Roughly 23 years ago, Canadian musician Paul Ruskay quit his day job to compose the soundtrack for the first project from an indie game developer based in Vancouver called Relic Entertainment. It was a little real-time strategy title set in a sci-fi universe, and the development for the game was anything but smooth (as debut releases by young companies so often are).
But almost immediately after Homeworld was finally released, the popularity and critical acclaim for the game hit levels that no one expected. Rave reviews praised its gameplay, narrative, graphics and soundtrack, “Game of the Year” award nominations started rolling in, and everyone involved quickly realized they needed to strike while the iron was hot.
Six Homeworld releases (five games and a remaster of the original), two decades, and a career spanning video games, film, TV and music later, Ruskay still considers his “Best Soundtrack” awards from the 1999 project to be some of his favorites. Ahead of the release of Homeworld 3 (slated for late 2022), the Studio X Labs owner also released a short behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the upcoming game.
Check out both the documentary and SPIN’s exclusive chat with the fan-favorite composer below.
SPIN: What can fans expect to see in the Homeworld 3 music documentary?
Paul Ruskay: I think the documentary is the best sort of window into my process in terms of how the new soundtrack was developed. It also has a lot of history bits about both the music itself and the aesthetic approach of the music. It’s a great opportunity to let fans have a window into the behind the scenes of me working with the new set of musicians I’ve been collaborating with.
How does it feel to build this Homeworld universe up across a handful of games now spanning more than two decades?
I think the word would be unique. Being a part of a game that has this kind of longevity is interesting, because there are so many games that are created every year, and I’ve worked on lots of titles that come and go and then no one hears of them again. So because I’ve been doing audio work for this amount of time and worked on so many different projects, it’s gratifying to be a part of something that has some longevity and has actually made an impact in the world.
What has it been like to return to Homeworld all these years later for the new game?
In terms of my creative life and past, Homeworld has been a constant companion in a way. It’s always sort of been there. Doing the first three versions — Homeworld, Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld 2 — was all 1999 to 2003. Then I got to pick up the thread again when Gearbox acquired the IP and we did the remaster circa 2015, which basically took everything that we’d done previously and updated it into a 4K presentation. Then right on the heels of that, I was working on the prequel, Deserts of Kharak, which was out in 2016. Now we’re back with Homeworld 3. So it’s these big blocks of time, but it’s just such familiar territory. Setting the original creative direction comes with a lot of responsibility in terms of meeting the expectations of the fans that are out there, but also exploring a thread that has been going on for more than two decades,
Seeing as you’ve worked on this series for 23 years now, how have you seen both yourself and the video game music world evolve over that time?
It’s definitely been an interesting journey. That first one in ‘99, I was producing the music with a really primitive setup. It was like a synth, a sampler and a sequencer, and everything had to be mixed live because I didn’t even have Logic or Pro Tools at that point. It was a huge surprise when I got “Soundtrack of the Year” from PC Gamer and Eurogamer for that, because I wasn’t expecting it at all. We were all just trying to finish the first one, and then with the attention that it got, it created this momentum where it forced me to continually upgrade my skills and keep pace with the games’ artistic developments, technological developments, and the way that the stories were being presented. I can’t count the number of workstations that I’ve gone through and the number of different sample libraries and different collaborating artists that I’ve had on the various soundtracks. Every time I come back and revisit it, I’m able to incorporate new techniques and ideas that I’ve developed on other projects. But for the most part, it’s this anchor that I can always come back to and explore. I don’t know if any other composers have the same experience with their franchises, but it’s something that continually surprises me in terms of its new manifestations.
I doubt there are a lot of composers that have that experience, because there aren’t many who even have 20 years of experience with the same franchise.
That’s true. My studio actually started because I was able to get that contract to do the audio for the original Homeworld. That actually set me up to start my own company, and Homeworld was the first project that was produced at my studio. They tell you not to quit your day job, but because I quit my day job, I was able to do the Homeworld project. Out of everything that was happening in Vancouver in 1999, that was the project to be on for sure. I’m pretty lucky that I took the leap of faith, quit my day job, started the studio and did Homeworld. I’ve been able to be creatively contributing to it for quite a stretch of time.
You’ve scored a multitude of projects in a variety of different genres and mediums over the years, but do you think there’s any one thing that ties them all together?
At the end of the day, you have to write the music that you’re going to write. Music only works if it’s coming from an authentic place of creation. I think a lot of composers struggle with feeling like their music should be sounding like something else — like more “current” or more “traditional film score.” I’ve tried that. I’ve had a project where someone requested a certain sound that probably just wasn’t me, and there was probably a better composer for that gig. I’ve found that you just have to stick true to the musical expression that you know how to manifest and create instead of trying to sound like someone else. Obviously you can have influences and whatnot, but don’t get caught in that imitation game. Creatively, I try to produce something musical that is an authentic expression from myself.
From a musical and creative perspective, what’s it like to jump back in for every Homeworld release? Does it feel different each time or more of the same?
Oh, definitely different. Out of all the different releases, there’s been four different developers. Obviously there are a few people who have been around since the initial project, but it’s changed so much that it’s always going to be different. The thing that’s great about Homeworld from a musical standpoint is that it’s such a big sandbox to play in, and it’s flexible enough that you can push it around and it still retains its innate quality. For example, the Deserts of Kharak soundtrack went for a very tribal sound because it was set on this desert planet. So going back to the game and back to that world can amplify certain aspects of a different style depending on what we’re producing. For Homeworld 3, we’re not doing as much tribal-oriented stuff, and it’s more of the big ambient synth score that the first one was known for. Homeworld has always been such an interesting narrative space to create for, and it’s such a wide open sandbox of opportunities that when I get a chance to inhabit that world again and create, it just gives me a lot of options and flexibility. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been boxed in and I have nothing left to contribute to the franchise. It still feels like there’s lots of stuff to explore.