Musical purpose: Olivier Deriviere on interactivity and the art of failure

There aren’t many video game composers more experienced than Olivier Deriviere. Respected for his critically acclaimed work on Remember Me, Alone in the Dark, Obscure, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black...
Olivier

There aren’t many video game composers more experienced than Olivier Deriviere.

Respected for his critically acclaimed work on Remember Me, Alone in the Dark, Obscure, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Freedom Cry – to name but a few – the French composer has spent over 10 years honing his skills in every corner of the industry, driven by a belief that great video games deserve equally great soundtracks. 

Fast forward to 2015 and it’s very much a case of mission accomplished. Still, it’d be naive to think the story ends there, and with every game developer, PR guru, evangelist, and music mogul in the business heading to San Francisco for the phenomenon that is GDC, we couldn’t think of a better place to catch up with the man himself.

Side One: I’m interested to hear about the creative process behind your scores, particularly with Remember Me having such an experimental approach to audio.

Olivier: The thing is, Remember Me is in the middle of an interactive movie and a video game. There’s the story and the way that it’s treated, in this case with cut-scenes, you have an arc for the main character that’s again very story drive, and in-between that you have these arenas where you fight. It’s a brawler at that point.

I scored a game called Alone in the Dark years ago, and that was also very cinematic, and that’s something that a lot of games on the market try and do. My feeling as a gamer is that, because of the technology, people in this industry – myself included – tried to do something that was very close to what a movie is. Before the tech was available it wasn’t about the “cinematic experience”, it was much more about gameplay. That’s what I really like about video games, and I think we need to start focusing on how we can tell stories using gameplay. They could be so different.

If I want to take a recent example I’d use This War of Mine. There’s nothing taken from the movies in terms of treatment. It’s like The Sims during war, and you manage people. There the story is being told not throughout documents, but through your actions. Your actions are basically gameplay choices, and that’s so much stronger. I’m not trying to transfer myself to the main character, I can live viscerally depending on my actions. That’s the best way video games can emancipate from the movies.

Remember Me steam

I think, as a composer, that’s very exciting, because of course Remember Me is close to a movie in terms of writing, but I don’t start scoring a game by asking about emotions or anything like that, I start by asking about gameplay mechanics. I want to know how the music can support the gameplay, and the only person that can answer that are the designers.

When I know what gameplay mechanics I need to support, I then need to know how. Depending on the technology, you can do crazy things. With Remember Me, what people don’t really get is the interactivity of the score. No one noticed it, from inside or outside the industry. To me, that’s much more valuable than anything else about music in this game, and in any game that I do. I value it above all else.

“I try and approach my work with the mindset of everything I do has to have purpose, interactive or not.”

It’s great to know people enjoy it, but I end up thinking the only people who really know my work are the reviewers and the gamers. I think developers and composers need to start thinking more about how music can work in tandem with gameplay mechanics.

When you have a soundtrack such as this there’s a certain degree of control you have over it, you can at the very least say whether or not you accept the finished product. When it comes to interactive music, you’re surrendering that control. It becomes less predictable because of the gameplay experience. Does that mean you’re giving away some of your power as a composer?

That’s a very good question, you know, linear music versus interactive music, but no, you don’t lose control. Not at all, because what happens is, as a gamer, you feel as if every single music cue has a purpose. It’s my job to assign that purpose.

It’s great to do music, it’s great to do interactive scores, but we lack meaning. We lack meaning in lots of fields, I’m not just talking about video games here. It’s much bigger than this. That’s why I try and approach my work with the mindset of everything I do has to have purpose, interactive or not. It’s all controlled.

I think that a true dedicated video game composer has to know how music works in terms of engine, in terms of process, in terms of impression on the gamer, and I think you need to be a gamer to understand those fields.

Did some of the staff members who worked on the Obscure games work on Remember Me?

No, not at all. The team was completely different.

Was the ideology, or the team’s approach completely different as well?

The thing is with me, is that, every time I work with a new studio, they’re all very specific. So, each time I start a new project, I need time to  – and, I don’t really want to use this word –  educate them about the fact that music can be more than just background music or ’emotional’ sounds.

That’s an example Hollywood’s hold over music.

Exactly, exactly, and of course music is linked to emotions. Yes, it’s emotional, but lets be honest about our medium and focus on the function of the music. The function depends on the gameplay mechanics: whether or not you want to warn, reward, or punish the player. All of those are wider functions of the music.

It’s interesting to hear a composer coming at the problem of serving gameplay, so could you give me an example when you were given a gameplay device and you found a way to respond to that?

Sure, so once again, there are several layers, and they’re all about meaning. With Remember Me we would start with the music style, and we had this background that told us in this future world you can digitise memories, and manipulate them. People don’t know this, or believe this, but the electronic you hear is the manipulation of the orchestra. it’s not a synth, it’s the live orchestra being manipulated. That was symbolic to fit with the game.

“If I’m here I’m not here to do something that works. If Im here it’s to risk, and maybe even to fail. Art is about failure.”

We also have themes, character themes, and on the other hand we had gameplay mechanics, such as the fights. Once again, the creative director wanted to support every action the player makes to give them a creative engagement.

Using tools such as Wwise I was able to create a template for my music and try different thing. So, in the game, the more hits you do, the more combos you make. When you succeed in doing a combo, the music grows. Everything depends on your actions. If you don’t do much, the music will be soft, if you do well, the music will become more and more engaging.

It must have been challenging to go into that much depth with the development team.

Of course, but we’re talking about the future. If I’m here I’m not here to do something that works. If Im here it’s to risk, and maybe even to fail. I’m not saying I’m going to succeed, but art is about failure.

We created rules, and now the people from Wwise showcase their tools using Remember Me.

Do you think too many people judge video game music on the albums themselves?

I’ll tell you what, it’s easier. It’s easier to judge music on a CD, or Spotify, than going and playing the actual game. First because the game is challenging, and to get through some levels you need to make an effort. It’s also incredibly long.

You know, a lot of people talk about Journey, which was scored by Austin Wintory of course, but they don’t talk much about the length of the game. It’s only about two to three hours long, so anyone can spend one night playing the game and get the full experience. Journey was beautifully executed, without a doubt, but it’s a shame that more people don’t have the time to invest in games that are longer.

Journey

I remember once there was an awards ceremony, and people were judging music in the game based on the first 10 minutes. My game didn’t actually have any music during the opening 10 minutes, because it just didn’t make sense. It’s not that I’m bothered about the award, it’s just to let you know that it can be incredibly demanding to appreciate the music in full.

That’s why I do this job for the gamers, because, if I’m still here, and if I’m still in work, it’s because some people in this industry are gamers and they know my work. They understand it.

Do you feel that’s it’s a better environment now than it would’ve been 10 years ago, when you couldn’t get feedback through social media channels or communicate with your fans that way? Is it a different kind of career today?

No, you know, as I said before, I’m not famous at all. I haven’t done any hit games and I’m not big name. I’m fine with that. If people tell me they like my music, I’m of course very glad, but the one thing I really care about is knowing that I gave everything I could to every game I worked on.

My job is to do the best I can. After that, even if the game doesn’t become a hit, I don’t have any regrets.

Now with Twitter and Facebook I have the chance to interact with my fans and ask what they liked and what they didn’t. It’s about whether the music helped them or bothered them. I like to talk about the functions of the music. I enjoy having that relationship with players and nothing made me happier than hearing that the music actually motivated players to carry on playing. It’s special.


Thanks to Olivier for his time. To find out more about Olivier, you can check out his official website by clicking right here

Olivier was interviewed at GDC by our good friends at The Ongaku, who you can follow on Twitter using this link. We’d like to extend an enormous thank you to Jerry and the team for their help with this article.