This is the second part of our recent interview with Thomas Was Alone and Volume composer, David Housden. You can read part one, where Housden explains how he broke into the industry and wound up working on Thomas Was Alone, right here.
When we left charismatic Volume composer David Housden, we’d just heard the tale of how Thomas Was Alone’s show-stealing soundtrack came to be. Understandably, after the unheralded success of Mike Bithell’s minimalist platformer, everyone involved was riding on a high.
There’s no denying it’s an underdog tale worthy of song, but, just as every cloud has a silver lining, every success story brings with it new challenges.
“I’m not sure I did deal with the success. I think I’m still processing it in some ways. I definitely feel that I achieved too much too quickly. I don’t think I had a very good learning curve as a composer, and I sometimes feel at a disadvantage not having had that steep learning curve.
“Of course, I’m incredibly grateful for been given the opportunities I’ve had, but I do wonder if I needed that gruelling period when the self-doubt sets in, because, as a composer, I’ve really had to force myself to learn new things and monitor my own progress,” muses Housden.
Too much, too soon?
“High-profile projects were thrown on my plate way before I personally felt I was worthy of them, to be honest. Because of that I had piano lessons again, studied music theory, invested in my own office equipment so that I could provide the sort of service people expect. So, it has been difficult in a sense, but how can I possibly complain? It has been amazing.
“Getting nominated for a BAFTA for my first project was beyond surreal. I’m not really articulating myself very well, but I just never in a million years would’ve given myself half a chance of even being considered for something like that. It was quite something, and it’s really nice to be able to say I’ve worked as part of a BAFTA winning team.”
Working on BAFTA winning games is rarely a bad thing, and Housden’s growing fame started to open new doors – the first of which led to an unexpected meeting with TV funnyman, Jonathan Ross.
“That was crazy. Basically, I was at an event that Mike was showcasing Thomas at, and I met a guy called George Backer who was a producer on a secret project. He loved the music for Thomas and asked if I was available,” says Housden.
“We exchanged cards, and he wrote to me a few months later with a music request, asking if I’d be willing to write a few demos.
“I whipped up some demos, sent them off, and then I didn’t hear back from a couple of weeks. When I did hear back, he called me up and asked if I’d come down to Camden for a chat. I remember getting in to London, going to this address in Camden, and walking in and seeing Jonathan Ross sat there. I ended up having a meeting with Jonathan Ross about what music he wanted in his video game. It took me about 5 minutes to stop stammering and actually talk properly. I genuinely couldn’t believe what was happening. It was so surreal.
“He was sat there on his iPad showing me all kinds of music, and his music taste is ridiculous – in the best possible way. He knows everything, and was referencing bands I couldn’t even find on YouTube. It was really weird, but he was a cool guy, and a perfectionist. It was definitely a learning curve working on that game. It was a lot of work to do in a short work of time, but it was a great experience.”
Housden’s work on Ross’ mysterious ‘secret project’ – a.k.a. Catcha Catcha Aliens – was only the first of many gigs you probably haven’t heard of. Following his heart, the composer decided to pursue movie work in his downtime, laying the foundations for what he hopes will one day become a successful career in Hollywood. Of course, it wouldn’t be long until he was back in the company of a certain Mr. Bithell.
“Because I want to get into film industry, I’ve been working on a lot of indie movies and short films. I did my first feature-length last year, which is an animated comedy called The Hit Squad. I’m also working on a horror movie this year,”
“On top of that I do a lot of library music, and I even did a musical as well. That was so much fun. It was something a bit different and off-the-wall. It was called Weird and Wonderful, and it went around the country last year. All of that led me up to Volume, which is obviously the next ‘big’ project of mine to come out.”
Of all the words to describe Volume, ‘big’ is perhaps the most apt. Bithell’s sophomore effort is a bigger game in every way imaginable, and with more money at stake, reputations on the line, and the heavy weight of expectancy resting on the shoulders of the entire team, I couldn’t help but wonder if Housden had any reservations about stepping back into the spotlight.
“I really didn’t. I still love games. I’d like to work on games alongside films for the rest of my life. You just have to be careful what sort of games you work on. There was a real lack of ambition amongst developers for such a long time when the mobile indie scene first emerged. Back then it was all about monetisation and free-to-play. There’d be no focus on narrative or emotional ark – the music would be an afterthought, and that’s what really turned me off the games industry,” states Housden.
“I don’t have an agent, so I still can’t pitch and throw my name in the hate for the big blockbuster titles, but what there is now is an upper echelon of indie developers with ambition, looking to put the focus on narrative.”
Welcome to The Volume
In some ways, to call Volume an ‘indie’ game is to do it a disservice. Thanks to the success of Thomas Was Alone, Volume is a title that can compete with the very best. At a glance, you’d even be forgiven for thinking Volume is in fact, a triple-A effort.
Slick, elegant visuals, big-name voice actors in the form of Danny Wallace, Andy Serkis, and YouTube personality Charlie McDonnell, and live-action trailers all give the impression that Volume is a game backed by a publisher with the deepest of pockets.
The reality couldn’t be any different.
“Mike funded Volume himself, and the only reason he had money to do that is because he already made a game that did very well. I feel like there maybe needs to be a new category in between indie and triple-A to cover things like Volume, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, you know, things that aren’t ‘indie’ in the traditional sense of the word, but, at the same time, don’t have the financial resources of a blockbuster release,” continues Housden.
“I think all of those factors meant I put more pressure on myself than was necessary. To begin with I definitely had second album syndrome. It couldn’t have been more different to my work on Thomas. The situation was completely different. Everything had changed – maybe more for Mike than myself. I didn’t feel pressure from external forces, but I didn’t want to put out something that wasn’t at least equal to my work on Thomas Was Alone.
“It was difficult to find a unique voice for the game. That’s something I hope I’ve succeeded in. It’s such a shame, because people keep likening Volume to the Metal Gear Solid VR missions, which I can understand, but there’s so much more to the game. That’s definitely going to come across when people get their hands on it.
“Musically, I’ve been at pains to avoid anything even remotely Metal Gear Solid sounding, and, you know, trying to write stealth music that doesn’t reference Metal Gear Solid is akin to trying to write pirate music without referencing Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score. How do you do it?
“Stealth as a genre has some very specific tropes that you need to include in order to create a tense atmosphere, so it was a challenge trying stretch those parameters and approach them in an original way, while still conforming to the genre and serving the needs of the game. It was a constant battle all the way through, and it took a lot of trial and error to get to the point it’s at now. Right now though, I do feel we’ve done something unique and create something that has its own identity. That’s really important to me.
“I’m beyond excited for people to play it and hear it.”
In something of a good news ‘double-dip’, fans of Housden’s work can also pick up a copy of the composer’s stunning soundtrack over on iTunes, or, if you don’t have much spare cash at the moment, you can listen to the soundtrack for free on Housden’s official Bandcamp page.