As you strap on your spurs and ride into the untamed sprawl of America of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, the sensation is, at once, visual, physical and aural. Hooves carving up the dusty, sun-parched road; green mountains on the horizon and, then, the unignorable acoustic twang gently soundtracking a pleasant ride.
Until the bandits show up, of course. Then the music shifts as the gunfight begins, thundering drums and the skronk of electric guitars undercutting pistol fire.
Soundtracking video games is no easy task. Hollywood is flush with iconic, soaring scores but, generally speaking, do not have to dynamically shift and alter to the whims of an unpredictable player.
“We worked hard to create a system that would feel responsive and reactive to player actions and the situations they find themselves in while exploring the world,” says Alastair MacGregor, Audio Director at the Edinburgh-based Rockstar North.
“It was important that each level of the story was enhanced through the score in a way that feels like there is a music editor behind the scenes scoring the experience just for them, such that the player doesn’t notice any of the transitions and everything feels seamless.”
To do this, Rockstar worked with long-time collaborator Woody Jackson to create the music and the different ‘stems’ that form the basis of the score that dynamically changes when you are exploring the world. These are individual pieces of music and instrumental cues that layer on top of each other as the player explores the world.
“The first section is closest to the normal practices of scoring to film, when you have access to specifically timed, linear footage to work from in the form of cutscenes,” says Jackson. “Then from there we spot the music in the game like a film – say, when you go from starting the mission riding with a song and then get to the outside of a town, the music will change in mood.”
“The second part is where it becomes nothing like scoring a film. It is usually based on 11 Stem, 4 to 5-minute loops. This is not your usual song stem session where you just split up the parts into drum/bass/guitars/melody and everything can stack on top of itself but rather it caters to what will or could happen during gameplay.
“For Red Dead Redemption 2 we spotted where an emotion would change, like getting to a certain place during the mission which may or may not have dialogue, and then instead of just using the normal stacking, we can switch to entirely different key and tempo. This gives you more of the feeling of being in a movie rather than just playing a video game.”
'We wanted to come up with a signature sound of our own'
Jackson worked with Rockstar on the first Red Dead Redemption game, as well as on the Grand Theft Auto series. He says that the first Red Dead was steeped in spaghetti western sound, but for Red Dead Redemption 2 -a prequel set at the dawn of the 20th century- Rockstar wanted to ‘come up with a signature sound of their own’.
The result is a score that uses a lot of modern technique and Hollywood orchestral pomp but remains unmistakably Western-influenced. Helped, in part, by meticulous attention to detail on individual instruments used. Jackson says he acquired a 1920s Gibson Mandobass used in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt that perfectly recreated the ‘ominous’ sound of a bell, a nylon guitar used on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and ukuleles from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
With much of the soundtrack created for player-character Arthur Morgan’s 60-hour troubled odyssey, which Jackson said allowed the musicians to 'get deeper into his personal world', it then becomes a marriage with technology to implement it within the game.
Many of the techniques for Red Dead Redemption 2 were trialled in Grand Theft Auto V, but the technological advancements since 2013 allowed Rockstar much greater flexibility. MacGregor says that they were able to use “50pc more stems/layers” on open-world pieces of music. Which was “essential since the range of player situations we wanted to cover was much more diverse”.
Vintage guitars and artificial intelligence
Video game scores also have to work in tandem with the often chaotic noise of gunfights and destruction, particularly in the case of an impromptu encounter in an open-world game like Red Dead Redemption.
“One big area of tech advancement for us has been around our dynamic mixing systems; the tools we use to sculpt and manipulate the sound of the game based on the narrative and player actions,” says MacGregor. “The approaches we have developed allow us to really craft the sound of the world moment by moment, which was essential in being able to shape the rich soundscape we were building to be sympathetic to the score and vice versa.”
Rockstar also used an artificial intelligence system dubbed the ‘Gunfight Conductor’, which analyses action on the fly and automatically makes decisions on what to focus on from an audio perspective, “altering the mix and triggering additional sounds to ensure the sequence sounds as interesting and varied as possible”.
This was a system introduced in Grand Theft Auto V, but MacGregor says that Rockstar took the concept much further on Red Dead Redemption 2.
“The system was massively overhauled to better support the different pacing, weaponry and environments in this game, and we worked closely with the AI and visual effects teams to bring everything together,” he says. “This ended up being a really important aspect of how we choreograph dramatic micro-moments in large scale gun battles.”
MacGregor says that Rockstar has been able to leverage the audio work done on Red Dead Redemption 2 to create a similarly reactive soundtrack in the player-driven Red Dead Online. If one player exploring a crafted Western world is one thing, scores of unruly players coming together is another thing entirely.
“One of the big things we always want to avoid is anything jumping out or feeling jarring to the player; all transitions need to feel musical and should support the gameplay - adding drama and tension - without being obvious,” says MacGregor. “Maintaining this given how quickly a player can change their actions, completely shifting the tone in an instant, was definitely a challenge.”
No, soundtracking video games is no easy task. So the next time you are strolling through Red Dead’s Western world, keep an ear on that music lilting in the background of the prairie, the pianos tinkling in the bars of St Denis, the whistle of a wandering traveller or the (rare, according to MacGregor) sound of a sheep sneezing in a field.
But if you can’t hear the systems powering that sound, you know they are doing their jobs.
The Music of Red Dead Redemption 2 - The Original Soundtrack is now available for digital streaming