Music is an integral part of any great game. The harmonic soundscapes set the mood, drive emotion, and tie all other elements together. Bend Studio’s Days Gone is a sprawling adventure that marries the themes of family, brotherhood, motorcycles, and survival with a post-apocalyptic environment overrun with some of the most horrifying zombie-like creatures you’ve ever seen. Composer Nathan Whitehead’s music was a crucial piece of communicating those themes and helping Days Gone to feel more unique than a lot of other post-apocalyptic zombie survival games.
Whitehead has a storied history of music composition, from working in video game audio departments to composing the soundtracks for multiple films and television shows, including The Purge series and Keanu, We got the opportunity to catch up with Whitehead and ask him a few questions about his soundtrack for Days Gone, which was his first video game credit as primary composer. He told us about past influences, finding the right musical themes for specific moments, and balancing heart with horror while not repeating soundscapes of the past.
PlayStation LifeStyle: Tell me a little bit about your process and how you got started writing music for Days Gone. How closely did you work with Bend Studio to integrate the music with the story, gameplay, and specific moments in the game?
Nathan Whitehead: My process really revolves around immersing myself in the story and world of the game and then doing tons of experimenting in my studio. I generally really enjoy these early days in a project. Initially my goal is to get inside the world of the game to the point that I start to automatically respond to melodies or sounds as I’m exploring ideas. Suddenly, a tune or element will sound like the world to me and then I can build on that. But it requires this preliminary marinating phase of learning to understand the story and the setting. Throughout this process I worked very closely with Keith Leary and Pete Scaturro, my producers at Sony, and also with John Garvin, the Creative Director at Sony Bend Studio. I had a lot of discussions with the Sony team to help me understand the story and some of the nuances of Deacon St. John. We spoke a lot about the story being more than simply surviving but that it’s also this story of hope and what makes us human.
PSLS: Did the ideas come together quickly, or did you find you had to iterate to get things just right?
Whitehead: It was a combination of both, really. The Days Gone theme and the Freakers theme both came together very quickly, at least the core DNA of these ideas. Maybe a year into writing the score I had a discussion with my producers at Sony and we felt that the Freakers needed an element that wasn’t there yet. The missing element ended up being the addition of a simple melody that could work in the dark, grisly Freaker world but could also, when played delicately, help to tell the tragic side of the Freaker story. Ultimately, having the time and space to iterate is a wonderful thing. Sometimes, a piece I wrote earlier might be influenced by a piece a I wrote many months later. Going back and taking a second or third look really helps the score become cohesive, I think. I also find it really helpful to take a step back from a piece of music and give it some space. Lots of solutions can be found that way.
PSLS: In Days Gone, there are so many themes that resonate across the entire game, from horror to heart. How did you capture each of these various themes as unique, while also giving the soundtrack a cohesive feel?
Whitehead: I think what really helped the score feel cohesive was to establish the sound world and instrumentation for the score and then write in that space. This is the basic vocabulary that the score will use. Another crucial ingredient to make things cohesive was melody. I was really excited to get to write a lot of melodies for Days Gone. Bringing these melodies back again and again but in different contexts made a huge contribution to the overall cohesion of the score.
Whitehead: One thing that excited me was how emotional the music needed to be. I believe that was somewhat unique for a post-apocalyptic story and I think it’s something that really makes Days Gone special. We also wanted to be careful about the score sounding too sci-fi. It’s something I discussed numerous times with the Sony team. There is a sci-fi component to the story, but we made a conscious decision with the score to primarily stay in this grounded, gritty, organic space and I loved that. I think it would’ve been easy to immediately go for more sci-fi types of sounds and this was an interesting challenge. I also feel that choice of instrumentation helped the score sound unique relative to other post-apocalyptic works.
PSLS: Are there any unique underpinnings to the soundtrack that people may not notice on a first listen?
Whitehead: One thing people may not notice is that most of the synthetic sounds and textures are actually made from piano and guitar recordings that I processed and edited. I think this helped root the sound of the score in a grittier, earthier place that felt like it matched the world of Days Gone.
PSLS: The music helps to lend a true horror feel to certain moments in the game, like coming upon a cave full of freakers. What did you pull from your history with the genre in order to highlight these moments in particular?
Whitehead: The biggest concept I relied on from my past horror work is that I have to feel something when I’m writing it. I have to keep trying different sounds and ideas until I get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. That’s the only way I’ve figured out to know if the music might be doing its job. Did I feel anxiety when I was writing it? I really wanted the sound of the Freakers to provoke fear and anxiety in the player. The amazing team at Bend Studio created some truly terrifying moments and the music had to convey that emotionally. I think honestly asking how the music is making me feel is the only way I’ve found to know if I’m on the right track.
PSLS: On the other side of the horror, there’s a lot of heart and emotion. Friendships and bonds, and this being a place where these people lived before the outbreak. What musical cues helped connect characters not only to each other, but also to the environment and things that were important to them, like Deacon’s motorcycle?
Whitehead: I tried a couple of different approaches in an effort to emphasize the importance of relationships and to also connect the music to the setting of biker culture in the Pacific Northwest. I used a lot of guitars in the score and that is partially because that palette felt connected to Deacon, this bounty hunter and motorcycle club member. I also felt this instrumentation made sense in the beautiful Pacific Northwest setting. I imagined some of the acoustic guitar-based pieces could almost be something survivors might sit around and play. In addition to instrumentation, I strove for the music to be more emotional and introspective than one might expect for a post-apocalyptic game with lots of motorcycles and Freakers. My hope is that these qualities will help shift the focus to Deacon’s relationships and the bigger questions of what motivates him.
PSLS: How much of your work was general soundtrack themes for gameplay, and how much was made to score specific moments within the game? Did you get a heads up on any narrative beats in order to score them specifically?
Whitehead: The main themes of the score were critical and that’s where I started. It was important to essentially have the thematic pillars of the whole score in place before venturing too far into scoring specific moments. I spent months in the beginning of the project working on themes. I did get very thorough story outlines, complete with artwork and rough animations, to help with understanding and following narrative beats. It was important for me to really understand the story every step of the way and this was something that John Garvin really emphasized.
PSLS: This is your first video game as the primary composer, but you have a history of doing audio work with many other games back around 2010. What attracted you back to working with video games after nearly a decade of mostly working with film?
Whitehead: I’ve always loved games and always wanted to write more video game music. Video game music actually played a big part in me deciding to become a composer! It’s often surprising where projects will lead, and I try to be open to all kinds of opportunities. I never dreamed that I would end up scoring three Purge films but that’s what happened and that led to a string of film work. I’m very grateful for that and it was actually some of my music from The Purge: Anarchy that led to me getting in touch with Sony Bend Studio and scoring Days Gone.
PSLS: What are the biggest differences for you in working with video game audio as opposed to film and television audio?
Whitehead: The two biggest differences for me are schedule and interactivity. I worked on the Days Gone score for almost three years! I rarely work on a movie longer than three or four months and TV work can have brutally short deadlines. The other big difference is the interactive nature of games. I have no idea what the player will do at a given moment and the music has to somehow respond to that. I had to write the music in different ways and work closely with the Sony team to get all the interactivity working well. It was an interesting puzzle to solve but it’s so satisfying when it works well in the game. This is something that is really exciting about scoring games. I think the advancements in interactive music are creating really exciting storytelling opportunities that can only exist in a game context.
PSLS: Can we expect to see your name in more video game credits in the future?
Whitehead: Absolutely! Days Gone was a fantastic experience and I’m excited to spend more time in the video game world going forward.
A big thank you to Nathan Whitehead for taking the time to answer our questions. You can pick up Days Gone on sale for less than $40 right now, and can listen to Nathan’s soundtrack on Spotify (or purchase it on Amazon).
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