I have written once or twice about 2012’s I Am Alive. About its themes, innovative gameplay and voice acting. However, one element that is deceptively emotional is its soundtrack. Used sparingly but effectively, each part of the score drives home both the gut-wrenching desperation and unbreakable hope featured in the story. The main character’s struggle through the crumbled ruins of Haventon was at the forefront of composer Jeff Broadbent’s mind when he was composing the music. Classically trained and Los Angeles-based, Broadbent was keenly aware of the emotional nature that I Am Alive was set to deliver.
“When I began composing, the development direction for the game was well defined,” Broadbent tells me, “the developers provided me with a very clear description of the various settings and chapters in the game, as well as the musical needs for these scenarios. The development team provided me with a creative overview of the game, including concept art, backstory, and a description of the emotional tone of the game. What really impressed me was the personal nature of the game, with the protagonist searching for his family and also protecting the young Mei. Having this understanding of the game’s creative vision – a violent struggle in a post-apocalyptic survival situation, combined with a sense of humanity and personal emotion – helped me find a musical tone that would best serve the narrative.”
It’s one thing to know what the game wants to achieve but the process of injecting these kinds of emotions via music can present its own challenges. Tone is very important and making sure it fits with the tiniest details in I Am Alive can make or break the emotional weight of each gameplay section or cut-scene. Go too over the top and you risk distracting the player. On the other hand, heightening the tension without the player realising can be a very powerful skill to have. Broadbent clearly gives these aspects his full attention. “When I compose for a game, I try to understand as much as possible about the creative vision for the project. Concept art, backstory, watching gameplay, and discussing with the developers all help me gain a sense of how to craft the music to best support the game. In the case of I Am Alive, I happened to be reading the book The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, while composing for the game. The tone of the book helped inspire me while composing, as it conveyed a sense of abandonment, loss, and also muted optimism. McCarthy’s work is a profound portrayal of love amidst the bleakest of circumstances, and of humanity surviving against great brutality and depravity. It had quite an effect on me, and certainly was an inspiration.”
In terms of specific tracks, “Mei’s Theme” is easily the most layered and effective. Equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful, it provides closure for the main character after caring for the young girl Mei. After building a relationship and protecting her from the agonising outside world, “Mei’s Theme” comes at an emotional time in the game.
“Composing “Mei’s Theme” was one of my favorite pieces for the game. I was told that this track was a ‘farewell’ track of sorts for the moment when the protagonist says goodbye to Mei, the young girl he has protected, after reuniting her with her mother. To me this moment in the game was one of great contrast – it illustrated the gentle humanity and care still present in a world that was largely ravaged by violence and depravity. It was a symbol of the emotion and bonds that tie us together. I chose solo oboe to be the musical voice of Mei. Oboe is a beautiful instrument – its tone is rich and at times somewhat plaintive. It provided a bittersweet timbre for this moment. I accompanied the oboe with gentle piano motifs and lush yet understated strings, providing a gentle accompaniment to the melody. In addition, I created some subtle ambient synthetic elements, which play a large role in the rest of the game’s music, as a means of sonically linking “Mei’s Theme” with the remainder of the score.”
Make no mistake, there are things in Haventon that the player needs to keep Mei away from. The Blue Hotel for instance, is a depraved locale for gangs to prey on helpless women who are routinely used as sex slaves and tossed aside. Broadbent had not seen the finished section of the game before composing the music but he had enough material to work with to provide the right level of dread and foreboding needed. “I was provided concept art, some gameplay screenshots, and text descriptions of the Blue Hotel, which helped me to understand the great danger, depravity, and oppression of this environment. Because I Am Alive is a game focusing heavily on realism, the music needed to highlight the terror and fear of the situation. As such, I composed the music to be very tense, containing heavily processed percussion, noise elements, and a high level of dissonance.”
Broadbent’s memories of the entire process are nothing but positive. To successfully deliver an effective score after the chaos of I Am Alive’s development is an achievement in and of itself. But to walk away satisfied with your work is the best you can hope for. “I was hired in winter of 2011, after creating a demo theme for the game, as well as some demo gameplay music, that the developers were very fond of. This was after development for the game had shifted from the original developer, Darkworks, into the hands of Ubisoft Shanghai, with audio director Zhang Lei heading the audio team.”
“All of the music I composed was placed into the game. We did modify some of the cues, in particular the combat music, before they were in final form. One unexpected surprise was how well the tension music that occurs when you are losing stamina while climbing worked. This piece of music is a sonic layer that is triggered when you are about to fall, due to fatigue, while climbing. It added a lot of suspense and urgency to those situations in the game.”
“Another pleasant surprise was a piece of music I composed called Henry’s Refuge, which is a poignant moment where the protagonist finds temporary solace in the abode of Henry, a man who provides Adam and Mei respite from the brutal world. This music, like Mei’s Theme, is a moment of peace and rest amidst very difficult circumstances.”
“These parts of the score explore an emotional side of gaming that is a wonderful, and often rare, treat to work on. It is a reminder to me that games can not only entertain, but function as art and touch the soul. They are among the pieces of game music I’ve composed that I’m most fond of.”