The music of Returnal: an interview with composer Bobby Krlic

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The music of Returnal: an interview with composer Bobby Krlic

Get your first taste of the game’s soundtrack as well as insights into its composer’s creative process.

We’re only a few weeks away from Returnal’s release. But today you can get a taste of what awaits on Atropos in the form of the game’s first track, named – aptly enough, considering the circumstances that bring Selene to the alien planet – Crash. It as well as the rest of the soundtrack is the creation of Bobby Krlic. The British musician has a multitude of high-profile credits in his career to date. Alongside performing under stage name The Haxan Cloak, Krlic also composed the soundtrack of 2019 cinematic horror Midsommar.  

In Returnal, Krlic renders a bristling, malevolent soundscape that pairs perfectly with the weaponized planet and the tenacious ASTRA scout who finds herself trapped in the dark heart of a cosmic mystery. On April 30, the Returnal album will be released alongside the game as part of the Digital Deluxe Edition, and will come to streaming platforms on May 7. But rather than simply replicating the game’s score, the album features a unique set of mixes created especially for the format by Krlic. 

You can listen to The Crash below (and from various other sources here), and afterwards read our interview with the composer as he details the creative process behind that track and the rest of the game’s music. If you prefer your interviews fed straight into your ears, the chat will also appear in the latest PlayStation Podcast, going live later today.

When did you come on board the project?

To the best of my memory, I think Sony reached out to me in around July 2019. I started writing demos as soon as August, September, after those initial conversations. 

What was the elevator pitch of what this game would be, or the soundscape they were looking for?

There was a deck that was sent. You know; a brief description of the narrative, and then some renderings of characters, levels and that kind of thing. We didn’t get deep into the weeds. It was more giving an overview and seeing if there was, you know, some common interests there.

Were those demos in the right ballpark, and you refined from there? 

Yeah. We had a good two months of back and forth. Just sending things and discussing those and extrapolating elements from them, quickly finding which things didn’t [and which did] from both of us, it was about, you know, trying to carve out space, trying to do a kind of sci-fi horror that hopefully hasn’t really been done before. 

Horror is something that you have experience in, but creating a wholly unique alien world? What’s your starting point for creating this whole new soundscape?

I’ll try and do the same thing with, with most scoring projects. Gather as many materials as I can, ask for as much information as people are willing to give me and then, you know, just kind of soak myself in that. Just create without thinking about anything too specific, really, just really try and get in the zone of what the world is. Try and place myself there if I can, and then you know, just press record and play everything for a long time until things seem to be conjuring up the same feeling that I’m getting from the materials. 

The music of Returnal: an interview with composer Bobby Krlic

Do you build those themes around the world itself? I mean, is it hooked around characters, creatures? Or is it more around the moment to moment action? 

There’s a certain way which the music is constructed within the game. There’s a main bed or a theme for each environment, and then [we] extrapolate out of different combat music, or music for different shifts in that environment, when you’re in different places. It gets bigger or smaller. But I think, for me, it’s always important to first and foremost think in a macro way, you know, to always remember the world that we’re in, and then come into it in a micro way, focus individually for each biome. 

With scoring film, you’ve set moments within every scene. You know what the beats are, what the rhythm is, from start to finish. But within a game, that can change depending on what the player is doing. So what challenges does that give you in creating the score?

In some ways, it’s a challenge. But I think in other ways I found that something I really loved leaning into, in the sense that you really just try to tap into an emotion and to articulate that emotion in the best possible way. You can elongate it, you can suspend it because the player has the autonomy to, to do that they could, they could live in that moment for way longer than you’ve ever imagined. So it’s about like, Okay, how do I grab that? And how do I kind of freeze it? But how do I also kind of keep it undulating and oscillating, moving and engaging? So yeah,the thing really is tapping into what the key emotion is, going in with a magnifying glass and figuring out how to keep it moving and not have it be still, which I found really, really awesome. 

What are those key emotions for you, both in the soundtrack and in the game?

This is really about one person’s determination to get to the bottom of this – I don’t want to give too much away – this mystery that’s surrounding her. There’s so many different things to speak to. There’s determination. There’s sadness, confusion. An ever lingering threat and horror that never really subsides through the game. It’s figuring out how to then have all these things complement each other and theoretically have them be a bit like a liquid jigsaw; everything tessellating together but also keep moving along.

While it is a fast paced shooter the music is never really empowering. It still continues that theme of ever-threatening, lingering dread. Would you think that’s a fair assessment?

Yeah, I think it’s fair. It’s all about Selene’s character. She’s clearly exceptionally strong, emotionally and physically. She doesn’t particularly need much empowerment through the music. I mean, her empowerment comes from her actions, her narrative. The fact is, she’s not going to stop until she gets these answers that she needs. So I felt it more important to accent the threat that surrounds her. In some ways, yes, it’s terrifying, but in some ways that also magnifies that strength as well. This planet does not give up and she doesn’t give up. 

The music of Returnal: an interview with composer Bobby Krlic

Did you create a theme for Selene?

Yeah. So I don’t want to say too much about this, because it’s… it would be a huge spoiler. I will say that there is something that happens at the end of the game, and is a particular harmonic progression there. That was the main thing that we focused on, really when we first started making the music for it. And that, in some way, shape or form is present through every other piece of music that’s in the game. And it should be a kind of eureka moment for the end. 

You mentioned earlier on about getting a baseline for this world. Do you experiment and play around with the same instruments for every project? Are you testing new techniques or new instruments?

There’s a few staple things, but with each project I try and always have something new, something different to play around with. With this one, I ended up building a pretty big, custom modular synth rack. I put this all together just for the game. And then, working with some software developers, we worked on some custom samplers so I would be making my own sounds, then also putting them in custom software, with custom effects and plugins and stuff. So yeah, it’s really kind of, it’s really bespoke. 

Did you have “build huge synth rack” on the wishlist coming into this project? 

It’s good to find an excuse [laughs]. It may have been a quarter of that size to begin with. It’s been really exciting, you know, to use things in a way that they’re probably not supposed to be used. And, you know, I think we’ve made some really, really cool sounds that I haven’t heard in video games before.

But that’s what interests you creatively, right?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, definitely. You often wonder why you pick the career path that you pick. And I think, you know, one of the exciting things about doing this is to have a clear voice and an ongoing musical conversation.

And this project, while it’s uniquely you still, it’s very unique in itself? 

Yeah. And that was really, really important to me. You know, it’s always important with everything I do, but for this specifically as well. I want this to hopefully be surprising and engaging for people.

The music of Returnal: an interview with composer Bobby Krlic

I need to talk about the album. There will be an album release, but it’s not just the tracks from the game itself, it’s your own – is interpretation too strong a word? How about you explain it, rather than me trying to.

I’m fairly particular about the way that I deal with soundtrack releases for anything. And with this one, there was so much music that was written. For me, when I’m going to release something, my focus is always on making the most engaging listen possible. 

When we’re dealing with something that’s a soundtrack, I want to ensure that whatever narrative is in the source material comes through in the soundtrack. There’s so much narrative material to draw from in the game. There’s certain themes I wanted to approach again. For me to pick the pieces of music that signify this journey that Selene is going on, and then use pieces of audio from the game. I want people to listen to the soundtrack, to not necessarily even have to play the game to get the same experience: the mystery, the journey, the payoff. It was taking as many elements as I could and weaving them together in a different way to how they appear in the game to make it as – hopefully – equally an engaging sonic experience.

The Crash is the lead track that’s being released ahead of the full album. Can you touch upon the creative process behind that? It’s not one of the most subdued tracks, but definitely not as intense as some of the other ones. 

For me, it felt like it really sums up the atmosphere of the game. You know, it sums up the narrative, it sums up the characters of Selene and the planet pretty succinctly. It also uses the breadth tonally of everything involved in Returnal: this custom granular processing, the strings, woodwinds, drum machines, distortions… everything that’s present in Returnal is somewhere to be found in that track. So it felt like a no brainer for me that would be kind of a lead – in inverted commas – single. 

You’ve released albums, done music collaborations. Was working on video game soundtracks something you’d wanted to work on? 

Yeah. I’ve always been a fan of video games and I think particularly video game music. I guess the first instance of that would have been when Quake came out. And then you know, realising that you could put the CD into the player and you get the soundtrack that Trent Reznor did. I loved Nine Inch Nails at the time. That soundtrack felt insane to me. Like, I still don’t think anybody’s made a video game soundtrack like that. That felt really exciting to me, you know, and it still does. I think this is one of the most exciting mediums right now.

Looking back on Returnal, how do you feel it stands next to the rest of your work?

That’s an interesting question. It’s funny, I’m not particularly a retrospective kind of person. It’s not often actually that I go back and listen to things. I’ve actually gone back and listened to [this soundtrack] purely in a narcissistic way.. And I think, you know, it’s music that I’ve been wanting to make for a really long time. It’s music that I haven’t found an application for in other schools: what I’ve done is music that I haven’t made purely for myself. And building things, custom synths, using a theme, then breaking that theme down to its DNA and reassembling it… there’s so many musical elements to this that I’ve just found really stimulating, I think, yeah, it made something that – for me – sounds really fresh to my ears, in terms of my catalogue. And you know, it’s kept me interested and excited and engaged the whole way along, which is great. So that’s all you can really hope for when you take on a project.

The music of Returnal: an interview with composer Bobby Krlic

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