Layering stealth and combat: Nathan Whitehead on composing the Days Gone score
Days Gone

Days Gone features a layered adaptive score overseen by the composer and implemented by the audio team. Five years on from launch, Nathan Whitehead reflects upon the various stages of the creative process.

By Jerry Jeriaska

Beyond merely navigating the circumstances presented by Days Gone, launched five years ago on PlayStation 4, players are invited to contemplate the endeavour of cobbling together a community on the brink of destruction.

An underlying theme of protagonist Deacon St. John's story is the search for meaning in the face of overwhelming loss and regret. While retrieving fuel for his motorcycle and foraging scrap from abandoned cars in post-apocalyptic Oregon, the drifter encounters bands of mercenaries who prey on hapless passers-by who stray too far from their fortified encampments.

Music composer Nathan Whitehead's main theme, emerging from audio calls with Sony, reflected an overall effort to help define the post-apocalyptic story and Deacon's resilience. Days Gone provides a balance of combat gameplay and human drama, as factions seek to bolster their competitive advantages, driven by opposing ideological priorities.

The drama unfolds two years after the outbreak of a global pandemic, where the infected are transformed into murderous creatures, referred to as "Freakers." Deek and his friend Boozer, former members of the Mongrels outlaw motorcycle club, take refuge in a fenced off Oregon Forest Service watch tower.

Violent altercations play out unpredictably as Deacon drives his bike across broken roads. Inspecting a dilapidated cabin in the woods, he stumbles upon a hostage tied to a chair. Armed with munitions stored in underground bunkers, the "Rippers" cultists patrol their camp. Positioned at a highway intersection, a sniper takes aim from the canopy of a tree.

Amidst the horrors of this environment, the Days Gone composer was tasked with finding beauty.

Establishing a musical vocabulary for Days Gone

Nathan Whitehead had experience working with composers in videogame development, assisting at varying levels. However, it was his score for the dystopian horror film The Purge: Anarchy that attracted the attention of creative director John Garvin at Sony's Bend Studio.

Garvin delivered his creative brief for Days Gone to development partners with the request that a piece of music from the film inform the direction of the score. Instrumentation emphasizing guitar accompaniment could mesh with the backstory of an outlaw motorcycle drifter.

According to Whitehead: "There was something about that piece of music that combined horrific tones and some beauty, perhaps."

Garvin's narrative design eased players into the drama by opting for an unhurried buildup of story elements. From the beginning, the designers outlined "thematic pillars" of the storyline, more akin to the layered storytelling of a novel or a miniseries than what you might expect of a combat-driven survival horror game.

The composer observes: "It may be in opposition to the surface level ideas someone might have about what this game is going to be. That informed the music tremendously."

Whitehead received an invite to meet with Peter Scaturro and Keith Leary at Sony, and proceeded to write two demo tracks as a means of "kicking the tires" on the collaboration. Those evolved over time into the "Days Gone" and "The Freakshow" themes. As opposed to diving headfirst into an intensive two-year production, the producers at Sony allowed time for the concepts to mature. This demo phase early in the process established a musical language to inform the entire score.

"Looking at it five years later, it struck a chord with people," the composer says. "It was a risky move, emphasizing story this way, but I think for players who want to be immersed and moved it delivered on that... I think you're rewarded for that investment."

Bend Studio announced Days Gone at the E3 press event in 2016, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Footage of the game premiered at Sony's press conference, accompanied by a live orchestral performance. The design team was embarking on an immense challenge: introducing players to dozens of voiced characters, endowed with carefully defined dramatic motivations.

The E3 2016 reveal trailer features an early draft of the "Days Gone" theme.

Designing Stealth and Combat Layers

Recording music to complement the vast array of interactive gameplay and voiced cutscenes meant taking on a workload comparable to scoring three feature films. Music for Days Gone required a broad variety of interactivity. Whitehead delivered between fifty and one hundred stems for each music track so that the themes could be adapted to varying scenarios.

"In many cases you would think that's overkill," he admits. "[However,] the game engine is aware of the musical grid. What it can do when we give it that much material is it can transition between tracks — there's tempo information. The game engine can react to gameplay, turning tracks on and off on the nearest beats to make a musical transition."

To encourage players to take their time and appreciate the changes in weather and scenic variety, the audio team implemented leisurely transitions in exiting music cues. The composer cites this strategy as a means of immersing players in the environment. In shifting from a given gameplay scenario, the arrangement could remove stems, thinning out the instrumentation over the course of twenty bars for a more evocative musical segueway.

"We worked on having these long outros where the music would dissolve into the scene. I thought that contributed a lot to the sense of exploring nature."

Whitehead was aware that much of the game would take place on the motorcycle, as Deacon traversed the spacious map across two vast territories. "The setting of the game was so important," he says, "The way the Rippers music worked, the way bike music worked, we tried integrating the music as seamlessly as we could into the environment."

Days Gone main theme on YouTube Music, courtesy of SonySoundtracksVEVO.

Whitehead began with recording solo cello as the main orchestral element for the "Days Gone" theme. He then booked rock band sessions in Los Angeles, experimenting with sounds and capturing the atmosphere for combat and exploration music. The anxiety-laden coda of the main theme of Days Gone, where the horror vibe of the Freakers is first introduced, emerged from those sessions.

The band recordings emphasized the liveliness of skilled drums, bass and guitar performances, recorded together in a live studio setting. Local guitarist Andrew Synowiec's variety of instruments and amps zoned in on uniquely appropriate tones, elevating the quality of the soundtrack. "That was a lot of fun," Whitehead recalls, "having that live band element and a few great players."

For the open world exploration tracks, the band resisted falling into the cliche of aggressive guitar rock as a stand-in for motorcycle music. The tone was informed by early concept artwork, reflecting the richness of post-pandemic Oregon's natural environment. "It connected to motorcycle culture without going full-on rock, pushing it too far in the wrong direction."

Recording for the majority of the music score later took place in Nashville. "The overall instrumentation came together quickly. I remember early on feeling excited about this being the sound world of Days Gone."

Outlaw motorcyclists: Boozer and Deacon St. John.

Outlaw motorcyclists: Boozer and Deacon St. John.

Implementing interactivity was a central concern in designing the combat music encountered in the game. Whitehead recorded instruments for a constituent "stealth layer" and "combat layer," while the game engine allowed for variation within and between each. Every track of both layers could be activated at once while preserving the musicality. "All of this interactivity could happen in a musical fashion," he explains.

The game engine could thereby accommodate action onscreen in any number of increasingly intense permutations. The same was true of deescalation. Having been spotted by a Ripper, Deacon can hide in the tall brush until his pursuers are sidetracked, while the score recedes back to its stealth layer of instrumentation.

Whitehead describes the implementation of the audio as an "incredibly complex process." He adds: "The sheer volume of stems allowed us to spread out that music through all kinds of different scenarios. At the same time, the fact that every track worked together meant that it still sounded cohesive." Mixing had to ensure that music, sound effects, and dialog all were set to appropriate levels, while antagonists are approaching the player or retreating out of earshot.

"With the way that the team implemented it, even though I was so intimately familiar with the music, my palms would start sweating when Freaker music would set in," he says. "The hope is that the player is feeling the fear and anxiety of what might go down."

The "Rager Bear" theme accompanies more formidable enemy encounters later in the game. "That was a stem intensive piece of music," Whitehead explains. The implementation crew at Sony oversaw the programmatic element of the hefty volume of stems. "With a three or four minute theme, the game engine with this skillful implementation could score so much more gameplay... [It] sounded like something that was linearly scored, even though it was interactive."

NERO agency on a patrol, observing the state of post-pandemic Oregon.

NERO agency on a patrol, observing the state of post-pandemic Oregon.

Shifting genres on flashbacks and NERO checkpoints

A series of flashbacks offers the player a perspective on the events leading up to the evacuation of Farewell County, Oregon at the outbreak of the pandemic. In a pivotal cutscene encountered early in the game, Deacon must choose between helping Boozer flee on foot or accompany his wife Sarah on a NERO helicopter to a medical facility.

By choosing to part with Sarah in that moment, Deacon arguably has forsaken his wedding vow, "I ain't ever going to leave you."

Through further flashbacks we discover that Sarah worked as a professional research scientist at a bioengineering company, and yet she was drawn to the rebelliousness of the biker, despite her parents' protestation. Deacon finds the remains of the chopper at a crash site and carves Sarah's name into a stone. When visiting this marker, memories resurface of his wife from before the fall of civilization, accompanied by her theme.

"Sarah's Theme needed to be this bright spark," the composer says. "Deacon isn't into thoughtless nihilism, or rebellion for the fun of it. I like that them coming together and becoming soulmates combines two potentially very different points-of-view." The composer says of the dual nature of Deacon's flashbacks that the memories represented hope while also feeding into regrets. "There was a powerful contrast, in that way."

Mobile medical units belonging to the NERO agency are located throughout the map, where Deacon can search out an injector to permanently upgrade his health, focus, or stamina. The NERO theme needed to reflect their technological sophistication and unknown motives. In the words of the composer, the theme implicitly poses the question, "What is up with these NERO people?"

"Finding NERO" begins with an arpeggiated analog synth, endowing it with an inorganic quality. As the track progresses, guitar instrumentation emerges, grounding this otherworldly vibe in the familiar acoustic textures of the score. "We talked a lot about the contrast from everything else in the score... We wanted to emphasise the mysterious nature of the National Emergency Response Organization."

Deacon heading out into lawless territory outside the camps.

Deacon heading out into lawless territory outside the camps.

Utilising motifs for thematic variation

Providing a sense of thematic cohesion, music in Days Gone will remind the player of previously established motifs—an element of the score that the composer describes as "familiar sonic textures." The main theme "plants seeds," in the form of fragments of a tune played on cello, which can then lead to "a payoff," when that melody returns on guitar at a slower tempo on the track "Never Give Up."

"We had so much on-point thematic material providing a solid foundation to keep the themes alive and progressing through the game," the composer explains. "It was critical not to shortchange that process in the very beginning."

Sonic textures could make a return, stretching the melody out and speeding up the harmonic progression to reflect a change in circumstances. The composer likens the approach to the way in which a familiar smell can evoke a memory: "One of the pleasant surprises when I started working on the score was how thematic it could be... Those callbacks can be so powerful."

"We've All Done Things" is a theme tied to the Lost Lake encampment in the Iron Butte region, surfacing primarily when in dialog with the camp's leader, Iron Mike. "I wanted his informed, good intentions to be implicit in [Lost Lake's] theme," says the composer. "My hope was that the contrast with this grisly, Freaker-infested world would invite players to think more deeply about the characters."

Iron Mike visits the remains of the Sherman's Camp massacre.

While separate stealth and combat variations were not required for the piece, the composer delivered around fifty stems, allowing Iron Mike's theme to resolve based on the dramatic needs of a particular scene. "By having so many stems and layers to work with, you could create musical decrescendos in the game engine by removing elements.... The percussive drive goes away and we still have some string movement or a sparse guitar part."

"Light One Candle" similarly makes use of previously established sonic textures. Surfacing in the Lost Lake camp, the stripped-down variation on "We've All Done Things" camouflages its melody through the sparseness of its instrumentation. The theme withholds from the player the immediate recognition that this is Iron Mike's melody making a return. We are meant to draw that elusive connection on our own.

Contrasing with the moral resolve of Iron Mike, the antagonists of Days Gone are concerned only in dominating others, at all costs. In the case of the Rippers cult, initiates are lacerated and drugged so that they abandon all hope of escaping their bondage. What the villains share in common is a loss of humanity, rejecting compassion to survive hell on earth.

"I could see people winding up here," the composer says of Deacon's mortal foes. "We are all capable of these things."

Without a countervailing drive to foster compassion, too many of Deacon's fellow survivors take on the mindless and murderous aspects of the violent Freakers. Having survived a bloody feud that came to be known as the Sherman's Camp massacre, Iron Mike observed firsthand what chaos the violence between camps ultimately invites.

"John [Garvin] was so passionate about the story he wanted to tell," the composer says. "Iron Mike's character has a grit and a resolve that is unique. We learn he has a dark past, and his music needed to reflect some of that. A simple hymn-like quality was something we talked about."

Through a collaborative endeavour the work of the music score, storytelling, visual art, and programming that went into Days Gone coalesces across dozens of hours of gameplay. Their interplay explores how cherished memories persist once civilization has crumbled, with the hope remaining that something good may exist again.

Days Gone PC Launch Trailer.

Nathan Whitehead is a composer for film, television, and video games.