Detroit: Become Human

Today’s second part of OnlySP’s interview with Nima Fakhrara will delve into his work on Detroit: Become Human and what his process was for coming up with the music for Connor. Be sure to check out the first part where Fakhrara discussed how he came to be involved in video game composition and how he developed his own unique style.

Having worked on Resident Evil: Revelations 2 and 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, Detroit: Become Human marked Fakhrara’s third video game project, and he admitted that it came somewhat out of the blue.

“It came out of nowhere actually,” he laughed. “I followed it for a while, and I saw the E3 announcement which was the whole Kara [one of the game’s main characters] video, and I thought that it was an awesome video game that was going to be super cool. Like with a lot of the video game world, it’s not that accessible unless you’re within that company itself. From the perspective of an independent composer. it’s really difficult to contact the people involved, but I woke up one day and there was an email in my inbox. It was music supervisor Mary Lockwood. She’s awesome, and she asked me if I wanted to be involved in the game. I was convinced that it was a spam e-mail from somewhere, but she sent me the NDA, and then one thing led to another and I got involved. They liked the custom instruments that I make and the weirdness of the way that I actually work, so that’s how I got on Detroit.”

Of course, Fakhrara is not the only composer who worked on the game. Quantic Dream decided to hire a composer for each of the three major storylines, and he explained how he felt about that and how the process worked.

“Especially because I didn’t know anything before the NDA, I thought I was composing the video game itself. I thought it was gonna be like this idea of an android walking around and doing things. Even though I knew a little bit about David Cage and love his work, I had no idea what was involved. Once I found out that there were two other composers doing two other characters, I was blown away and I was in, 100%. Mary and Aurelien [Baguerre], the audio director, sent me the final cuts of 15 minute scenes, and then I was able to implement different things. The story of Connor was the forefront, and how we achieved that was the biggest challenge.”

A lot of preparation was required to bring all the ideas together for the score, as Fakhrara started to put together the pieces necessary. “There was a 3000-ish page script for the game that I asked for and was sent,” he said. “I didn’t read it page by page because it had all the characters’ branches on it, but I did read a lot of it. They sent me a lot of videos, a lot of pictures, and there were just tonnes of conversations that I had with David and the entire crew over there. One of the cool things was that the entire team at Quantic Dream didn’t allow us to listen to the other composers’ music until the very end, so we had no idea what the others were writing.”

This strategy meant that each composer could focus specifically on their character and their arc.

“For me it was just Connor; that was my world for a year and a half. The main things I was thinking were ‘how do I think like an android?’ and ‘how do I create emotion for a non-emotional being?’ David allowed me to go in at the deep end and that’s what I did, I went as deep as I could and built crazy instruments. The idea was if a human is going to create an android, how is that android going to ‘be the music’? What does that look like?”

Connor in Detroit: Become Human

Fakhrara’s score for Detroit is often a blend between classical and digital, working in tandem with and sometimes against each other. This tactic was intended to bring out that android sensibility while also suggesting just how close the androids are to being human. Naturally, Fakhrara’s method for finding this blend was unique to his style.

“The first thing I did for Connor was the first sound that you hear, that little bass riff on the Moog Voyager [a synthesiser]. That started the whole thing. I guess because of my Persian classical roots, I like creating boundaries for myself and rules for every project. One of the rules for this project was that I didn’t want to use an acoustic instrument unless it was completely manipulated. I didn’t record an orchestra unlike the other two composers because theirs were a little bit more emotional and had to have an emotional story path. But in my case, for Connor, I didn’t record an orchestra. I recorded an electric string ensemble that was completely unplugged, and that was the closest thing I could get to an orchestra that doesn’t sound like an orchestra. Even a lot of the cinematic stuff is done through sample libraries because I didn’t want it to be done by humans; I wanted it to be done by a machine. That was very difficult for me. I’m a very emotional Middle Eastern dude with a long beard. That question of figuring out how to be non-emotional was the fun part about it.”

Those custom instruments add a whole new texture to the score and help to layer the atmosphere that Fakhrara wanted to create for Connor’s story. He explained how the process was much less tactile than he would have liked or felt comfortable with, at least at the beginning.

“The process was a little bit off kilter for me because I like to play every instrument,” he said. “I like to be able to tangibly do something, and, with these digital instruments and analogue synthesisers, you can’t physically play them. That ability to physically jump on the instrument is generally what I focus on when I build them. I want to emotionally express myself this way even though it’s going to sound digital, so I still wanted to figure out a way to do that. On all the other projects that I work on normally, you record an orchestra and get that typical colour,  but here I had freedom, and, for me, it was a very fun process of being completely able to do whatever the hell I wanted to do as long as it sounded like it understood Connor’s world, and I appreciate Quantic Dream for allowing me to do that.”

But what is Connor’s world? The things that drive Connor in the story were crucial to Fakhrara’s work, and he explained what he saw in the way Connor’s narrative progressed.

“One of our focuses through the entire story for Connor is that he is on a singular mission, to complete a highly important task. He says it many times throughout the project. Anything else is secondary to him. So what is that task he’s trying to accomplish? He’s trying to find Deviants. He’s a Deviant hunter. There are moments that his task can be triggered, but also more emotional moments. When you’re playing, in the corner of your screen it sometimes says ‘software instability’, which signifies a program change that happens in his mind when things shift for him and his perspective changes.”

Everything revolves around Connor’s singular mission—his seemingly never-ending desire to accomplish his task; as Fakhrara says though, it is not as simple as that, and the score had to take account of when things change for him. Those nuances are what Quantic Dream wanted to explore, and David Cage in particular has a history of trying to tackle difficult, challenging, and impactful themes. Fakhrara said this complexity made his job easier.

“At least for me it’s easier because it challenges you. It challenges the mind, it challenges the audience as well. We’re all here to tell a story. Especially me, I’m a storyteller. You have to invoke an emotion in to the audience; you have to do something in order for you to get a response back, and David is ballsy enough to be able to do that. I know we’ve gotten some shit from it, but, when you’re telling a story, we want to be able to tell it as vaguely or as clearly as possible, and we allow the audience to have the emotional feeling or connection or a thought process going in to it. That’s the goal, that’s what it is. If we’re not able to evoke an emotion from the audience, then we haven’t done our job. That’s the point of it.”

What creates that emotional experience, and moulds it in to something truly impactful in Detroit? Fakhrara believes that the emotional connection is caused because the game hits close to home: perhaps even a little too close for comfort.

“I think the reason this game does such a successful job of creating an emotional experience for players and has resulted in lots of people talking about it is because it’s not too farfetched. We’re living in a world that, even as I’m speaking to you right now, there’s one of those Google Play things literally staring at me, and it’s most probably recording my voice and learning from me. We’re already living with a lot of androids. We’re also so lost in our own thoughts that we’re not able to open and look at other people’s struggles. We’re sheltered in that way. In this game, what’s very relevant is that androids matter. That’s what we’re talking about. Androids are beings that we need to take care of. We have to feel for them, and it comes back to humanity. We need to take care of each other, especially at a time when I personally believe we’re only five years away from hanging out with a little robot who can be your PA! That makes the game very close and familiar and scary.”

Therefore, despite appearances, perhaps the notion of a ‘conflict’ between android and human arising in the game is too simplistic. Those nuances are reflected in Fakhrara’s score, but portraying it beyond that simplistic level took a lot of effort; how did Fakhrara do it?

“It’s a hard question. It’s not even a conflict, it’s more the parallel existence of androids and humans. If we wanted to get really deep in to it we could question the words themselves. What is an android? What is a human? If you look at it, an android is created by a human, and then a human is basically a mother or a father to the android, so there’s also this relationship that is created and the conflict is that the creator wants to have something that is his creation and the creation wants to be a singular being, separate from its creator.

“So from a musical perspective, it was like ‘okay I’m creating this music which is my creation, but I also want to make sure that this creation becomes its own idea in order for it to develop a sense of emotion.’ As I’m saying this it feels like far too much philosophy, but that’s what you’ve got to look at. It all comes back to ‘how do you create emotion for a non-emotional being?’ That’s the conflict, at its most simple form.”

As Fakhrara attempted to bring out these intricate elements in his music, he was also staunch in the belief that Quantic Dream’s method of storytelling allowed the game to come out as they intended, always firmly foregrounding the story and almost ensuring that the player’s role is secondary to it.

“From a storytelling perspective, the player does not have much control,” he explained. “Sure,  you sometimes push buttons to do jumps or combos, but the story is what’s driving you and you’re almost just watching a movie. You have a tactical awareness and can do certain things, but it’s the story that’s just so intense and doing the driving through the whole thing.”

Since it bears that similarity with the filmic medium, texts such as Blade Runner come to mind. Since that film is famous for its philosophical examination of the nature of humans and androids,  hearing from Fakhrara as to whether his score was inspired at all by Vangelis’s work on the film was intriguing.

“As a film buff, I’ve seen Blade Runner a lot and it was an influence on this score, definitely. I used a lot of Vangelis’s ideas as far as the synthesiser goes; the score for Connor is very electronic, and I liked the idea of having a homage to the old school.

“There was also this idea of a film noir aspect to Connor, blending a detective story with the weird, electronic vibe, and we tried to accomplish that with the score. The singular part of my music vision was there, but, unfortunately, there aren’t any original ideas in the world any more. Everything is influenced by something else, so, yes, I took some influences from other scores, but it wasn’t a case of trying to copy, but try to see what other masters had done and try to do what I could as far as my vision is concerned.”

That vision had to come together with those of the other composers, Philip Sheppard and John Paesano, who worked on the other story strands. Since Quantic Dream did not allow the composers to listen to each other’s work, the score could potentially have gone in many directions, but Fakhrara was very happy with how it turned out and the innovative process itself.

“To my surprise, it came out great,” he said. “I give all respect to Mary and Aurelien at Quantic Dream for the idea, as well as David Cage, to be able to be brave enough to do this. It was a difficult task, and that is just because the story is such an amazing story and it evoked an emotion for all of us. It was worked very well musically, especially the musical colour and the moments that the characters collided and interacted with each other. Honestly, it was pretty flawless. I’m extremely happy and surprised about it at the same time, especially since I didn’t record an orchestra at all and both of the others recorded a big-ass orchestra!”

The experience has convinced Fakhrara to add to the three video games he has now worked on in the future, and he explained what about the medium makes it so rewarding for a composer.

“I would love to return to video games. Especially unique video games with a unique storytelling perspective. I think the world of video games opens up a new way of telling a story and it allows for so much more power in doing so. Particularly because of the graphic and visual effect capabilities, I mean you’re looking at human beings these days in games that are sweating and you’re seeing their skin crawl and stuff, and it’s just fascinating. You can do things in video games that you can’t do in film. My dream video game to score would be something like Call of Duty, set in the Middle East, where I could do what I normally do but get stuck in to some gnarly stuff too.”

Detroit: Become Human is out now on the PlayStation 4. 

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Sep Gohardani

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