Music in Games: Poets of the Fall on Working with Remedy
We caught up with the popular and ever-evolving Finnish rock band Poets of the Fall and discussed their work on Remedy's games over the years.
Music is an integral part of so many gaming experiences and, every now and again, songs and soundtracks come along and blur the lines between the music and gaming industries. One band that has established itself in the realm of games while at the same time enjoying a flourishing musical career are Finnish rockers Poets of the Fall.
These icons know all about exploring different mediums and have worked with developer Remedy Entertainment for close to two decades, in that time creating an array of experimental visual and musical styles backed up by phenomenal, enchanting live performances. Despite being in the midst of a virtual live act project called the Alexander Theatre Sessions (the first episode of the virtual live show is available here), frontman and vocalist Marko Saaresto took the time to talk to us about some of the band's highlights from working in gaming.
Over the years, Poets of the Fall has managed to bridge the gap between professional songwriting and whimsical, outlandish soundtrack production for Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment. We asked the band how the collaboration first began and, as it turns out, Saaresto and Remedy's Sam Lake started out as friends, which then expanded into a professional relationship.
"Me and Sam Lake, the creative director of Remedy, have been friends for a very long time," Saaresto told us. "At the time Remedy was working on their next game Max Payne 2, Ollie T. [Tukiainen] and I had just formed Poets of the Fall. Then one night I was driving in a car with Sam. We got to talking about music and games, and an idea of collaboration was brought up. We thought it would be cool since it was something that hadn't to our knowledge been done before. I never thought anything would actually come of it, but a few weeks later Sam called me up and asked us to write music for Max Payne 2. The song that came about was Late Goodbye. Captain, our keyboardist, who produced Late Goodbye for the game, actually ended up joining Poets of the Fall during that process."
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Late Goodbye, the tune that played over the credits at the end of 2003's Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, became part of not only Poets of the Fall's legacy but also Remedy's. The song, along with the game's soundtrack, created a strong sense of identity for the game's already stellar atmosphere and narrative and truly helped put both parties on the map by piercing the hearts of video game and music enthusiasts across the globe.
When asked how the song's success impacted the lives of the Finnish poets and what the group's feelings were towards the song some 16 years post-release, Saaresto said: "It was the perfect measure for us of where we actually stood in the world with what we were creating". He also explained that it put pressure on the group because while being a hit for the band, it "also raised the bar pretty high". Instead of letting the success overwhelm them, however, Poets of the Fall instead used that success as motivation. "Our motto has always been to do the best we can, give our music all we have because it's our voice in the world. We are very happy that what came after Late Goodbye has kept pushing us up that hill ever since. We still love that song very much".
Since Late Goodbye, Poets of the Fall have worked on 2010's Alan Wake and Remedy's latest action-adventure Control, all this alongside a successful career record marked by releases and touring. The band's involvement in Remedy's games also differs greatly from most other band and developer soundtrack collaborations. The reason for this is the fact that Poets of the Fall has not only composed and recorded original tracks for the developer and its games, appearing as a fictional band called Old Gods of Asgard, but they have also helped add to the mystery Remedy has built up around its games.
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Marko Saaresto explained the band's creative process when making these moments happen, and explained that each project differed from the other. "Were we to break it down to the bare bones of it, it would look something like this: First, we decided what the song was about, loosely what its story should be, then we would compose the melody with its harmonies and finally incorporate everything into how we wanted to represent the story musically. In other words: what the style of the song should be."
When creating these tracks, the band apparently had relatively free rein, we were told. "Apart from having a brief for the story and musical style, we've had every creative freedom while working on these songs. The creatives at Remedy understand that it's usually best to allow creative minds free rein to get the best results." This has clearly been a good call from both parties, considering the quality of what the two have come up with as a result.
Interestingly enough, we learned that while the original tracks, with the partial exception of Late Goodbye, were written with the games in mind, they were not fitted for them. "It was actually vice versa, in the end, the game developers modified the game environment to fit the music, which was just beautifully done on their part," Saaresto told us before adding, "In Alan Wake, The Poet and the Muse, the process was fairly similar to Late Goodbye. After agreeing on the main story points, the lyric was constructed along with the melody and then the rest of the musical production was introduced. Children of the Elder God and Balance Slays the Demon, took some more time and iteration, but even there the process was similar. Compared to Control, all these projects we fairly straightforward. Control took much more production work, coding, composing and time, as it was tailor-made to be an interactive part of the game".
The fictional band of Old Gods of Asgard surely offered some of the more memorable sequences in Alan Wake and Control, by adding some light-hearted breaks in the otherwise heavy atmosphere of the former and one of the more unique, mind-bending sequences such as the Ashtray Maze in the latter. We figured that portraying a fictional band as a well-established one had to have been a unique and interesting experience and Saaresto chimed in, explaining the experience as a form of musical acting; "With Poets of the Fall, you are yourself as a performing artist. There's no role there, you're just you. With Old Gods of Asgard, it's somewhat different. Because it's writing for an outer purpose, it becomes even more theatre, if you will, as Poets of the Fall is. And let me explain, I consider all music to be a form of theatre, or storytelling if that makes sense to you. With the Old Gods, it's just a bit more like putting on a costume, portraying a character, so there are other musical and artistic dimensions readily available for a musician and a composer to play and experiment with. We enjoy both, both are fun, in their own way".
He also added that not only was portraying Old Gods of Asgard a form of theatre, the experience also served as a source of inspiration. "As lovers of all kinds of music, metal music included, we found the periodic diversion from the Poets' musical style invigorating and welcome. It's also always a chance to give one musical style a rest for a while, as you do something else, and once you get back to writing for Poets of the Fall, that in turn seems fresh and renewed somehow. Even when projects are time-consuming and lengthy, they have always been a source of inspiration."
Established bands creating original tracks for video games certainly isn't commonplace, and Poets of the Fall have, with that edge, inserted themselves as major players in two separate industries. When we asked how that fact has impacted their careers, Saaresto explained that it's "certainly kept the field interesting to play, as new projects have come our way over time. Of course, when we were starting out, it was a great way to boost our marketing. I think it still is."
By exploring avenues outside of the traditional music industry, he explained that fans are still eager to tell the band members how they found them through a game. "It's also fun to get a very different take on music across to our fans, and it's just great to have our music be a part of something like a game or a film," Saaresto added. We also asked whether or not they were gamers and whether they would want to explore them more closely in the future and, as it turns out, there are some gamers in the band. "Many of us are avid gamers, and yes, we're always interested in musical projects concerning games and film."
Poets of the Fall is set for additional tour dates on the Ultraviolet Tour, kicking off on April 11 in Vantaa, Finland, and if you can't make it to the home country of this enduringly popular band, you can experience Olli's emotion-filled acoustic guitar tunes and Marko's enchanting vocals from the comfort of your own home by checking the first episode of the Alexander Theatre Sessions virtual live project to sate your poetic hunger.