It may be the understatement of the year to say that Tearaway is a great game. In any given year many great games are released, which is what makes nominating titles for various “best of lists” so inherently difficult. Year in, and year out, great games sprawl across a multitude of genres and a vast landscape of platforms, delivered to us by creative minds and passionate hearts. However every so often a truly wonderful game is released, a game that transcends definition and utilizes the its platform not as a stage, but as an extension of the experience itself.
For PlayStation Vita, that title is Media Molecule’s Tearaway.
The papercraft platformer utilized the many unique features of the Vita in a way that never felt gimmicky, but instead intimately connected you to the surreal and fantastical world. In fact creative risk in terms of Tearaway’s design is essential to why the game has managed to connect with players and, often jaded, critics alike.
Highlighted by President and CEO of Sony Corporation Kazuo Hirai himself at CES earlier this year, Media Molecule has been given the freedom to take chances and deliver something that truly captured the essence of “wow”. With Tearaway, that is exactly what they did. In placing importance on experimentation and collaboration in development, these important elements poured out into the game itself; allowing for a title designed around paper to feel anything but thin.
Nowhere is this sense of creative synergy more evident than in Tearaway’s completely original soundtrack. Created in co-operation by Head of Audio at Media Molecule Kenny Young and Composer Brian D’Oliveira of La Hacienda Creative, the incredibly unique music featured in the game completely enveloped you into its equally beautiful world. Combining elements of deeply-rooted and traditional folk music with a decidedly modern twist, the compositions created by the duo lent a sense of realism to a clearly surreal world, and had us humming long after left it.
I caught up with both Kenny and Brian to talk about their journey in creating the soundtrack, and to go behind the music of Tearaway.
Brian Sharon: In the short time since Tearaway launched it has received both critical and a relative commercial success for the PlayStation Vita, becoming a sort of flag-bearer for the platform in the process. Looking back, what does it mean for you as composers to have worked on such a monumental project?
Kenny Young – We were really pleased with and proud of the work we’d done even before the game had shipped, it definitely felt like we had created something special. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to success, I mean we could have been totally deluded! So to then have it be received so well by gamers and critics alike feels really, really good!
Brian D’Olveira– Tearaway by its nature was especially well suited to our strengths as composers and though it was a large project we were able to take creative risks that you normally would not be able to do. So to have been able to do this and see people’s positive reaction has been great!
Kenny – Another thing is that I hadn’t shipped a game for a while, I’d been working on Tearaway for almost three years, and something which has evolved massively in that interim period is social media. Being able to watch people’s reactions to the game, and to its music, and interact with fans on Twitter is just awesome. That just didn’t happen to the same extent a few years ago – of course there were forum discussions and e-mail exchanges with people who went out of their way to track you down, but the immediacy of being able to gauge opinion and interact with people in a casual way was new for me and I’ve really enjoyed that. It’s nice to feel the love!
Brian – The dream of every composer is to make music that people will resonate to, so the fact that we were able to interact and get feedback so casually has been an invaluable learning experience. I was pleasantly surprised at how everybody seemed to have such a big variety of preference for their favorite song from the soundtrack.
Though Tearaway is clearly a novel creation in and of itself, it’s rare that such a high profile title would be completely devoid of licensed music. Was having an entirely original soundtrack always a goal for the project, and what unique benefits do you think it lends to the experience?
Kenny – I must admit, when it came to Tearaway the assumption was that it would have some licensed music in it if only because that is what I’d done before in the LittleBigPlanet games – it felt like this had somehow become part of Media Molecule’s identity. Which has always kinda annoyed me to be honest because both LBP games had a lot of great (award winning!) original music in them alongside the licensed soundtracks I’d put together. But, overall, what I felt was a lot of pressure for the music, and audio experience in general, to live up to expectations. Gulp!
Really early on in the project Rex, Tearaway’s creative lead, had singled out songs with lyrics about travelling, going on a journey, finding and describing exotic places, missing home – emotional, pseudo-folk stuff – as fitting with what he was aspiring for people to feel as a result of the Tearaway experience. That certainly worked well in our early x-videos (videos used to explain/sell a concept to the team and into Sony) but it didn’t lend itself to gameplay, especially not the vestigial gameplay we had at that point, so it wasn’t brilliantly applicable. But that thread of folkyness was there from the get-go.
So, I took the folkyness that Rex had established in the game world and in his music choices and explored ways to build on that. The contemporary stuff that Rex was into didn’t work as a direction because it’s primarily folky in its lyrics rather than in its instrumentation, so if you take out the lyrics and close harmony singing you all but loose that connection. On the other hand, Rex was rightly concerned that if we went down a traditional sounding anglo-celtic folk route that we’d end up with something that is in serious danger of sounding twee. I think that is what you often hear when a composer “has a go” at folk, but I grew up playing traditional Scottish and Appalachian fiddle music so there wasn’t much danger of me misrepresenting it, and that’s really what allowed us to borrow authentically from folk culture whilst introducing some contemporary elements to make it feel fresh and unique.
Gradually, over a period of about 18 months or so, the music I was writing eventually ended up fitting the game better than anything else – I stumbled on enough things that worked to feel like all-original music is what would fit the game best, effectively score the player’s experience, and that I had enough ideas to be able to give good direction to another composer. It’s hard to imagine it being anything else now!
Brian – Creating a score is huge creative responsibility, depending on your approach you can either enhance or break the immersion of the experience for the gameplay. We were making a world that we wanted to feel unique and special, the music needed to be honest and in a sense ‘naïve’ with imperfections and warm silliness like its setting and characters. And yet in parallel we also had to be constantly re-inventing our musical approach as we went along for it to develop and enhance the storyline.
Since everything in the world of Tearaway was hand crafted, it was imperative to us that we hand-crafted our music as well. So part of the approach we took was to imagine ourselves as if we were the beings within that world and how they would have evolved musically, with their own instruments, traditions, and lore.
We ended up doing allot of research and even paper crafting our own instruments, of which we used throughout the soundtrack. We also drew inspiration from medieval and baroque traditions, and even used obscure, almost forgotten instruments such as crumhorns and gemshorns. These instruments by themselves are brash but when combined with the rest ended being a perfect aesthetic fit.
Tearaway is often, and rightfully, applauded for its unprecedented implementation of papercraft, but it also manages to take players on a journey across thematically diverse areas and lands; which is matched only by the music that accompanies them. How did you manage to flesh out each of the game’s many locales with such distinct audible character?
Kenny – The game has three acts. So, right there we have an obvious basis for the musical journey/progression. The other high level idea we built on was the notion of the game world becoming increasingly deconstructed as you play through the game. This deconstruction happens fairly subtly at first – Valleyfold, the first theme, is all fairly traditional, but then we throw in a little bit of a subtle break-beat vibe in The Orchards. Then we have Brian’s awesome folk dubstep track in The Barn.
Brian – When we created The Barn folk dubstep track, it was still during our experimental phase of seeing how far we could go with the idea of deconstruction. In this one I was able to make our papercraft percussion instruments sound like a massive electronic dubsteppy drums,in fact the only electronic element that is used is an old Arp synth for the ‘wobble’ bassline.
Kenny – And then we make use of this technique again on Gibbet Hill where we start out ultra-traditional with an air and hornpipe, then go into a more renaissance-sounding version of the same melody but then take it up a notch with beats and bass. It’s simple, and it sounds rather contrived when you spell it out like this, but it works really well!
The middle theme of Sogport was originally intended to have more of a sailing folk-culture inspired sound (as you can hear in this trailer that I wrote a sailor song for [click here to listen]), but as it panned out this theme became much more focused on defeating the scraps (the meanies in the game), and so those folky influences were mostly relegated to the smaller area of Sogport Harbour itself. Instead, we went down a bit more of an exotic island vibe, and this turned out to be a great way of making use of Brian’s South American music chops!
Brian – My expertise on this aspect definitely came in handy for this section and I was able to let loose, though at a first listen it might not seem apparent, a multitude of rhythms and influences from Caribean and Afro-latin music were used. Scenes such as the Wendigo chase use Yoruba bata drum rhythms from Cuba, and even the squirrels boss fight song is based on a north Brazilian samba reggae beat. The amazing thing was that by this time we had already created such a strong musical identity, that we were able throw in all these new musical ‘spices’ and it served to further enhance without taking away from the sound.
Kenny – I knew the last theme was going to be crazy – before any of it was built, Rex was keen on the idea of free-jazz mad-sax squealing, I was more keen on synths as a representation of the real-world outside of the game and to juxtapose this last theme against all the acoustic music we’d had up to that point. Anyways, both those ideas were floating around, but we didn’t know what would work because it didn’t really exist yet.
The idea for the Between The Pages level had existed for a long time in one form or another, and this was one of the concepts I’d asked the composers to pitch on – Brian’s take on this was definitely the best! And this is how we kicked off this last theme.
Brian – The music for this level was definitely a challenge to create. We really wanted to enhance the fact that the world was deconstructing around you, yet still retaining a sense that you were still in that world, with hints of familiar sounds and melodies one had previously heard throughout the game but presented in a completely new light. So I ended up re-sampling from the music we had done and then re-constructing them into completely new songs of their own. Many hours of geeky sculpting of sounds using signal processing and manual sample editing resulted in what you now hear on that level.
Kenny – And then we go to the Desert level. For this, I really wanted a kinda zen moment to chill the player out after the tricky gameplay and aural madness of Between The Pages, which is how I settled on the hangdrum – of course, Brian had one of those on order (he has at least one of EVERYTHING!), and fortunately it turned up in time for us to work it into the soundtrack. That juxtaposition is one of my favourite musical moments in the game.
“I am actually still amazed when I now play the game and how great the flow of the music and pacing worked out.” – Brian D’Oliveira
It seems fitting that Tearaway, a game about creating new stories, includes music inspired by many forms of folklore. Why was it important to ingrain these traditionally songs and melodies into the soundtrack?
Kenny – This was a major inspiration for the wider game world, and the goal with the music was to reflect and enhance that. In doing so, we were able to create an experience that chimes on multiple levels. It’s also a great inspiration for getting some serious flavour – you can go down the generic orchestral route (as powerful and expressive as it is) when your game world is generic, but when a project like Tearaway comes along with its vibrant colours and unique visual style it needs an aural identity which matches it and accentuates it. When your inspiration for the game and for the music come from the same place, you’re off to a good start.
The other thing which is great about folk music is that it has great tunes! Whilst all the melodies we came up with are original, they are authentically catchy – great melodies make for great score to gameplay. My background as a fiddle player definitely gives me an advantage in writing catchy tunes, even if the genre I’m writing in isn’t folk.
Brian – Unlike Kenny I do not come from a traditional folk music background, so the challenge for me was to be able quickly internalize the music and then be able to come up our own original folkish melodies that would feel true to the world of Tearaway. In a way this proved to be an advantage because in this aspect I was able to take an almost childlike approach, discovering as I went along how we could play with melodic ideas and structures within the musical soundworld we had created. In this aspect Kenny was invaluable as my folk music ‘guru’, and he was the meter for the both of us when we would start going too far away from the sound that had been established from the beginning.
Another important factor, was that we also were not afraid to let be the imperfections of live playing in the music, and to keep it close to the vibe that you get when you hear real small ensembles performing. These days we are so used to hearing over-produced, in-tune (and autotuned) music, that a lot of the beauty and character gets lost in the process. So as you hear in the soundtrack we have all kinds of glorious melodies and harmonies that are all somewhat out of tune, but in a good kind of way!
Composing a soundtrack is no easy feat, and with both of you being stationed on different continents the relationship that formed the soundtrack is dynamic to say the least. Could you share a bit about how this partnership came to be?
Kenny – I’ve always written music for our games, but it comes in drips and drabs, often in the earlier phases of development when a deadline for a tradeshow or press event is looming – I run the audio department at Media Molecule and make sure our games have great sound and music, but I really don’t have time to write all the music even if I have those skills because I’m busy being a hands-on sound designer and directing all the other in-house and contract sound designers, any external composers, and handling the creative side of the music licensing etc. So, once the project had found its feet and was firing on all cylinders I began looking for someone to work with.
I worked with Duncan Smith and Alastair Lindsay at SCEE’s Creative Services Group to get together a long list of 30 composers whose work I then evaluated. I was mainly looking at non-game composers, even some non-media composers (more artists/songwriters) even though that’s massively optimistic (it’s a very specialised skill set and I’m not into holding hands!) just to try and broaden the field and because we wanted a sound that hadn’t really been done before in any existing games. I ended up meeting/interviewing about eight of those and then invited five of them to pitch. In the end, there were three people with games experience and two without. All of the pitches were high quality, and interesting, but none of them quite did what we were looking for – they all had aspects that worked but then they varied massively in how offensive the aspects of them that didn’t work were! At that point Siobhan Reddy, our studio director, asked me if I would write the score because my music was the best fit, which was a nice compliment but not really all that practical with all my other responsibilities and not really what I wanted to hear after the long process I’d just been through!
So, we switched focus to considering which of the candidates would be able to work under more close direction from me with both of us writing music for the game. Brian was the winner – he had games experience and had done a great job on Papo and Yo the year before, he was a multi-instrumentalist and instrument maker which really fit with the way I wanted to work (run and gun composition, a focus on experimentation), his Between the Pages demo was great, and whilst his other Valleyfold pitch wasn’t quite right (it was too South American sounding!), it was nonetheless a beautiful piece of music and nicely produced too. And he seemed like a cool person and that we might be able to work together! So, it was a little bit of a gamble hoping that Brian could take on board my feedback and give us what we needed, and that our styles would compliment each others’, but a few weeks in to the relationship we got past the initial difficulties and we got into a good groove. It really paid off and I know that I loved working with Brian.
Brian – A couple of years ago while I was working on Papo & Yo I had the privilege to meet Duncan Smith while attending a new media conference. So when Duncan contacted me and mentioned the project it seemed like a great fit for what I do. Though to be honest after I had submitted my pitch I was not quite sure they were going to go for me due to the distance and my non-folk experience, so it was a pleasant surprise that Kenny and rest of the folks at Media Molecule were willing to take a risk on me J.
Though at first it was a challenge getting into the groove the fact that Kenny was such a great communicator proved to be invaluable, and our collaboration ended up starting up very spontaneously – Gibbet Hill Pt1 was the very first song we did together. And from there on it just started flowing.
On the same topic, what is the creative process like when collaborating with someone located across the sea in the efforts to make a completely original soundtrack?
Kenny – Games, particularly Media Molecule’s games, are a chaotic and confusing mess until they are almost finished so, unless a composer has a serious amount of run-up time to get their head around a project, it’s best if they get their direction from me rather than trying to read it from the game. We were seriously short on time with Tearaway by the time Brian got involved, so it actually suited me to give him the explicit information and stimulus I wanted him to have when I thought it was best for him to have it. In that regard, Brian being on the other side of the planet was really useful!
Brian – Haha, yes I was like the race horse with blinders, on a steady diet of breadcrumbs of info J, but it did work to our advantage! Though I usually like to do my own play-throughs, as previously mentioned before, Kenny was such a great communicator that I was quickly able to get context and intent and come up with ideas that worked. I am actually still amazed when I now play the game and how great the flow of the music and pacing worked out.
Another interesting fact was that early in the process we both realized that in our own ways we were both somewhat obsessive perfectionists (something that could have gone terribly wrong had we been difficult characters) but at the same time we also did not take ourselves too seriously. So we were able to quickly bounce ideas back and forth objectively and let the inspiration happen without the usual stress that the other person would not get it or somehow settle for just something mediocre. This ended up being one of my best collaboration experiences ever and we had not even met in person yet!
Kenny – When we did meet each other for the first time, face to face, at our wrap party, it really weirded us both out because we were so used to staring at each other on webcam over Skype! He was taller than I expected and seeing the side of his head was novel! Hrm, sounds a bit like an internet dating experience…
The music that has been birthed by your relationship has become quite iconic amongst fans of the game, however many would like to know the answer to one question – what is your favourite track from Tearaway’s soundtrack?
Kenny – Gah! Too many good tunes! Like I mentioned before, one of my favourite musical moments in the game is the juxtaposition between Between The Pages and The Desert. And the music I had the most fun writing with Brian was the Gibbet Hill tracks – he wrote the original tune, I slapped some beats and bass on it to funk it up a bit, then I wrote a different version of it and passed it back to him, and both versions are in the game and work brilliantly together. Overall, towards the end of the project I was just churning stuff out that was in tune with the project and I wrote tracks like The Traveller, The Message and Is This The End? in a day or two each – that was really cool to experience and I enjoy seeing the feelings I was trying to capture manifest in people’s reactions. I think there’s definitely a relationship between the simplicity and purity of that writing process (writing by playing/recording) and the end result – it makes it all worthwhile.
Brian – Like Kenny, Between The Pages’ and ‘Gibbet Hill’ were some of my favourite tracks. Also the ‘Folk Dubstep’ Barn track is one of my favourites because it was one of the tracks that opened up the pandoras box for other mashups that happened during the game. And I really like Kenny’s vocal rendition in The Message – there are not allot of people that can pull of singing in the range of the chipmunks and make it a convincingly good song like he did J !
And a last thought – sometimes deadlines are the best catalyst for great creative output, the fact that we had no time to over-think or second-guess ourselves to me definitely shows through the music.