HHow do you make music sound cool? How can you explain why the soundtrack of, say, one of the spy movies of the 1960s still sounds cool decades later? How can Foxy Lady still penetrate your body and get you grooving like that 55 years after Jimi Hendrix laid down those slick licks? Jungle, Thundercat or Lil Nas X might be able to tell you – but so can the folks behind the soundtrack to Deathloop, one of the most effortlessly classy-looking (and sounding) games in years.
Arcane mind-blowing sci-fi thought experiment is a masterclass in coolness. From its retro-futuristic take on ’60s chic to its stylish “The world is your oyster” design, Deathloop understands that it’s important to make you – and the people you play – feel cool. The two protagonists, Colt and Julianna, are certainly sassy, glamorous and sophisticated, but it’s the music that infuses Deathloop with its suave vibe.
“Music is more than 50% of the personality of this game and this world,” says composer Tom Salta. “It creates an instant emotional connection and immerses you in another time and place.”
For Deathloop, that time and place is Blackreef in the ’60s, a strange island where a space-time anomaly causes everything within a certain radius to repeat itself every 24 hours. Want to know how it feels to jump without safety gear? Don’t worry, you will come back to life tomorrow. Want to party so hard your body gives out? Don’t worry, you’ll wake up again the morning before. Want to indulge in all the excesses of a 1960’s alternate history without consequences? Unleash your inner Jim Morrison, no one will blame you.
“My biggest concern was finding a way to sound late ’60s but still have attitude, action and punch,” says Salta. “Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of heavy-sounding music from that era, so I had to focus on specific grooves and styles to support the hyper-action combat in the game.”
In Updaam, Blackreef’s residential area, you might see a couple of girls wearing bubbles over their heads, or a huge party at a wealthy investment banker’s mansion, or residents walking around preparing for the chaos at the end of the day, all repeated himself for the 700th time. But whoever’s around, you’re likely to get into a fight.
“The first piece of music in the game that came together and made me think, ‘This is it, we’ve got it,’ was the battle music in Updaam,” says Salta. He cites the bass groove of one of his favorite Yes songs, Roundabout, as a starting point: “That kind of feel seemed perfect for what I wanted and worked really well.” From there, Salta brought his friend and Jazz keyboard legend Philippe Saisse “who pulled in a rousing Minimoog solo” that gave him confidence that the deathloop sound would come together.
The music genre in the game can be traced back to just three tracks: Daniel Pemberton’s His Name Is Napoleon Solo from The Man from UNCLE, Tonbruket’s Linton and Pierre Henry, and Michel Colombier’s Psyche Rock.
“I like the latter so much because it’s a concentration of ’60s rock ingredients with a touch of crazy experimental electronic music,” says Michel Trémouiller, audio director at Arkane Lyon. “Tonbruket is more personal. I love Swedish jazz, so I’m a fan of the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, whose former double bass player was Dan Berglund and who is currently Tonbruket’s leader. In addition to their experimental approach to pop-rock music, they offer vintage and neo-psychedelic vibes, but with a more saturated and contemporary sound. They are really hypnotic.”
For the game’s main theme, which required Salta to combine all that effortless cool with some suspense, more unconventional methods were used to hit that classic spy thriller acoustic. Since Deathloop had to sound like Deathloop (it couldn’t just be a Bond or Bullitt impersonation), Salta decided to create a special signature sound for the game.
“One of the more unconventional instruments I explored was a clavinet instead of a guitar,” he says. “In fact, the main theme has no guitars at all, which is quite unusual for this style of music.”
The concept of cool involves trusting what you’re doing without taking it too seriously. Cool is playful and knowing, but not pretentious or arrogant: direct, thoughtful, relaxed. For Salta, “there’s an attitude… tough, but not too serious.” To me, that describes Deathloop perfectly: you feel like a real badass sneaking around in a stylized version of the ’60s. You might have a controller in your hand instead of a gun, but you still feel like George Lazenby or Steve McQueen.