<i>No Man's Sky</i> is one of 2015's most anticipated video games - and its sound design is every bit as innovative as its gameplay.
Seemingly everywhere but strangely undefined, Hello Games' No Man's Sky has become the poster child for this console generation's sci-fi genre. It's been on the cover of magazines, rapturously received at industry conferences since its reveal at 2013's VGX Awards. A PlayStation 4 timed exclusive, it's been hyped to astronomical levels but remarkably evasive on two key questions: what the game's actually about, and how you play it.
That's becoming clearer, slowly, but the complete picture is some months away from forming. From what we've been told so far, No Man's Sky is about exploration, chiefly, and the evolution of your character and its ship and equipment. At the outset you will have a pretty crappy starter vessel and one simple directive: be whatever you want to be, however you choose to do it. Perhaps you'll discover new species, broadening mankind's knowledge of distant, alien worlds. Alternatively you could turn aggressor, attacking transport fleets for supplies and engaging in dogfights above a procedurally generated landscape as wild as any imagination.
'No Man's Sky' gameplay trailer, December 2014, soundtracked by new music from 65daysofstatic
That's been the main selling point of No Man's Sky thus far: its procedurally generated universe. But that's hardly an element unique to this title – other space simulators are promising galaxies systematically created by complex, behind-the-scenes calculations. Huge Kickstarter success Star Citizen is hoping to implement just that in the future, while Limit Theory and Interstellar Rift are promising their own procedural systems.
Those games look cold, though. Not lifeless – their worlds will undoubtedly be populated by a wonderful array of exotic fauna. But they confirm to our 21st century ideas of what science fiction should look like: everything cast in gleaming blacks and silvers, all piercing lasers and hostile environments.
No Man's Sky's visuals set it truly apart, influenced more by sci-fi literature of the 1960s and 70s than any modern-era aesthetics, gorgeous aquamarines and deep tangerines substituting several shades of grey. I've met grown men, comparative children at the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the colourful covers of Solaris, Dune and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, who have admitted to shedding tears on seeing the game's initial preview footage. One was Shahid Ahmad, director of strategic content at Sony, who subsequently did everything he could to bring the game to PS4 before any other platform. Whatever he paid, he'll tell you it's worth it.
The game's audio is just as striking, though – and perhaps even more revolutionary than the visuals. Hello Games managing director Sean Murray needed a song to complement the VGX 2013 trailer, so he turned to one of his own favourite bands: Sheffield foursome 65daysofstatic, and their 2010 track 'Debutante'. The match seemed perfect, and when the same track was used for the game's E3 2014 trailer it was only right to begin wondering if the group's involvement went deeper than the use of a single song. Turned out, it certainly did.
65daysofstatic have always been a cut above most "cult"-level outfits – they sell out shows, shift sizeable stacks of records, and get to tour the world. They're hardly a household name, but then their music – a collision of post-rock dynamics and electronic energy, typically instrumental and always charged with a sense of drama – isn't exactly mainstream material. There came a meeting between 65days and Murray, where both parties wanted the other involved without the other knowing that ahead of the appointment. The band was ready to pitch, the developer eager to commission. A deal came easily.
"Then the big meeting came in September, last year," says Paul Wolinski, one-quarter of 65daysofstatic. "At that point we were really expecting to get some direction on the soundtrack. But they wrong-footed us by not giving us much guidance beyond, 'Just make a 65daysofstatic album'. We'd gone in thinking about the differences between writing a soundtrack compared to a regular album, because we wanted to serve the game. But Sean said that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted us to work how we normally do."
Not that 65days have been able to operate in their comfort zone while completing their contributions to the music of No Man's Sky. "Our last album, Wild Light, took 18 months to write," says Wolinski. "This soundtrack though, this album, has only come together in the last three months. I mean, it's been great having so much freedom, but at the same time we received the opposite of what you'd consider guidance."
Much of the music that 65days produce for No Man's Sky will ultimately be released as a record "proper" to accompany, and in its own way promote, the release of the game (which is still very much TBC, date wise). These tracks are locked-in-place creations that will remain unchanged, and are set to feature in the game at semi-scripted moments. But while working through what elements to turn into finished cuts and which to set to one side, 65days were careful to collect every "scrap" for a very special purpose: so that they could become part of the game's persistently generative ambient soundtrack, overseen by audio director Paul Weir.
This is the music that develops as the game progresses – or, rather, how you progress the game. It, and many sound effects too, will be mapped to specific parameters and generated accordingly. Explains Weir: "Whenever you're in space, or on a planet, or underwater, or in a cave, that physical state will be attached to its own audio state. I want to use the seed values that create the planets to seed the music. We'll know what the biosphere is, what the habitat is, and we'll know how much danger there is. That information is there to use if we want to, and it'll all act as a driver for the ambient music."
'No Man's Sky' VGX 2013 premiere, featuring 'Debutante'
Weir's got years of experience in working on generative music projects, heard not just in games but also banks, shopping centres and toilets – "I do a lot of toilets, for some reason," he laughs. Past gaming credits include the quad racer Pure, a handful of LEGO titles and the most recent Thief, but it's with No Man's Sky that he's really stretching his own ambition and furthering the potential of generative music.
"A lot of games feature small elements of randomised music. But I think what we're doing is well above that. I don't think anyone has come out with a fully generative soundtrack that doesn't sound generative. I don't need people to know that it's generative – I really don't care about that. I want a game that sounds totally beautiful, where you're on a planet and what you hear is suitable for that planet. That's all I care about."
The generative music cannot be successful without, as Weir puts it, "amazing sounds" to put into the system in the first place, which is where 65days come into things. They'll have their songs, which Weir says "will be mapped to key moments, perhaps the first time you go into hyperspace, or the first time you discover a truly new species," but those constituents that were effectively considered off-cuts by the band can become something magical once they're introduced to No Man's Sky's procedural sound system.
"One song has these two big guitar melodies that wrap around each other, and we've gone through so many variations of those melodies, as we would normally do," says Wolinski. "But we've kept those unused melodies, for use in this procedural, infinite music machine. When these elements are put into the game, and maybe used in a loop, they could become this ocean of guitars, depending on the dynamic of the game and how they're mixed together. We're working with Paul really closely on this stuff."
Weir's also using the same procedural systems that drive the game's generative music for much of the audio. While he scared the life out of Murray by revealing early recording sessions were conducted in the company of dishwashers and coffee machines – "When he heard it, it obviously didn't sound like a coffee machine," he reassures me of the final audio – his work since has been on making every encounter a singular experience in terms of what you hear.
"The obvious thing would be the creature noises. From a sound design perspective, that's really difficult to handle because of a number of questions: how many different types of creature are there going to be, how do we map that onto recordings, and how do we even make those recordings? So we've created our own sort of plug-in, which basically models vocal tracts, and within that we can say it's got big features, it's got a big neck, and it's screaming because it's angry. Then, the creature's parameters are mapped onto the game. All the creature sounds you've seen in the trailers so far, they've been created by our prototype plug-ins, so I've always done this from day one."
It's a compelling clash of art versus science. On the one hand there's a band, making music as its members always have. On the other, programming that most players simply won't get their heads around, making the music and sound change directly according to how the game is going. Weir's intention is clear, though: this is more about the results than how they're actually made.
"When I hear what other people have done in generative music, and this has been going on for years in academia, they always put the technology first, so musically it's not all that interesting. I want this to be musically interesting – the tech is just a means to an end. Now, the science comes into things, and that's complicated. There's no way around it – there's a lot of C++ and scripting – but once the system is made, I want to disassociate the science of creating the system from the art of making the music. You shouldn't think of science at that point – it's just a tool.
"I want to be ambitious, and we're doing things with No Man's Sky that have never been done before. I want it to aesthetically be very strong. But we can't do everything. We're a really small team, so I have to be very pragmatic, too."
For the other Paul, No Man's Sky presents his band with an amazing platform from which to showcase their talents. Over one million people have watched the December-published gameplay trailer for the game on YouTube, whereas the band's official video for 'Prisms', uploaded over a year earlier, has been watched just over 70,000 times. "Our profit from this is in the exposure," Wolinski confirms, resisting any persuasion to discuss money. "That's rewarding enough, and this is a great opportunity, for sure. I can't imagine a more perfect project for us."