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Talking Tunes with Astro Bot Rescue Mission's Kenneth Young

The talented composer and sound designer has given us audible treats for 15 years with LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway, last year's fantastic Astro Bot Rescue Mission and more.

Kenneth C. M. Young might not be a name as recognisable as Hans Zimmer, John Williams, or any other composer who is mostly known for their work in cinema, but it's fairly likely you've heard his work if you love games. Having worked in the games industry as a sound designer and composer for more than 15 years, Young has won a bunch of awards for making the music and sound in games like LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway, Tethered, last year's Astro Bot Rescue Mission, and the upcoming Knights & Bikes. We were reminded of his great work when Astro Bot Rescue Mission's fabulous soundtrack became an integral part of our playlist, so we wanted to learn more about the Scottish composer. Fortunately, he agreed to do talk with us, and here's our interview about his time in the industry, his favourite soundtracks from last year, his work on Astro Bot, and much, much more.

As you've now entered your 15th year in the games industry we're wondering if you can tell us how audio design and music has evolved through the years?

KY: Sure! Well, it's always easy to view games from a technology point of view because it changes so fast and that really dates everything. When I started out working on PlayStation 2 games (EyeToy: Chat, anyone? I didn't think so...) we were streaming music off of DVDs and were seriously limited with the amount of memory we had to play with for sound samples. Which was challenging, but that just meant you had to get creative whilst also squeezing the life out of everything! But that gave the games a particular, unique sound and aesthetic - a naïve lack of sound, a lot of repetition and an unpleasant grainy quality that you get from low bit-rate, ADPCM audio. It's interesting, actually - I think perhaps we're still a little too close to that period to look back on those limitations with fondness, but I feel like the 90s aesthetics of the original PlayStation-generation are due a bit of a revisit and revival. Perhaps not in the mainstream, but there's definitely room for that nostalgic niche within gaming culture.

The truth is, though, that the main change since that time is we now simply have the capacity for more sound and more music in our games. For example, on my current project (which is for PlayStation 4, PC and Mac), overlooking the fact that we haven't started optimising yet, I've got more memory available to me than I know what to do with. I'm just throwing sound at the game and haven't hit any limits yet. Whilst that's down to the peculiarities of that specific project and isn't by any means applicable to all games, that would nonetheless have been totally beyond my comprehension 15 years ago. But, fundamentally, the basic premise and technology of interactive audio hasn't changed all that much since the PlayStation 1 and 2 eras - we're still just triggering samples and streaming assets off of disk for the most part. Which has been advantageous in many respects, because it means we've been able to spend less time battling the technology and increase the focus on refining it so we can create engaging, immersive audio experiences. I think you can hear the fruits of that in terms of the quality and sophistication, which just keeps on going up, but also in terms of the breadth of different audio experiences and aesthetics on offer - it's really amazing, and perhaps even a little overwhelming at times, to see quite how insanely broad the church of games has become.

And then there's the matter of how game development culture, and its relationship with audio, has changed over the same period. When I got into the industry audio was always jokingly referred to as the "bastard stepchild" of game development, because it was easily overlooked and very much seen as the icing on the development cake rather than one of the main ingredients. I've come to appreciate and accept that an element of that is inevitable and actually desirable - sound and music's superpower is being able to influence people's thoughts, feelings and perceptions on a subconscious level, and it is precisely this mercurial, intangible quality which leads to it being underappreciated. You can't have one without the other! Having said that, as audio experiences in games have become more sophisticated, experienced developers have become more aware of the potential for audio to contribute in a meaningful way towards the player experience, and audio professionals have also become better at engaging, collaborating and inspiring their colleagues in other disciplines. So, we're in a much better place now, and I look upon the eerily similar contemporary conversations surrounding younger crafts such as narrative design or community management with a wry smile and look forward to seeing how that progresses over the next decade.

Where do you think audio design and music in games will go in the future? Will it become an even bigger part of gaming, will we see more games using music as a mechanic?

Absolutely. Or, at least, I hope so! There's so much unexplored territory here, we've barely scratched the surface. Going back to the notion of games being a broad church - there's room for everything under the sun and a growing audience to support it. People are always hungry for new experiences and audio is relatively untapped, so let's go, right?!

But audio is hard to exploit, for all the reasons I touched on earlier - it can be mercurial and hard to grasp for folks that aren't specialists. So, inter-disciplinary collaboration is the key to making progress here and, as an industry, we now better recognise the importance of this, so on our current trajectory I think we're going to see more and more experiences emerging that are comfortable using sound and music in ways which are unique to our medium rather than essentially just aping how it is used in linear media.

This feels culturally related to how it is getting easier to celebrate games for being games. I don't think the industry is quite over its desperate desire to be accepted by the establishment, but the younger generation coming through take games, interactivity and even making games for granted and I think that mindset is significantly different and will be really disruptive and positive for our industry.

One of the key insights I championed and brought to Media Molecule's Dreams project in the four year period I worked on it was the realisation that in pursuing having a real-time music system we had an amazing opportunity to foster deep integration between it and all the other systems in the game, particularly the other temporal elements such as gameplay and animation. I was thinking about it primarily in terms of how to make the product stand out in the marketplace by offering a unique player experience, but it's only in seeing what the team have achieved with the tool-set that I'm now much more excited and inspired by the idea of a generation of games makers growing up taking this kind of deep integration between the tools and disciplines for granted. Because when those folks get into the industry they are going to be sorely disappointed, and they will demand better!

Real-time music systems making a comeback is a general trend in the industry, it's just that Dreams is a little ahead of the curve there. When the Multimedia PC and the original PlayStation introduced optical media it shifted music in games towards streaming/pre-recorded audio and we lost touch with much our heritage of real-time music, but we're reconnecting with it now and this is going to allow game music to really be the best version of itself by making it infinitely more malleable, dynamic and integrated. I'm excited!

What's the most underappreciated part of being a sound designer and composer?

Oof! What a question... I guess I can contrast the two crafts a little having experienced both, both in-house and as a freelancer. One thing they share in common is that it can be quite a lonely job - which is only a bad thing if you aren't OK with that! Not only do you work in a room by yourself but, if you're a lone freelancer, you often won't professionally interact with anyone "in the flesh" for weeks at a time.

Whilst sound designers are much more likely to work in-house than composers (meaning, in a studio full of other human beings) because sound is little understood or appreciated it's nonetheless quite isolating and therefore not a profession for people who seek praise or attention. On the plus side, soundies get loads of freedom, and that makes it particularly attractive to detail-oriented types (because they tend not to be as good at handling criticism or being told what to do), which is a snug fit, actually, because sound work requires a laser-focused attention to detail. The downside is they're often not given the time and resources they might like or need to do their best work. So, sound folk need to have a strong internal compass if they are to raise the bar because they're unlikely to be pushed, and they benefit from having strong social skills because then they can appeal to people on a personal level which helps to compensate for their work being overlooked.

Composers have it quite different - people are all over their music and, relatively speaking, there is no shortage of attention and opinions! So, it's less freeing in many respects, but you're held to a higher standard and, if you can meet that, then it brings more buy-in, willingness and love. Composers are often sensitive types because this is what allows them to channel their feelings into their work and elevate the project, but they need to be pragmatic and robust enough to face criticism, deal with rejection and roll with the punches. It's a real high wire act!

The combination of isolation and emotional highs and lows means that mental health is something that composers need to be particularly aware of, take seriously and learn to manage. Indeed, audio has the strongest community of all the disciplines in the industry, in large part because it has historically always had a significant percentage of isolated freelancers in need of some empathy and human contact.