Music plays an essential role in any video game. The greatest games include a unique soundtrack that is woven perfectly together by the story, characters, gameplay and environment. The music is what pulls the emotions out of your favorite characters and into your hearts. When you hear certain tracks outside of the game, it immediately pulls you back into that world and the memories that go with it. The music forms a bond with the player that leaves an everlasting mark and will determine how the player connects to the game. The score to Days Gone provides just that with its gritty, emotional and organic sound as you ride through the post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest.
The composer behind the remarkable soundtrack of Days Gone is Nathan Whitehead. Nathan is a composer for film, television and video games. He is best known for composing the scores for the film franchise, The Purge. Nathan is also credited for composing Keanu, Beyond Skyline and Stephanie, along with being an arranger and producer on other titles. I was fortunate enough to ask Nathan a few of my burning questions about scoring Days Gone. He generously shared plenty of insight into his development of certain themes, what attracted him to the story, his creative thought process and connecting his music to the environment.
The Broken Road: Being the primary composer for the first time on a video game, especially a game as big as Days Gone, what were your expectations going into this new project?
Nathan Whitehead: To a large degree, I didn’t know what to expect. I expected it to be a lot of music, games are known for that. And I expected to be on the project for a long time. Both of those turned out to be true!
When the story of Days Gone was pitched to you, what was the first thing that immediately grabbed your attention and got you excited to work on it?
I was immediately grabbed by these universal and existential themes woven into the story, themes about hope and loss and humanity. The story explores Deacon’s motivations and encourages us to look inward and think about some big questions. What is our purpose? How do we move forward in the face of regrets or fears? And especially, why do we want to move forward? What’s the point? I thought this was a surprising and wonderful aspect to Days Gone. The game could’ve simply been blasting Freakers and riding your motorcycle and that would’ve been a fun game, but I felt these deeper layers of the story could take the player to more interesting and surprising places. This got me incredibly excited to be a part of the project.
The music feels so raw and emotional throughout the game. The grounded reality of a post-apocalyptic world weaved with hope and horror. How difficult was it to create this balance?
I love that the score is coming across that way! This is more of what I was so excited about in the previous question and it was absolutely the hardest aspect of the score to get right. It was such an exciting opportunity as a composer to explore ways to combine these worlds of hope and horror, as you so nicely put it. I had a lot of conversations with my producers at Sony and also with John Garvin (Creative Director at Bend Studio) fine tuning these aspects of the music. It was an iterative process as the score progressed and it was always a fine line between being too emotional and providing the appropriate support or contrast to what’s going on in the story at that moment.
The environment plays such a critical role in Days Gone. What was your main goal in capturing the essence of the Pacific Northwest?
The environment is a huge part of the Days Gone experience and I think my main goal was for the music to feel like it belonged in that environment, that it was believable for this music and this place to exist together. I realize that’s a completely subjective statement but it’s a feel I was going for. I think the environment was one of several elements in the game that called for some rough edges and grit in the music. I wanted there to be textural similarities between the deserts, forests, and mountains and the score. I also felt that the overwhelming beauty that we see all around us allowed the score to often be understated and that really worked in our favor. We don’t need a giant fanfare when we watch the sun setting behind a snowy mountain. That visual is already so big that keeping the score smaller might make the moment even more impactful. Some of my favorite moments in the game are when you take off on your bike and you’re hit with a stunning view as you head over a pass or around a turn. These are often small moments musically, maybe just a little ambient guitar sneaking in, but my hope is that the combination of the awe-inspiring setting with understated music can make these moments special and push the overall tone of the game to have this quiet, meditative layer. I think nature has the power to evoke those qualities and I wanted the music to help those qualities speak.
Two tracks immediately come to mind when I think about your score, Days Gone and Freakshow. These two tracks were the core of the game, ranging from the main menu to fighting the forty hordes spread across the map. Can you tell us more on how those original ideas formed, and how you expanded on them?
These were the first two tracks I wrote for the game. I didn’t start out thinking these are the two primary themes of the game, I just wanted to write a track that connected to Deacon and a track that sounded like the Freakers to me. I think that was a helpful mind game to play on myself as I got started. Thinking of these from the beginning as the two central pillars of the score would’ve been overwhelming! My goal in writing Days Gone was to try and evoke a sense of Deacon’s resolve and hope but with threads of melancholy throughout. I tried to put myself in Deacon’s shoes, being separated from Sarah, not knowing whether she’s alive or dead, yet driven to keep searching and to remain hopeful. This theme was also the first time I started thinking about how the music would relate to the Pacific Northwest setting. Writing Days Gone went a long way toward establishing the palette that I would use for the entire score and, perhaps most importantly, it introduced our main melody that would appear over and over again in various forms and on various instruments throughout the game.
As for Freakshow, I knew the music needed to encapsulate the main antagonist in the game which is the global Freaker infection. The big challenge with Freakshow was that it needed to work in so many different scenarios. The music needed to scale along with the ever-present Freaker threat–sometimes as a low, throbbing sense of dread and then ratcheting up to horde-level mayhem. These aspects of the track came together fairly quickly. As the game progressed, however, I was constantly bouncing ideas off of my producers at Sony and we realized that Freakshow needed yet another dimension to speak to the tragedy of this massive human loss. The Freakers may be these soul-less feral beasts now, but each one is a person we lost to this pandemic. This ultimately led to incorporating the Freaker melody into the throbbing dread and horde onslaught elements. And it turns out this melody was hiding in the track all along. I recorded a lot of sounds and then distorted or manipulated them to create the Freakshow palette. One of these was a gnarly sound where I bowed a cymbal and ran it through some meaty distortion. This distorted, metal-ripping sound had a small melodic arc to it. One of my producers pointed this out and asked what if that was expanded upon? I slowed the sound way down and picked out this seven-note melody hiding in there. That became the foundation for the Freaker melody. I incorporated this melody on strings and piano and instantly Freakshow felt like it could navigate the tragic nature of the Freaker infection as well the dread-filled, pulse-pounding terror of the Freakers.
There are so many distinctive tracks in this score, so I wanted to dive into a few of them a little more. Sarah’s Theme is so beautiful, fulfilling and optimistic. What was your thought process when developing this track?
I think optimistic is a great word to use for Sarah’s Theme and it was something I thought a lot about when I was writing this track. I thought of Sarah’s Theme as a reminder for Deacon of the connection he has with Sarah and of what’s important in life. I wanted this track to say there is a reason to be hopeful even when surrounded by massive loss. Optimism is a powerful part of that and, I think, is ultimately the way our hopes and dreams become reality. I wanted some of that unbridled hopefulness and optimism to come across. I also thought about how our memories stay with us and can become sources of strength and purpose, but they can also manifest in negative ways rekindling old fears and regrets. With Sarah’s Theme, I thought about the magical early days of a relationship, how those memories can stay with you forever. I strove to infuse some of that electricity into the music and make it this bright contrast to the Freaker-infested world around us.
The Rager Bear has a heavy muscular tone to it with a great deal of tension. As you were creating this theme, did you look at gameplay of the Rager bear to realize what you wanted to accomplish, or was it mainly concept art and story that drove your creative process?
This is another example of the amazing creativity coming out of Bend Studio. When I first saw the Rager Bear I thought it was so perfectly terrifying and appropriate for the world of Days Gone. Bend sent me both concept art and some game capture as visual references, but story was always a critical component at every step as well. I think being mindful of how every element fits into the story is a key contributor to Days Gone’s overall emotional impact and that was something John Garvin really reinforced. I wanted the music for the Rager Bear to feel as threatening, massive, and raw as the Rager looked. I wanted it to have these jagged, serrated edges but also feel lumbering and have serious weight. For me, the Rager was the moment where the threat level in the world of the game took a massive leap beyond what I had imagined–if there are infected bears, what else would we encounter?
Every time I listen to Finding NERO, my mind goes back to each encounter I had with them in the game. The way I would sneak around in the bushes to avoid each soldier, while listening for any clues to unravel the mystery. How did you capture that sense of mystery in the melody?
I think one thing that helped with the sense of mystery was that Finding NERO is so unlike any other music in the game. In general, we felt the overall Days Gone sound should not be too rooted in sci-fi and it should be more organic and rough-hewn. But NERO was an exception and I wanted the music to have a precise, high-tech feel that stood out in contrast to the rest of the score. As for the melody itself, I never know where melodies come from! I knew that the tune should be simple, and, for some reason, those four notes seemed to suggest to me that something was going on beneath the surface.
In I Remember, you feel that connection to Deacon’s sadness, especially within the first minute of the track. Then the song begins to elevate filling you with the joy of the happier moments he had. What kind of discussions did you have with Creative Director John Garvin about these moments of the story between Deacon and Sarah?
I think most of my conversations with John were about Deacon and Sarah. We talked about them being, on the surface, a bit of an unlikely pair–the brilliant scientist and the crude biker. But through this contrast we learn that Deacon and Sarah are more than caricatures from these extremely different worlds. These moments show us more nuance and all these little details of their relationship. We start to see this special chemistry between them. I think John’s writing shines in these moments and the amazing performances from Sam Witwer and Courtnee Draper completely elevate these scenes. We also discussed the unexpected, complex turns that pop up between Deacon and Sarah. (Spoiler Alert!) Deacon finally finds Sarah alive and the encounter is not at all what he expected it to be and not what players will expect. I loved the complexity here. It felt believable and was some tricky territory musically. John and I had a lot of conversations about what was going on at this huge moment in the game and how to approach it musically. These were some of the most difficult but satisfying moments to score.
If you had to pick one, what was your absolute favorite track to work on for this score?
It is extremely hard to pick a favorite! If I have to name a single track, it’s Days Gone, the main theme of the game. I remember writing this track and being completely electrified by this story and this amazing setting. I was feeling so fortunate but also completely daunted to write music for this world and I think that is really the sweet spot for a composer.
Go Behind the Music with Nathan Whitehead in the video below:
Order the Days Gone soundtrack on vinyl now at mondotees.com.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Nathan Whitehead for taking the time to come onto The Broken Road to answer my questions. Thank you!