The Flight interview: Alien Isolation, composing for video games

Joe Henson and Alexis Smith - aka The Flight - chat to us about creating the eerie score for Alien: Isolation...

It’s been over a year since Alien Isolation finally offered fans of the sci-fi franchise the gaming experience they had continually demanded and been cruelly denied. Its BAFTA-winning score by composers Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, better known as The Flight, played no small part in creating its eerie and often downright terrifying atmosphere. I sat down with them at their East London studio for a wide-ranging discussion about their work and how a background in record production informs their unique approach to scoring for the screen.

We meet midway through production on a top-secret project, surrounded by a towering wall of synthesizers and electronic instruments – indicative of the duo’s mutual appreciation for what they cite as “imperfection”.

“We don’t buzz off shiny massive expensive sounding things,” Smith elaborates. “Just things that make the hairs on your back stand up, but a lot of that comes down to the fact that we were lucky. We started in the music industry while you were coming in to contact with a lot more of that stuff and now I think it’s a lot harder.”

Having both started out in music at a young age, their approach stems from a background in music production and record producing. Henson previously played bass with 90s breakbeat group The Freestylers, while Smith cut his teeth working with record producer Marius De Vries on Hollywood productions, including Moulin Rouge, for several years. Both eventually decided to go it alone before joining forces in 2005, eager to indulge in the collaborative aspects of music production.

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“We both much preferred making music with people rather than on our own,” Smith reflects. “That’s not what excited us about music. We started before the whole bedroom laptop thing, where anything you did – a record or a remix – was a bunch of people working together. We wanted to keep that slightly older fashioned spirit going a bit in to this new era. It’s like having a band, isn’t it? But without having to do the evenings.”

With a diverse range of video game credits including the likes of Little Big Planet 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, their sound remains difficult to pigeonhole. Divergent musical tastes remain crucial to their partnership, as does their unusual ability to agree on most aspects of their output.

“We’re not like The Police, fighting over a fader,” Henson jokes. “Our influences come from very different styles but meet in the middle at hip hop and stuff – cut and paste music”. “But we both love a lot of different sorts of music, so there’s loads of that,” Smith adds. “It’s just luck that we came across each other. Neither of us ever do anything and go ‘I love that’ or ‘I hate it’. It’s just blind luck.”

Having worked with the likes of Björk, Lana Del Ray and Coldcut, to name just a few, the duo found themselves branching out in to video games, bolstered by their reputation as producers.

“The first game we did, a long time ago, they wanted a band,” Henson recalls. “It didn’t work out so they came to us because we do so-called ‘real music’. That’s how we got in and then talking to people in the industry. They were always interested when we said we could, but we don’t like to do, the kind of big epic cinematic orchestral.”

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There’s little doubt that the dawn of new technology in the early 2000s and the ability for games to employ orchestral compositions caused a seismic shift towards a more conventional Hollywood sound. But while the recent rise of the indie game scene has seen an increase in experimental output, orchestration remains a trend that, though well within their skillset, the duo tend to veer away from, frustrated by the notion that this has come to be perceived as the standard for triple-A titles.

“It always frustrates a bit because it’s not the only music that makes a good soundtrack,” Smith states. “In the last few years there’s definitely been a sense that people have been starting to move away from that, because that was kind of the default. Now, I think people are starting to get a bit more creative about it and thinking it’s not just that. You can do anything.”

In the case of Alien Isolation, this provided the perfect opportunity to experiment. Developed by British studio Creative Assembly, the game presented a unique opportunity to take an existing, well-established franchise and build upon the musical cues that have since attained a legendary status all of their own.

“There was a big marker laid by the original film score and their production concept,” Smith admits. “They wanted it to still sound like it was in the 1970s – and the next one, which is it’s got to be scary. They’re some pretty specific barriers, but they trusted us to use those barriers and create something within that.”

“Our initial conversation was: everything that’s used should be from the period,” Henson adds gesturing at their impressive collection of synthesizers. “But it doesn’t have to be from the specific arrangement of Alien, so it doesn’t have to just be orchestral with sound manipulation.”

For the team at Creative Assembly, music had been a creative consideration from the outset. Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse score had always been in mind to license for use in the game and this presented its own unique set of challenges given the brief length of the source material.

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“His score was about 20 minutes of music, whereas we’ve got to do something that covers hours and hours,” Smith explains. “So you have to have more than just that. If you put twenty minutes of that across a game you would get bored, so we had to find a lot more roads you can go down.”

Following their recommendations, Creative Assembly would go on to license three minutes of key cues, which were then used as a creative starting point.

“We went through the film, the score, picked the cues that we thought sum up all the stuff that means Alien,” Henson explains. “The orchestral snaps, the delays, the flutes… you put that in and you instantly know where you are. We didn’t have to spend ten hours pastiching and ‘almost’ doing Alien. We were allowed to do Alien when we needed to, which also meant that we could go pretty far away from it and drop in a couple of little iconic sounds, more than arrangements, and that people would still be pulled straight back in to the world.”

Having secured the job, Henson’s brother, fellow composer Christian Henson, used their selections as the basis for a nine-minute suite, which saw Goldsmith’s material expanded in to assets that Smith and Henson were able to use later in the process. This was also accompanied by a sample session, which saw the duo construct their own library of atonal material, which was particularly fitting for both the established sound of the franchise and the game’s ominous setting.

“[Christian] took the themes that we’d licensed and then expanded them… just to give us assets that we could use later on,” Smith explains. “He did a lot of the cutscenes, which were more orchestral and cinematic and we did most of the in-game music, but there was a lot of collaboration. We’d do a lot of stuff on his parts and he’d give us a lot of stuff for the in-game stuff as well.”

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Although Goldsmith’s score was an obvious starting point, this didn’t constrain them from pushing their creative boundaries. The duo set themselves the personal challenge of subtly chronicling the history of horror scores throughout the game – something that Henson suggests many players may have been oblivious to.

“When we’re at certain points in the game we know creatively where we want to be. The beginning of the game is Jerry Goldsmith, then there’s a section with all the androids. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but it’s all analogue synths there. It’s subtle, but we used synths from the period and did that section and then it goes a bit more modern and it’s kind of manipulated guitars and stuff towards the end.”

“We were really in that world,” Smith recalls. “It’s very difficult to put into words, but just because we needed other timbres and sounds… there are still things you can do with synths. You could have them coming out of one of Jerry’s cues and it wouldn’t sound out of place.”

With Christian Henson scoring the majority of the game’s linear cinematics, Henson and Smith’s work was left at the mercy of the game’s systems. Having developed various cues and sequences, Creative Assembly’s audio department would take their material and adapt it to work within the context of the systemic gameplay itself, which responds to a player’s location, their choices and their proximity to various threats, as Smith explains.

“The music when you’re sneaking around in danger ramps up as you get closer to death basically, with more intense layers coming in. Then there’s also a music system for when you’re in an actual fight with creatures, which is different. And then, much more subtly, when you’re exploring and there’s no danger, there’s quite a lot of silence with little bits of music, little one-shot things.”

The end result is a score that each player ultimately hears and experiences differently, with the music being delivered in an entirely non-linear fashion – quite unlike the auditory experience associated with film or television scores.

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“Apart from the scripted scenes and the cutscenes, you rarely hear a piece of music the same twice,” explains Henson. “Sometimes it’s seamless and brilliant and other times we would notice and we like that – we like hearing how the music pieces together.”

For any musician, the idea of relinquishing control of the way your music is heard is a fairly daunting prospect, but it’s an aspect of the job that both find enormously exciting, as Henson recalls.

“That can be quite difficult sometimes – ‘Oh, I didn’t expect my music to be like that,’ because they’re putting it with the system and the system plays it back. Especially in Alien it depends absolutely on what is happening on screen. We always keep it in mind but we try not to let the technology take over what we’re doing, because we’re still trying to make music in the end. I think from our background, we used to do a lot of cut and paste music; getting into computer systems and working with layers and loops, so it comes a lot from that.”

The actual process of composing for a video game varies considerably, not least because a composer will often come to each project at different stages in a game’s production. As a result of this, inspiration can come from as little as a piece of concept art to completed animation sequences or a full gameplay build.

“Yeah, that’s a challenge that you’ve got to be prepared for with games,” Smith states. “You may start off with four JPEGs and a grey video, but you’ve got to just use what you can to try and get in to it. When we start a new project, we just get as much stuff as we can, like scripts or storylines.”

In the case of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Ubisoft supplied a range of work in progress video captures and historical reference material, as opposed to finalised sequences that required the duo to create a defined amount of music to accompany it. It’s a particularly fitting process for the duo given their background, and one that Smith suggests is not dissimilar to producing records.

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“You’re not doing it to picture, but you’re getting an overall sense of whether it works. We both started off writing music that wasn’t to anything, so we’re perfectly happy having what it should sound like in your head. If you are a more traditional composer who has come from scoring TV and scoring films, you might think, because they’re so used to everything they have being based on having a picture, that’s a fundamental part of what they do and how they learn and everything. So maybe that’s a harder transition to games where suddenly you don’t have that, but for us it was easy because we were going from nothing.”

Away from the process of composing the score, standalone video game soundtracks have proven an increasingly popular and sought after addition, which often differs greatly from the experience of playing the game itself. Work on the Alien Isolation soundtrack has been completed, although “legal hurdles” currently prevent it from being released commercially – something that they aren’t particularly bothered by.

“You do get a truer representation of what it was for by playing the game,” Smith concedes. “People aren’t going to play the game for the music. They’re playing it for the overall experience and the music is there to play a part in that and doing a job for that. The soundtrack we’ve done for the in game music, we’ve done one possibility of something you might hear, but that’s not actually how it was constructed to be heard… If you want to hear the music, play the game. It’s fine. That’s what it’s for.”

Meanwhile, in addition to working on their upcoming third EP, the duo have since turned their attention to various other video game projects, all of which they remain under strict orders to remain tight-lipped about – something that remains a bugbear for many involved with the industry who feel that it has the potential to stifle creative collaboration.

“There’s obviously two sides to the story,” Henson muses. “It isn’t a problem, but if they loosened up or worked out a way of not having everything locked down so much, I think there could be more interesting creative partnerships. Our agent could give us a list of every film and TV show, pretty much, that’s being made at the moment, if we wanted… In games he has no idea.”

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Hype, of course, has come to play an important factor in the industry’s sustained push for secrecy. After all, one need only glance at the glitz of e3 to realise the importance of its place in the marketing machine at which many triple A titles are unveiled, often years ahead of their release.

“To the layman it seems pretty odd that you kind of announce and show a bit of a game and it’s not coming out for eighteen months,” Smith adds. “That’s quite weird. You’d never do that with anything else, but that’s kind of what you’re supposed to do now… It’s been quite an eye opener for us, these few last big projects that we’ve worked on because as soon as they get announced the traffic and the amount of people worldwide who are interested in these things that aren’t even coming out for a few years; it’s crazy. I guess we didn’t really realise quite how big it’s got now.”

While the games industry continues to offer its fair share of surprises, it comes as little surprise to hear that, like most creatives who work on a project long-term, Smith and Henson have yet to actually play Alien Isolation in full themselves.

“You completely lose any sense after working on something for two years,” Smith laughs. “You can’t step back. I’d love to get that game out in a couple of years and play it. Then I’ll be able to actually have some sort of opinion on it. It’s impossible to tell. I think it looks good and you see little bits of it and you think ‘that’s good’, but I’ve got no idea what the overall experience is.”

“One of the great things about working in a partnership is when you’ve been working on a piece of music to be able to go ‘is this any good?’” Henson states. “Sometimes it starts off and it sounds great in your head and then we can tag team. We know a lot of people who’ll be working on a piece of music for weeks and weeks and weeks. And it’s not good to do it like that… Get it down, do it and move on. And we’ve done that and now we’re on to the next.”

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For further updates and news, you can follow The Flight on Twitter at @theflightmusic