We spoke to the BAFTA-nominated composer about his emotive score for Lost Words: Beyond the Page, turning it up to 11 for Battletoads, and how he crafts his moving melodies.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
There are narrative games, and then there are narrated narrative games built around a narrator's narration.
Released in 2021, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is an atmospheric narrative adventure written by Rhianna Pratchett (possibly best known for Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider.) The game is quite literally a narrative platformer that alternates between the pages of a young girl called Izzy’s diary and a fantasy story. The written words in the game are the platforms, and also help Izzy overcome various obstacles.
Its deeply personal narrative and watercolor aesthetic required a deft touch in terms of underscore, so developers Sketchbook Games and Fourth State turned to BAFTA- and Ivor Novello-nominated composer David Housden.
Best known for his electronic music scores for Thomas Was Alone and Volume, Housden’s background was actually playing guitar in garage bands — something he returned to for another recent game, Battletoads.
We chatted to him about his wildly different soundtracks for the touching Lost Words: Beyond the Page and slightly bonkers Battletoads, his love of moving melodies, and how much next gen consoles will change his approach to scoring.
Leaping aboard a moving ship
Film and TV composers typically start the scoring process once the edit is more or less finished. It’s more complicated with video games because of the complexities and challenges inherent in development; as well as the interactive music possibilities, both creative and technical.
It’s common to hear game composers say they prefer to join projects towards the beginning of development — a feeling Housden shares. That said, he also prefers there to be a decent build up of in-development material to draw inspiration from: “I couldn’t imagine anything more intimidating than a truly blank canvas and having to magic something up out of nothing — so I’m always happy to join the party [once it’s got started.]
“All of my work is inspired by the narrative, aesthetic, mechanics, and references of the game, so the more I have to draw from, the more tightly I can align my work with the developer’s creative vision. Having said that, there is a balance to strike, because you don’t want the score to feel like it was produced independently from the game and placed on top at the end.
“Ideally, I like to have enough of a concept to inform some creative decisions for myself, but to come on board early enough for the music to still have a chance to affect and permeate into other areas of production.”
“Lost Words was a classic case of ‘right place, right time’” continues Housden. “I stumbled across it at EGX Rezzed back in 2016 [the original concept for the game emerged during the Ludum Dare game jam in 2013.] I found the demo moving and tweeted Mark [Backler, the game’s creator] to tell him as much, only to realise that he lived in the same town as me! We got together for a drink and it turned out he was a big fan of Thomas Was Alone. There was another composer involved with Lost Word at the time, so we just stayed in touch as friends.
“In 2017, the original composer stepped back and I got the call. We decided to restart the entire score from scratch, but because I knew the game and subject matter well, I was able to hit the ground running. There was still a lot of catching up to do, but also plenty of [design, narrative and art] material to draw upon.”
Djinn and tonics
Quite often, the lone composer working on a game will have to harness different sonic palettes to best represent different places within a game’s universe. Composing for media means creating music under deadlines, which doesn’t necessarily permit hundreds of hours of instrumentation and harmony research — practicality reigns.
Housden explains: “By way of example, for the Djinn stage, I had to familiarise myself with the tropes and theory of cinematic ‘desert’ music, so I could then figure out how that would sound through the lens and palette of Lost Words.”
“Because I’m scoring the fantasy world of Estoria, I didn’t want to directly reference or lean into any one particular region or culture for inspiration. At the same time, I knew it still had to sound familiar.
“I took a hybrid approach comprising the different instruments, scales and harmonic languages of various regions throughout the world. I then blended them together with the palette I’d already been using across the game, to create something that felt cohesive and firmly at home within the sonic aesthetic for Lost Words, while still carrying the connotations of a fantastical desert.”
Heavily melodic soundtrack music might have been on the back foot in Hollywood since the ‘90s, but it is alive and kicking in all sizes of games and gaming genres. Like our past interviewee, Ori and the Will of the Wisps composer Gareth Coker [who was an orchestrator on Lost Words], Housden is an unapologetic melodist.
For Housden, it’s all about pop hooks: “Having grown up writing songs for myself and as part of various bands, my background predisposes me to think about music in popular song form — I naturally gravitate towards giving something a hook and presenting it in the most engaging way possible within the arrangement.
“This is something I was slightly concerned about given the opportunity to work with an orchestra for the first time, because I don’t have a classical background. I was worried that my structure and form wouldn’t lend itself to the palette as effectively as some of my more contemporary work. However, writing pop songs with a traditional palette seems to work quite nicely!”
“I don’t overthink melody writing — I’ll usually already have a tune in my head, or come up with one fairly quickly after sitting at the piano. Nine times out of 10, whatever I come up with then and there will be the final version. I might finesse it a bit at the start, but I trust my instincts when it comes to that side of things. Honestly, the hard part is filling in the rest from there!”
He has shown his versatility through his scores for games like Battletoads and Volume. But, similar to Gareth Coker, Housden has developed a bit of a specialism in writing emotionally poignant cues. Not to put too fine a point on it, they want to make the listener tear up.
Housden admits: “Writing emotional music for compelling narratives is my biggest passion, and where I feel the most at home. Music is an incredibly powerful tool, and my all-time favourite pieces are all strongly emotionally affecting. That’s something I try to achieve with my own writing, regardless of what I’m trying to actually say within the context of the piece. Make it matter.”
“I’ve been told many times that a lot of my music sounds bittersweet. I like that, because I don’t ever want to just hit a single, simple emotion on the head when approaching a scene. Feelings are more complex than ‘completely happy’ or ‘completely sad’. We’re all emotionally nuanced, and I try to reflect that musically.
“For example, ”Memories” isn’t a sad piece of music in and of itself, but it takes on all of these different connotations when listened to in context.”
“Those juxtapositions are something that I find fascinating. Rather than trying to capture that overwhelming sense of grief at the loss of a loved one, I scored the memory of the relationship that they had together instead. That almost feels more sad than if I’d plonked a melancholy melody over some minor chords. It’s a ‘happy sadness’, and this ties into the theme of acceptance of grief, which is ultimately what the game is all about.”
Cello, is it me you’re looking for?
As a lapsed cellist, your Laced With Wax interviewer is hopelessly biased towards music that features the single most elegant instrument in the universe of sound (IMO.)
With the Lost Words track “It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn”, Housden elevated a lovely, sorrowful piano and synth-choir piece with a brief, beautiful cello passage.
“I have to give a shout-out to the first chair cellist of the Nashville Music Scoring Orchestra for taking an already beautiful sounding instrument and elevating it to the sublime — his playing was that emotive.
“The piano piece was ready to go for some time, but when I listened back to it a few weeks before the [orchestral] session, I felt it was missing a key ingredient. My intention was to write a string quartet accompaniment, and I started by improvising this little cello idea over the top, only to realise that it didn’t really need anything else from there. So it was a happy accident, but discerning when less-is-more is a vital skill to have as a composer.”
Hopping from thing to thing
Lost Words: Beyond the Page and 2020’s Battletoads are somewhat different in tone, gameplay, and... well... everything really. And one doesn’t get much further away from sweeping, melodic orchestral music than hair metal.
Housden says that jumping between the two games was a ton of fun. “These projects were just polar opposites, and they served as amazing palette cleansers for one another. Whenever I was getting bogged down with writing emotional music for orchestra, I could just pick up my Les Paul and start blasting out riffs. Then, when my ears (and neighbours) needed a break from ‘90s metal, I could sit at the piano and write something intimate.
“Trying to work on multiple projects can be stressful, especially if they aren’t that distinct from one another. But, with these two in particular, I felt lucky to have them running in parallel.”
“It was also just awesome getting to go back and write on guitar for a different genre. It was the first time in nine years of professional composing that I’ve been able to base a score around my actual instrument of choice, and to utilise all of my band experience and musical contacts.
“Everyone on the recordings, from the players to the producers, were people I worked with previously from my band days, and I was also briefly in a band with the head of [Battletoads developer] Dlala studios many years ago, so things really came full circle!
“Battletoads definitely let me [turn things up to 11]. The whole game is over-the-top and the score had to match that. I was actively encouraged to push the ridiculousness at all times, and I can’t imagine many circumstances when I’m being told that a 16-bar face-melting solo needs to be longer and more self-indulgent!”
“Not only that, but it was ridiculous how many different genres I had to straddle. One moment the soundtrack is 1930s Big Band; the next it’s ambient Peruvian pan flute music; as well as 80’s thrash, contemporary orchestral, industrial synth, and more! It was truly ridiculous in the best way possible.
“Generally speaking, it’s about discerning what the game needs; and more often than not that tends to be more about subtlety than exaggeration, in my experience. But it is nice to get the opportunity to take the brakes off.”
Zen about next gen
As this interview goes live, the gaming world is transitioning from the PS4/Xbox One console era to the PS5/Series S|X. Much has been said about the increase in memory and computing power for audio, and one imagines the interactive music possibilities are starting to get as intimidating for game composers as they are exciting.
In Housden’s neck of the woods however, things will continue on much the same trajectory: “I was asked about [the changes and challenges that new platforms might bring] a lot during the advent of VR [over the 2010s]. That’s all any conference panel would be about, and people always seemed disappointed when I told them that it wasn’t going to change a single thing as far as my work goes.
“[Regarding VR] there were lots of interesting possibilities for sound design, but unless you’re intentionally trying to blur the lines between diegetic/non-diegetic music for effect, I can’t imagine why you’d want your score playing back in anything other than good old-fashioned stereo.
“The same goes for this new generation — I already have all of the technology and tools I could possibly wish for when it comes to realising my intentions for a score, so, while I’m sure that more technologically-minded folk will have a field day with the new advances, I don’t really see anything changing for me, creatively speaking.”––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
Be sure to check out his podcast interview with The Sound Architect: thesoundarchitect.co.uk/tsap-s04-e08
Here’s a brief look at Housden in the studio to record the Lost Words score: