Just the other day I had the privilege of interviewing composer Andrew Prahlow about his work on the Outer Wilds video game that released to great acclaim in 2019. This was the first time I’d ever interviewed a video game composer and I was very excited to talk with him and learn about how the score for this game came together.
Andrew Prahlow’s music focuses on emotive soundscapes with a core of chamber-ensemble minimalism, creating a sense of familiar nostalgia for the listener. He recently scored the captivating music for Mobius Digital / Annapurna Interactive’s video game ‘Outer Wilds’ (2019), which has received numerous Video Game Music of the Year accolades, as well as writing for ‘Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree’ (2019) and ‘Eclipse: Edge of Light’ (2017 Mobile Game of the Year).
He began his career in music as an intern at John Powell’s studio while completing his studies at the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television (SMPTV) Graduate Program at USC. From 2011-2014, he assisted on the music of ‘The Legend of Korra’ for Jeremy Zuckerman and also on ‘Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness’ for Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn (Deru).
How did you get started with being a composer?
I moved to L.A. in 2010 to attend USC’ grad program. My first job after that was being an assistant for Jeremy Zuckerman and also Benjamin Wynn on The Legend of Korra and the Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness shows on Nickelodeon. I worked with them until those shows ended and then I started working on my own. I was composing a lot with my friend Mark Petrie and we did a lot of trailer music, and things really escalated from there over the next five years.
Was this your first video game score? How did you get connected with Outer Wilds?
Yes and no. It was such a strange development cycle with funding that the project really started in 2012 [but didn’t release until 2019]. It was one of the first games I worked on since I had just finished up at USC. My friend Alex [Beachum] brought me onboard with the game. It was really a student prototype that turned into a full-fledged title. In between those times, though, I was working on other games that were shipped and completed before Outer Wilds was finished.
How is scoring a video game different from working on a film or TV series? Do you get to see the game when you record the score to give you an idea of what it will all look like?
There’s a lot of similarities that overlap of course, but I’d say one difference is, with several of the games I’ve worked on, that I’m brought in early on before any real artwork is done. So it’s really just talking about concepts and slowly trying to develop the music. Just like what some film composers do, I’ll write a suite of music beforehand to try and get some of the themes together. I’ll do that for the game at first to try and get some of the overall musical qualities and emotions that we’re looking for. Once we hone in on the sound of the game’s score, I’ll start to take the material from the suite and turn it into loops and figure out ways to make it interactive.
I’m paying more attention the ways music can be re-used, unlike film which is more linear. There will be times where you won’t want to write completely new music, you want it to all tie together so it doesn’t feel abrupt when you reach a new area of the game. In games you want the music to loop in and fade in and out and feel proper. That way you can make it as cinematic as possible.
One thing I focused on to make the music not turn into wallpaper was to create music that would give “clues” to the player. There’s no music playing for most of the game so when the music enters it’s really important.
How long did it take to put the score together? Because it sounds like it took a long time.
It did, it did. About halfway through production, about five years, I took it upon myself to go back and re-record the score. I had developed better recording techniques, figured out how to make more interesting textures and mix it better. I subsequently went back and revamped the score. From there they were still formulating the story and gameplay at the same time, so I would be writing new cues or rearranging old cues to fit how the game was slowly evolving over time. That part to me was very fun, where you’re having things change and sometimes music written for one area of the game turns out to work better in another area entirely.
How did the banjo come to be the center of the Outer Wilds score? It isn’t an instrument one typically thinks of for a story set on an alien planet with lots of space exploration.
Way, way back when Alex [Beachum] was prototyping, the idea of camping in space had always been a fundamental part of the game. Over time, it just became more and more influential on the storyline. The main title of the game was probably the second thing I ever wrote as a demo for this. From there, it really stuck and became the centerpiece of the entire score. We thought it would be cool because it’s sci-fi and I wanted to do something different, to combine this woodsy Americana sound with more sci-fi textures. Combining those took some time to figure out, but it turned out very unique and quirky in some ways, and really heartfelt in other ways.
We also approached it as, the game is difficult enough, I wanted to keep the music relaxing. We wanted to take at least some of the frustration off of the gamer.
Do you have a favorite part of the score? A favorite theme?
I’m really proud of “14.3 Billion Years” because that’s the end credits of the game and the final cue that plays. Also it’s this suite of music going through the Nomai theme, the other music and the Traveler’s tunes, and all of that happening at once. I was also able to bring strings in on that. I’m also really proud of the main theme, that one has really taken off and people have done covers of it or asked me for tips on how to play it. It’s really fun to be a part of the community and help people learn an instrument.
I want to give a big thank you to Andrew Prahlow for taking the time to talk with me about his score for Outer Wilds. The game is currently available for Microsoft Windows, Xbox One and Playstation 4. It will also be available on Steam starting June 18.
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