The soundtrack that Sheffield post-rock outfit 65daysofstatic have provided to forthcoming videogame No Man’s Sky isn’t quite like most soundtracks. For starters, there are two versions. There’s the official version, which works as a standalone piece of music, and then there’s the somewhat revolutionary version that will appear in the game itself.
The space exploration game (which is billed as being almost infinite, such is the amount of planets and galaxies there are to explore) actually procedurally generates the music during gameplay. In non-nerd terms, this essentially means that the game makes it up as it goes along as it reacts to what the player is experiencing. Pretty cool, but how the fuck does that work? We figured that the best person to ask was 65dos guitarist, Paul Wolinski.
Paul, how did you and your band end up getting involved with No Man’s Sky?
They [indie gaming studio, Hello Games] got in touch with us because they wanted to us a track of ours, ‘Debutant’, to soundtrack the launch trailer for the game back in 2013. They sent us through some concept art and stuff and it was immediately clear that this was a pretty interesting looking project, so we said ‘yes’ and asked if they had anyone on board for the soundtrack, which they didn’t. We were looking for an interesting soundtrack project for ages and it turned out that they’d been developing the game while listening to the 65daysofstatic back catalogue, so quite immediately we hit it off and agreed to do it.
Writing music that’s going to be presented in such non-linear fashion must be difficult, right?
It was a huge challenge, but a really exciting one. We’d started playing about with this kind of thing before, doing sound installations and working with game engines to try and do some interesting things with music because we got to the point where we’ve recorded and played live so much that we wanted to see how things work when you go off in different directions. So because of that, we’d grown comfortable with not having ‘definitive’ versions of songs. Being an instrumental band, we’ve got a bit of extra flexibility there too. It wasn’t a case of trying to fit old-fashioned 65dos songs into an infinite form, it was more about playing to the strengths of non-linear composition and building the songs in a more modular way, creating libraries of sounds that the game can piece together. At the time it was massively confusing and there was a lot of trail and error, but we were also adamant that we were going to make sure the linear version of the album [the game’s official soundtrack] could stand up on it’s own as a new 65daysofstatic album.
Having given the game engine the tools to take apart and rebuild your songs, are you worried that the game’s algorithms might accidentally write better version of the song than you did?
Well, hmm. That’s a good question. It’s not going to be able to come up with a better linear arrangement because it’s a live system that’s beholden to the player’s actions and, obviously, there are compromises that have to be made because of that. In any music, any melody has to exist through time, even if it’s just a few seconds, so that it can reveal itself as such over the course of a few notes. The live procedural system can do that to a degree, but it can’t plan very far in advance because it never knows when the player is suddenly going to get into a fight with a huge space dinosaur or start shooting at something or do something else that the music has to react to. What it will do is soundtrack the action going on better than we could’ve, but it won’t come up with a better version of an actual song.
So you’re not worried about replaced by robots just yet, then?
Not yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.
Does this mean that every player that plays the game will get their own unique version of the music, depending on what they’re up to in space?
Yeah, they might do. Technically, it’ll never be exactly the same for anyone who plays the game, but that might not always be audible. It’ll certainly still sound like 65dos though and the game will be picking all of these sounds for the player based on what it knows works together or doesn’t work together. It’ll have all sorts of variety to it, but we weren’t aiming for it to be totally infinite. We want the music to be catchy in places and have memorable moments that are recognisable as this song or that song, even when it’s not the same exact composition. That’s what we were going for, just big sci-fi epicness.
Given that the studio were already fans of the band, did you have free rein to write whatever, or was there a specific brief to write music to?
The brief was actually for us to just go and write a 65dos album, which was incredibly flattering. The hardest part, because we’re a band who hate to lapse into nostalgia, was finding a way to become comfortable looking backwards and trying to understand what it was about our back catalogue that inspired the people making the game. Truthfully, if we’d gone off and made the next 65dos album we were going towards before we took on No Man’s Sky, it would’ve been really weird, experimental and quite abrasive noise, so even though they said they wanted the next 65dos album, they didn’t really want that.
Lastly, given that this was written for a specific project – and such a dynamic one at that – will these songs fit into your setlist going forward?
Yeah, the songs on the official soundtrack version are proper, standalone 65dos songs and we’ll play those live the same way we play anything else. However, hopefully there’s a lot of potential to do some much more interesting things with those songs too. Perhaps, as well as a standard 65dos live show, we could have a No Man’s Sky live show that makes use of the procedural stuff and translates it from the game to our live set. We’re still thinking about that, though.
Taken from the June issue of Upset, out now – order your copy here. 65daysofstatic’s new album ‘No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe’ is out now.
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