The Art of Game Music: An Interview with Petri Alanko

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During the SoundTrack_Cologne festival in late August, we had the honor of speaking with Petri Alanko. His work includes some of the last decade’s biggest hits in the game industry and has earned him a BAFTA nomination for “Best Original Music,” specifically for his work on Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake (2010).

We were able to talk to Mr. Alanko about his passion for music, his favorite games, and Remedy’s latest big game, Quantum Break. Be warned: mild spoilers ahead!


How did you discover your passion for music?

Well, the marks were in the air quite early on. When children play, there’s always someone who plays the guitar, the other plays the drums, etc. What I basically did was pick a branch from the ground, and I started conducting people, dictating what the others should do. It sort of grew from there and since I needed to learn some instruments, the piano came quite early. We had one at home already. My grandmother’s friend used to listen to a lot of records, especially opera and Maria Callas. One day we visited her and she played an Aria. At some point I started banging on the piano, trying to find the right key of the music. When I found it, I pushed it a couple of times, I was so proud that I did it. I had a connection to this music, and when the music on the record changed I tried to find the next key.

When my grandmother’s friend saw this, she was literally shocked. She knew what was going on with me and the music and she told my grandmother, “I think that little guy might need some professional help.” Meaning, of course, that I should get a professional teacher, but my parents were a bit shocked before they realized what she really meant. I studied outside of the conservatory for a while and then took the exam to get into the conservatory, where I passed quite well and received a musical education, learning the piano, music theory and other important basics. At some point I got involved with electronic music; I listened to the German Band Kraftwerk. Their music was groundbreaking, something that I had never heard before. It was on the local radio and I got so fascinated by the sound that I decided that I needed a synthesizer immediately. Mind you, I was only 9 years old.

Somehow I always knew that I wanted to do something like what I do know. But back then, there was no such profession, there was no gaming industry, and it was almost impossible to even get to score a TV show or movie. It was extremely difficult — and it still is, considering Finland has only around 5.5 million people. Of course, I had to earn enough money to survive somehow, so I decided to do pop music videos, which I wasn’t very familiar with, as my parents used to listen to American rock and heavy metal. They didn’t look like metalheads, though.

© Stephanie Englert

When did you really decide to become a composer?

In the late 90s, I was asked to score a few short films (that I haven’t seen anywhere ever since) around 10 or 12 minutes each. I was quite happy to do that because this was more what I loved to do. I hate the normal 3-minute, 4-minute thing of the music videos, the formula wasn’t for me, it doesn’t bring anything to music as such. I finally got to do my own stuff. People then started to make their own game companies and one thing led to another. It seemed to me that people liked what I do and trusted my work, they knew that I would keep to the budget and that I would keep to the schedules — I have never missed a deadline in my life! Scheduling is something I am really good at. It is interesting to see as a third party how quickly things evolved in Finland, how quickly it became a mysterious wonderland of casual gaming. Of course, there are other games as well, but there’s mostly casual gaming in Finland.

Did you always want to compose for games or was this just a logical step, considering the amount of casual gaming companies in Finland?

I remember playing PlayStation One and I liked Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — the original one — and it had quite an elaborate score. Lots of memorable things happened every time Lara would find some secret place, and very elaborate, mysterious themes started playing. Back then I knew I wanted to do that too. Then came Rayman, which works with cutscenes that use some sort of orchestration. I don’t know if it was real or digital music, but it sounded good, I liked it. By then I had already sent my application to several game companies in Germany, Denmark, and the UK, but they were all worried about the distance and I wasn’t quite ready to relocate back then. Fortunately, the pop thing became a lot busier and I went back doing this. I became so busy that I had to decide which projects to take on — besides Remedy, where I would always say, “Yes, yes! When can I come?” I had played Max Payne, and I’m not easily tempted by games, but it was one of the few games that had kept me interested. Therefore I knew that I wanted to work with Remedy, and whenever they called, I would bang on their door the next day.

So we can say that Max Payne is your favorite game?

My favorite game… Well, I played Marathon (Bungie Software, 1996) incredibly often during the 90s. When they released the editor in 1999, I actually modeled a few buildings in Helsinki for the game. May Payne is a good second, and then, if you happen to remember the game Myst (Cyan Inc., 1993) — it was more of a still screen game, it contained almost no moving graphics, but the puzzles were so elaborate that it was an effort to play through it. Sadly, I didn’t like the ending, I felt like they could have done more. But the setting and the atmosphere really spoke to me.

You scored Quantum break. How did you approach the scoring? It was quite a big game.

Yes, it definitely was — it was four years in the making! When I first heard the story, I started writing all the pieces who were based on Jack, the protagonist of the game. For me, I felt like Jack wasn’t belonging anywhere, he was detached from his brother and had left his hometown. No one really knew what he was up to, what he’d done in the past. This was a good starting point for me. I knew that the developers were doing a sci-fi-thriller, so something had to happen later on, but initially, when I started writing the music for Quantum Break, I had no idea how the game would unfold. I had the feeling that it might be something spectacular, so I made a quick theme for Jack that you can now hear in the first track of the soundtrack. Later on, I made 9 or 10 tracks that I thought might sort of fit in — I still didn’t know the story by then — and they actually did fit in perfectly. These pieces were used about three years after I had initially written them.  They kind of re-surfaced by accident after a while, and I was all, “Oh, what are these?” We listened to them and we were all very pleased, like, “What the hell are these? When did you make these?” And I was all, “I don’t know!” But this actually led me to trust my intuition a little bit more. I mean, I do trust my abilities as a composer, but you still sometimes hesitate when something works on your first try. It’s a feeling of, “This can’t be right, this is too easy!” So in reality, you’re just not trusting yourself.

What would you say “defines” the sound of Quantum Break?

Well, pretty much everything has its roots in acoustic sounds. I’d say almost 90% of the sounds are based on acoustic instruments that are being badly mangled and processed during the making. Usually, when you hear percussion and electronic sounds, it probably isn’t electronic percussion, but me banging on a plastic bucket with a fork or a knife or dropping an aluminium can on the floor, stuff like that, in order to create new and special sounds. That’s what a lot of composers do: create sounds by experimenting with whatever we have at our disposal at the moment. So when you combine two sounds that don’t necessarily belong together, you can get quite surprising results.

I sort of felt that, because the theme of Quantum Break is time travel, what would happen in real life if you would experience such a remarkable event? It would shake the whole of humankind, right? So the music had to include the theme of the supernatural in order to fit with the later events of the game — including not only the ending, but also scenes like Jack’s arrival in Riverport in the intro. It all has to fit together. My music had to include the strange feeling of weird things happening all the time, as it is the case in Riverport for Jack. The aura that surrounds each sound you hear is caused by me either stretching or compressing sounds.

For instance, one of the trailers had a screeching sound. I created this by actually recording the sound of small balls falling straight into a microphone and then stretching this sound by probably 10 to 20 times. Because they were hitting the microphone so hard that the microphone started clicking, it created this eerie sound of twisting metal. The original balls were just around 20 to 10 millimetres, hitting the membrane of the microphone so hard that it not only clicked but somehow “exploded.” When you stretch this explosion, it becomes very unnatural and creates this hollow, screeching ghost sound.

It seems your approach was very experimental. How did you come up with all these ideas?

Well, if you’re doing it long enough, if you play with sounds long enough, you immediately start thinking about different algorithms as soon as you hear a new sound. Say, a bottle cap falling onto the floor: “Oh, I could do this, or I could do that, and this will result in this kind of sound.” When you deal with sounds long enough, you start picking up sounds in your surroundings, especially anomalies, which you automatically process in your mind. And then it’s only a matter of time before you sit down at your computer and work with the sounds until you have a new theme. And you have to know your tools in order to create your music.

Do you have a sound that fascinates you most?

Cello. And a female singing voice. I would try reconstructing and synthesizing anything, but those are the two things I wouldn’t try to change. I love to hear them play or sing live, but a female voice has certain qualities that are pleasing to my ear. I’m not saying that because I am a man, but as a human being in general. I’m not sure if it’s some genetic thing going on there — because you are always connected to your mother and spend your early days with her — maybe it’s sort of programmed in your genes. Maybe that’s why I like to talk with women: I always think how that particular woman person might sing.

It seems like you are always thinking of music.

Oh, yes. I’m mentally deranged that way.

When you compose your music, is there any recurrent pattern you use?

Well, I tend to keep my left hand quite steady when composing stuff. I try very carefully not to repeat the same chords all over again. When, for example, the left hand or the base or something else stays the same or does the same pattern, it means my right hand is free to move differently. I do this with external productions as well. If somebody else has made a song and wants me to, let’s say, remix it, then I happily blow up the harmonies within the first ten minutes or so. I really like to play with harmony.

Of all the things you’ve scored so far, what did you like best?

I happened to like a few Quantum Break scenes, but since the music is played by the playback engine, the tracks inside the game aren’t identical to the soundtrack. The playback engine plays the music depending on how you play the game, and because of this active system, some tracks are always missing — no track is played at the exact same time. I have mixed feelings about the game; it’s a great game, definitely, but if you hear your own music being dissected by a machine, it’s always a bit, “Oh no, you shouldn’t go with that track now!”

I am extremely pleased with the titles “A whisper,” “Beth,” “Goodbye Again,” and “Damaged Together.” They are the defining tracks; they define the person, the situation, the outcome — this is much more interesting to me.  I remember when I saw the end scene for the very first time, which is a bit of a love story of sorts, I almost cried. I am still very moved when I think of this particular scene, because none of the scenes before were pointing to this kind of ending, because, well, it’s a very action-laden game throughout the first part. Of course, there had been a few interactions between Jack and Beth, like almost touching each other’s hands, things like this. But how their story was actually revealed during “A Whisper”… That was very moving. I think I almost threatened the developers that I’d make a disappearance from the project if they changed or shortened it. I don’t know if they ever thought about doing such a thing, but there was no place where you could have cut it with style. The scene felt so whole, so complete, when I saw it for the first time. But yeah, they kept it just as it was and luckily, the track made it almost completely into the scene and the game. The essence of the track was still there. It felt like a proper conclusion to the story.

Thank you, Mr. Alanko!

Speaking with Petri Alanko at SoundTrack_Cologne 2017 was a great pleasure. If you haven’t had the opportunity to play one of his games or listen to his music yet, be sure to check out his work on Spotify and iTunes!

And if you want to hear more about game composers, stay tuned — we have a few more interviews coming!

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Actor, writer, and aspiring journalist. Promoter of equality in any form and contributor for Obilisik.

Diploma in Drama, followed by a Bachelor’s Degree in Romance Philology/ French Studies and Japanese Studies.

Hobbies (so far): Screenwriting, gaming, baking, drawing, traveling, anything related to Japan and, of course, eating & sleeping.

Potterhead and Pokéfreak.

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