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Building a Fantasy World Through Music: Talking with Composer Ben MacDougall about Godfall (2020)

Recently I had the chance to talk with composer Ben MacDougall about his work on the video game Godfall, which was released for the PS5 in November 2020. Ben MacDougall is a prolific composer for film, TV and video games, who most recently wrote the original fantasy score for Sony PlayStation 5 launch title, Godfall. His rich and diverse portfolio enjoys airtime on prime-time networks and has been featured on high-profile global TV events such as the Olympics and Academy Awards as well as countless franchises, campaigns and AAA studio projects.

Please enjoy our conversation about the Music of Godfall!

How did you get started as a composer for video games?

That depends on how far back you want to go! My first major game project was called Duelyst, which was also a project I worked on with Counterplay Games, but before that I had been writing for linear format projects (advertising, tv, film, trailers etc) for a while.

There isn’t a huge difference, musically speaking, between game music and any other music for media. At the end of the day, it’s your job as the composer to tell a story and help create an even deeper emotional experience for the viewer or player. So I guess you could say it was when I started writing music that told a story.

How did you get connected with Godfall and what did you think of the game’s premise?

It’s hard not to fall in love with a premise as bold and exciting as a brand new, beautiful fantasy land – complete with its own deep lore and history! I already knew the developers from our previous project – which was such a blast to work on that Godfall just flowed onwards from that. Especially from a musical perspective, the opportunity to thematically define a new world is pretty enticing. And did I mention all the colors and light? It’s stunning.

If you’ve played the game or even seen some of the promotional art, then you’ll know what I’m talking about: Aperion looks amazing, and the game was clearly made by really talented artists and programmers who love playing games. Godfall also feels great to play, and a lot of attention has gone into making you as a player feel like you’re actually in the world, rather than just playing a game there.

What was your starting point in putting the music for Godfall together? In other words, how do you decide how an epic game like this sounds? That has to be a daunting task (I’ve seen the launch trailer and the game looks incredible), how do you even decide where to begin?

Well, there’s definitely a poetic answer, and a realistic answer for this one. I am always a fan of coming up with solid themes right at the start, and capturing my initial response to the prompt as authentically as possible. However, when it comes down to it, you write what you’re asked to, when you’re asked to! Luckily, in the case of Godfall, the two went hand-in-hand and the first thing I wrote was the ‘Aperion Theme’, which you can find on the soundtrack as Track 03, called ‘Land of the Valorians’.

From that initial point, for a massive project like Godfall it’s really a question of establishing musical parameters and boundaries. There are different elemental realms in this game, and each of those needed its own sound, so the sensible starting point in planning it out was to define each realm’s sonic identity. I basically created word clouds of adjectives and instruments that I thought would work, based on all the source material I’d seen up to that point. That’s not to say you make a bunch of decisions on day one, and then stick rigidly to them. For me, it’s this framework that allows you to explore outwards ‘with intention’ – as you’re doing it consciously and in the context of a larger plan.

By way of example, the Air Realm ended up being sonically focused around the sounds of a tonal hand-drum, rather than the perhaps more obvious choice of using airy flutes and other wind instruments. There is no way I would have ever thought “Air Realm = Drum” on day one, but within the larger mesh of these loose constraints, the discovery and subsequent decision made sense.

How much time did you have to score Godfall? How did you go about recording with the pandemic going on?

The project has been on the cards for a while – I wrote the first notes for it perhaps two or three years ago at this point. However, late 2019 onwards was ‘go time’.

The pandemic made recording harder for sure – but recording is fairly easy to do ‘socially distant’! For instance, in the sessions I did with soprano, Laurence Servaes, she was in a separate isolated room – along with a rather fancy silent HEPA filter! You can communicate with someone in a recording room really easily, so in that sense not much else changed – aside from the fact that coffee breaks were WAY less fun than usual.

As the score was coming together, did you have any rough game footage to use for inspiration or for the recording process? Or was it more going off storyboards and/or animatics? Or something else entirely? Maybe I’m still conflating the video game process with recording for films, but I keep imagining that at some point a video game composer also has footage to look at in the same way that a film composer does.

A little bit of everything really. Sometimes it was concept art, sometimes play-throughs of different areas of the map. Sometimes its was an entire boss encounter and other times it was just a ton of adjectives or emotional language to describe what was needed!

I’d be tackling different areas of the game that were in different stages of development, so I’d always ask for whatever I could get my hands on and write to that – just by having it on in the background. As game music is a non-linear format, it wasn’t frame-synced or anything (unless it was a cinematic or something that required it), but it was always nice to overlay as much as possible, visually speaking. It makes it really easy to see what does or doesn’t work that way.

Are there over-arching themes in the music? It sounds like the music is connected in more than several places, and I was curious if this was the case.

Yes! There are various themes and motifs that pop up throughout. These include the aforementioned ‘Aperion Theme’, the main ‘Godfall Theme’ and other similarly weighty material – like the different themes for each realm. There are also shorter motifs and sub-themes that pop up a lot – either in their complete forms or in fragments here and there – all in the service of grounding the score to the world and helping to tie everything together.

“The better a score is, the less you hear it” is something that you get told a lot in college. The idea, basically, is that the music exists in the project to assist in telling the story, not to take center stage. The weaving of themes is a useful way to subconsciously guide the audience to a certain conclusion, or give them a sense of where they are, or who someone is, without actually saying it.

There are other little, more subtle touches that I wanted to include too. I clearly don’t want to go revealing everything that’s tucked away in the score, but if you listen to the main ‘Godfall Theme’, (which is effectively Orin’s Theme), you’ll hear that it is very closely related to the theme for his brother, Macros. One is heroic, and one is much darker…. but they share the same DNA. I thought that was a cool thing to do, without being too obvious about it.

Do you have a favorite piece in the soundtrack? Is there one in particular that you hope gamers notice while they’re playing?

Honestly, there is one little (and rather quiet) easter egg tucked away in there that I’m hoping someone finds one day. But that tidbit aside, there is such variety in the score as a whole that there are going to be different moments that resonate differently with different people – especially as everyone has a subtly different experience with the music due to the interactive nature of gaming.

I’ve had messages about bits of brooding Water Realm music, right through to the music in the end-credits, which is a unique take on the main theme. For me though, I’ve always been thrilled with how the track called ‘Song of Aperion’ (Track 28) turned out. The combination of cello and voice – and the purity of the sound still gives me goosebumps.

I want to say thank you again to Ben MacDougall for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Godfall.

Let me know what you think about Godfall and its soundtrack in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Soundtrack Review: Godfall (2020)

Composer Interviews

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This post first appeared on Film Music Central | A Place To Talk About All Things Film Music, please read the originial post: here

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Building a Fantasy World Through Music: Talking with Composer Ben MacDougall about Godfall (2020)

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