„The post-apocalyptic setting forces us to re-examine our sense of morality and what motivates us.” — answered Nathan Whitehead, the composer for Days Gone, to one of my questions, letting me know he really dug into Bend Studio’s latest hit he’d decided to compose the music for.
What inspired the soundtrack.
In our interview, he shares his thoughts on composing for all the themes of Days Gone, what inspired the soundtrack, how it affected his career and what he digs about composing for videogames.
gamemusic.net: For starters, I’d like to ask what was the atmosphere like at the studio when creating Days Gone, of course with music in mind? Despite some minor flaws that the game has, it is noticeable at first glance that the team have put a lot of heart in this game – I’d like to know to what was your artistic and personal relationship with folks at Bend Studio.
Nathan Whitehead: Our relationship was interesting because I’m based in Los Angeles and Bend is 800 miles north in Oregon. We didn’t see each other in person on a day-to-day basis but I met with John Garvin (writer and director) and Paul Deakin (the audio lead) when they were in L.A. and I also visited the studio. I think you said it nicely that Bend Studio put a lot of heart in this game and that was a big inspiration to me from the very beginning. In my conversations with John, it was apparent how passionate he was about telling this story. His enthusiasm was energizing and infectious. I think it made the game better and made the process really satisfying. Bend Studio sent me tons of art, game capture and even rough performance capture video for me to work to.
The core of our artistic relationship was simply being completely immersed in the world of the game and continually striving to write music that resonated with this story and this place. That might sound obvious but it’s really special to be afforded that level of creative focus and it made the work so rewarding. On a personal level, the team at Bend were a great hang and they gave me such a warm welcome when I visited their studio. Relative to other AAA games, Bend is a smaller team and it was amazing to see them at work. The talent there is truly amazing.
gamemusic.net: Continuing the previous question, how closely were you working with John Garvin and Jeff Ross? Days Gone is a well-directed, well-paced and distinguishable experience that shows good directing, especially for an open-world game, and I’d like to know what was your cooperation like with them? Did you have any differences? What was their vision of the music when they first approached you?
Nathan Whitehead: John was my main point of contact at Bend Studio and I also worked closely with Sony music producers Pete Scaturro and Keith Leary. Their vision, as I understood it, was that the score needed to speak to the human emotion in the story as much as it spoke to the action and horror elements. I think this is unique for an open-world action survival game. I don’t recall any major differences in opinion but it was this long, iterative process where I would write music and we would all have a conversation about it and analyze what works and what was missing. I think taking all this time to refine really helped the score become cohesive and hopefully have a unique “Days Gone” sound.
gamemusic.net: Truth be told, after hearing the soundtrack without the game’s context, I was quite intrigued by how big and poetic it is (not really believing it is for a zombie game). For that I enjoyed it (both the music and the game). Was there anything in Deacon’s story that moved you significantly or something that just spoke to you from the game’s themes?
Nathan Whitehead: I love that you had this reaction and this was one of the aspects of Days Gone that made it such an amazing project to be a part of. I’m fascinated by stories that explore broad ideas of human purpose and motivation. These elements are a big part of Deacon’s story and that really spoke to me. The post-apocalyptic setting forces us to re-examine our sense of morality and what motivates us. It forces us to really think about whether the end justifies the means. These are overarching ideas throughout the Days Gone story and they presented a wonderful opportunity for the score to, hopefully, dig a little deeper in addition to the action and horror elements.
gamemusic.net: A rather obvious question – Days Gone has been compared to The Last of Us as both games share many similarities, although general. I don’t really think that there is that much of tLoU there, but I’d like to know if the more emotional, sentimental and warmer part of the score was somehow influenced by Gustavo Santaolalla’s music? What were your major inspirations for this game or in general?
Nathan Whitehead: I have heard so many good things about TLOU but I’ve never actually played the game! It wasn’t an influence but it is on my list to play. My major inspirations were the story, specifically Deacon’s past and his internal process, as well as the game’s setting in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. I think nature can encourage us to reflect and question our place in the world.
I think this setting is the perfect backdrop for Deacon to be dealing with his past and trying to make sense of the world in it’s current state, after the Freaker infection. To me, these elements called for music that was a little more contemplative in tone. What I loved about Days Gone is that it explores these universally human themes of meaning and the value of relationships. These aspects really drove the warmer, sentimental side of the score.
gamemusic.net: Days Gone is an open-world game which, thankfully, plays some good music when you are driving around. Sometimes there is just you, the sunset and your bike, then the music kicks in with guitar and percussion, really catching the moment. It reminded me of the road movies and served as this really cool biker type of radio. Was Deacon’s lifestyle and culture a major inspiration for you? I’ve read that you ride a bike yourself!
Nathan Whitehead: I’m so glad you enjoyed the bike riding music because this is something we really focused on! I love those moments in the game when I’m cruising on my bike and I’m suddenly surprised by this amazing view. Deacon’s lifestyle and biker culture were definitely part of the inspiration for these pieces in the score. I felt like the guitars and percussion was a sound that felt believable for Deacon. And it’s a funny story about my own bike riding–I have mentioned that, however, the ride I was referring was on my bicycle and NOT motorcycle! I went on a long 400 mile mountain bike ride through the parts of Oregon where the game takes place. Even on a bicycle, it was a really powerful experience and it gave me a great sense of being on that open road.
gamemusic.net: Days Gone uses some songs during a few really touching moments. Who were they picked by and is there any context to why these were chosen (I loved the part with Soldier’s Eyes by Jack Savoretti)?
Nathan Whitehead: I wasn’t involved in choosing the songs but the team at Sony did an amazing job finding songs that fit perfectly with the score and the story. And I totally agree, the moment when Soldier’s Eyes plays is really special!
gamemusic.net: Was scoring a long, open world game a big challenge for you? There is a lot of music to compose and produce — fighting music, driving around music, cutscene music, scripted sequences music. Were you challenged to compose any type of scoring material that seemed unfamiliar to you? Was there anything completely new for you? Were you feeling even a bit overwhelmed?
Nathan Whitehead: Scoring Days Gone was a huge challenge! I have to force myself to focus on small chunks at a time. If I think too far ahead about everything on my to-do list, then it does become overwhelming. And there are generally some overwhelming moments on every project despite my best efforts. I’m always looking to learn new things on every project and one fun exploration on Days Gone was writing for lap steel guitar. It’s sprinkled throughout the score but featured most prominently on the track “We’ve All Done Things” which is the theme for Iron Mike.
gamemusic.net: You’ve had experience with horrors and thrillers and it shows in Days Gone, especially when you run for your life from hordes. I noticed that there is a healthy balance between electronics and orchestral elements. What’s your take on what is and what is not scary music? I mean, the directors tell you: „The player will be chased down by 200 angry zombies”. What was your go-to idea? How was this part of the score evolving?
Nathan Whitehead: For Days Gone, I wanted the electronic elements to still have a gritty, organic quality. If they started sounding too synthetic then they really didn’t mesh well with the rest of the score. I remember an early version of “Freakshow” felt just a little too sci-fi and the solution was introducing a melody and also rebalancing the electronic and orchestral elements a bit. A lot of the electronic sounds are actually pianos and guitars that have been heavily processed. I think starting with these acoustic instruments helped me avoid getting too synthy.
As for what is scary music, that is a great question! It’s a difficult question to answer because this is really all about feelings–what am I feeling as I write? I knew that I wanted the music for the hordes to be relentless and jagged and feel oppressive when the horde is bearing down. It needed to work when played very softly and also needed to work as a full-on onslaught. From there, it’s reverse engineering these ideas to find the elements that evoke those feelings. I just have to keep exploring ideas until I start to feel these emotions. Usually, if I’m feeling something as I’m writing then I’m on the right path.
gamemusic.net: You’ve written some very hopeful, poetic, lyrical music for Days Gone, as the game is not as nihilistic and bleak as other post-apocalypse stories. I’d like to know if the project, considering that you’ve been scoring a lot of action movies and horror movies, was somewhat refreshing and liberating for you?
Nathan Whitehead: Days Gone was a wonderful change of pace. I do enjoy action and horror projects and Days Gone has those elements, but it was so refreshing to get to explore a much wider emotional range in the Days Gone score.
gamemusic.net: Do you like the way games present music? When you saw in what ways can a videogame use music, did you notice anything in particular that resonated with you or gave you a new perspective on the music you create?
Nathan Whitehead: I do like the way games present music and I’m increasingly excited as the game industry progresses. I think games are a really special way of telling stories and we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Music is such a huge part of this experience. In Days Gone, I really enjoyed finding ways to make the interactive gameplay music feel as immersive and tailored to the players actions as possible.
This interactivity was a big collaboration with the Sony music team and they did an amazing job implementing the music in creative ways. It forced me to think of composing in a more modular fashion and that ended up spurring all kinds of creative choices that I wouldn’t have made if it weren’t for the interactive nature.