The music of Godfall, the looter-slasher by Counterplay Games, is one that helps tell the story of Aperion. The world full of ruins, history, war and betrayal are conveyed expertly by composer Ben MacDougall in the soundscape of Godfall. From sweeping orchestral movements to a more mechanical, ethereal vibe, Godfall's soundtrack covers a wide gamut of sounds and emotions.
Continuing the world of Godfall is the release of this week's DLC, Fire & Darkness. Ahead of MacDougall was the task of continuing the story of Godfall through its soundtrack with the familiar, while also ensuring that the music being crafted for the new DLC told the continuing story. One that explores Fire, Darkness and more. We had the chance to chat briefly with Ben about the challenge of creating music not just for a game, but a new IP altogether, as well as how he approached Fire & Darkness.
MMORPG: Going back first to the original game soundtrack, how challenging was it to bring the developer’s vision to life through music? How do you take iconic scenes or moments to create an evocative feeling in the player through music?
Ben MacDougall: Helping to bring a world to life through music is always a challenging job - and definitely not one to be taken lightly. Godfall is no exception, especially when the developer’s vision is so huge!
Everything in the world of Aperion is on a whole other scale. All the details combine into an experience that is fantastical and immersive - and music is a key part of that, emotionally speaking. While a big project like this can seem daunting, it also means there is a lot of material to work with and inspiration to draw from. Passion and collaboration are a great pairing in any environment, and the enthusiasm and drive of everyone at Counterplay Games is second-to-none.
I’ve been working with Keith Lee at Counterplay for years now, and over that time we’ve established a great way of talking about music - really digging in and cutting to the heart of who some of these characters are, as well as the places they inhabit. It’s about so much more than just driving drums and low brass etc. Sure, they have their place, but exploring the emotional intent behind musical choices is the key to making a score that is both believable and true to the story it helps to tell.
There is a ton of contrast within the original soundtrack, from sweeping, fast paced battle themes to low, deliberate, slow themes like what you hear in the Water Realm: how do you approach these differences, especially in terms of deciding on what voice (or instrumentation) you want to put with each mood?
Keeping in mind the idea of emotional intent being key, a lot of it comes down to gut reaction. I would play things up against cutscenes or alongside other visual material to see how well it fit. It’s pretty obvious that way when something works or not. On the sound-creation side of things, there would be times when I wasn’t deliberately working on Godfall and experimenting with things in the studio, and during those sessions I would come up with something and instantly know where it fit in the score. For all those eureka moments, there were also countless hours of slow iteration and parameter-tweaking to make another sound pop in just the way I’d imagined.
No matter the process of getting to the end result, there was normally an essence or vibe from those early writing-to-picture sessions that clung on all the way though - even as the music evolved during the writing process. Trust your gut!
One of the things I’ve noticed in both the original soundtrack, as well as the preview track we’ve been able to sample for Fire & Darkness it feels incredibly orchestral, yet also has a sense of a mechanical feel to the sound palette. How did you approach creating this distinctive sound and did you do anything interesting or original to help create what has become the soundscape of Godfall?
It almost feels like you’ve taken recognizable instruments (like a cello or flute for example) and really amped them up to create a distinctive sound that just fits the tone and timbre of Godfall (such as the aggressive cello opening to Ascending the Tower, or the ethereal, watery nature drawing the bow gives on the cello in Waters of Aperion – if that makes sense!)
I love finding new sounds and creating new sounds from things. Some of the deepest, rumbling drums you hear in the score actually started life as things I recorded using a flute, which as everyone knows is not a large instrument capable of deep sounds! Taking ‘pure’ sonic ingredients, and reinventing them in new, interesting ways is something I’ve always done - and is one of the most fun parts of the job! The interface between ‘organic’ and ‘synthetic’ is a particular point of fascination for me - and it definitely comes across in the score for Godfall, where there is a blurring of high-technology, ancient magic, and fantastical lore.
Moving on to the upcoming expansion, Fire & Darkness, did your approach change any when embarking on this new soundtrack versus when you started Godfall altogether?
As an expansion, it was important for the music to seamlessly evolve along with the gameplay. At the end of the day we’re all telling the same story, and music plays a vital role in that. The Fire & Darkness expansion introduces an incredible, new realm and a whole new mode of play, called Lightbringer, and so both of those offered me the chance to explore the world of Aperion and GODFALL even more. The music in the Fire Realm sounds very different to the other realms, and certainly has its own sonic identity, unique tone and sense of place, while simultaneously feeling like it belongs in the world as a whole. Lightbringer is a whole different beast, but we’ll get into that a little later I’m sure.
The preview track we were given, Embers of War, the percussion in the background really gives off a sense of something driving towards a goal, building towards something. Almost a mechanical need to drive the listener towards, well…war. How did you go about creating this feel, especially when juxtaposed with the long tones of the cello and other strings in the foreground?
Embers of War is the first track on the album, so the sense of anticipation is certainly deliberate! It’s as much about visual scene-setting as it is emotional scene-setting. The Fire Realm is full of mystery and drama - from lakes of lava to towering, sharp mountains, bottomless chasms, and the haunting howls of distant enemies. This track was about encapsulating that dark majesty and driving it all forward with foreboding urgency and the sense of inevitability you would (or should!) feel when first looking out over the ashy, smoldering landscape.
Fire & Darkness takes players to new locations, one of which being the new Fire Realm. With your experience creating distinct soundscapes for Air, Earth and Water in the original game, how did you approach the sound you wanted to create for fire? Was there anything specific that you were trying to convey through the music specifically?
The musical content of Fire & Darkness is two-fold, as you’ll hear on the soundtrack. Firstly, there’s the Fire Realm, which looked very different to what I’d first imagined! I had been naively assuming that the realm would be shades of red, orange, and yellow - as if you were stuck in the earth’s core or something. Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing in a jagged world laced with shades of deep blue and luminescent purple! The musical approach I’d been planning changed right there, because to me, red-hot sounds very different to blue-hot. Fire is something of a duality, in that it is beautiful but deadly. It floats, shimmers and dances, but as we all know, it burns, and can kill as well. I wanted to draw a musical parallel to that, so the signature sound of the Fire Realm became this burning flute sound, which is equal parts soaring, searing and wild.
Secondly, there’s the music you’ll experience in the Lightbringer mode, which takes place throughout Aperion, and introduces a new, palpable sense of horror and suspense to the world - quite unlike anything that has come before. Music has real power to ground a scene (in both emotion and place), and consequently, the themes of earlier realms have evolved into new, darker shadows of themselves …reflecting what has become of Aperion. By way of example, what once might have been a soaring, bright motif is now twisted, fragmented and knurled - through a mixture of extended instrumental techniques and creative audio processing. This new mode was a really cool part of the project to write for and was a chance to exercise a completed different set of musical muscles, all while building on the established and colorful tapestry that is Godfall, and the world of Aperion.
How has working on Godfall, especially as a new IP, helped or maybe changed your approach to other soundtrack work across the various mediums you specialize in? Is there anything you’ve learned that you’ll harness in future work as a result of creating the music for Godfall?
Every project is a journey and inherently a learning experience, so if you don’t learn something (no matter how small), then you’ve probably done it wrong! I discovered so much along the way - about so many things: Tuned tongue drums, harmonic distortion, HEPA filter background noise, some very specific (and boring) writing / editing techniques that we don’t have to get into… and so much more!
With all that said, the key takeaway for me isn’t so much a new learning, but a reminder that the best thing we can all do is challenge ourselves. It’s the challenges we rise to that make for the best stories.