Gameranx Interviews: Stephen Cox (Farpoint)
Stephen Cox talks immersion, musical density, and giving players goosebumps through the power of sound.
After months of heavy anticipation, PlayStation 4 exclusive FPS Farpoint released in mid May and brought with it an exotic extra-terrestrial world bursting with hostile creatures and breathtaking beauty. The hype for Farpoint was strong enough for it to go gold before its launch, and it’s easy to guess why. It’s one of the few games to make use of the ultra-slick PlayStation VR aim controller, a novel piece of technology that lends better precision, and another level of reality, to gameplay. Set in space, Farpoint tasks players with mastering weapons, exploring marooned environments, and surviving against all odds. Stephen Cox, the man behind Farpoint’s music spoke to Gameranx about how sound can influence the way we play, access the whole gamut of human emotions, and if it’s done right, make us go, “Wow.”
Gameranx: You have an extensive background in music including credits for film, television, and working as Professor of Music Production for Media at Full Sail University. How did your journey begin? Where you always musically inclined?
Stephen Cox: Music was always in my life from a very early age. My parents are both very musical and made sure my siblings and I were active with music in Fort Myers, FL. Although I didn’t have my first private piano lesson until junior college, I learned by ear and played a variety of instruments in my concert band, marching band, then I went full rock-band mode toward the end of high school. The band eventually moved out to Gainesville to go after the college music scene. We quickly imploded after our lead guitarist and co-writer was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After that, I started collaborating with my good friend and composer, Carl King, who gave me the opportunity to score a portion of an art film, sci-fi no less. The film was completely ridiculous, but I was hooked on scoring work and the creative process. I later enrolled in Berklee College of Music majoring in Film Scoring and Music Synthesis focusing on this path.
While attending Berklee, I started working for Cakewalk Music Software doing tech support and beta testing to make ends meet. Although this was an awesome gig where I learned so much, I wanted to work in the field after graduating.
“I was hooked on scoring work…I continued a three career cocktail (tech, teaching and music) until the music work took over, which was always the dream”
I somehow convinced Cakewalk to let me work remotely and move wherever. One of the few internships I was offered (this is right after Sept 11th) was in Orlando at a post production house called Sound O’ Rama. The owner (KC Ladnier) put me to work! Nonstop Protools pushups and sound design was my daily regiment for many months. Thank you KC! I eventually had enough credits and experience to move over to Full Sail for a teaching gig, all while still working remotely for Cakewalk and doing music/audio post production work on the side. I continued this three career cocktail (tech, teaching and music) for many years, trying to keep it all going while racking up credits until the music work took over, which was always the dream. Full Sail was a great experience and I made some of my most important connections during my time there, including Dr. Danny McIntyre who was my main co-writer on Farpoint, and Jonathan Mayer who gave us a shot at the Farpoint demo.
Gameranx: Does composing for film, television and games require a completely different mindset? Talk us through the creative process.
Cox: The mediums are quite similar in the beginning: You get the project brief, try out some demos, find the appropriate sound palette and style. That’s when games get very interesting and deviate from the film workflow. Instead of writing cues to locked picture or scenes, you’re writing the tent-pole pieces based on concepts or emotional content that needs to be covered throughout the game, in a very nonlinear way. Timings are much looser and you aren’t concerned as much with musical hit points (accenting graphics or scene changes). Rather, you are writing cues that can be layered and combined based on triggers in the game, built-in flexibility. During this stage the sound palette may evolve and even the overall vibe of the game. Then you finally get to the cinematics, which are locked to picture, so it feels a little more like film scoring by the end. Deliverables are definitely trickier in a game compared to other mediums. Handing off organized sessions and countless files to give the engineers as much flexibility as possible (while still retaining your sonic vision) requires a certain degree of production skill. You always have to think about the guy down the production pipeline, making sure you are not making more work for him or her.
They say music is the language of the soul. How would you describe your personal style of music, and what do you hope to communicate in each piece you create? Where do you look to for inspiration, and do you try and prioritise any particular musical elements?
Cox: Great question. I always write music for the project and its purpose first and foremost. Regardless of style, genre or emotional content, my writing style adapts to whatever music serves the project best. I guess that makes me a “pleaser”? I love to write music that triggers my pilomotor reflex (goosebumps) and hopefully the audiences’; at least that’s my goal. Lately, discovering new sounds, textures and tones has been an important part of achieving that goal. Writing music with some sort of ‘wow’ factor is what I love, and thankfully Farpoint gave us some opportunities to find the ‘wow’.
Gameranx: Farpoint marks your first endeavour with composition for virtual reality games, but not composing for games in general. What are the main differences between the two? Can you reveal what kind of soundtrack (in terms of genre) you’re going for in Farpoint?
Cox: The differences between writing music for VR and any other game has more to do with the musical density and overall mix rather than compositional style. 3D sound in the VR world was always something we were conscious of and experimenting with during composition, mixing and implementation. We aimed to make the musical drones, sound design and instrumentation as multi-layered as possible, which gave us a lot of interesting panning and mix placement opportunities. The use of reverb and panning is so much more important in VR than it is in any other medium. I worked closely with Sony Interactive’s music team under Senior Music Manager Jonathan Mayer (along with music engineer/implementer Anthony Caruso and Rob Goodson) to figure that out. Those guys did amazing work and a lot of testing to find the right balance and placement within the game.
Now that the soundtrack is released, I was hoping someone would be able to articulate what the style and genre are exactly. It’s definitely an orchestral score, with a lot of synth-based elements combined with unique percussive and ambient elements. Matching Farpoint’s otherworldly aesthetic and complementing the action without disrupting the immersive experience was the main goal.
Gameranx: Virtual reality is a really emergent form of technology in the games industry. How does it feel to be composing for something so nascent, where the rules are still relatively unwritten? Is there a lot of pressure to create a standard? On the flipside, what have you enjoyed the most about composing for Farpoint?
Cox: In hindsight, I like to equate writing music for VR almost like writing music for a theme park attraction. It’s so dependent on the immersion and experience the developers are trying to create. The approach is either full immersion, where the space and reality is represented as accurately as possible using sound effects only. And if there is music, it is source music, meaning it is coming from within the world itself.
“Writing music for VR is like writing music for a theme park attraction. The approach is either full immersion by using sound effects only, or source music, meaning it’s coming from the (game) world itself”
Or… the music is so intense and bombastic that heightens the anxiety more than you would expect in a feature film, more like a theme park ride. We got to do a little of both in Farpoint, which was awesome.
It was so exciting to be on the ground floor of a new medium like VR. The opportunity to experiment with new sounds and styles was by far the most exhilarating part of scoring for VR. We were all reinventing the wheel as the game development progressed so nothing was really right or wrong, only ‘does it work’? Not to mention the fact that it was such a collaborative experience working with the brilliant crew at Sony, Impulse Gear and my guys at Unified Sounds.
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Gameranx thanks Stephen Cox for his time and making this interview possible. Farpoint is out now for PlayStation VR, priced at $49.99 USD or $79.99 USD if you buy it in the Aim Controller bundle.