2019’s sleeper hit Outer Wilds, developed by Mobius Digital was lauded with multiple game of the year awards and praise. Often when explaining the game to someone, I tell them it’s “Like a beautifully crafted Swiss watch, each piece unique on its own, but working in tandem creates something marvelous”.
One of those pieces is the music, and we were lucky enough to sit down with Andrew Prahlow, the BAFTA-nominated Composer for the Outer Wilds. Developing music for a game that is as open-ended as Outer Wilds can be challenging. When asked about this challenge, Prahlow had this to say.
“It ended up being really important to have a core idea of relaxation to preface the main theme. Though the ‘Outer Wilds’ riff shapes the entire score and the main title, gameplay-wise the music starts with Timber Hearth. It gives you a place that feels like home.”
Timber Hearth is currently the most played song off of the Outer Wilds soundtrack. Currently, it sits a little over 2 million streams on Spotify, which is a huge achievement in itself. This was shocking to Prahlow, but he was extremely grateful that fans found solace in his favorite piece.
“I was expecting it to be Travelers or Outer Wilds. The songs that became most popular on the soundtrack were some of my favorites, but I didn't expect Timber Hearth to be the first to hit 2 million. It’s really cool that it turned out this way because the opening riff to Timber Hearth is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written” says Prahlow.
It’s always strange to see which pieces of art fans latch on to, and oftentimes it’s the one you never expect. Timber Hearth’s banjo is easily one of the most recognizable and distinct pieces of music on the soundtrack, so it’s not a surprise that fans would resonate with it in such a powerful way.
The song is designed to be your comfort food when exploring the galaxy. Oftentimes when you’re in the vast reaches of space, it’s hard to feel anything other than isolation, and that’s on purpose.
“Yeah, that was a big part of it, and the overall approach was making sure that music only played during emotionally important segments of gameplay. I didn’t want it to turn into ‘musical wallpaper’ where the score is only chugging along in the background and ends up being an annoyance over time. The easiest way to avoid the ‘wallpaper’ type quality that game music can turn into was treating ‘Outer Wilds’ like a film. In a lot of my favorite film scores, the music isn’t constant. It’ll kick in when you need to help move the story forward, making it a lot more emotionally impactful.”
In a game that has the player looping constantly, restraint on the music like Prahlow points out is key to keeping it feel important and not out of place or annoying. Sometimes the lack of music in a scene is just as powerful as having a song play.
“Looking around and getting stranded, especially if something bad happened and you end up outside of your ship floating through space, the last thing I wanted to do was to have music playing. The absence of music helps create a deep sense of true isolation. When ‘End Times’ finally kicks in, it helps convey a sense of feeling at peace and self-awareness of the inevitable reset.”
The music isn’t only used in Outer Wilds to drive emotional beats home though. It’s also used as a guiding hand to players to tell them “hey pay attention, this is important”. Ambient sounds and small cues in Outer Wilds are crafted to do exactly this.
“Within all the Nomai ruins, there's a system where the piano will kick in every now and then - it helps signify that you're in luck. The initial idea was to help help you notice that you're in a place of importance. If you get a little bit stuck, you realize that maybe you should be exploring the areas with snippets of Nomai music.”
The ambiance is a huge part of the audio design of Outer Wilds, and the way Prahlow created it might not be exactly what players expected.
.“A lot of the ambient parts of the game that people have thought were synths are actually just washed-out guitar with a long pedal chain. Especially with the Quantum music and Dark Bramble. It’s shoegaze and post-rock-influenced guitar tones. A lot of modulation, delay, and reverb”.
Outer Wilds was obviously a very special and challenging project to work on. Making sure to avoid repetitive music, have a core idea for the sound to be able to guide players, and creating something that feels unique to the game were some hurdles. I asked Prahlow what he learned from this project and what he can take with him in his future ideas.
“I think the main thing was trusting my intuition. I feel like a lot of times when I’m going through revisions, the core idea will be from the first or second revision. And that stays true most of the time.” He later continues on to say “The main thing I've learned is to not send over any half-finished ideas - always make sure they're complete, even when you're just starting on concepts. Some of my initial sketches ended up in the game.”
Life after Outer Wilds has been strange with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The live music industry has been essentially non-existent for the past year and a half. We talked a bit about what it’s been like trying to find inspiration during these tough times.
“The inspiration I usually found during pre-covid was going to see live music, hanging out with friends, and travel experiences. Both LA’s music and game development scenes had a lot of events going on too, so it would be an awesome way to connect and hear other people’s stories. During Covid - I’d go for walks or sit on patios for a bit, or ride around on my electric skateboard through the empty streets. When everything was closed, I’d listen to a lot of music or watch old live shows online. Any band that had a livestream I was so grateful for. It was definitely a strange year full of introspection.”
As the world slowly starts to open back up musicians have begun to announce tours and shows again, so of course, I had to find out what’s on Prahlow’s must-see list.
“I already have Angels and Airwaves tickets for November, which I’m really excited about. I'm going to Furnace Fest in September - a lot of emo and hardcore bands will be playing. Taking Back Sunday and Underoath are headlining 2 of the days. Mineral and The Appleseed Cast are two other bands I’m really excited for.”
Prahlow also has a solo record he’s been working on. He hopes to release it this fall and we talked a bit about what it’s like to release your own record as opposed to something a team of people worked on.
“I’ve never released a full-length record under my own name. I’m able to do some really interesting things thematically and texturally that I haven’t fully explored before, but it’s in a very transparent way. It's really scary and puts me in a vulnerable place to say ‘Oh, this is me, this is my music.’ I think it's something that I've been needing to do for quite some time now. I released a single in January called ‘Something To Look For’ and I think it’s a glimpse of where the album is heading.”
Outer Wilds is currently out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and is coming to the Nintendo Switch this summer.