Over the course of time, Remedy and Petri Alanko have become somewhat inseparable. The composer of Alan Wake-fame has been with the studio for over a decade and has scored all of their games since. When Remedy announced Control, fans were quick to assume Alanko would return to compose the game’s score. However, closer to release it was revealed both Petri Alanko and Martin Stig Anderson signed for the job. Can there be two captains on one ship?
To further complicate the task at hand, Control was shaping up to be a completely new sort of Remedy experience. To remain sustainable in the fierce videogame market, Remedy re-structured to implement a new development strategy. Although this allowed for the studio to work multiple projects at the same time, the overall development time had to be shortened. As a result, the team working on Control was forced to change the usual ‘recipe’ it would follow to create a game. Their ambition to excel remained untouched: a complexly layered narrative, with memorable characters in a confined re-explorable game world with a fleshed-out universe. Indeed, it’s a mouth full.
Control can not be defined as a linear cinematic action experience. For Petri Alanko, a second composer and a game with an unfamiliar ‘character’ would also force him to change his usual ‘recipe’. All his conventional ways of scoring a game would be tested. During this exclusive interview with PayneReactor, Alanko will share his ambition, his sources of inspiration and more importantly, how he managed to pull it all off.
Before writing a single note on paper (does that still happen nowadays?)… How do you like to prepare for a project like this?
Actually, I do sometimes like to write score sheets. For a long time I relied only on my audio workstation and wrote everything “straight onto the timeline”, but I’ve noticed the results gain a more relaxed and more fluid manner if I write something on paper…despite the fact that I sometimes use just about two hundred Post-Its stuck on my wall. In some cases, the memos include an emotional range, or a development inside a scene or a cue, and some have keywords, both technical or emotional, whatever brings me back to the moment. I’ve noticed I remember my “first peeks” or “first surface scratches” really well, and I love to gather myself back at the moment when The Idea struck me, which is why I sometimes write down a faint sketch of a graphic idea – or keywords, or, heck, in one case, a damn haiku. One of the key moments in Control was filled with such a surprising joy, in the middle of a mayhem, that to emphasize my astonishment, I decided to settle down and let the joy sink in. It was a moment of revelation, so “her face, lighted up / invisible bond inside / forever rejoice” was drafted back then – but in Finnish, so my translation might not be exact. The meaning, however, is identical.
I usually like to prepare thoroughly, such as writing all memos, looking at concept pictures and graphic sketches – and I’m a sucker for presentations. Especially good ones. I often get the first ideas right there, and I seldom write ‘that stuff’ down, as I like to test whether the idea stands the wear of time. If I remember something after, say, two weeks, it’s worth a demo or writing down. In some cases, such as Control’s six-note leitmotif melody, I had to make a demo right after the presentation. The descending notes represent concentration, “getting to the point”, diving into the core, finding peace…finding out what you’re made of. The fact that the last note settles the theme into a “major” chord (g# on E bass gives you a major third as an interval) gives the theme a slightly unnerved, smirky and even ominous nature – especially when the tuning bends here and there a little.
Even the idea of malformed overtones (achieved in the acoustic samples and instruments through some algorithms and plugins) was first drawn on paper, but it’s always interesting to see how your ideas become realized during the first sessions…but that means I rrrrreally need to do my homework and firmly establish the base sound library.
Control marks the first time you’ve teamed up with another composer, Martin Stig Anderson. How did you experience that partnership? Are there additional challenges because of it? In what way did Martin complement you?
It was a surprisingly easy process, no hurting of innocent bystanders or equipment was involved! It was clear from the start that the project would have two complementing composers – a good term – that share partially some of the library (I started by doing something, dissected that flavor demo into a library, then Martin did his thing and shared his, so we ended up sharing stuff in some ways), and I’d love to have such an experience yet again.
No challenges as such, as we had shared the workload really early on, and there was no stepping onto the other’s region. It also helps to have a knowledgeable company as a client – Remedy’s really capable of managing 3rd parties and externals, so we were lucky with that. Martin’s history is slightly different from mine, and his composing style alone is quite 180° away from mine, but in the end, balance needs left and right, up and down.
While listening to Control’s score, I’ve noticed influences that reminded me of scores like Hans Zimmer’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and Johann Johannsson’s ‘Mandy’. Am I right in saying these works influenced yours? What were other sources of inspiration? Did Remedy recommend things to set the tone?
Okay, both Johansson and Zimmer are among my favorites, and having them in the same paragraph is a compliment. Both mentioned movies are among my favorites, and the scores in both complement the visual imagery in a way everyone should be envious about. I love “adding to the imagery” or “decorating with harmony”. Not just adding a meaningless sound bed, nothing like that, but to emphasize the emotion – or the character motivation, the goals…Back in late 2017 (I guess) we had a talk about possible flavors and what to look for as possible building blocks. There were many, many titles the studio had gone through, and even those that were further away from Control’s mother colors were rather spot-on.
The people in the company have a very thorough movie and media knowledge, up to the point where I lose count (and I’ve got some 3,000+ blu-rays in my storage rooms, not much, but a rather okay collection). Most of the flavors dealt with how Hiss affects the environment, people and objects, and we had a few discussions about this at the kick-off meeting. We agreed on several “tricks”, or methods, and kept those throughout the production and composing.
One thing where most people probably feel that Yamaha CS-80 moment is the ending cinematic blast-off – the moment, [SPOILERS AHEAD] where Jesse finally accepts her fate and the fact she no longer is a mere human, and is instead something one would describe as “superhuman”. She has become The Director of the FBC and sits behind her desk. It’s a very confident moment, very profound. She had kicked some serious ass before that, is going to continue kick ass in the future – and she knows it. THAT moment needed a blast of something that emphasizes that special moment – but not in an orchestral way. We wanted to keep the score orchestra-free. So, luckily I had a Moog One, and using its double filters, myriads of modulation routes and a three oscillator core, allowed me to create a smirk and a nod towards the heroic themes of our times. I named the patch as “Van Kelly’s Brahws” (yeah, nobody guesses what I was after here) – and it’s rather EPIC to say the least. I couldn’t keep myself from using it properly, so… yeah, Jesse got her theme decorated properly.
Evident through the score, there seems to be a sequence of notes (best heard in “Et Ratio Principalis” from 30 seconds onwards) that keeps returning. What do they symbolize and why do they pop up every now and then?
Those six notes represent the core idea of a Control leitmotif, i.e. the main theme in its simplest form. It appears here and there, in textures, sequences, and is most prominent in “melody” themes. They’re supposed to appear whenever something profound or important is happening. The reason why it’s descending – that’s another concept of “concentrating”, or rather Jesse “getting into it”, it represents dedication, magnification, and the reason why it’s sometimes all over the place with its sound and tuning…well, Hiss affects everything.
If Hiss can bend and twist steel, why wouldn’t it cause sounds to degrade and bend? Also, the scale isn’t your average major nor minor, since the events awaiting Jesse aren’t going to be a visit to the grocery store, and since there will be a lot of self-suspicion and disbelief coming in her way, the way the leitmotif is represented is rather ambivalent – but, giving away the clue, it ends in a major feeling, E in the bass, and with G# ending the melody, it forms a major third, which to most people sounds already like a major chord, despite being only an interval, not a chord. That, too, is a design choice in its simplest form. She has a brother, but in this adventure, she will be alone – and in the end, she’s the one sitting behind the Director’s desk. Alone. I love giving out clues that people don’t necessarily get immediately, and I seriously love developing concepts, but even more so I like the stories that feed my thoughts.
There’s also one funny thing. In their first in-house presentation about the cool new idea of Control, both Sam Lake and Mikael Kasurinen spoke a few sentences with a clear descending, slowing down pitch, something like “and – that’s – about – it” or similar, which is when I caught the descending note idea in my head…
Coincidence? I THINK NOT. Sometimes, when I’m doing “normal music” or rather, just songwriting, I like to start with the lyrics, as in most cases the sound of the spoken syllables can give you some ideas – and it’s not about the speaking tone or a sentence intonation, it’s the harmonic overtones of speech sound and the natural flow of, say, a question (that tends to end with a rising intonation).
The Hiss is ever-present, dangerous and unpredictable. How did you manage to translate these feats into the score? And what does represent Jesse and her journey?
Jesse tries to navigate herself towards the better through really serious events thrown at her way, and as I mentioned the tuning aspect, that had to be taken into account here and there. In some places two very different tuning scales called Werckmeister and 15-tone scale (in which, unlike our “normal” 12-tone scale, there are 15 tones per octave, so when using a 12 key per octave keyboard, pressing two C notes an octave apart produces something like a mistuned seventh) are playing the same exact thing, and the result is chaotic – by choice. It’s a psychological, unnerving assault. Our pop-friendly ears aren’t actually too accustomed to unorthodox scales, and since our brain is trying to grasp the idea of what-the-hell-is-happening, that adds to the overall experience of the gameplay.
The more Jesse gets into the fight between the bad and the absolute good (Polaris), the more straightforward the changes are, but towards the end, the “normal” harmony starts cutting through and the exaggerated tunings are dissolving little by little. In the office scene, where Jesse is a clerk, the tuning hell is cutting through easily.
Also, the melodies start to appear whenever the good events come across, as well as the harmonies too. It’s not the most “noisy” or most “atonal” score ever created, but there sure are a few moments, where “sound” is a more appropriate way to describe the results than “music”.
The music in Control seems to take the backseat. It’s present but much more ambient of nature. How did this challenge your skills and how did you adapt?
I had to accept that fate or sink fighting. No, really, it was always the plan in the first place. Right from the start, I knew this would need something very different and sublime, and there was no other way to represent the otherworldly feeling. It’s really hard to imagine a string section in the background of Control’s events – there are a few piano notes, but considering the condition of the so-called “piano” that produces the notes…a bit like comparing a semi-rotten swamp mummy to Courtney Hope. (Having mentioned her, I must say her mocap clips I saw were easily the best I’ve ever seen. She can represent a million things so easily.)
I have to admit I like to decorate with sound, and over the past few years, I’ve learned to accomplish that with silence – or almost-silence – as well. A little like trying to create a perfect bass groove; it’s not the start of the notes that define the groove, it’s where they end or don’t appear at all. I was really happy to have Remedy’s Ville Sorsa as my connection, as he was really laidback with his words, and provided always the right feedback – or a counter ball – so I felt secure there. We had a few rules, and one of them was simply an obvious cliché “if it feels good, it’s good”, and that included all the mis-tunings, all the odd sounds, everything. He never questioned a thing, and having that kind of support and level of trust is seriously the best you can get. I was a little worried about burning all the red LEDs in the beginning (I never watch the meters when mixing, I keep the speakers at the same level and…yeah. If I’d fly a plane, I’d look at the scenery, not at the altimeter) and thought maybe something got a little too achy – but it felt right with the picture, so we kept it, despite all the burned audio rules. You need to feel the tension and the pressure on your shoulders.
How closely does a composer work with the game designers to make the music connect with the gameplay? Any new techniques used to establish this? How much creative freedom do you have?
Well, I can say I prefer to look at someone playing the game rather than playing myself, especially if it’s an early demo or similar. I’m very picky when it comes to controlling the character on-screen. I made a mistake with Quantum Break in the early days, as I played a very, very, very buggy and early demo, and the experience stained my mind for weeks, almost months. So, I’m basically relying on someone else playing the stuff, and I try to pick important details from the picture.
“I was able to give out all the good hints to the gamer before they even realised it”
Sometimes the skill of the demo clip recordist is waaay beyond mine, and he/she clears the level in a snap, but that gives you a good point to start from. Since I dealt with the cinematic music in Control, I smiled all the time, as I was able to give out all the good hints to the gamer before they even realised it – a little like the six-note leitmotif mentioned earlier, the ending of it and so on – but in short, the actual mechanism of gameplay music and cinematic music creation is still what it has always been, the only difference being the introduction of some AI middleware taking care of the in-game music playback. I’m not exactly sure if you can give out your total creative freedom to an AI algorithm, but it sure helps.
As long as it’s a “surviving algorithm”, which in my language means something that basically tries to mimic a piece according to a rule set, a reactive AI, combining separate samples, it’s good for “overall sonic interior design”, but it’s lacking the emotional presence or the emotional impact. What would be ideal is to combine the AI with some more linear (or rather, emotionally meaningful) input to achieve the carrying effect that sometimes happens with some movie scenes that feel “just perfect”, or are so fluid they basically click into place. AI can react to scenery and the actions of a player, or the number of the opponents, or whatever are the triggers for the algorithm, and in that way it’s a perfect tool, but a little like a knife, it’s not much good alone, it needs a skillful hand to create beautiful carvings. However, having said that, I’ll add “but it’s going to change soon and is already changing.” I’m expecting to have a few extra AI hands in the near future to help me out with the most burdensome work.
When it comes to creative freedom, I’ve always been very much okay with sandbox rules. Since my history with Remedy is quite a long one (since… what? 2005?), I know what they want and need, and they don’t need to say “DO NOT USE BRASS GODDAMMIT” anymore.
What track of the score is your favorite and why? What was the most difficult thing to work on?
This one’s easy. The tango piece, “Sankarin Tango” (“A Hero’s Tango”). Sam Lake mentioned there’s a lovely, yet quirky character in the game called Ahti, and Ahti digs Finnish classic tangos, listening to them from his Walkman whilst washing the floors barefooted, as he feels the cleanliness better that way… Yep, we were the other country in the world that got struck by the tango flashback in the 1950s, the other being Argentina, I think, and from that era, there are dozens of marvelous pieces recorded and sung by the absolute icons of that era, among them a man called Olavi Virta. Mr. Virta toured all over Finland and drank himself dead little by little…his repertoire is beyond words, and his voice was phenomenal, despite his drunkard habits, his singing was always top-notch albeit he couldn’t speak between the songs. One could say he was our Frank Sinatra, the only exception being Virta ended up dying rather poor despite his mad success.
Anyway, tango sung by a Finnish icon was needed. Since the actor of Ahti, Martti Suosalo, IS a Finnish icon and enjoys the widespread love all the way through the most high-brow snobs, we decided to use him. We only lacked a song, and Sam asked whether we could work out a track from something he’d written…could we? We did. Since he usually writes poetry or stories or dialogue, he wanted to make sure we’d do it properly, so we thought of a blueprint for a perfect amount of syllables per line – and he perfected it in a snap, and was very relaxed about it “if there’s something to correct, we’ll correct”. I got the text on one Saturday morning, and read it through whilst having breakfast. Nothing needed to be fixed. Nothing.
What happened next was beyond any reasonable explanation, but at some point, I realized I had lost an hour, composed it through right there, and my breakfast coffee was cold…the song was very prominent in my head, and I decided to give it a few hours to mature, to ditch the rough edges – so I went to the gym and watched two episodes of The Umbrella Academy, then came home and 1.5 hours later I had played it on the piano, the bass, and the drums AND sung the demo vocal as well. A few hours more, and the rest of what is now known as “Sankarin Tango” was laid down, and there was a classic tango section accompanying the track, no time correction or quantizing was used there. Sam’s lyrics were a perfect tool for composing. I had never done a tango before, or even anything remotely like it, but I think we nailed that one.
Another epic thing about this piece: Mr. Martti Suosalo sung through it three whole times, then took separate sentences here and there – and I used mostly his first take ever, as the intonation and the phrasing was just damn perfect classic Finnish tango. He’s a pro, and if you ever have a chance seeing him on stage at the Finnish National Theatre, use that slot. I know a few pop and rock stars whose stage presence is intensive, but Mr. Suosalo has his own gravity.
In Control, the player is free to explore the Oldest House as they see fit. This non-linear storytelling undoubtedly also affected your music. How did you cope? What was your solution to make sure the tracks can blend together yet be unique?
Actually, some of the non-linear stuff was composed by Martin Stig Andersen, but we had divided the tasks so that there would be no collisions or collapses, and some of the libraries we had built by ourselves was shared to each other at some points during the project. The process worked like a well-oiled machine, and no quirks appeared. Martin is a true gentleman, by the way, and his composing style somehow fit in with mine, and despite the fact we couldn’t actually collaborate in the same space, the results clicked together without any honing. It was an extremely comfortable experience, and I would love to do it again. What was done there, with the music I mean, was that whole pieces needed to be deconstructed and stripped or divided into their components, which in turn were fed to the AI playback engine.
Sound-wise, we had a startup meeting when the project was kicked off into production, and we agreed on the guidelines, had a looong discussion about instrumentation and sonic entities, sonic qualities, possible instrument record methods…even tuning, or mis-tuning, how good and evil affected the sounds – and we both built it from there, exchanged a few lines every now and then, and tried to share something whenever there was something to share. But the overall concept of what we would need was discussed in the beginning so profoundly, that we never needed to go back.
I, for instance, recorded some oven-dried plywood and heavy wooden objects dragged across a concrete floor, recorded through a set of contact microphones and really odd Czech and Polish mics, plus a few Neumanns and a Sanken CO-100k, which is basically a microphone for recording a wide spectrum – and with that, when you record something with 192kHz and lower it down two-three octaves, you start to hear something that was way beyond your hearing threshold frequencies in the first place but due to slowing down, descended into your hearing range…and OOOH BOY DID I GET A LOTTA STUFF! Also, a lot of electronic devices were recorded with peculiar methods, picking up only their “electronics”, i.e. using devices meant for electromagnetic recordings. Those things can pick up stuff from your computer keyboard cable – or your cell phone display, or electric wires mounted in the walls, or microwaves…slowing down and smearing those, removing the tonal component from such recordings and then using them as convolutions…yep, it was an adventure.