Recently, we had the absolute pleasure of chatting with composer Ben MacDougall about his work on one of PlayStation 5's most publicised launch titles: Godfall. Join us on this adventure as we chat about the inspirations for the sound of the game, what the hell a Swamp Koto is, and how the player influences the sound of the game. Or do they? Let’s dive in!
Push Square: Even from the earliest trailers, it was clear Godfall had a strong sense of identity. Did that extend to the music? Did you know what you wanted the game to sound like right away?
Ben MacDougall: After talking at length with the team at Counterplay, who have an incredibly detailed vision of the world of Aperion, I just devoured any and all art I could get my hands on. Sometimes it was sketches, sometimes it was screenshots, and sometimes barely-rendered models, but it was all so emotive, that I found the translation from that to music had a sense of, I guess, inevitability. It also helps that I’ve been working with the developers for several years now, so we speak a pretty good language of how music can sound.
Fundamentally though, the sound of the game progressed as the game did. From the earliest sketches though, it was clear to me that, all the locations and characters aside, there were going to be two very different ‘personalities’ to the score. We’ll get to that a little later.
What sources did you look to when it came time to craft the sound for Godfall? What sources might not be immediately apparent? Given the fantasy elements at play, what kind of influence would you not consider apparent just from looking at the game?
Being a new IP made finding the musical identity of Godfall both exciting and terrifying in equal measure, but in the end, it really was the art that brought it to life, emotionally speaking. I also thought it was important to include new instruments in the score. It simply made sense to me that a new game should have previously-unheard sounds.
I am a keen woodworker and started making my own instruments a few years ago. So amongst all the myriad custom sounds I recorded for this score, there is an *actual-real-made-of-wood-and-strings* instrument in there that I lovingly refer to as the Swamp Koto. It started life as bits and pieces from the local hardware store… and after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears it turned into this really evocative instrument that appears all over the game. It’s bowed, strummed, plucked, amplified, processed, hit, and much more beyond that. It’s actually pretty wild and took a lot of taming, but the end results were pretty cool I think.
I’ve always been moved by nature, and this game gave me the opportunity to score just a little bit of that - musically speaking. I mentioned before that the score is a two-headed beast, so let me explain a bit more about that. Godfall is primarily a looter-slasher, combat-driven game, so there is a lot of hard-hitting, battle-appropriate music. However, while neither ‘looter’ nor ‘slasher’ would suggest an opportunity for expansive beauty, the whole game is set against the backdrop of Aperion - an ancient paradise, complete with history, magic, and mystery, as well as vibrant colors, birdsong, and lighting depth all made real on the game-changing new PS5 hardware. That’s a lot of material to work with on the inspiration front before we get to the fact that I grew up playing in orchestras and feel very at home writing for larger, ‘cinematic’ ensembles.
What impact, if any, did the elemental realms in the game have on the score? Did you want each of Earth, Water, and Air to have a distinct feel? Did you have any kind of interplay in mind where certain elements alluded to others?
It’s impossible to ignore the elemental aspects of the game, and consequently each realm has its own sound-world and thematic material. Earth has an underlying grittiness and comparative weight to it, while in the Water Realm, there is this synth that occurs throughout that can only be described as ‘wet’! That was an experiment with a synth that resulted in a real “whoa” moment, and it is unbelievably effective.
With the Air Realm, I had initially imagined that it would be an easy win, on account of the fact that I’m a flute player, but in the end, flutes only ended up being a small part of the score there. I’m always looking for new, cool sounds, and after being served a random advert on Instagram, went down a rabbit hole of research on tonal hand-drums. A few days later, a package arrived at the doorstep, and I got sucked in! The drum itself is made of thick metal, but after a lot of experimentation and some questionable technique, I managed to create the ethereal, swirling sounds that I would never have considered going into the session.
In what ways, if any, did the gameplay elements of Godfall influence the musical style you approached this with? Not necessarily in the sense that it’s got “fantasy” influence, but more in a mechanical respect. How did the mechanics of the game inform the sound you pursued? Certain motions (up to and including controller use sometimes) pair better with certain sonic increments.
Players actually have to conduct the score themselves whilst fighting monsters. If you don’t conduct, there’s no music…and of course I’m kidding.
The biggest challenge, was really to balance the two extremes of musical violence and extreme beauty in such a way that wouldn’t give the player musical whiplash. That was a question of structuring the music into sections / gestures and making it so that it all made sense with the rhythm of the game, which is pretty fast-paced.
Does the co-operative nature of the game influence how you wanted to score the title? Would a track playing to one person in isolation not work in quite the same way if it were intended to be playing to several different people at once? How did you account for that musically?
When you’re in multiplayer combat, all players are experiencing the same music. However, the world at-large is more musically open, and offers more opportunity for people to hear different things at different times. No two gusts of wind are the same, after all. This was handled by keeping things quasi-localized (and therefore contextually correct), but still allowing for freedom. So you aren’t going to be hearing emotionally inappropriate music, but things still react to what’s happening on your screen.
In what ways did scoring this project differ from anything you’d previously done in your career? More specifically I’d be very curious to hear how crafting a soundtrack for a game intended to hit the PS5 may have varied in its process.
As one of the launch titles for PlayStation 5, it’s humbling to be able to say that this is not just something that I’ve never done before, but it's something that only a small handful of composers ever have. We should start a book club or something. Genuinely though, a project of this size was always going to be exhilarating, exhausting and amazing - especially as we did it through all the challenges of 2020.
Musically speaking, we’ve reached a point with gaming technology where cinematic scope isn’t dictated by screen size. And to that point, if Counterplay Games had come to me originally and said that they were making this game for mobile, I don’t think the musical ambition would have changed all that much - if at all. Sure, the backend mechanics would be different, but not the music itself.
I always like to close my first interviews out with this question, but what brought you to the game industry? Did you always want to make game music? Or was it something that just sort of happened suddenly?
Music has always been a large and vital part of my life, but as a small kid I really wanted to be a marine biologist and work with animals. I don’t think that hiding under the duvet playing Super Mario back then really propelled me to this moment in any real way, but all the other decisions in my life since then definitely did.
The only real difference between scoring a film (or anything linear) and a game is the quantity of music you write, and the format in which you deliver it. Your job as a composer is still to help tell a story with music, and with games those stories happen to be interactive. So to that extent, yes, I have always wanted to score video games. And what fun it is.
We'd like to thank Ben once again for his time, and can't wait to hear what people think of both the game, and it's music when the PS5 finally starts finding its way into consumers' homes. How hyped for Godfall are you? Let us know in the comments below.