In our long running series of composer interviews, we’ve chatted with composers from all across the industry. Next up in the series, we have Helge Borgarts and Thomas Stanger -- collectively known as BowsToHymns -- a composer duo who’ve worked not just in games, but have worked on the very series we’re here to talk about, The Surge. During the interview we chat about the importance of music in service to the title 'Electro Grunge' and more.
Push Square: How did coming back to a series you had already worked on colour your approach to scoring The Surge 2? Would you say It was beneficial, or a hindrance? Or somewhere in between?
BowsToHymns: First of all, we need to thank Deck13, the developer, because they had a very clear vision of the game and how they wanted it be felt and experienced. Although the setting and environmental storytelling in The Surge 2 is far more advanced than in the first game, there are definitely familiar and known elements, so it was much easier to adapt the new game and setting. We did not just want to further develop the music of The Surge, but invent a new identity without losing the connection to the established world. To answer the question, this was a beneficial challenge. The last DLC of the first game “The Surge: The Good, the Bad and the Augmented” was placed in a futuristic western environment, so we added slide guitars and other acoustic instruments to the otherwise electronic score. That was such a lot of fun and served the game so well, that we decided to further exploit that approach in The Surge 2, and so we created a hybrid score that combines different acoustic and electronic elements for a unique soundtrack experience.
In what ways did the world and environment of The Surge 2 speak to you when it came time to craft the score? You mentioned the western flair, but did you have a sound you wanted to hone in on right out of the gate? And in what ways was this vision related to the first title?
The fantastic environment that Deck13 brought to life in The Surge 2 is far more developed than in [the first title], so there were many impressions to connect to. The Nanite Mass, which already had its appearance in the finale of The Surge, now plays a major role in The Surge 2 and was of course one of our first challenges. We created new and playable sounds to reflect the nano-structures, using all kinds of synths and plugins to heavily manipulate the sound. The Nanites are an important part of the game, so we focused on this music at the beginning because we wanted to use its unique sound throughout the score as a signature.
And by extension, what influences did you look to beyond the first game in the series when it came time to craft the sound for The Surge 2? Movies, TV, other games, books even. Anything!
We were fortunate that Deck13 was always very clear on what they wanted for the game and that they are well aware of the importance of music and sound in every project they do. For The Surge 2 they created playlists with all kinds of different music tracks from intense film scores to heavy hip-hop tracks. But all of the tracks shared a kind of common DNA and artistic approach, so it was easier for us to understand where they wanted to go with the music. And of course with every project, we also do have our own history and experiences that will always be a part of what we write. As we are gamers ourselves, we listen to a lot of in-game music and we are inspired by all the great music that can be heard in recent games. With so much great music for film and games coming to market almost every week, we believe even more now than ever that is important to have a unique style and approach to every project, to make a difference. [We couldn’t agree more!]
Are there any key moments in the game that you found yourself especially proud of what you came up with?
Of course battles are an important part of the game, and there are several outstanding battle scenes with incredible enemies and music to support it. We wanted to give the connecting scenes not only a unique kind of signature, but also an additional emotional level. During one of the very last scenes, when the big nano monster dies in a furious inferno before you enter the dreamspace, we wanted to write some music that enhances the emotional level of the fantastic dystopian graphics of the destroyed buildings and the monster. Therefore we chose not to write a typical epic and loud piece, but deeply emotional music that added a very intense level to the game. In the end this worked very well and we are absolutely happy with the result.
Were there any moments you just couldn’t lock down a sound for during the journey of composing the soundtrack? And how did you eventually crack it?
Oh yes, that happens all the time. Fortunately, we are two composers at BowsToHymns [Helge Borgarts & Thomas Stanger] and even though our studios are some hours away from each other, we do have daily phone or Skype conferences to talk about ideas, challenges, orchestrations or just about organisational issues. So if one struggles with any kind of challenge, like a theme, a specific sound or just a lack of ideas, we can always help each other by adding a different view. As our individual and musical backgrounds are very different, we always experience that as a huge advantage, because we can always add something fresh and new to each other’s music and ideas.
What approaches did you take when it came to ensuring the music felt appropriate to the world? Sometimes the best tracks from games are ones you might not immediately notice while playing because of how seamlessly they blend with other facets of the game.
We are well aware that next to the beauty and quality of the music, it has a clear purpose and is not intentionally made to be listened to without context but to support the gameplay experience. This is why for the soundtrack album all the tracks have been properly reworked, remastered, etc. Before we start to write any music, we talk with the developer what the music should accomplish in a scene and how it can make a difference to the experience. The music should always be connected to something within the game, [be they] graphics, characters or gameplay. Sometimes this is an obvious, very clear and reasonable approach, but often music can do even more and add something that cannot be accomplished by the graphics or gameplay alone. These are the magical moments where everything melts to one amazing experience. These are the moments we are looking for.
Are there any unusual moments in the score you can specifically recall? Either in the process of scoring the game, or in the music itself. Bizarre or unexpected instruments, influences that might not necessarily be apparent just by looking at the game?
Oh yes! The black market is a place in the game where the player does not fight, but just walks around and talks to people. The level is placed in an old shopping mall and although there is no direct danger, it is nevertheless a black market with a kind of dubious atmosphere. Right from the beginning it was clear that we needed something extremely different here, so we wrote a kind of slow lounge-jazz with e-pianos and jazzy organ sounds. That track is completely different from all the other music and was so much fun to write. [You can hear the track in question here. And it is delightful!]
After contributing music to the base edition of The Surge 2, you returned to score the Kraken DLC. How did it feel to returning to a game you had already worked on in within its own life cycle?
We were thrilled that Deck13 gave us the opportunity to work again in The Surge world and because the DLC was released relatively close to the main game, we were still deeply involved. Although the Kraken DLC is an extension to the existing game we wanted to add again something new and different. Together with the producers we developed this idea of something we called “Electro Grunge.” That style incorporates elements from the 90’s that are seen on the aircraft carrier, where the level takes place, but also picks up the modern elements from the existing music of the game. So this was another funny ride and added another interesting layer to the soundtrack of the game.
And finally, as my go-to closing question, what brought you to gaming? How did you come to come to find yourself scoring games? Was it happenstance? Something you specifically sought out?
As mentioned, we do have very different backgrounds. While Helge has been working in the games industry for almost 20 years and was somehow naturally absorbed into the field, Thomas has a more classical, orchestral background. Helge was able to experience all steps of game development after his studies, beginning with small projects where he had to do everything from writing the music to implementing sound effects, to mid-size and bigger games at Blue Byte Software, when it was still an independent developer and publisher, to big projects like The Surge 2. The benefit of learning how game development works from scratch is priceless. As a trained musician, he comes from a song-writing and scoring background. Thomas on the other hand is a classically trained musician with a strong jazz background, who played in orchestras for years and has a bachelor degree in media composition. He is also a passionate gamer and always wanted to score games. So we joined to form BowsToHymns in 2018 to collaborate on video games and since then we have worked together on several projects, not only games, but always with the aim to make a difference.
And there we have it, another interview out in the wild. Have you played The Surge 2? What do you think of it? Do you like that Black Market track as much as we do? Let us know in the comments. The soundtrack released alongside the Kraken DLC, so you can nab the soundtrack from all the usual places going forward.