Alien Isolation Interview: How Composers Evolved A Legacy

Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, better known in the music circles as The Flight, were in charge of bringing the soundtrack to life for one of the most critically recognized and intense first-person thrillers that dropped this year. The name of the game? Alien: Isolation.

The duo has worked around the TV, film and game scene, with notable entries to their credit including The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Moulin Rouge, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and LittleBigPlanet 3 to name a few. I was given an opportunity to send a few questions to Henson and Smith regarding the process they went through to sculpt the musical sound behind Alien: Isolation, as well as dealing with some of the technology that helped shape the terror and thrills that some gamers are finding so enthralling.

Gaming Blend: Jerry Goldsmith really set a standard for the first Alien film with the soundtrack; blending in quite well with the atmosphere and sound effects of the film. I'm curious how you guys approach doing research for building a soundtrack around a game where the tension and atmosphere are going to be more of a focus than fast-paced thrills and action?

Joe & Alexis: We watched the original film many times, and studied Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It has a very iconic sound and we wanted to work out what were the most important aspects of it for our score to feel authentic without just copying. As well as the main themes, there are certain sounds like the ‘Alien whale’ or the delayed orchestral snaps that are key. The atonal and aleatoric approaches used also work hand in hand with building a tense, even terrifying at times, atmospheric score.

Gaming Blend: Even though it was mentioned that Jerry Goldsmith's original score was licensed for the game, there's still the whole issue of fleshing out a score for a game that extends up to eight hours. There's obviously not going to be eight hours of music, but how do you approach extending Goldsmith's soundtrack while still keeping it consistent with what was featured in the original film? And how does this affect the creative direction for the music when there's already a very strong groundwork laid for the sound and tones?

Joe & Alexis: The licenced cues from the film added up to about 10 minutes, and we ended up composing around 3 hours of music for the game. The overall idea was to start quite true to the original, and then to explore some different directions as the game goes on - but making sure they sound right for the game’s overall aesthetic. We teamed up with film composer (and Joe’s brother) Christian Henson for this project, and one of the first things he did was a piece where he took the Jerry Goldsmith themes and expanded on them. We used a lot of this as inspiration throughout the score. Having pre-existing material to work with does affect the creative direction, but as it was such great stuff, and can work in so many different ways, we didn’t find it stifling in any way.

Gaming Blend: In addition to jumping off of Goldsmith's foundation from the original Alien film, were you guys given any leeway to experiment with new or different instruments/sounds that weren't originally used in the 1979 film?

Joe & Alexis: We were given a lot of leeway and had space to experiment. One of the game’s overall design points is that it is space 1979-style. We wanted to mirror this in the music, using mainly vintage analogue synths, effects and recording techniques. It may be quite subtle but we went on a journey through the history of horror films, from orchestral through to the synths of the ‘70s and ‘80s, touching on a more modern sound towards the end.

Gaming Blend: During the EGX conference Creative Assembly talked about the important role of the sound effects crew and the music. I have to say that from what I've experienced of Alien: Isolation the audio design really is impeccable. The one thing that makes it stand out so much is the fact that the audio of the effects and the audio of the music blend together so well. What was that experience like having to deal with making music centered around atmospheric effects, ambient effects and the alien? And did this require a lot of collaboration with the audio director?

Joe & Alexis: Byron, Mark and the guys in the audio department did an amazing job. We always try to work as closely as we can with the audio team. Our music often blurs between music and sound design itself, so there were times when we had to make sure we didn’t tread on each others’ toes.

Gaming Blend: Speaking of the alien/xenomorph... with a lot of the interactivity and audio design centering around the actions of the alien, was it required to work with the A.I., design team to get an idea of how to shape the music around the actions of the computer A.I., or was that completely separate from composing the music cues at all?

Joe & Alexis: The music system was pretty complicated, but we only really interfaced with the audio team.

Gaming Blend: It was mentioned that the team couldn't use a static score due to the game’s emergent design. Did this design decision affect every piece of music for the game, including the longer cues?

Joe & Alexis: Apart from the cut scenes and scripted cues the entire score was interactive. We always had the system in the back of our heads when composing, but we try not to let it get in the way of the initial writing.

Gaming Blend: Overall, I have to ask: was there a lot of pressure heading into and working on this project? With the Alien property, we've seen with the games and the movies that some projects can go either way on the quality scale. Did this create excitement or fear?

Joe & Alexis: It’s Alien! It’s a dream project to work on. There were moments when you realise the responsibility endowed upon you, but these were made lighter with the excitement of being able to be part of such an incredible and rich world.

Gaming Blend: Even though you guys worked on the music for the game, I have to ask: do you see all the mechanical workings behind the magic to keep from being spooked, or does Alien: Isolation still manage to get some jump-scares out of you every once in a while?

Joe & Alexis: We are attempting to play through A:I from start to finish in lunch breaks at the moment. It still scares us every time!

Huge thanks to Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, The Flight, for answering the questions regarding Alien: Isolation. You can learn more about their music works by paying a visit to their official website. Alien: Isolation is available right now for home consoles and PC.

Will Usher

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend.