going to kickstart a zillion obsessions; it’s an unconquerable game, but you won’t be able to help yourself but try. Genius.

Fortunately none of us actually have PlayStations – if we did I think we’d just have to give up being a band and concentrate on finishing that game.

It’s an interesting time to put out a game about the infinite, borderless universe, when there’s a lot of talk about borders and boundaries going on politically. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Yeah, yeah. What a mess. I’ve thought about that a lot actually. There’s something particularly bleak going on this year in terms of global politics, and it’s not hard to think about all of these creative projects that we might be involved in being, frankly, pretty trivial in comparison to what appears to be the collapse of late-stage capitalism. But it’s the only thing that we’re good at. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, and just trying to justify these kinds of projects, but what I like about No Man’s Sky is that it’s not a game about running around and shooting and killing people. It has that kind of thing in it, space fights and stuff, but it’s not like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto or something. It’s got a sense of hope and wonder and exploration, and like you say it’s about exploring a borderless universe. It also seems to treat the players with a bit of intelligence and allows them to use their imagination a bit more. I think it’s pretty important to be cultivating the imagination of, especially, the younger generation, because they’re going to need some pretty abstract thinking skills in order to escape the colossal mess that is going to be waiting for them in the next 20 or 30 years. I hope that things like this are, at least not just pure escapism or a way to hide from what’s going on.

Either way, we need escapism. Things should be better. We should be able to just play a crazy game and enjoy our lives.

Absolutely, yeah, this is true.

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But I agree with you, a game like this does teach you, whether or not you’re conscious of it. All games do, teach you to think in certain ways.

One of the things that struck me most over the last couple of years of this project is, I played loads of computer games when I was a teenager, and then lost track of that world a little bit. Coming back to it now, and seeing how it’s evolved – it’s still the early days of being an art form, but there’s a lot of potential there to finally escape the stereotypical view that it’s just a bit of a geeky hobby for teenagers. There’s certainly scope within the form of a videogame, and the types of stories that you can tell, and the agency you can give a player to move through stories and environments. There’s so much potential there. Like you say – escape is vital, but all the best pop art, to me, it’s kind of escapist but tends to have an undertone of agitation or subversion to some degree or another. It would be good to be part of opening doors for the games world to do that. It’s something we struggle with a lot as a band, trying to talk about politics whilst essentially just making loads of noise. It’s an odd balance.

Well I guess you just do it when it’s needed, right?

Yeah. But that feels like all the time at this point. We were just talking earlier about how the realities of being a band putting out a record demand that we’re supposed to be all over Twitter and Facebook, shouting about how people can pre-order our new record. But then you open Twitter or Facebook and it’s just the UK government literally setting itself on fire and falling apart. It makes you feel a bit silly.

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