It’s hard to imagine a video game having as much mystery and hype built around it as DEATH STRANDING did upon its release in November. For a title that had been promoted since the summer of 2016, audiences knew surprisingly little about it other than that it starred a baby-carrying Norman Reedus surrounded by an A-list cast including Mads Mikkelsen and Guillermo del Toro (or at least his likeness). Add in the fact that it was legendary video game director Hideo Kojima’s (Metal Gear Solid) first title since splitting with Konami to launch KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS as an independent studio, and gamers were dying to know anything they could about the release.
Approximately eight months after its release, the Game of the Year nominee and winner of several awards almost seems too prophetic for comfort. Without spoiling it, the game centers around a lone courier saving the world by delivering packages from one citizen to another after everyone has socially distanced themselves by hiding in underground bunkers to protect themselves from a deadly invisible threat — which sounds a whole lot less like sci-fi now than it did at launch.
A game with a massive narrative scope and relatively little combat needs to have quite the visual and musical scenery to keep things interesting, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that renowned Swedish composer (and Kojima’s go-to musical collaborator) Ludvig Forssell picked up numerous awards for his score. Ahead of DEATH STRANDING’s release on PC — which comes with an expanded soundtrack featuring 10 bonus tracks and is available July 14 on both Steam and Epic — SPIN caught up with Forssell to chat about how he managed to produce a soundtrack that captured the loneliness, tension, and hopefulness of Kojima’s not-so-fictional world.
SPIN: How would you best describe everything that goes into composing a score for a game like DEATH STRANDING?
Ludvig Forssell: The days when video games’ music was limited by the sounds that the consoles could produce are long gone and, if anything, video game scores these days have an upper hand in terms of it being one of the few places where composers get to create non-static/interactive music where you can really try out interesting and “new” things if you set your mind to it.
Aside from working with something where you have to take into account all of the different choices a player can make at any given time — and trying to make the music constantly fit and feel scored to these choices adaptively — one of the major undertakings of scoring a game like DEATH STRANDING is somehow weaving together a story that could take anywhere from 30 to 70-plus hours to complete in a satisfying way. Hideo Kojima’s games are known to be very cinematic experiences and this game is no exception. We had seven-plus hours of cutscenes that helped tell the story of Sam Porter Bridges’ journey, and these scenes were spread out in between long treks where sometimes you’d have hours of very low-action gameplay. To make sure that the themes of the game come across — and don’t get forgotten so that the emotional moments hit the way they need to — and the stories of the many characters you meet along the way are meaningful to the player, you need to be very careful how and where you play those themes musically. This was a huge challenge, especially since the actors’ performances throughout the game were so impactful and I wanted to make sure I honored those performances in the right way to not overplay or underplay them.
What has it been like working with Hideo Kojima for all this time?
I can’t believe it’s been over eight years! Hideo has an amazing ear for music and sound design and will often come up with interesting ideas and challenges for the audio team. This time, he challenged me to write out of my comfort zone yet again, and he is very hands-on with all parts of production. After eight years, there’s also trust — so I do have some freedom in trying things out and going in a slightly different direction where I thought it was needed.
There’s no debating it, the man’s a genius — which is why it was such a fun experience figuring out DEATH STRANDING. I mean, a post-apocalyptic postman simulator with throat-babies and invisible exploding ghosts, who comes up with ideas like that?
When you were first approached about the concept behind DEATH STRANDING, what was your initial reaction?
Honestly, I was shocked. No way would I have guessed that the first game from the new KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS would be a game centered around the core concept of “delivery.” But I soon realized that this was something very well thought out, as well as the importance of trying something new and doing something unique. Also, with it being something completely new — built from the ground up, much like our new studio — we knew that we’d sort of be learning what DEATH STRANDING was as we went along. I knew early on that my best approach for the music would be to do a lot of prototyping and trying things out before seeing what actually stuck to the canvas as it became more and more clear what we were actually trying to paint. I don’t think I wrote anything that made it into the final game for the first year and a half or so.
Now that it’s completed, how do you feel about the project as a whole?
The project as a whole was a huge learning experience for me. I got to be a part of creating a completely new world while building a new company with a mixture of old and new colleagues. I got to learn what it meant being in charge of both sound design and music for a project like this, and I got to learn to work between two to three time zones with many teams trying to steer everyone towards a common goal. While there are things I would probably do differently today, I can proudly say that I put my all into this project, and nothing makes me happier than seeing people enjoy the game and its audio and music. I’m particularly happy with how the last chapters of the game came together in such a satisfying way, so I urge everyone to play the game to its completion.