One of the hardest things to accomplish in video games is the feeling of outer space itself. The theme of loneliness and the vast never-ending void of the universe can be a difficult task for a developer to achieve. When it works, the sheer emptiness of outer space can be overwhelming and dictate the kind of actions the player will make. Atmosphere feeding in to actions.
With this in mind, Relic Entertainment made it look easy with their classic 1999 strategy space-sim Homeworld. Telling the story of the ancient race of Kushan, players control the colossal Mothership which serves as a base for constructing fighters and gathering resources. For the entire game, outer space envelopes everything. In every situation or enemy encounter, Relic take full advantage of the three-dimensional space. Ships can move in any direction and you’re always reminded just how immensely foreboding the universe can be.
Paul Ruskay is one of the main reasons why everything about Homeworld is so convincing. As its composer, Ruskay injected life into the void. His ambient score commands the game and gives it a new level of mystery. Each track combines both dread and hope in such a masterful way that it’s almost criminal to imagine Homeworld without his involvement. When people fondly remember the game, Ruskay’s work always comes up.
For a game that is almost fifteen years old, Ruskay’s memories of the project are as clear as day. “I would say that 75% of the core Homeworld code had been written by October 1998 when I joined the project,” Ruskay tells me. “The first player game production would start shortly after that. I had just shipped ESPN X Pro Boarders on Playstation One at Radical Entertainment as an Audio Lead, so the opportunity of working on a strange science-fiction title was really appealing. There was very little stylistic direction from Relic as we were more concerned in finding immediate solutions for the audio presentation of the game. The music was created very quickly and as a solution to fill gaps in the production. If we needed to set the mood for a mission, say the Graveyard in Mission 13, I would review the art and script and create something appropriate for that moment in the game. The soundtrack emerged from that production process of deciding what was the cheapest way to enhance the overall experience. Out of that process we found a complimentary match between visuals, game design and audio.”
A great example of the effectiveness of Ruskay’s music is the track ‘Great Wastelands’. A distinctly oppressive piece of music, it signifies the first part of the game where survival plays a key aspect. Construction of a Resource Controller ship is now required and the player soon realises just how much work needs to be done to gather RU’s (resource units) in order to exist in the cold, reality of space.
Ruskay tells me about the unique challenges that presented themselves when making ‘Great Wastelands’ and the soundtrack itself. “The thing about how the music was created for Homeworld was it was done on a very primitive sequencer and sampler system. I was using the Emu Sampler with a JV-1080 that had a few expansion cards. Those were the two main sound sources. A lot of the game required a kind of ambient tone, almost like audio wallpaper. The interesting aspect about ambient music is that you get to explore the tone of sound and how different sounds blend to create an emotional response in the listener. The ambient music in Homeworld was designed to create these different emotional tones. It’s the balance of making something sparse yet not losing tension. Some of the sounds in the ‘Great Wastelands’ are filtered organic sounds that are halfway between music and sound design. ‘Great Wastelands’ has this feel of ambiguous eeriness and despair. At that point in the narrative you have just had an optimistic send off into the story and the next thing you get is the exact opposite.”
He’s right about opposites. Homeworld‘s missions are in constant flux and no two story elements are exactly the same. You can never rest easy because when an encounter with the enemy Turanic ships occurs, your situation can become desperate within minutes. The uneasy feeling that some of Ruskay’s score evokes keeps a player on their toes. With the game and music working in tandem, the experience becomes much more uncertain. “With any project,” Ruskay continues, “the most important thing is to create a musical palette that the soundtrack will reside in. At the beginning of any production, at least for me, it takes a bit of time before the musical palette emerges. The music has to exist in the context of game design and narrative delivery. Once music production begins and you discover how the music functions in the game, then the musical palette becomes crucial. The game will suggest a musical direction based on the dynamic of gameplay, the art and the narrative. For me, the production of music has always been slightly mysterious, as you need to create a body of work that needs to seamlessly blend with the other aspects of the game experience. Ultimately, the soundtrack will be a product of the relationship you have with the other production departments. If you are getting the support needed from the development team, then it can be a very rewarding creative experience.”
The main purpose of the Homeworld’s score is atmosphere and this is clear in every note of Ruskay’s work. But not all of it focuses on despair. When battles commence, they are an edge-of-your-seat experience. The player has the choice to zoom in on their fighter ships in combat or in real-time, maintain defense of the Mothership. Like spinning plates, it can be stressful and exciting.
As brilliant as it sounds, Ruskay’s score didn’t come easy. Sometimes, incredible work can be produced under pressure and create diamonds from coal. Perhaps the oppressive nature of space was a result of something more situational than we realise. Either way, it works and works well. Ruskay tells me about the environmental hazards during production. “It was, at the time, a monumental struggle to just create the content and polish it up enough to be presentable. Compared to today, the technology back then was far more primitive and rudimentary. I would also add that Studio X Labs (Ruskay’s audio production facility in Vancouver) was literally being built at the same time. I’d be doing a track of ambient music in my room and there would be a guy with a bandsaw cutting 2 by 4’s and framing the recording room. The night before we recorded Campbell Lane’s voice of the Bentusai, we were stapling up the wall fabric in the recording room. There was so much going on during that period, everything happened with a combination of adrenalin and intuition.”
Homeworld‘s legacy remains intact. Ruskay’s involvement continued the following year with a stand-alone expansion, Homeworld: Cataclysm, and in Relic’s 2003 full-blown sequel Homeworld 2. But that initial shock of the open, expansive void presented in the original game will never be matched. Ruskay is still very proud and slightly bemused of his work. “Part of the fun of working in videogames is the exploratory nature of some productions. On the Homeworld project, the innovative nature of the game lent itself to creating some interesting music. The soundtrack was created in that environment. The game looked so distinct, so the music had to be that way as well. It’s obviously very satisfying for the soundtrack to be a bit of a cult phenomena. It’s kinda cool that Homeworld is still remembered and people are still listening to what was created over a decade ago now. I suppose ultimately it is a peculiar thing.”