Thanks to a (relatively) budget-friendly price point and the considerable heft of Sony’s backing, PlayStation VR stands poised to become the dominant platform for virtual reality gaming over the next couple of years. Still, having released six months ago, PS VR hasn’t really yet had its killer app, the game that convinces ardent VR skeptics to ditch their flatscreens and don a silly visor.
With a bit of luck, Farpoint might just be that killer app.
The debut title from San Francisco studio Impulse Gear, Farpoint is a slick sci-fi shooter (because there aren’t enough of those around) that aims to make the most of Sony’s VR headset. Speaking of, they’re betting big on the game: when it comes out on May 16, it’ll launch alongside the official Aim controller for PS VR – a glorified light gun with one of Sony’s trademark strange glowy orbs on the end.
We got the chance to have a little chat with Stephen Cox, of Unified Sounds, the man responsible for bringing Farpoint‘s virtual soundscape to life, about the particular challenges of composing for VR, how sound design impacts immersion, and why Farpoint is basically a rollercoaster.
Outermode: What sort of sound are you aiming for with Farpoint?
Stephen Cox: Staying away from a cliche sci-fi score was very important to Impulse Gear as well as Sony. Although there is a hint of that from time to time, matching the eerie, wondrous aesthetic of the game was first and foremost. This alien planet is stark, barren, mysterious, also very beautiful. We were always aiming for well crafted melodies and themes that would stand the test of time while supporting the emotional content, paired with unique tones and atmosphere that could equally stand on their own. In the end it’s whatever serves the project best and lights up the audience/player.
OM: Did you look to any other specific games or VR projects for inspiration or as reference points?
SC: When the scoring for Farpoint started, there wasn’t much in the way of VR games on the market yet. We did receive references from Sony in the demo phase, however, they were all sci-fi film scores. These references definitely helped us hone in on the tone and vibe initially. In terms of references for gameplay music, the score from The Last of Us by Gustavo Santaolalla was awesome inspiration. I was very impressed with his use of well-crafted textures and creepy, musical sound-designed elements.
“We tried to keep the score very wide and reverberant as if it was a part of the background ambience.”
OM: Does composing for VR require a different approach to other mediums? Either in terms of tech like stereoscopic 3D sound, or purely from a creative perspective?
SC: Very much so. 3D sound in the VR world was always something we were conscious of and experimenting with during composition, mixing and implementation. We aimed to make the musical drones, sound design, and instrumentation as multi-layered as possible, which gave us a lot of interesting panning and mix placement opportunities.
Creatively, we tried to keep the score very wide and reverberant as if it was a part of the background ambience, which it almost is. The use of reverb and panning is so much more important in VR than it is in any other medium. I worked closely with Sony Interactive’s music team under Senior Music Manager Jonathan Mayer (along with music engineer/implementer Anthony Caruso and Rob Goodson) to crack the code there. Those guys did amazing work and a lot of testing to find the right balance.
OM: This is the first game you’ve composed for as well, right? Did that throw up any other complications beyond the VR stuff?
SC: This is my first real game score indeed. I think the biggest difference between this and a typical film or TV score is the fact that you aren’t working to a locked picture guiding you every step of the way. In the beginning, we concentrated on 4-5 “tent pole” pieces or themes that encompass the overarching emotional content of the game. Then variations will be constructed (or deconstructed) from those main themes to fill in various levels and stages of the games. It’s a similar process in film, but in games it’s much less linear when you are not scoring to a locked picture from start to finish.
Deliverables are definitely trickier in a game than other mediums. Handing off organized sessions and countless files to give the engineers as much flexibility as possible (while still retaining your sonic vision) requires a certain degree of technical skill. You always have to think about the guy down the production pipeline, making sure you’re not making more work for him or her.
“The music is so intense and bombastic that it heightens the anxiety more than you would expect in a feature film, almost like a theme park ride.”
OM: How important is sound to player immersion in VR?
SC: I think it’s everything, but of course I’m biased. There seems to be two schools of thought in terms of sound and music within VR: the first is Full Immersion, where the space and reality is represented as accurately as possible using sound effects only. And if there is music, it is source music, meaning it is coming from within the world itself.
The other approach treats audio and music closer to a cinematic experience or even hyper-cinematic – where the music is so intense and bombastic that it heightens the anxiety more than you would expect in a feature film, almost like a theme park ride. The music in Farpoint does a great job driving the gameplay without distracting, while the cinematics feel like you are a participant rather than a casual viewer.
OM: Conversely, is there a risk that music could take players out of immersion, by reminding them they’re in a game, not a ‘real’ world?
SC: Absolutely. We were always walking that fine line. When we realized that VR experiences (including Farpoint) are closer to a theme park ride than a standard game, we found our stride and the music cues started clicking into place.
OM: Headphones still aren’t always included with VR headsets, and when they are they often aren’t great. Is the hardware side of the VR industry underestimating the importance of audio?
SC: I do agree with this to an extent, but headphones and hardware can only take you so far. The experience should be transcend the equipment, just like your favorite song playing back on crappy iPhone speakers will still make you bob your head. The 3D audio codec, coding and implementation of the sound in VR is far more important. That being said, there is a ton of growth potential for headphone manufacturers. Can’t wait to see what they come up with.
OM: Do you have any plans to compose for any more VR or gaming projects?
SC: Nothing is “officially” lined up at the moment, but I welcome the opportunity to score for any game, VR or otherwise. I love the technical aspects of game scoring and there’s so much room for creativity! I feel like we were world-building alongside the amazing minds at Impulse Gear, Sony and everyone else involved. There’s nothing like it.
As of right now we’re working hard on the Farpoint soundtrack, which should launch around the same time as the game. I can’t wait for the world to hear it!