65daysofstatic’s soundtrack to No Man’s Sky

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65daysofstatic, a math-/post-rock instrumental band that I sometimes listen to, recorded a soundtrack to No Man’s Sky, a recently released PS4 and PC space game most known for its heavy use of procedural generation: in the game there are billions and billions of unique planets that you can explore, complete with terrain, plants, and animals.

I haven’t played the game because I don’t have the hardware, but I like the soundtrack, especially the second album. I’ve listened to the whole thing a couple of times. With its sci-fi aesthetic it makes a good background for programming (or taking a long journey by train). You can listen to it on Spotify and YouTube (where it was uploaded illegally?).

When I first read that 65 made the soundtrack I was filled with optimism and happy for Hello Games — that they started as a small studio and managed to work with such a good and, for me, famous band. The more I read about their collaboration the more it sounded like a perfect story. Sadly, it turns bittersweet at the end.

I encourage you to read the whole interviews with 65 on The Verge, and WIRED yourself, but the gist is that they had great autonomy and the whole story started like a fairytale:

[Hello Games] emailed us asking if they could use our song “Debutante” for their launch trailer, which was going to be premiering. We asked them for some more info about the game, and they sent us some concept art which was incredibly impressive, and it was immediately clear that this was going to be an interesting project. So we emailed them back and said, “Yep, you can use ‘Debutante,’ by the way, do you have anyone to do the soundtrack yet? Because if not we should talk.” And they were like, “Yeah, cool, we don’t, let’s talk.”

Then we came back off tour and had a meeting with [Hello Games’ Sean Murray] and it was the best meeting, because I went to meet him in London ready to pitch 65 to this project, because we’d been looking for a soundtrack project for a while and this one seemed perfect for us. He came to the meeting, I think wanting to pitch the exact same thing; he really wanted 65 to do the soundtrack. It was a really easy meeting. We just agreed to do it in the first five minutes and then talked about sci-fi for a bit.

Just like other elements of No Man’s Sky, its sound also has procedural aspects. It reacts to what the player is doing, which in such an open game can’t be known in advance. The soundtrack is “remixed” on the fly by the game:

We’re actually working on that now with Paul. We’re taking the sessions from the record, which were mixed and mastered some time ago, and we’re diving back into those and pulling elements out, and then re-recording more variation, more complimentary sounds.

This introduces interesting challenges to the creative process:

You know that you have to make a record and that the record has to make sense and be accessible, and at the same time you know that all of that music is totally destroyable and it’s going to be atomized and rendered in a great number of variations.

To me, all of this sounds just so great and so uplifting. It reignites the desire to create things independently. Alas, the final words of the WIRED interview remind me what the financial situation of many artists is like:

The games world seems like something worth paying attention to and if I can ever afford a PS4 then that’s for me.

It made me sad and reminded me of Monuments, one of my favourite bands. A few weeks ago I was to another show of theirs. I had a great time and it was clearly visible that the band was having a blast too: the singer was walking on the ceiling while crowd surfing (singing the whole time), etc.

In my head what they have is the definition of success: they make the music they want, have hundreds of thousands of views/plays on the internet, they travel the world to play concerts, and people come specifically to see them and to do wild things in front of the stage.

It’d be hard to do better.

But after they come off the stage and go to the merchandise table, you realise that it’s a small club, that the ticket was super cheap, and that all band members look tired because they play 3–5 shows a week for half a year. The best you can do is invite friends to such concerts and after the show go the merch table and buy some generic/stock t-shirt with the band’s name on it, that the singer sells from a suitcase.

Turns out, it doesn’t matter if some programmer thinks you’re famous. Having a million hits doesn’t mean you’ll make the ends meet:

To end in this sad tone, I’ll just mention that No Man’s Sky reception is not great. A lot of 6/10 reviews. It’s terrifying to commit a substantial part your life to doing a thing that undoubtedly will be judged by others.

If you’d like to read or watch more about No Man’s Sky, I gather interesting materials about it on my link blog.