Interview: Creating the post-apocalyptic soundscapes of Mutant Year Zero

Mixtape for the Road to Eden.

2018 was absolutely jam packed with fantastic titles, and so with a release at the tail end of the busiest part of the year, it’s quite likely that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden slipped under the radar for a lot of people. It’s not a game that you should let pass you by.

For those who haven’t yet played it, Road to Eden is a tactical adventure game based on the 80s role-playing game of the same name. In our review, I surmised that “Everything from character design to the way the environment looks and feels is stellar and the game really does pull off the feeling of being in a post-apocalyptic world.”

Considering that Road to Eden isn’t a game with a triple-A budget or the backing of a huge publisher, the quality of the presentation, and the sound design in particular, really surprised me. An adaptive soundtrack perfectly melded with muddy sounds of the environment and the mutants that inhabit it to create a memorable, and often incredibly tense, experience.

I grabbed the chance to speak to one of the leading composers and audio designers for Road to Eden, Robert Lundgren, about his involvement in the game and the process behind the design. Having previously worked with the founder of The Bearded Ladies Consulting, Dave Skarin, on the 2009 game Landit Bandit and with a friendship that has lasted since junior high school, it made perfect sense that the they would work together on the game.

Robert said, “Myself and Dave both come from the small town of Trollhättan, Sweden and have known each other for a long time. TBLC made a game back in 2009 called Landit Bandit, which I also composed the music for. In the fall of 2015, David contacted me and told me about this new game that they were prototyping. He asked if I was interested in sketching on some music for it, and I said yes without hesitation.

“I got involved quite early in the process as the combined composer and audio designer for Mutant Year Zero (MYZ). I have been a part of the team since then, working with and developing the music and audio alongside the work done by everybody else.”

During the earliest stages of the production process, David would discover an integral tool for Road to Eden: Elias Software. Elias enabled Robert to build a soundtrack and score that adapted to player agency, perfectly moving between the stealth and action gameplay in a way that feels natural. The decision to choose this software initially began with a meeting with the fellow Swedish company behind it.

“We decided to meet up with the developers just to see if their engine was something we should consider for the project,” he recalled. “They are really nice guys, and I was instantly amazed by the way the Elias engine handles transitions between separate musical tracks right out of the box. The engine itself does the most critical parts of that job, so I can focus on being creative with the music composition and implementation rather than having to spend loads of time on tweaking transitions.

“Furthermore, the engine is well integrated with Unreal Engine 4 (the dev platform for MYZ) and its Blueprint scripting system. The combination between these tools gives me rather endless possibilities to find solutions on how to best integrate the music into the gameplay. Of course this work always involves a lot of testing back and forth, but with Elias I can leave the more tedious technical parts of it to the engine itself.”

With the engine in place and the design direction in mind, Robert worked on creating a soundtrack that would fit both the apocalyptic tone of the game and the shifting gameplay mechanics. The way the game presents both different styles is perfectly accompanied by a soundtrack that never really feels like it’s switching between the two. Withh full control of the composition, mixing and implementation of the music, and a lot of creative freedom, Robert was able to design the sound around his vision for the project.

“Road to Eden has two main gameplay modes: real-time exploration and turn-based combat,” Robert explained. “As a player you go back and forth between these modes quite a lot. The characteristics of the music change as you do it, so figuring out how to weld these two modes together musically and as seamlessly as possible was a crucial part of the job.

“Another essential part of the work in terms of adaptivity was figuring out what works best in a turn-based situation where the player can actually be idle for a long time while figuring out his/her next move. Having control over all aspects of the sound image in MYZ really enabled me to unify ambient sounds, music, UI and character sounds in a great way.”

The adaptive soundtrack in Road to Eden can create some incredibly cinematic moments with the music ramping up gradually alongside the on-screen action. This dramatic tension is often exacerbated by the game’s difficulty and unpredictability. With a history of working on TV, film and commercial, Robert was able to work extensively on the sound design in Road to Eden and perfect the blend of two different soundscapes.

“When composing for TV/Film there’s usually a timeline with a beginning and an end, with pictures showing the same thing at the same timestamp each time you watch it. The work is mostly limited to telling a linear story through melodies, chords, instrumentation and arrangement in order to accompany and enhance an already existing narrative.

“In games, the music should support the player and enhance the decisions that he or she makes while playing, at the same time as telling a story and immersing the player in a certain mood. Game music should be composed so that it can play and/or loop for a very long time without feeling static or annoying. The implementation of the music in the MYZ gameplay was a task as important as the musical composition itself and the arrangement.”

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Working on an existing property always carries risks, especially when it is a longstanding series with an established fanbase. With players having engaged with the Mutant Year Zero series for some 30 years there was bound to be some pressure on the team to deliver on a universe that so many people had already imagined in their heads.

While Road to Eden certainly does draw on its source material, it still feels like its own experience. One that neither degrades or sullies the original vision of the creator, but one that gives long-time players a chance to experience the universe from a completely different angle.

To create the right sound, Robert dove into the original games to help inspire him: “I knew of the pen-and-paper games beforehand but hadn’t played them, so I started out by studying the general stories of the MYZ universe in order to possibly get some hints on the direction of the music and the sounds. What inspired my decisions the most in the end, though, were actually the graphics made by the ultra-talented artists of our team, and the fact that the game is set in a post-apocalyptic Sweden.

“I’m a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre in general and I have played a fair bit of the Fallout series through the years, so that was another source of inspiration. I love the sonic atmosphere in those games and the music by Inon Zur.”

He continued, “I think it was important to me that Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden wasn’t an RPG, but rather a strategy game – this helped alleviate some of the pressure and distance us from the core material. We were keen to communicate this right from the start with the release of the first trailer and I believe we succeeded quite well in not giving people the wrong expectations. Even though we did distance ourselves in terms of creating something different, It was always a central goal for us to keep the video game faithful to its origins in terms of atmosphere and storytelling, not only to please long-time fans but because we are big fans of the Mutant universe ourselves.”

I was surprised to hear inspiration was also taken from the Mutant Year Zero RPG games in a somewhat unconventional way, as the era it was originally released in playing a big part in how the music was created. The era of neon-coloured clothing, futuristic aesthetics and electro pop was a driving inspiration for the synth-laden soundtrack.

As we saw in the recent Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror, experimental electronic music was also a common listening choice for those in the choose your own adventure game scene, something that Robert discovered in his own research:

“The original MUTANT pen-and-paper game came out in 1984, and I wanted to pay tribute to that heritage by marrying the 80’s synthwave style with more traditional orchestral instrumentation, as well as adding a touch of nordic folk music. The funny thing is, that the more the game developed graphically and storywise during the production, the more I found myself developing the music and instrumentation into a more synth oriented style.

“I also researched what music people who play the pen-and-paper games prefer listening to while they play, which turned out to be a lot of synth based retro-sounding stuff as well. The 80’s is quite present in the graphics of the game, so in the end it felt like a good direction to pursue.”

Even though Road to Eden released during the busy Christmas release window, it was still met with positive praise from critics and fans alike with numerous people praising its use of the source material and its brilliant take on turn-based tactical action genre. Should The Bearded Ladies build on the success of Road to Eden, Robert is already ready and waiting to build another shifting soundscape.

He said, “The good thing about all the trial and error work is that after a while you learn what works best, and what shortcuts to take in order to achieve the results you want. For any future projects, I plan to make good use of all the workflow I came to use in Road to Eden, but I suppose I will continue developing my soundtracks in an even more adaptive fashion. For instance, work even more with rhythm, percussion and tempo variations.”

Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is available for PC and Xbox One, where it’s currently included in Xbox Game Pass.

1 Comment

  1. It is also available on PS4. Know that since I played it and loved it :-)

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