We Talked To The People That Made Horizon Zero Dawn Sound So Good

Horizon Zero Dawn is a visually stunning game, and one with a captivating storyline to boot. But it backs these two pillars up with a third that isn't so immediately obvious: a soundtrack and ambient in-game music that immerses you in the broken-down, overgrown tribal world.

We talked to Guerilla Games' music supervisor Lucas van Tol and the game's composers Joris de Man and The Flight to better understand exactly what goes into creating the audio element of one of 2017's most ambitious -- and impressive -- titles so far.

Kotaku: Horizon Zero Dawn is a very tribal game, but it's set in the distant future. How do you marry those two concepts -- one primitive, one super-advanced -- in a soundtrack? Can you explain your use of singing in some of the tracks, too -- is that an intentionally tribal theme?

The Flight: Because of the unique setting of Horizon Zero Dawn, we were using contemporary instruments throughout, but we imagined how they may be played by primitive people who have found them without knowing how they would be played. We played steel resonator guitars with violin bows and recorded multi-tracked layers of harmonicas instead of orchestra. These along with vintage analogue and cutting edge digital synths juxtaposed to make the sound of the game.

Joris de Man: The marrying of the two concepts was always going to be an interesting and challenging aspect. We spent a lot of time initially figuring out how to combine these two seemingly disparate styles, and a hybrid approach seemed to fit best. When you think of tribes, the first few instruments any tribe would discover would be their voice, hitting things and blowing on things; those are probably the most simplistic instruments you can think of... drums, flute and the human voice.

Joris de Man.

In Horizon Zero Dawn, we used them but – as The Flight mentioned – in unconventional ways; in my case that translated to playing strings like cellos, violas and violins with plectrums, or hitting them with the bow instead of bowing them, in a way, being quite tribal with them!

With the flutes, I knew Guerrilla Games wasn’t overly keen on high whistles, so I found some of the lowest flutes I could find; contrabass and bass flutes, and fujara - which is a shepherd’s flute with really rich overtones that sounded really tribal when overblown.

In Julie Elven I found the voice that I felt embodied Aloy best as a person; someone with a gentle strength and determination whilst still retaining a female sensitivity.

Lastly, we decided that we wanted the Horizon Zero Dawn soundtrack to sound decidedly ‘anti-blockbuster’, so instead of using a big orchestra we kept it small and personal, and fairly ‘dry’ sounding. We had a bunch of soloists playing flutes, cello, viola and percussion, and for the cut-scenes a small 8-piece string ensemble, augmented with a variety of our own analog and digital circuit bended synths.

Kotaku: Horizon also has distinct environments for Aloy to move through, too -- is it different writing a composition for a snowy setting than it is to a hot desert or a city? How do you convey that subtly through background audio?

The Flight: We always take a lot of inspiration from imagery. Lucas van Tol [Senior Sound Designer, in charge of Music Supervision] at Guerrilla supplied us with pictures, historical documents and videos of the different zones and tribes one would come across in the game along with very detailed info of all the robots we would encounter. We would talk in detail about how all these aspects would inspire the sound and music of the game. With this in mind we would just start jamming, usually with a game capture video rolling on a loop on a screen somewhere. This would influence what we were composing.

Joris de Man: It’s tricky…do you score the environment, or do you score the journey of the player and what they might be feeling? We definitely tied music to certain locations; for example, Lucas would remind us not to use certain types of sound, such as avoiding metallic sounds in the Nora region, as they tend to use wood and animal skin, but I also tried to underpin the experience and the breadth of the landscape – if it was a snowy area, I might choose some filtered noise-based pads to give it a wintery feel, for example.

We also had different tracks for night-time; at night the mechanical creatures are more dominant, and so the musical textures would be more electronical, with the organic elements more pushed to the back.

Lucas van Tol: We mainly specified that we needed music for different regions. X amount of music for the Nora region, X amount of music for the Outlands, X amount of music for Carja, et cetera.  It was up to the composers to decide what to write, although we gave some small pointers. Nora needs to feel like ‘home’, kind of a sad type of nostalgia using wood and stones for the main sounds; outlands needed to be much drier and Carja was more about glass and metal sounds; Mesa City was lively and one location where we could dive into strong theme territory. Other than that, the composers had a lot of freedom.

Through audio we worked with habitats that affected the kind of birds that would play, the density of those birds and insects, the kind of wind sounds (cold mountain or forest for example), reverb and things like that.  The funny thing is that when you walk around you feel like the music is adapting more than it actually is. That’s a little mind trick that we tried to use.

Because we have so much content music wise, ranging from almost empty to very full, your mind tries to make sense of why music ramps up or down. This phenomenon is called the “audiovisual contract”. In our case it is subtle, but it does add something to your experience. When the music changes, you feel like something in the world is changing as well and thus you start making up situations in your head.

I found a couple instances online of players commenting on how the music followed a certain action where I knew we never scripted it in like that. We just created circumstances for lucky accidents to likely happen and the players did the work for us. By the way, during fights, we actually do use ramping up and down consciously, so it’s not all pure luck!

Kotaku: As well as moving from one different natural world to another, Aloy also travels into ancient human-built environments that she's never experienced before. Is that alienness something that you can bring across in a piece of music?

The Flight: The first piece of music we composed for Horizon was for some ruins Aloy comes across in the game. It's called Memories Of Old Walls on the OST. We had in mind the ghosts of the past and the instruments and music that was once played, remnants of pianos and lilting melodies played on cello.

The Flight - Joe Henson and Alexis Smith.

Joris de Man: I think The Flight hit the nail on the head there; instruments like a piano are a great way to link to the past and ‘home’... as most people will have had a piano in their house at some point.

Kotaku: Horizon's soundtrack also now lives outside the game, with downloads and streaming services -- did you have any idea that this would happen when you were composing? Did it affect how you packaged tracks as complete individual pieces?

The Flight: There is always talk of an OST when working on a project of this scale but we never compose with that in mind. We are writing music for a game – that is all we are thinking about.

Joris de Man: Yes, you always hope there will be a release of the OST at some point, so people can enjoy it outside of the game – but you can’t write for it. The ideal is to be able to write something that services what the game needs, but is also able to stand on its own feet outside of it.

Fortunately the intricate storyline allowed for plenty of emotional melodies, characters and situations to underscore!


We also talked to Guerilla Games music supervisor Lucas van Tol for his take on what it's like to oversee the process. van Tol worked with The Flight and Joris de Man to craft the game's soundtrack, and was involved from start to finish.

Kotaku: Working with the team of composers on the goal of producing music for an entire open-world game, where do you start? Did you have an idea of the kind of soundtrack you were hoping for, or did something new emerge as you collaborated?

Lucas van Tol: For us, the process started long before that. Although it might appear that we used Joris because he did the music for most of the Killzone titles, he actually had to do a creative style test just like the other composers we considered.

There was a whole stage before that. How are we going to approach music for an open world? What are the things we want to focus on? What style of music do we aim for? Only after we had a reasonably solid understanding of the direction we wanted to go in, did we start searching for composers.

As this project required such a different musical approach, we weren't entirely convinced initially that Joris would be able to tackle a style that would be so different from his epic orchestral work for the Killzone series. As soon as he started working on some demos, it became clear that this wasn’t an issue at all. He nailed it.

We knew early on that the amount of music was more than one composer could realistically be able to produce. This, combined with the fact that we wanted to be able to shift between several musical styles easily led us to the decision to use multiple composers on the game's soundtrack.

That is of course always a risk. How do you create a soundtrack that is still uniform while using multiple composers?

In this case, Joris himself proposed The Flight, because he had wanted to collaborate with them for a while already. Since we wanted close collaboration between our composers, that sounded like a good starting point. They did a creative style test as well, and were a perfect addition.

In the beginning of the game, we had very little knowledge about what the game was going to be. The setting was more or less known, but the story didn’t exist yet. What we knew was that Horizon Zero Dawn would have three main pillars – beautiful nature, robots and tribal life.

We felt that Joris could fit the beautiful nature aspect, The Flight could be the electronic counterpart and our third composer, Niels, who wrote the hunting music and facilitated with the tribal drums element for the other pieces, was that tribal part.

That was the starting point, so we knew we would have our bases covered.

Fairly quickly it turned out that The Flight could also write more organic music and Joris was great at writing electronic music as well, so things started to blend. And although most of the pieces were either written by Joris de Man or The Flight, there are quite a few pieces where they (and Niels) worked together. “Years of Training” for instance uses the main theme that Joris wrote. Both E3 themes (2015 (which became the main theme) and 2016) have elements in them from all our composers, and a couple of exploration tracks are direct collaborations as well.

One issue we ran into was that our composers like to write really nice full music pieces with a lot of melodies and full arrangements.

We always thought it was awesome, but could be a bit much to hear all the time. Since I am partly responsible for the sound design of the world (weather, birds, etc), I wanted to be sure those would be audible as well. So we came up with a way to basically strip a piece and play them back in different ‘minimal’ variations as well so that there would be a natural flow between the lush sounding epic pieces as well as more minimal intimate elements.

You can’t do that with any music track though – but when you have composers that write music with all kinds of different tonal elements and melodies playing around each other, there is a lot of variation to choose from. That was not something we planned, that was just something we ran into.

Kotaku: Did you draw inspiration from any other games or movies and TV shows that you used to inform the world of Horizon Zero Dawn? How do you turn a blank slate into a completed soundtrack -- when do you decide that it's pencils down and the job is done?

Lucas van Tol: It is hard to talk about music with other people in a practical, theoretical way. So if you want to have a general idea of what you want to have for the game, it’s hard to avoid listening to a lot of existing music and discuss what you like and don’t like about it. We did that, together with Mathijs, the Game Director.

We also asked everybody within Guerrilla to send us some tracks that they thought would fit nicely with Horizon Zero Dawn. The main lesson from that was that everybody has a totally different idea about it. Completely different, ranging from classical, to hardrock, to epic soundtracks, to basically no music at all. So by taking those three pillars literally, we had a framework to start building on. As soon as the composer tests were in, existing music became a lot less important.

We did look at a lot of music to see what we didn’t want to do, that’s always much easier. For instance, we did not want to use the overly compressed and heavily reverberated ‘epic’ sound that a lot of movies and games have at the moment. Not the big string pads. We wanted a more intimate sound, smaller ensembles, live percussion, obviously Julie Elven became a bigger part of the game after the theme song was so well received – to us, the music was more about Aloy than the world, and the smaller the orchestrations, the more you zoom in on Aloy. Bigger orchestrations seem to shift the accent to the world around her.

When is it pencils down? That’s not a very sexy answer, I’m afraid. I had an Excel sheet full of music tracks that we needed to finish and we needed to finish those each milestone.

The process in general was that we talked about what the scene was about, I could give the composers extra information because I am surrounded by writers, designers, everybody, so I facilitated them as much as I could. They would send over a piece, we would discuss why something did or did not work (usually not about the notes, but about mood and story, and technical limitations).

Most of the time the 2nd version would exceed our expectations, especially after we did a couple of pieces and everybody found out what the voice of the game was.

My idea about the soundtrack was always that it had to contain as many of the tracks as possible. I didn’t even realize at the time that that might be a risky approach, I just wanted people to be able to hear as many of the great music pieces they could encounter in the game. And yes, we did exclude quite a few pieces that work well in the game but not necessarily on the soundtrack, but most exploration and cutscene pieces actually made it in.

I played around with different ways of organizing the tracks. In the end we organized it in such a way that you can listen to it by function. You want a regular soundtrack-like album? Play the first disc. You want music for homework, writing, relaxing? Disc 2 is probably what you want to put on. The third disc is all about Mesa City and the diegetic music (musicians) and the fourth disc contains all the pieces with a higher intensity – mainly fight pieces.

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