Olivier Deriviere on mastering the art of interactive music for games (2022)

Words by Mat Ombler

Over 2000 hours. Or 83 days, depending on your preferred unit of time. That’s the amount of time that French composer Olivier Deriviere has spent sprinting, climbing and fighting his way through the post-apocalyptic and Zombie-infested ruins of Dying Light 2 Stay Human, the latest video game from Polish game studio, Techland.

Olivier Deriviere on mastering the art of interactive music for games (1)

If you’re wondering how this Bafta nominee has managed to amass so many hours of playtime into Dying Light 2 around his other projects, it’s because Deriviere spent the last three years of his life working on it. Not just scoring the game’s soundtrack, but creating, testing and implementing interactive music systems for the game that control how players experience his music depending on their actions.

“This is going to sound weird, but the composition is the fastest and easiest part,” Deriviere tells me over a video call. “It’s much more like, okay, how do we approach the game, and how do we debug it and make sure the music works the way we want it to work. That bit takes forever. Forever!”

“I had to hire staff, not just in my studio to spread the systems all over the place, but also to test everything. It’s madness what we did on Dying Light 2. Truly, it’s madness.”

When you consider Deriviere has been writing music for video games for nearly 20 years, the amount of time needed to nail these music systems is telling of how complex they can be. His approach to video game composition has always been about much more than simply scoring the game. It’s not about what players hear, but how and why they hear it. This makes listening to Dying Light 2’s soundtrack release a completely different experience from hearing the music in-game.

If you’re not familiar with the Dying Light series, imagine how I Am Legend would play out if Will Smith also happened to be a 100m gold medal Olympic sprinter. It’s post-apocalyptic parkour, and the vast metropolis of Villedor, the city in which the game is set, is a giant concrete jungle gym with endless possibilities. As you’ll spend most of your time in Dying Light 2 leaping from building to building, Deriviere wanted his music to capture the sensation of adrenaline and power that players get as they race through the game.

The parkour music system that Deriviere built allows the music to match the pace of gameplay. Every death-defying leap you make adds a weightless swoosh to the music as it filters in and out. The further you run, the more instruments get added to the mix, and you’ll notice more intensity and dynamic expression to the music, too. Similarly, if you go off track, or make a sketchy landing, the pace of the music will slow.

The music changes as you progress through the game too. As you power up the game’s protagonist, Aiden, with new skills, abilities and tools such as the grappling hook and the paraglider, you’ll start noticing changes to the music. What starts as fairly minimal synth and a couple of string instruments in the game’s early parkour segments eventually evolve into the full might of the London Contemporary Orchestra later in. The string sessions were mixed by John Kurlander (Lord of the Rings), synth was handled by Jerome Devoise (Archive) and mastered by Shawn Hatfield (Amon Tobin).

“The vision of the creative director was ‘lose control, empower yourself and gain control.’ That’s the ark of the player,” Deriviere says. “It feels more like superhero [music] towards the end. We wanted the music to follow the empowerment of the character.”

Along with his learnings from attending the Conservatory of Nice in France and Berklee College of Music when he was younger, Derievere’s unique approach to composition is inspired by the music in the games he grew up with. He’s always been interested in the technical aspects of video games, as well as the creative elements.

Olivier Deriviere on mastering the art of interactive music for games (2)

The first music that Deriviere ever composed was on a Commodore 64, back when music had to be coded into the games it was written for. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s before CD-quality audio, composers only had a few channels at their disposal, and composers all had their unique ways of bypassing the technical limitations of the hardware they worked with. No game sounded the game, and technological advancements such as the SIP chip in the C64 allowed video game music to constantly evolve.

“When the Amiga came out and I played Shadow of the Beast, I went to my father and told him he can throw out his CD player because computers are much better than that and make music in real-time!” Deriviere explains. “Chris Huelsbeck, David Whitaker and all of these other composers really made me. When I was playing games by The Bitmap Brothers and Team 17, the texture of the sounds meant video game music was unique back then. It was an invitation to a musical journey, and if you look at my work, that’s what I’m trying to do now.

“I think that’s why I felt sort of… I get a little frustrated as the years were going on with PlayStation and these games with CD tracks in the background.” He pauses and notices the Final Fantasy IX poster behind me before continuing. “It was great to have the orchestra [in those games]. However, I was eager, starving to have something more, and I think the first game that went back to all of that was Halo.”

It makes sense, then, that Deriviere’s obsession with the home computing scene and fascination for technology from such an early age has led to him embracing electronic elements in his music, and ultimately an ethos of music composition tailored around experimentation. Deriviere even turned to his friend and instrument maker Nicolas Bras, to make him an electric psaltery out of scrap.

Not only is this fitting for a game where you spend a lot of time crafting weapons and items out of the junk you find around you, but It’s symbolic of the game’s protagonist, Aiden, and the broken world that he inhabits. It’s also representative of Deriviere’s fondness for wrapping synths and strings together, treating the synth as its own instrument within the orchestra, rather than outside of it.

“The synth is a lead, like a solo violin or a texture that goes with it, but it’s never a case of you have the synth and then you have the orchestra,” he explains.

Techland has been very ambitious about this project. For me, it was an opportunity that I don’t get much. I had to basically explore, fail and retry.

There are nods to Aphex Twin too, not just in Dying Light 2 but throughout Deriviere’s back catalogue of music. The British composer and DJ is someone Deriviere has a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for. When Deriviere was invited to write the music for Streets of Rage 4, a 30-year-old series responsible for introducing a generation of video gamers to house, techno, dance and gabber music, he went as far to name one track Aphex Train.

Aphex Twin is the Mozart of our generation,” he explains with excitement. “Why? Because his music is the representation of our culture. It’s very clinical. It’s wonderfully set, and it’s very fast – like when he did Drukqz [fifth studio album], it’s crazy, but in the background, these analogue synths are doing these very mellow, sometimes happy, sometimes sad [sounds] with lots of dynamics.

“This is how we feel; our society is built around perfection and speed, but in the background, we’re just humans, and this is what I love about his music. The ideas that he’s doing, I’ve taken so much from him!”

Olivier Deriviere on mastering the art of interactive music for games (3)

Creating interactive music isn’t easy, and while most video games contain music that’s interactive in some sense, few match the level of detail that’s on display in Dying Light 2. Throughout our chat, Deriviere is keen to highlight his work was made possible thanks to the support and trust of the team around him.

“Not only did they give me freedom, but they gave me the budget to go to London. Techland has been very ambitious about this project. For me, it was an opportunity that I don’t get much, so I had to basically explore, fail and retry – and I understand that sometimes people don’t want to take those risks, and that’s fine – but since people are crazy enough to let you do whatever it is you want to do when you’re a creative person you’ve just got to be like, let’s do it!”

It’s this process of ‘fail and retry’ that Deriviere says is at the heart of making the interactive music in the game. One little value change can affect the entire music system.

“We did fail, so many times, by the way,” he laughs. “And this is also the same process for making games. That’s why working with great people is always what matters to me. I understand that most composers don’t live this experience, they just provide the music. And I’m not saying that’s wrong or bad – but it’s a completely different experience when you’re part of the team.”

If you’ve got the right team around you, you don’t need to be a coding genius to implement interactive music, although basic knowledge of the middleware used for interactive music such as FMOD and Wwise does help.

“Beginning to understand how these tools work, it gives you a sense of how [your music can] work in a game,” Deriviere explains. “So, when a music supervisor comes to you and says the music system is doing X Y Z – there is a possibility that the enemy has seen you or not and you have a value that tells you the distance and a state that says not seen or not seen – you can compose music for that situation.”

Working with great people is always what matters to me.

In the case of Dying Light 2, this might involve the music getting louder or accelerating depending on whether the enemy has seen you or not. Deriviere believes that understanding all of this will help young composers pick up writing gigs, but if they want to make music systems themselves rather than working to the instructions of a music supervisor, they need to understand game engines too.

“That doesn’t mean you need to become a coder,” he says. “You just need to understand how games are made, and you can do that just by playing games. For Dying Light 2, I spent three years with four coders. I was asking them for features and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist –they’re the geniuses. They give you all of these parameters to exploit in your system. That’s where it’s different in terms of results. If it’s your system, you can mould it much better into the way you want to compose.”

Ultimately, Deriviere’s approach to video game composition comes back to the fun of experimentation and discovery. In Dying Light 2, your flailing fists, scrambling feet and midair leaps are the composer’s baton setting the tempo and dynamics of the music and sounds that play out around you.

As for future projects he’d love to work on, Deriviere doesn’t have any grand ambitions to score the next Blockbuster video game. He believes video games need to be about human nature. There’s a lot of human complexity and artistic expression that goes into his music. “It’s not the kind of stuff you listen to in the background on Spotify,” he says. And he’d like to see more video game composers embracing the one element of video game music that cannot be found in any other medium.

“I’m frustrated that composers and also developers and publishers don’t push for more [from game audio]. They push for better lighting, better physics, but they don’t push for better music; it’s let’s do X Y Z and record or put that in the background. And to be fair, if it’s efficient enough, why bother? But that’s why I did Dying Light 2. I knew this game was going to sell like crazy, so this was a once in a lifetime chance to push everything to the limit.

“I’m going to put everything in there, so I know that millions of gamers can experience it, share it and be like ‘Whoa! [listen to] the way the music goes over the parkour!’ or does this and that. Everybody is going crazy about that, which makes me happy. Not because it’s my work, but because it shows there is an audience for [interactive] music. I hope that this will open opportunities for current composers or developers to convince publishers, or developers to convince composers, to have those conversations about interactive music.”

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