Composing Insomniac’s Darkest Game: Boris Salchow on Resistance 3’s Score

September 6, 2011Written by Sebastian Moss

The resistance needs you. With mankind facing extinction as the Chimera continue to expand across the world, Resistance 3 is easily the bleakest game in the series, a far cry from the cheerful frivolousness of Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank franchise. To aptly convey the abject desperation and despair felt by the game’s cast, Insomniac enlisted composer Boris Salchow, who also wrote the score for Resistance 2. To learn about the game’s music, how it had changed from the previous titles and how user control affects the score, we talked to Boris in an exclusive interview.

Hi Boris, could you tell us about your work on Resistance, and your experience in the industry?

Resistance 3 is my third major video game, not counting several other game projects where I supplied additional music or were developed outside the US. In terms of development time, the amount of music written and with live sessions in London, Resistance 3 is the biggest project so far.

Outside of the world of games, I write music for movies, commercials and TV shows.

Resistance 3 is a reboot of sorts – a new protagonist, a slightly later date – did you decide to ‘reboot’ your score?

Even though very little time has passed since the end of Resistance 2, we are looking at a world in which humans have been decimated to a degree that they do not even have a military organization in place. That changes the overall character of the game away from the military shooter genre, and we highlight much more of the human side of the protagonist himself and the survivors that he will meet throughout the game.

The third game has been described as having a much darker tone, does your score reflect this?

Absolutely. Mankind is almost defeated. In the previous game you were part of a military group that still thought they could beat the enemy and they had trucks and planes and outposts throughout the country. But now all of this is gone. There is no plan any more. But it is also clear that by staying home with your family all of you are going to be eradicated eventually. So you leave your family behind with nothing but a vague idea of what to do. It is not a very hopeful mission.

How does composing for games compare to composing for films and TV shows?

One major difference is that you usually have more time to write the music for videogames. Another big difference is that a game is an interactive medium so in order to be able to react to the gameplay we often have to divide the music into a combination of loops and stingers and at times multi-layered elements. That is very different from a linear media like TV or movies where you always know the exact order and timing.

Because the user has control over a situation in a game – for example they can decide to run away from a foe or attack it – does this cause difficulties when trying to ensure the tempo and tone represent what is happening on screen?

You have to juggle more possibilities in your mind and there are many different ways to approach these situations. I personally enjoy this part a lot and I would not call it difficult, it is more like solving crossword puzzles.

This time, you recorded the score at Abbey Road Studios in London, what difference did this make over the Northwest Sinfonia orchestra for Resistance 2?

Both venues gave us fantastic results that were crucial to how the score sounds and what is right for each game. This time the kind of music we wanted to record and also the sound we had in mind made us gravitate towards London and the historic Abbey Road Studios. And both the players as well as the studio staff really delivered the goods!

Did you endeavor to use instruments that existed, and were commonly used, in the 1950s?

In the game you will hear a lot of source music coming from radios or record players. We used this music to establish the feel for that specific period.

With the score we then decided to keep it rather timeless. I mainly use instruments that did exist back then and are still being used today… orchestra, piano, voices etc. Even the electric guitar we used to create those roaring soundscapes for the big alien machinery is a guitar that existed back then.

The only exceptions are the musical elements that describe the world of the aliens – this of course is asking for sounds outside the traditional palette.

What do you think of gamers who try and replace game music with custom soundtracks?

That’s the great thing about games. YOU are the protagonist. So you should be able to choose what you want to hear on your imaginary iPod while running through a canyon shooting aliens.

But of course that music does not switch in sync with what happens on the screen and in a game like Resistance 3 we are constantly switching gears from heavy fighting to some very emotional moments, to some eerie situations. That is something you cannot do with a custom soundtrack.

Do you think it is important to play games in order to write for them?

Personally I really prefer watching someone else play through the game for me so I can concentrate on the general environment and the emotional background of each scene. But once I have an idea what to do musically, I always imagine that I am actually playing through this myself to see if the music would work because sometimes – especially in action-driven sequences – there is a difference between watching someone fight and actually being the person who is fighting.

But once the game rolls out in it’s final form I love trying my hands myself and experience the game as a player. That is always very gratifying!