“Mine is probably the clichéd story of growing up in a musical house,” begins David Housden, the BAFTA-nominated composer responsible for Thomas Was Alone’s immense score.
It’s a humble start to our interview, because Housden’s story? Well, it’s anything but a cliché. Born into a family that lives and breathes music, it might seem like the soundsmith was always destined to become a successful video game composer. Turning back the clock, however, reveals that Housden wasn’t always so keen on his musically charged upbringing.
“My dad played violin, piano, and guitar, and sang in various choirs. There were a plethora of random instruments scattered around the house at any one time. I’d always wanted to play music. I remember wanting to play the drums when I was three years old. That didn’t go down too well, as you can imagine.
“I was forcibly given piano lessons around the age of seven. I did that for a couple of years but I absolutely hated it, which was always going to happen given that it was something my parents were making me do. I dragged my heels and complained every single day, and eventually they let me stop after a couple of years.
“There was a bit of a lull because I got really into football, and all I wanted to do was play that. It was only really when I got to high school that I rekindled my love of music. I became obsessed with rock music, took drum lessons for a couple of years, then finally moved on to guitar. I played guitar from the age of 14 to about 20, which took me through to uni. It was then that I got into composing.”
One small step
Like most in the business, Housden never really considered that “video game composer” was a job title that actually existed. Video game music, though, began embedding itself in the composer’s psyche from an early age, sowing the seeds for a career that he himself still struggles to comprehend.
“Video game composition wasn’t a career that I was aware existed, if I’m honest. My first console was a MegaDrive, so I got into gaming relatively late on. I remember playing Golden Axe and absolutely loving the music. It’d stay in my head for days and days. Music has always appealed to me, so as soon as I started playing video games the music in those naturally stood out,” continues Housden.
“The first time I was really blown away by music in games was probably when I played through Final Fantasy VIII, which, I know, is the one everyone name-drops.
“It really was astonishing though. It had hours and hours of music, but none of it felt like filler. Each location, character, and battle had its own theme. It felt like there was a narrative in the score, and the way Nobuo Uematsu was able to manipulate my emotions with such ease opened my eyes to how powerful video game music could be.
Despite his obvious adoration for the medium, Housden never truly felt that his future lied in gaming. Instead, he pined after a career in the film industry, specifically, as a script-writer. No, we didn’t see that one coming either.
Fortunately for fans of his work, and perhaps for Mr. Bithell himself, it was a dream that died after one ill-fated semester.
“It’s funny, because I actually wanted to be a video games writer for such a long time, and I actually spent my first term at university studying creative writing and film. That didn’t work out, so I went back to music,” recalls Housden.
“I actually really, really wanted to work in film. I still do, to be honest. That’s the ultimate dream, but I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I felt like I needed to be classically trained, to know people in the industry, so for a myriad of reasons I never really believed I’d be able to do it straight after uni.
“While I was studying, indie games and mobile games were starting to come into their own. They were a way in, and even though I didn’t think I had a chance of becoming a film composer, I felt there was a possibility I could be a game composer. And lo and behold, that’s precisely what happened!”
Once he finally decided to make use of his musical talents, Housden still couldn’t settle on a definitive career choice. Still, after starting a punk-pop band called A Fate Untold – who weren’t half bad – he figured that becoming a studio engineer would help his supergroup in the making show their true potential.
“I’ll hold my hands up: I started uni to learn how to be a studio engineer because I was in a band at the time. We were a punk-pop band called A Fate Untold, and we had an awful video out that still comes back to haunt me. I was fed up of paying people to record us, which is why I went to uni to become an engineer. But, from my second year onwards I started gearing all of my modules, and every single piece of work experience, towards becoming a video game composer.
“In a sense, it wasn’t my initial intention to become a game composer, but once I realised it was possible I became very focused on doing that.
“I worked on my first game while I was at university. One of my teachers at the time managed to wrangle me a work placement at a developer based in Ipswich who were making an MMO for iOS. At the time it was the first of its kind, and for someone reason they decided to let a student work on it for free.
“We all had to write a pitch and a covering letter explaining why we’d be the ideal candidate, and I think only three people actually bothered to do it. That completely baffled me because I went away and spent all week working on my application, and, in the end, I got it. The fact that I was only one of three people to actually apply did sour the victory though.
“My teacher actually took the reigns on that one, though. I think he realised that the game was a lot larger than he’d originally thought, so he stepped in to oversee things and it ended up being the majority of his music. I think I just have an additional music credit on that, but the game did go on to sell over 200,000 copies, so it wasn’t a bad thing.”
With some valuable experience under his belt, a BA in Music Production, and a 1st in Composition, it was time to enter the real world. Unfortunately for Housden, that meant leaving his punk-rock dreams behind and giving up on A Fate Untold. Time constraints and a need for a stable income meant he simply couldn’t give it the attention it deserved.
The guitar man
“When I graduated I decided that I couldn’t really justify putting in the same amount of time and energy into the band. I had to start thinking about how I was going to make money full-time, but we were playing a gig once with another band, and I got talking to their guitarist who actually turned out to be a programmer at Jagex,” says Housden.
“I asked if there’d be any chance of getting some work experience, and he promised to see what he could do. I didn’t hear from him for a while, but he did contact me after I’d graduated explaining he’d started a new job at a company called Bossa. He said one of their lead designers was working on a hobby project, and that it’d be great exposure.
“He put me in touch with this guy, who emailed me saying he’d listened to some of my portfolio pieces, which were admittedly quite shit, and that there was one piece he really loved.He sent me some reference tracks to show me what he liked, which were.. not to my taste, shall we say! It was stuff like The Glitch Mob – heavy electronic music that didn’t really interest me at all.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to represent that style of music, so I wrote a piano track that I presented as being really organic and emotional, and sort of included some electronic and synth sounds on top of that for good measure. I sent it off, and he absolutely loved it. That was the theme tune to Thomas Was Alone. This little demo that I knocked up in a couple of days.”
After sorting out their creative differences, “that guy”- who turned out to be some so-and-so called Mike Bithell – and Housden began collaborating on a teeny tiny project called Thomas Was Alone. You probably haven’t heard of it.
“Honestly. we had no idea this little game was going to do anything. Mike was no-one, as far as the general public were concerned. He was working on a normal salary, at a random start-up. I was a uni graduate working on my first real project for exposure. Initially it was a fun hobby for me, but nothing more. I think because there was no pressure whatsoever on us both, and because I wasn’t receiving an upfront fee for it anyway – so he could get what he was given and be grateful, frankly! – we had the freedom to put everything into it,” laughs Housden.
“Still, we both poured our heart and soul into the game. It was an opportunity for us to show what we could do, and I personally wanted it to be a good advert for my skills and services. I tried to go above and beyond, and I think it was around at about three or four months from release that Danny Wallace got involved, and that’s when the whole thing seemed to blow up.
“We put a trailer out, expecting it to get a couple of thousand hits, and it got 40,000 in just a few weeks. Everyone commenting seemed to love the music, and that was the first time that I realised it might actually do well. Even after that, it wasn’t really until it went on Steam that the game started to pick up speed.
“Then, the rest – well, you know the rest.”
Over 1 million copies sold, 3 BAFTA nominations, 1 BAFTA win, and a release on every console known to man: yes, it’d be fair to say we’re all quite familiar with the tale of Thomas Was Alone. That, though, isn’t the end of the story. In fact, it’s only where the next chapter begins.
Indeed, with Bithell’s Metal Gear Solid inspired follow-up to Thomas Was Alone, Volume, now out worldwide, we can’t wait to tell the next part of Housden’s story. But, because we’re an enormous tease – and also because we couldn’t imagine you’d want to read a 4000 word article – we’ll only be posting the second instalment of this here interview on Friday at 10 am.