Well before the Imperial Star Destroyer shuddered over the cinema screen, shaking auditoriums across the world to their foundations in 1977, we have enjoyed a fascination with the deepest reaches of outer space.
Indeed, with their ‘small steps’ on the moon eight years before George Lucas’ sci-fi masterpiece, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had already made the entire notion of other galaxies seem far less far, far away – and from that moment Planet Earth had been well and truly bitten by the conceptual bug from outer space.
Over the intervening decades, shows like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, films such as Alien, Sunshine, Armageddon and Solaris, and even rock and pop offerings from Bowie to Mike Oldfield have attempted to bring a semblance of the unforgiving power of space, and the infinite hopelessness of interstellar dickery to box offices, armchairs and iPods everywhere. Bringing things bang up to date, ‘Gravity’ (recently described by sci-fi sensei James Cameron as ‘the greatest space film ever’), has ushered our fascination with space to new levels, garnering much critical acclaim and public admiration.
Every genre has attempted to capture that unknowable feeling of being adrift in deep space, with videogames no exception. One such title is Firebrand’s newly-released Solar Flux, which tells the tale of one ship’s final voyage to save unseen, unheard civilizations through uncharted deep space. In this epic interplanetary adventure you find a universe dying, stars choking on the final reserves of hydrogen as they continue their inexorable life journey to supernova, sucking everything around them into the void.
With such a weight of expectation – not to mention such a wealth of precedent material – creating the ideal sounds with which to exemplify humanity’s enduring hope and soul against the backdrop of a soulless, hopeless vacuum could be fairly described as ‘no small task’.
Certainly, here at The Audio Grill, making the right kind of audio for Solar Flux – audio that would enhance the gameplay without trivialising the philosophical and stoic atmosphere generated by the art direction and scenario – was our overarching goal.
So before we committed even a note to sequencer, we needed to immerse ourselves in the environment. We sat and played the game. We talked to the designer about how they wanted the player to feel while they were in their world. We discussed with the artists how they felt their hulking multi-million tonne exploration vessels sounded to them. Were they ageing, creaking monolithic hulks, or shiny, new starships built of technology of which our 21st century minds could have no comprehension? Exploring each of these details was of pivotal importance, as everything the game’s designers had conceived would have an intrinsic bearing on how we would go about using sound and music to bring their artwork and concept to life.
Our first (space)port of call was to be the main musical theme, which for Solar Flux started to crystallise only after we’d spent many hours living in the game’s space; feeling how the controls worked, venturing out into the unknown – handling the spacecraft, manoeuvring between planetary orbits, immersing ourselves in the prevailing atmosphere. It had to be sparse; delicate yet robust, all-knowing yet introspective. The sound needed to be simple yet infinite; sterile and hopeless, yet inspirational and full of promise. Our music needed to combine mankind’s spirit of adventure, mechanical prowess, an indefatigable courage and endeavour, together with a sense of the insignificance such venerable qualities pale to when set against the enormity, violence and majesty of Mother Nature’s vast, irresistible interstellar force.
After a few days, our title theme began to take shape.
Moving on through the game we decided that each sector of space needed its own background ambience rather than a set musical theme, as we felt that to have a repeating melody scoring each of the levels would detract from the atmosphere and experience.
To deepen the psychological effect of the ambience and heighten the sensation of coruscating expansiveness yet further we opted to employ a technique called ‘binaural beats’. Combining slightly out of sync sounds at defined frequencies, it is possible to induce feelings of anxiety and discomfort, as well as deep relaxation or meditative states – with the point being to elicit certainly some form of auditory and consequently emotional response. In layman’s terms we describe this as layers of hand-crafted brain fuckery fused with deep mechanical noises and soft synth pads, with the aim of giving each area of deep space its own distinct, psychoactive, ethereal, almost supernatural sound track.
Such hand-crafted fuckery seems to have ‘hit the right notes,’ so to speak, with a number of critics describing the audio for Solar Flux in glowing terms, calling it ‘profound and meditative,’ ‘deeply atmospheric,’ ‘almost philosophical’. Which is pretty much the vibe we were aiming for.
Give it a whirl; the TIGA-nominated Solar Flux is out now for PC, iOS and Android, with a special pocket edition also available from the Solar Flux store.
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Follow Solar Flux on Twitter @solarfluxgame
http://www.eso.org/public/archives/images/screen/eso0644a.jpg Asymmetric Ashes (artist’s impression) via Wikimedia Commons