Composer Petri Alanko has worked with Finnish game developers Remedy Entertainment on both Alan Wake and Quantum Break and returned to work with the studio on their latest game, Control. Alanko spoke to OnlySP about his work on the game but also about his career in music and video game music in particular.
A Passion for Music
Interested in music since childhood, Alanko cannot remember a time he did not want to be a musician.
“Creating music and sound always was and probably always will be my passion, and as long as I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed going everywhere with ‘my ears first,’” he explained. “In new situations, for some reason, I tend to listen instead of seeing, and it still feels sometimes quite odd to be able to concentrate on something audible so much that you ‘forget to see.’ To me, sounds and music are portals elsewhere, into something better – or into an alternative, parallel, universe.”
Originally, that interest leaned towards classical music, but Alanko realised his interests truly lay beyond that realm.
“I tried very, very hard to become a classical musician, but somehow sequenced bass lines seduced me towards something else. I remember a few exact moments, when I started suspecting whether the classical side was for me at all. I knew it would stick with me forever, but the newly heard flavors back then kicked me heavily into the early techno scene.”
That is when the desire to expand his horizons arose for Alanko, who quickly took up a different genre of music. The next problem was how to do it.
“I wanted to create all those magnificent sounds myself, make music with them, but both my non-existent budget (and my age) were quite the obstacle back then. Synths were obnoxiously expensive, and, to be honest, it was rather hard to even imagine any outlet for the things I wanted to do. But somehow, I had a hunch it all would eventually be okay.
“Eventually, with some hard work during my school summer holidays (the number of mown lawns, swept warehouses, and renovated kitchens paid off) I was able to get some gear to start out with. Before this happened, my dad had gotten me an early Roland monosynth, SH-5a, which he had painstakingly renovated and fixed for my birthday, and I was thrilled to get my hands on something else. The first cheap polysynth arrived, as well as a drum machine and a four-track cassette recorder. And that was it. I wanted to do THAT.”
And so his music career started to take off, though not immediately in the world of scoring.
“I did albums, remixes, songwriting, so my startup sequence was what could be called “contemporary.” I dealt with a lot of arranging, programming and production projects, and slowly built a name for myself. Although I think the nickname back then was Petri ‘Uses Too Many Tracks’ Alanko. That was heard in every session. ‘Does it really need that many layers?’ ‘Yes it does, David Foster uses three.’ People were so stuck with doing stuff with just one element, and that just sounded really, really, old, outdated and boring to me.”
Working with Remedy
Alanko first started working on video games at the turn of the millennium, but the first big break came a few years after that.
“When I really started doing game music was when I got a call from Remedy, I think this was 2004 or 2005. The years are a blur but it was in the early stages of Alan Wake‘s development. They had a vague idea of a game, and the basic setting, even a really nice-looking video clip, too, which they presented to me, asking for some demo music for it. I would’ve killed for such an opportunity, so I don’t think I need to say that I was extremely thrilled for such an invitation. Remedy had (already by then) a really good name among the gaming industry, and I wanted to get involved. Shortly after, it turned out my demo was ‘quite nice’ and I got the job. My first game composing gig was reality! Unfortunately, the local copyright office tried their best in terminating it with rude fees; I may be wrong, but I think they would’ve wanted something like 1.68 euros per sold unit, they probably smelled the euros in the air, after the success of Max Payne.
“However, thankfully, the fire settled soon after the Remedy business department and the then CEO visited the local copyright office and talked their people back into their senses, and they even had a suggestion for a contract for people like me. The copyright people decided it was okay, and the terms and the content were rather cool – and unsurprisingly several years later they presented the very same idea as their own. Anyway, thanks to Remedy, they made the game/media composers’ lives so much easier.”
Alanko discussed what it was about games that appealed to him as a composer and what composers can do for the game experience.
“Games are like movies, but interactive. That was the key to me, to be able to deal with something on the screen and decorate, support, and multiply the emotions you’re experiencing. I found it extremely intriguing to be able to ‘guide’ and inject the emotions into a then rather restricted graphical world.”
He is also keen to point out that music and sound are a vital part of the video game experience, something he thinks can be forgotten in the creative process.
“It’s a shame audio and music are sometimes relegated to a thing ‘you need to have’ for some companies, but I have to remind you: is there a really good game with really bad audio and music? No, there isn’t. It’s like the ‘too many layers’ approach in my early career as a musician: you need to have emotional layers. Firstly, nothing is black and white. Secondly, you’re very, very rarely only happy or sad or frightened or angry, your emotions are built of layers that need to exist both in the picture and in the audio as well – that’s what makes an atmospheric game or a movie. Just crying will probably make some people cry, but knowing why someone cries makes many more people connect with the emotions.”
Working on Alan Wake allowed Alanko to experience something he hadn’t had the chance to in Finland up to that point, and opened his eyes to new possibilities. He explained the impact that it had on him and how different it was to the Finnish musical landscape in general.
“It felt like reaching a new, much higher level. The music business in Finland was (and to some extent, still is) in a less than progressive state than other western countries; very unprofessionally led, parochial, very reactive. The people working in the industry are usually ex-bass players or deaf engineers or throwaway phone salesmen. Things have slowly, very slowly, improved, but the so-called professionals still can’t recognize a hit even if one smeared it on their faces, and the decisions are sometimes made by the newcomers working as their social media assistants. Nothing wrong with that, but the result…? Well, we’ve got Alma. It’s almost 2020.
“Game companies, on the other hand, had functional, well-educated personnel right from the start, and they never acted in a narrow-minded manner. They had a huge amount of focus put into design and planning, and I was able to share my ideas with someone who had already had massive success internationally and exchange ideas with execs in the high ranks of Microsoft at that time (greetings to Mark Yeend and Boyd Post here).
“It was very, very reassuring and aided my rather dented self-confidence in the beginning; I was trusted with my choices. I felt I was very warmly welcomed and learned a huge amount in a mere few months, not to mention the years Alan Wake was in development. I think I once referred to Alan Wake as my high school and university and Quantum Break was my doctorate. But I want to emphasize I’m referring to common knowledge about the development cycles and business development side as well. I realized very early on I should forget most of what I knew about the music business, and basically rebuild myself to fit into the final stretch of Alan Wake.”
Beyond the warm welcome, Alanko said that Remedy’s process for making Alan Wake was a remarkably smooth one, despite the odd technical issue.
“There were no setbacks, to my surprise, and even the time they took to reshape the game’s focus about two-and-a-half-years in felt very well- communicated and reasoned. Having a good story, a few really good storytellers and a flawless communication route made everyone in the development team feel relaxed—despite the rather busy schedules towards the end. There were some unbelievable technical hindrances on my side, most of them dealing with the fact the computers were so slow (despite mine being a top-of-the-line machine, plus two others) but eventually, even the insane final cinematic music mixing schedule—getting the orchestra tracks a week before the deadline AND not getting any stems—felt like a breeze. It was like a well-oiled machine, really. I honed my workflow a lot back then, to better meet the requirements of the development—and it seems to have paid off really well.”
Such confidence in the studio allows Alanko to focus purely on the musical process, and he delved into what that means for him on each project that he works on.
“At first, I love to peek into the world, just listen to the stories, maybe see a presentation, if I’m lucky. In some cases, I’ll even get to see a brief glimpse of the visual side, if the developer has been doing some previsualization or prerenders. I usually get a very strong, intuitive feeling about what and how the game should sound; it depends on several topics and the levels of emotional impact, but if the story’s there and the storyteller in that presentation can put their ideas into words and feelings, something is born right there, right then.
“Of course, the script can change and the characters may change, that is just natural, but unless the genre and the setting is changed, the ideas I come up with in the first sitting usually persist until the end. This was the case with Alan Wake, Quantum Break – and now Control. I’ve learned to trust my intuition and imagination.
“After that first round I usually have something ringing in my head, but I try as hard as I can to not write anything down, unless it’s something that relies on the, say, mathematics or the science behind the basic idea. And even then it’s just a few things, sometimes it’s a picture or a few sentences. I let the ideas rest for a while, as if they were dough to be kneaded and then, much later, baked. It’s an interesting process, one could say it’s hardening done at a very early stage, and that stage probably defines how well the initial idea is going to stick in people’s minds. I want my soundtracks to work as is, even without the mother product, so this is essential to my quality control, so to speak.
“I tend to create a specially built ‘soundset’ or a sound library for each project, and they never overlap. Customer X and Customer Y have their own folders, and not one thing ever is shared from X to Y. Period. I’m very stubborn with that, even if it’s only feedback sound, which I re-did for Control—but using different means than, say, Quantum Break. I think the best concepts are created through a set of dogmas put into action, and that’s why I like to record a lot of new material, raw sounds, and some sounds that are somewhat further in the creation process in such a way that they can create melodies more easily; the ‘raw’ sounds are usually waiting for another processing round until they become usable.”
Music to his ears- working on Control
Having worked with Remedy on a couple of occasions already, it may have seemed obvious that Alanko would work on Control, but that was not the case, even though he was enthusiastic about the game from the moment he heard of what it would be.
“I don’t like doing demos generally speaking, but I felt I had to make a ‘this is how I think Control sounds’ track, which later on was used in many of its trailers. Luckily I did, since I had a few things very clearly in my mind after I saw Mikael [Kasurinen, director] and Sam [Lake, writer] giving their presentation at some company get-together. I remember staring at the screen, thinking about all these sounds ringing in my head, listening to melodies and roaring sounds that didn’t even exist yet, and I thought ‘I WANT TO BE IN!’ Mikael did a marvellous job in delivering the idea and the emotions right there.
“So, I composed a demo, sent it in, and got a call. They had had an anonymous listening session, and it turned out that the track they had selected to represent the idea of the game best was mine. I had no expectations; I just had a very strong sense of what I was going to do. I whooped quite loudly in my car after I ended that call!”
Control is a game that explores the paranatural, delving into science fiction themes with a heavy focus on bureaucracy and how a government institution manages this secret knowledge. What aspects of the game was it that Alanko was so drawn to? The whole package, it turned out.
“I remember thinking ‘this is probably the sickest thing I’ve seen in a while, if this were a movie, I’d so want to see it’. That means a lot to me, as it sort of takes my hand and walks me right into the world, into the events and environments. But I must say I was also very intrigued about the story and the characters, especially the antagonists. They had already thought about the actors for the roles, and having the, well, more-or-less all-star crew on board finished selling me the idea. I mean—Sean Durrie and Courtney Hope as brother and sister. PERFECT. I got to meet Sean once, during Quantum Break, and he was one of those easily approachable dudes, he takes it easy, but having seen him get into the maniac mode in one of his facial capture raw clips…yep, he was scary. Intense.
“But, despite having the best actors, one would have nothing unless there was a story behind the whole thing—and that’s where Sam Lake comes into the picture. I love his work, have always been a great fan of his. This time, he sure exceeded my expectations: the analogue tech in the game, representing the ‘unhackability’ and the longevity of the Bureau, like they were shouting ‘we’ve been here for ages’. Sam’s ‘fireplace stories’ bring worlds alive, and I think I’ve said this before, but despite the fact the characters are just that: characters, imaginary people, they are craving for their own pasts and futures, which is where Sam shines. His stories are interlinked to one another, more or less, so he’s basically writing for his own universe, and that is very appealing to me.”
Creative director Lake was a big draw for Alanko, which speaks to the respect that was built up after working with him on both Alan Wake and Quantum Break. He talked a bit about the impact Lake has had on his career and what he’s like to be around.
“When Sam speaks, I listen. Truthfully, I’m like someone sitting in front of the fireplace, listening to others speak about their hunting trips and ancient stories. I like his smirk, his sense of humor, and he’s just an awesome guy to hang with. Very witty, very funny, very talkative. One of the key parts of me wanting into the project was his story and his ideas of a twisted reality. I’ve been writing my own stories for ages—which I am not going to show to anyone—but I know how incredibly hard it can be to make a story work, and I mean really work on an emotional level, so that it reaches the guts. I sort of can relate to the birth pains one faces during the story writing process, and as a composer, the pains are sometimes physical ones; I think it’s the same with text. I wonder if writers ever get the goosebumps one gets from finding just the right harmony or melody.”
All of Remedy’s games focus heavily on narrative, which makes the combination of good story writing and a powerful, effective score all the more important. Alanko spoke on the benefits of writing music for video games that have narrative at their forefront, rather than as a secondary pursuit.
“The easiest thing is they, sort of, write themselves. When you have all the story elements in place, and the action is justified and rationalized, you get the pictures into your mind. After focusing, it’s easy to make a ‘reverse puzzle’, i.e. turn each imaginary piece into a concrete (or audible) one and put it in the right place.
“The stories suck you right in, and—this sounds like madness, I’m sure—you take the hand of the protagonist, and let him or her dictate the events, and after a while you start seeing everything through their eyes. I sometimes like reading the script and sometimes I want to see the moving picture only, which was the case in Alan Wake. In Quantum Break and Control, I was able to follow the script, and there were days when I just read the pages over and over again.”
Not all is positive though, and narrative driven games do come with drawbacks too, especially in terms of focus.
“There are disadvantages, too: one can get lost in the world, if one is not careful. It’s easy to start reasoning the story from some other point of view, unless you keep a distance, and that can bend the perspective a little.”
Alanko’s Process- Writing the Score for Control
So how is that perspective established in the first place? What are the components that form the basis for the score? Alanko explained that it can come from a few avenues.
“It can be a cinematic, it can be an environment, or a storyline…usually, in my case, the trigger is when I see the protagonist enter a space that’s important for the story. Effectively, that’s what I’ll be starting with. But the emotion itself is not enough, I need to know the motivation and the goal too, so that’s where the story kicks in. Without any sturdy anchors reaching back into the past and forward into the future, it’s pretty much senseless to try doing something that possibly could move people and deliver the emotions—or support the ones needed to help a scene make an impact. My main duties are to support the main event, so I’m always trying to find out as much about the story and characters as I can.
“I think I’ve done my fair share of disturbing people with my endless ‘how was their childhood?’ questions, but I hope they understand why I keep on asking those things. It’s important to have the creative people deliver the right stuff, and no matter how unimportant a certain detail is to them, it might change the game at my end, totally. In Control‘s case it was how Jesse [the main character] had been trying to find out about her brother—and how something like that might have affected her personality.
“What makes Control most interesting is the amount of ‘flawed’ personalities. I mean, one of them shoots himself right in the beginning, another one does this and that and eventually sings karaoke, one has been stored in a proper lockdown for ages…and one is searching for her path, only to find it inside a building—which, to me, was a character of its own. An entity filled with entities!”
Martin Stig Andersen co-wrote the score with Alanko, who explained how the responsibilities were divided.
“We were never actually physically in the same studio at the same time while doing the music. After I had dissected my original demo piece into a sample set and delivered that for building blocks, Martin took his tools and recorded his own stuff, plus processed mine…eventually I got his sample set and again, added mine to it and—yes, I would like to have actually collaborated with him properly, but we had no chance. His composing style is totally different from mine, so already from that point of view it would’ve been interesting. However, I’m a little shy to let anyone in while I’m doing my work as well; a lot, and I mean A LOT of swearing and calling ancient Finnish gods are involved! I’m trying out a lot of ideas, then scrapping everything soon after, grabbing a hammer and a dictaphone, running into the garage, whacking a piano sound harp or a plywood crate, then I will come back and process the recording, and continue. Repeat ad nauseum.
“I heard some of Martin’s tracks towards the end and I felt like there really was a connection made in the first place; we had a ‘starter meeting’ where the basic ideas of Control were defined, and we had a talk then. Putting together a soundtrack album felt like we had indeed made a really coherent, balanced entity, like a puzzle done blindfolded, and it sounded like a whole.”
Alanko used art from the game to capture its atmosphere, and had the chance to read the script to get an even better sense of it, allowing for a more thorough and detailed score.
“I used a few still pictures to achieve a certain “space of mind”, so thank you, concept artists, for giving me all of this. I think they did a marvellous job by picturing the brutalist aspects all around the world of Control. The script appeared slightly later, but helped me to enter the world. If written properly, the script helps you to find the ‘voices’ for everything, not only for the characters. But, for me, it’s the pictures that make me go ‘hmm’.
“With written text, a lot depends on the basic mood and even the time of day you’re reading it, so you need to be really careful if you’re building your first imaginary scenes in your head based on the text alone—or that’s how it feels to me. Somebody else probably depends solely on the text alone, and does a perfect job that way. I have something I could refer to as ‘synaesthesia,’ so the pictures (moving or still) really mean a lot to me. It was incredibly embarrassing as a kid, when you realize your friends don’t exactly see (and thus, hear) the world in a similar way. After a few select odd sentences you become really, really cautious about what to say even to close friends of yours.”
After settling on the process, Alanko set about actually capturing the feeling of the game, using specific sounds that evoked the reactions required for each scene. The music and sounds in general had to compliment the visual atmosphere, so Alanko selected sounds that conveyed the environments most effectively in the game.
“The sheer space of the surroundings and the environment was one factor, and it would be incredibly painless to drown everything in a reverb—which I did, too, but there had to be a lot of piercing, screeching, unnerving, almost like warning sounds to wash all over you. Also, I wanted to employ a human or an acoustic source for all of them before actually using the sounds. But if you take out the ‘human element’, the sounds, no matter how well-processed, would sound dead and the air would stop moving. For some organic reason, I found that extreme stretching for acoustic sources felt appropriate, and it sometimes added a haunting tone to most sounds.
“On the other hand, I put in a lot of nasty stuff in the low end and even came across a few tricks to provide a really angry set of low, roaring sounds, to remind the player that there’s something really wrong and really aggressive coming at you..”
Some might think that matching a score to a game would be easy if that game has very obvious themes or a clear narrative, and on a more specific level, if a specific scene has a clear goal, rather than if it’s a more understated, quiet scene. Alanko argues that both are challenging in their own ways, and have their own rewards too, though he does have a personal preference.
“I don’t actually want to discriminate either, both have their own strengths, means and ways, but if I should choose, I’d take the understated one, because you can say so much with just a few notes—which is why I loved the quieter scenes in Alan Wake.”
One specific scene in Control, however, evoked some memories for Alanko, and he used those memories to write the most effective music possible.
“In Control, my favorite moment was when Jesse was conversing with Dylan and he had those gibberish babbling moments, and that reminded me of an elderly lady I met in the woods as a kid. I went there with my friends to play, and through the small bushes of birch and willow and whatnot, there she was, on the ground, in front of a tree stump, her eyes turned around, constantly babbling in ‘languages’.
“That made such a dramatic impact on us that three of my friends disappeared immediately crying and yelling, whereas I stood there, listening and trying to make sense of it. No sense was made. From that moment onwards, she was referred to as ‘the possessed’ or ‘bewitched.’
“So, having something like that in your memory really helps to regain the goosebumps one got at about 7-8 years old. I remember my imagination created a rumbling sound in the background. Some things like that are in our genes, as some people tend to react to camera flashes as if they heard an audible noise riser happen when a surprise flash appears.”
Writing music for video games and the future
Scoring video games and scoring other visual media is similar in a lot of ways, but one may find many unique factors about composing for a video game that Alanko elaborated on just how unique it is.
“Very much so, mostly thanks to its dynamic nature – nothing’s linear and carved into marble, everything can be constantly changing and evolving, just like it would be in real life, too. However, my Control gig resembled a ‘normal’ film scoring gig a lot, as I was assigned to score the themes and the cinematics only, but it made quite a few nods toward the dynamic music middleware; I was prepared to do loops of the tracks, so I had to take that into account. Luckily no looping or stemming had to be made, so my part of the process was probably the easiest in a long time.
“There’s the aspect of being the driver or the passenger, mostly, as in the movies, you’re being driven, whereas in games, it’s you who’s sitting in the driver’s seat. They require slightly different approaches, as the passenger can require more input, whereas with the driver you’d better stay with a slightly less full soundscape—the driver’s senses are filling in, and if you offer a little too full a soundscape to them, they become overloaded and you distract their senses. It’s actually very, very interesting that way.”
As a result, Alanko is very happy to continue working in the medium, even with the odd venture into others too.
“Oh yeah, I do seriously hope [to work on more video games]. I wouldn’t mind a side step towards a more linear media, but I’m perfectly happy with this side! I actually have something in the pipeline, but unfortunately, I’m required to keep my mouth shut until I’m told otherwise…there will be some new album projects too, appearing at some point, but that will probably take some time to finish. I’m not rushing.”
On that note, what is next for Alanko? Quite a lot, but none of which he can talk about. And also, just possibly, some time off.
“What’s next? A game project, another game project, an audio brand renewal project, an album project, a few gigs, a larger concert at some point and I seriously wish I could be able to have a proper vacation at some point. Location suggestions are welcome, by the way.”
Control is out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.