The Last Guardian is a game a decade and two entire console generations in the making. Finally released last week after yet another short delay, it's a spiritual successor to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus — games that found passionate cult fans with its emotionally potent gameplay and beautiful art style. And while The Last Guardian is no different in that regard, it also has a powerful soundtrack.
The compositions put together by Takeshi Furukawa for the game were released separately at launch, both through a PS4 app with 19 tracks and a double vinyl LP with hand illustrated album art. The game's music is cinematic and orchestral, but doesn't drive the gameplay — it's soft and complementary and minimal, sometimes ambient.
Orchestral soundtracks have a long history in cinema, but in recent years games like Journey have used classical instruments to draw in players with rich background music. Where Journey's soundtrack shifts dynamically with the actions of the player, though, The Last Guardian's music is more traditional and orthodox.
Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices and Trinity Boys choirs with Furukawa conducting, it's also instantly memorable, and evokes emotion in the way that few game soundtracks do. I talked with The Last Guardian's soundtrack composer via email over the course of a few weeks, and our correspondence is published in full below.
Kotaku: How do you feel that the music of The Last Guardian has been released separately to the game, through its own standalone PS4 app — and especially through vinyl? Is it a more difficult task to compose music knowing that it gets a standalone release?
It’s a tremendous honor how both the developer and the fans have adorned the score with such generous attention. This truly is a testament to the reverence towards Ueda-san’s (Fumito Ueda, director of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian — Cam) works, and the soundtrack and I are extremely privileged to ride the coattails of the game’s pedigree.
Although I was aware of the planned standalone releases of The Last Guardian’s soundtrack, I made sure to never forget that any underscore must exist first and foremost to serve the narrative. The composer should not have his or her own agenda, or harbor ambitions to musically show off. As such, I approached the composition process no different than any other project — staying true to my instincts and writing music reflective of my sensibilities without being preoccupied with extraneous factors.
Ueda-san and his team likewise are artisans, unwaveringly devoted to their vision and craft. Therefore, the working environment of The Last Guardian was wonderfully unadulterated and creatively nurturing, allowing us all to focus attention on the game itself.
Kotaku: On the vinyl release, you say it's a privilege to enjoy the pedigree of the game. In a more general sense, we're seeing more game music be released onto vinyl like a new print of the Ocarina of Time soundtrack — can you talk about how you see game music being accepted more by the mainstream, and how you think it being released on vinyl lines up with gamers generally being collectors of media?
Do you think gamers (who collect things, almost by definition) are more likely to appreciate a beautiful piece of vinyl as memorabilia of the game they like?
Video games have become a widely accepted culture by people of all backgrounds, with the days when certain stigmas were attached long gone. As the medium has permeated the mainstream, so too has its accompanying soundtracks by association with and even independently from the games themselves.
Game scores are being showcased in their own right through various forums these days, and I believe could enter the canon of historical repertoire as one of the predominant musical genres of our time.
With regards to vinyl, the format has recently enjoyed an unprecedented revival of popularity as if a reaction to our world becoming more and more digital. Perhaps there still is something to be said about holding a tangible product in one’s hand.
Vinyl records have always been about more than just the music, with equal emphasis placed on things such as cover/sleeve design and liner notes. I believe such novelty value of analog records make it a wonderful memorabilia for game aficionados who are enthusiastic about all things related to their favorite titles.
Kotaku: Do you think that the game's music will exist well outside the game? How do you write music that suits the environment of an emotional game like The Last Guardian, but also evokes emotion without the accompaniment of the game itself?
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t consciously aiming for the music to independently exist outside of the game, so any second-life accorded in its own right would be an added bonus.
That said, I am hopeful The Last Guardian’s cinematic and symphonic sound will translate well into a soundtrack album. Ueda-san and Ito-san (Tsubasa Ito, the game's audio lead - Cam) envisioned the score to be free from the conventional restrictions burdened by game music, so I therefore was encouraged to concentrate solely on writing good music.
Furthermore, the score has been graced by the talents of The London Symphony Orchestra, Trinity Boys Choir, and The London Voices, who collectively have infused a rich emotional layer. Benefiting from such advantages, I am optimistic The Last Guardian's score will be able to provide an engaging standalone listening experience independent from the game.
Kotaku: You say you weren't expecting or aiming for the music to be released outside the game. There's a history of some game music transcending the title that it's written for, especially music that doesn't exist as an underscore — the music for Bethesda's Fallout is a good example. Do you think less obvious compositions struggle to stand out when other games use music that is more straightforward — fast driven music for action, morose music for downbeat sections, and so on?
Whether it be an opening theme or underscore, any music transcending the original game it was written for is by virtue of effective use in a memorable scene. One can compose the most breathtaking or technically refined piece, but that wouldn’t equate to much if it goes unnoticed amidst a barrage of sound effects or fatiguing overuse.
In contrast, quite an unremarkable cue may find itself in the spotlight by fortuitous placement in a musically-driven scene. In this regard, I believe there is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage for unorthodox score to find a secondary life outside the game, but rather more determined by its context.
Kotaku: The Last Guardian's score adds on to the gameplay experience — but game music is generally meant to be ambient and in the background and not intrude on the gameplay itself — it's meant to take a back seat. How do you compose music that adds to a game without overwhelming it?
I believe the modern trend of having game and film underscores go unnoticed as background is unfortunate. The most masterful storytellers understand efficient and meaningful use of soundtrack, and in such instance allows the music to make a statement.
The Last Guardian’s score being able to constructively contribute to the gameplay is by virtue of Ueda-san’s artistic vision and understanding of the power of music. His economic use of both sound effects and score allows the soundtrack to shine through with meaning when employed.
Moreover, instead of setting music against the scene at face value, we aspired for a higher and deeper level of scoring on The Last Guardian. By intentionally avoiding underscoring what the audience already sees, (for example by playing the emotion instead of the action during battle, or vice-versa during an emotional scene), the music is able to add dimension to the narrative.
For The Last Guardian, I deliberately refrained from underscoring the emotional bond between the boy and Trico, as it was sufficiently conveyed by the beautifully expressive animations. Instead, by using the music to highlight the cinematic grandeur of the epic narrative and locale, I endeavored to elevate the scale of the intimate subject matter to a scope larger than life.
Kotaku: The Last Guardian is a game where the gameplay is very much driven by emotion between the boy and Trico, and that's very obvious from the way that players are sharing their experiences. Was it more of a challenge to compose music that didn't play on those emotional points, or did it free you to experiment and try new things — for example, writing music that plays on the experience of the game's art style or landscape or other features?
It indeed was absolutely liberating to not have to constantly play the emotional aspects. With The Last Guardian, I enjoyed much opportunity to explore and experiment with various approaches. That said, Ito-san and I embraced a Zen mentality of simplicity without overthinking.
If a scene could be further elevated by score, we were confident that it would instinctively and naturally come to us. Subscribing to such a minimalist ethos was essential as to not disrupt the serene ambience and to preserve the aesthetic of Ueda-san’s game.