We chatted to Damjan Mravunac, the composer (among other things) for Croteam’s Serious Sam and The Talos Principle series, about his audio philosophy.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
What does it mean to be alive? Can a robot be, or become, considered human? Are we all just pre-programmed mechanical animals? A disembodied voice tells the player during philosophical puzzler The Talos Principle that “games are part of what makes us human.” That’s just as well, because we all bloody love games here.
Since Damjan Mravunac, game music composer and sound designer across the Serious Sam and The Talos Principle series (as well as Chief Marketing Officer at Croatia-based Croteam), emailed me his interview responses, I can’t really be sure they weren’t written by an AI. Mind you, dear reader, you can’t really be sure that this article was penned by a human. Are these my fingers typing on this keyboard? Who made this coffee?
Mr. Mravunac, the music and marketing man
Mravunac has been audio lead at Croteam for 18 (ish) years, explaining: “It has been an awesome roller coaster ride so far. We’ve done some really great things and some not so great (but still damn good). We’ve all learned a lot since Serious Sam: The First Encounter [released in 2001]. We’ve been recognised as one of the leading companies in the gaming world, which is no small achievement. Considering that we’re still in business [as an independent game studio], it must mean we are doing something right!”
Although he’s responsible for overall game audio, he isn’t alone: “All of us at Croteam wear many hats and luckily I’m not the only sound designer on the team. Our COO [Davor Hunski] is a game designer, producer and sound designer among a dozen other things, and he has a very good idea of how things should sound.
“We often mix and match our ideas until we come up with something we both feel is right for the game, and that usually works right out of the box. But since I compose music as well, my approach is somewhat more ‘surgical’ as I can predict some events in the game where audio clutter could occur and I can plan in advance to avoid that.
“While this gives me more control over the overall audio landscape, it’s more limiting in terms of creativity. Finding the perfect balance between sound effects and music is like discovering the Holy Grail, and it’s something we strive for in every game.”
Beyond being the audio lead, Mravunac has since also become the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. It’s a seemingly odd move from the outside, but one which he puts in context: “Being an in-house composer and sound designer is awesome, but you have to realise that some projects take more than a year or two to complete. Since my audio turnaround time is quite fast, we wanted to explore other areas where I could be useful to Croteam.
“I already had extensive experience in marketing thanks to past career choices, so I took the role of CMO to help promote our games. It certainly helped me see things from a different perspective and to learn first-hand what our fans want, so I’m very thankful for that.”
Switching from a fast, violent and often silly FPS game like 2011’s Serious Sam 3: BFE to 2014’s The Talos Principle, a meditative ‘world puzzler’ like Myst or Portal, was, for Mravunac, “a breath of fresh air.”Serious Sam 3: BFE—not always a subtle affair:
“Besides Serious Sam games, I have worked on 50 other games and projects and to this day, The Talos Principle is still one of my favourites. I had a chance to explore uncharted territory when it comes to my own compositions, and I learned so much in the process. The feel of the whole soundtrack invites you to listen to it outside of the game and paints images in your head even if you haven’t played the game before.
“I once got an email from a guy who listened to the soundtrack while learning for his exams. He was incredibly nervous and the soundtrack album was the only thing that could calm him down. After he passed the exam, he sent me a ‘thank you’ email—that’s one of the best things that’s happened to me as a composer.
“Also, The Talos Principle was a landmark title for Croteam in terms of our portfolio; a game that showed the world (and us!) that we were capable of making more than just hectic first-person shooters. Which is kinda funny, as game developers are often put in the same basket as their games, i.e. ‘You are making an old-school brainless’ shooter? You must all be brainless.’ But that reasoning is reductive because if we’re capable of making one of the world’s top 3D engines on our own, we can certainly make any game we like.
“It just so happens that we all love FPS games and we love making them. The Talos Principle was our way of showing everyone that Croteam is not a one-trick-pony—that we can do so much more.”
The Talos Principle in action:
He admits that he’d be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy returning to the Serious Sam series amidst all of his other projects—like slipping on a comfortable pair of trousers. “Being the audio guy for that series is a really good thing. Serious Sam adventures take the player all over the world, Sam even travels back in time; and being in a position to apply my personal sonic signature is one of great power (and great responsibility!)
“It’s a bit easier for me to write for Serious Sam as we established the rules and setting long time ago. Yet every new installment has something different which helps me keep the audio fresh and exciting.”
“Since The Talos Principle is essentially a puzzle game which necessitates that you to think before you act—and it has a well-written story with lots of philosophical elements—we decided that we needed to keep player relaxed all the time. I dropped all the usual elements that I’d use in the Serious Sam series like rock guitars and strong ethnic rhythms and went with something quite the opposite: very atmospheric and moody, with an emphasis on solitude.”
Rather than lean on external musical reference tracks, Mravunac found his groove early on: “I was lucky that the very first thing I composed actually set the mood for the entire soundtrack. When in Rome was the breakthrough in our search for the perfect style of music—we did use some temp tracks from other movies and games but nothing really worked—and that was the only song we had in the working build of the game for months! It just kept looping endlessly and it’s a miracle that none of the development team complained…”
“So the job was more or less simple after that: create more than a dozen mystical, atmospheric, thought-provoking (but not distracting) and not-annoying-when-looped tracks. Easy peasy! (Yeah, right...)”
Another favourite track of his from the soundtrack is Virgo Serena: “Besides When in Rome, this is another track that sums up The Talos Principle beautifully, so we decided to have it play under the main menu of the game. It uses a sampled Gregorian choir (from Soundiron’s Mars VST), and I created a haunting melody that hopefully stays with you long after the game is over.”
Human-played vs digitally made
In terms of how Croteam’s approach to sound and music has changed over the 18 years Mravunac has been there, he says: “These days I use more live instruments than during our humble beginnings. I also bring in other people these days, as opposed to doing everything myself like I used to do. This helps me to overcome writer’s block, which is something every composer has experienced at some point.”
A topic that keeps coming up in Laced With Wax interviews with game composers (mainly because we keep asking about it) is the use of digital instruments as opposed to, or in support of, live recordings of musicians. As with most game composers who want to produce great-sounding music whilst working to deadlines and within a certain budget, Mravunac appreciates both, pointing out: “Virtual instruments allow me to work alone and, most importantly, work fast. [In those cases where I’m just using virtual instruments] I also don’t rely on other composers or musicians to come up with tunes as I can do everything myself.”
“There is also a distinction I like to make between instruments recorded live (using microphones) and live playing. I try to ‘play’ all my virtual instruments and I don’t quantize parts [the process of automatically snapping digital notes into time like a rhythmic auto-tune] as much as I did back in the early days; I want to preserve that live feel. Even if I’m playing a digitally sampled cello, mellotron or some ancient instrument, I am still playing it, trying to record that performance in one take. The differences between playing virtual instruments live and punching-in notes with a mouse [programming parts bit by bit on a grid] are subtle, but significant enough to make tracks sound more organic.
“I used a wide variety of synthesised and drone sounds for The Talos Principle, but I also combined them with live playing. For example, on some tracks I used my trusty Levinson acoustic guitar mic’d with a Rode valve microphone.
“Thus the overall soundtrack sounds both digital and organic, just like the game narrative which asks a big question: What does it mean to be human?”
Impressive peers and peering into the future
Mravunac owns up to the fact that he—“and probably 90% of my fellow composers”—is still fascinated with film composer extraordinaire Hans Zimmer and his approach to scoring and music: “He has been one of my greatest inspirations so far."
“But the gaming world has its own ‘Zimmer’s’, like Jack Wall [Mass Effect, Myst, COD: Black Ops], Jeremy Soule [Elder Scrolls, Guild Wars, Star Wars: KOTOR] and Peter McConnell [Monkey Island 2, Star Wars: X-Wing, Sly Cooper, Grim Fandango]. These are guys that just sound better and better with every new soundtrack they compose. To be jealous of them would be a stupid use of precious time—better to improve myself and learn new things. No time to be jealous!”
And as for the future of video game music, Mravunac concurs with PlayStation’s Principal Composer and previous Laced With Wax interviewee, Jim Fowler, who called for more interactivity in game music; music which is somehow performed through gameplay.
Mravunac: “I’d love to see more interactivity. When composing for motion picture, everything is pretty much laid out for composer; he or she knows what will happen and can emphasize it in the very best possible way. In video games, we have no clue where player will go next or what they will do. We can only try and predict their moves but without adequate support from the audio game engine, we are helpless.
“So my future steps for Serious Sam 4 include some clever planning and brainstorming with my tool programmers about how we can work on improving interactivity, which will certainly influence the way I compose a given track. The end goal is to give the player a blockbuster experience which they’ll remember for a lifetime!”
There is (another) excellent interview with him over at The Sound Architect if you want to find out more about his background.
The Talos Principle soundtrack is available on double LP vinyl from LacedRecords.com: