I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Ben McDougall about his work on the video game Godfall, due out on PS5 in November 2020. Ben MacDougall is a prolific composer for films, television series and video games. He recently wrote the original sci-fi music for the launch of Godfall on Sony’s PlayStation 5. Its rich and diverse portfolio is broadcast on prime time networks and has been used for major global television events such as the Olympics and Oscars, as well as numerous AAA franchises, campaigns and studio projects.

Enjoy our conversation about Godfall’s music!

How did you get started as a video game composer?

It depends on how far you want to go! My first big game project was called Duelyst, which I also worked on at Counterplay Games. But before that, I had been writing for line projects (advertising, television, film, trailers, etc.) for a while.

Musically, there is not much difference between music for games and other media music. Ultimately, your job as a composer is to tell the story and help create an even deeper emotional experience for the viewer or player. So you could say that’s when I started writing music that told a story.

How did you end up with Godopad and what do you think about the principles of the game?

It’s hard not to fall in love with a premise as bold and exciting as a brand new and beautiful fantasy land – with its own deep history and traditions! I already knew the developers from our previous project – which was so much fun to work on, it was just a waterfall of God. Especially from a musical point of view, the possibility of thematically defining a new world is very tempting. Did I mention all the colors and lights? It’s beautiful.

If you’ve played the game or even seen the promotional images, you know what I’m talking about: Aperion looks fantastic, and the game was clearly made by very talented artists and programmers who love to play. The time of year is also very pleasant, and emphasis has been placed on making the player feel like they are in the world, not just playing in it.

What was your starting point for creating the music of Godfall? In other words: How do you decide what form such an epic game will take? It should be challenging (I saw the launch trailer and the game looks incredible), how do you decide where to start?

Well, there is certainly a poetic and realistic answer to that question. I always like to find a solid theme from the beginning and capture my initial reaction to the invitation as authentically as possible. But ultimately, write what you’re asked when you’re asked! Fortunately, in the case of Godfall, they went hand in hand, and the first thing I wrote was the theme from Aperion, which you’ll find on the soundtrack as track 03, titled Land of Valorians.

From this point of view, a big project like Godfall is basically about defining musical parameters and boundaries. There are several basic sections in this game, and each section needs its own sound, so a reasonable starting point in planning was to determine the sound identity of each section. Basically, I made word clouds with adjectives and tools that I thought would work based on all the source documents I had seen up to that point. That doesn’t mean you make a lot of decisions on the first day and stick to them. For me, it is this framework that allows you to explore the outside with intention – if you do so consciously and in the context of the larger plan.

Thus, Air Realm ended up focusing on the tonal sounds of hand drums, rather than the perhaps more obvious choice of using air flutes and other wind instruments. I never would have thought Air Realm = role from day one, but within the broader framework of these free restrictions, the openness and subsequent decision made sense.

How long did you have to score Godopad? And how did you deal with the toll the pandemic took?

The project has been in the pipeline for a long time – I may have written the first notes on it a few years ago. However, it is expected to last until the end of 2019 and beyond.

The pandemic has certainly made recording difficult – but it’s pretty easy to get a socially distant shot! Thus, during her sessions with soprano Lawrence Servaes, she was in a separate isolation room – with a rather clever silent HEPA filter! Talking to someone in the recording room is very easy, so nothing has changed in that respect – except that the coffee breaks were a lot less fun than usual.

When the score was composed, did you have any raw playing material that you could use for inspiration or for recording? Or was it more of a storyboard and/or animation? Or is it something else entirely? Maybe I keep associating gameplay with film sequences, but I keep imagining that at some point a video game composer will have the same material at his disposal as a film composer.

Not much, actually. Sometimes it was conceptual art, sometimes it was the repetition of different parts of the map. Sometimes it was a whole meeting with the boss, and sometimes it was just a bunch of adjectives or emotional language to describe what was needed!

I was dealing with different areas of the game that were at different stages of development, so I was always asking everything I could find and writing about it – and keeping it in the background. Since game music is a non-linear format, it wasn’t frame-by-frame or anything (unless it was cinematic or something), but it was always fun to layer as much as possible, visually. This makes it easy to see what works and what doesn’t.

Are there dominant themes in the music? It sounds like the music is connected to more than one place, and I was curious if it was.

Yes! Different themes and patterns emerge everywhere. This includes the Aperion theme mentioned above, the main Theophany theme, and other material of equal importance – as well as different themes for each area. There are also shorter motifs and sub-themes that often pop up – as a whole or here and there in fragments – all to anchor the score in the world and help connect everything together.

The higher the grade, the less you hear about it, as we often say in college. Essentially, the idea is that the music in the project exists to tell the story, not to be the centerpiece. Interweaving themes is a convenient way to subconsciously lead your audience to a certain conclusion or to let them know where they are or who they are without saying it.

There are other smaller, more subtle things I would like to include. Of course I do not want to reveal everything in the score, but if you listen to the main theme of Godfall (which is essentially Orin’s theme), you will hear that it is very close to the theme of his brother Macros. One’s a hero and one’s a lot darker…. but they have the same DNA. I thought it was cool without being too obvious.

Do you have a favorite song on the soundtrack? Is there anything in particular that you hope players will notice when they play?

To be honest, there is a small (and rather quiet) Easter egg hidden in there that I hope someone will find one day. But aside from these bits of information, the score as a whole is diverse enough to create different moments that resonate differently for different people – especially since everyone has subtly different experiences with music due to the interactive nature of the game.

I got reports on parts of Water Realm’s thoughtful music, right down to the music for the credits, which is a single take of the main theme. For me, though, a song called Song of Aperion (track 28) has always been exciting to watch develop. The combination of cello and voice – and the purity of the sound still gives me goosebumps.

I want to thank Ben McDougall again for taking the time to talk to me about his work on Godfall.

Let me know what you think of Godfall and its soundtrack in the comments below, and have a great day!

See also :

Soundtrack Review : Epiphany (2020)

Interview with the composer

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