Easily the best panel I attended at PAX Australia 2013 was Killer Instinct: Behind the Music. There are many reasons for this: the 17 year long absence of Killer Instinct in our lives, that nostalgia and fondness for the 90’s, the charisma and passion of Mick Gordon, the composer of the new Killer Instinct‘s soundtrack and host of the panel, and the plain bad-ass-ness (that should really be a word!) of the music of Killer Instinct! This is a game that so many have patiently – and sometimes impatiently – waited for what seems an eternity in gamer years. It’s unfortunate that we can’t share the visual and aural elements of this presentation to you, but we will relay to you the process Mick walked us through in recreating such an iconic soundtrack.
First of all, let me just express how awesome Mick Gordon. This guy is a fountain of charm and “cool”. After the panel was over, many of the attendees went up to hake his hand and pick his brain a little further. And not only did he stay to talk, but when the next exhibitor wanted to start setting up, Mick didn’t shoo us away, but invited us to stand on the stage and continue our conversation while he packed up. He even signed autographs like a rockstar, gave advice to sound engineers and aspiring composers and gave us all his email to contact him. It also doesn’t hurt that he is extremely talented and passionate about his job, and in particular this one…
Mick has been a lifelong Rare fan, with Killer Instinct being the pinnacle of that list of great games. He started off the panel by asking us if we remembered the 90’s: blue light discos, watching Saturday morning Disney, those trolls with the crazy hair, the pens that connected to each other, Goosebumps, fast food not being bad for you, eating Samboy chips just for the tazos and pogs, sucking on Warheads…the…video game arcade? (you knew where he was going!). Mick then hilariously trolled (speaking of) this generation of young gamers:
Do you remember, putting in a dollar, you’d get a life?! And if you died, you’d have to put in another dollar! And kids today complain about free-to-play…that ‘do you wish to continue?’ screen just reminded me how poor I was!
We then arrived at the original Killer Instinct. We took a very brief trip down memory lane, listening to snippets of the old soundtrack, which was so good they put it on a CD called Killer Cuts (if you own that CD, please tweet us at a photo @CapsuleComputer). We then heard an unreleased track from that CD…and thank God it never saw the light of day. After having a good laugh, we fast forwarded to November of 2012 when Mick got an email about possibly working on a new project for Microsoft – his dream project. And so the work began on redoing the Killer Instinct main theme for the reveal at E3.
Moving onto the character themes, Mick had to look at the characterisations of each one, taking them and bringing them into 2013. Jago is up first – a Tibetan monk who dedicated his life to focusing on the Tiger Spirit. After witnessing its manifestation in the evil entity Gargos, Jago returns to his temple to realise that he had been chasing something that was always inside of him…he is the Tiger Spirit. Mick attempted to reflect that journey and Jago’s current state of being in his new theme, by travelling to a Buddhist temple in Dandenong (what a trek!) and learning how to perform throat singing (which wrecked his voice). After failing to mimic his example, we moved onto Glacius…
In exploring Glacius and finding inspiration from his background for the creation of his new theme, Mick wanted to delve deeper than the Terminator T-1000-like aspects of Glacius, and examine the fact that he is an alien that had crash landed on Earth, had his technology stolen from him by Ultratech and is now back to reclaim it knowing full well what it is capable of in the wrong hands. Visually, he looks more like an actual ice-creature, with an endoskeleton of rock, an outer “shell” of liquid-translucent skin and on top of all that, a high-tech suit.
His foreign, mysterious and high-tech nature informed the creation of his theme. It is filled with ominous choir singing and backed by a fast and powerful synthetic sounding drum beat. It was at this point that Mick reminded us of the data constraints that prevented pieces longer than 1 minute back on the original, which is why each track involved 1-minute loops. Now, that obviously isn’t an issue. In fact, Glacius’ theme is a whopping 13 minutes long! Because of this and the fact that the music adapts dynamically to how you are playing, Mick promises that you will not hear it all or in the same exact way every time you play a round or match.
Carrying on from this concept of dynamic music, it was revealed that each character has a musical Ultra that is not only specific to them, but specific to the level they are currently on. Pulling off Glacius’ Ultra, for example, on Jago’s stage, will sound like Glacius’s Ultra, on Jago’s stage. Got it? Basically, the music scores the fight. Next, we took a look at Sabrewulf – the final officially announced character so far (although we’ve all seen that latest teaser for Chief Thunder). The lycanthrope is one really messed up person – if he can still be referred to as a person…
Drugs could not reverse the effects of lycanthropy, so he then cut his arms off and replaced them with metal prosthesis. Why? Well as Mick put it, “he was hoping it would satisfy his consumer urge to have new things”. But it didn’t, and so he tore them off and they can be found, in-game, hanging from the roof of his laboratory. He now has to permanently inject himself with drugs to stave off the condition, but is slowly realising that he has no choice but to succumb to the beast within. A drug-fiend werewolf’s music sounds as you would want it to: a combination of long, screeching and staccato strings ala old monster films like Dracula and Frankenstein.
As an awesome treat, Mick then played for us the new theme, in it entirety, for the first time ever. It was accompanied by a video montage of gameplay, and a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment…which I must’ve blinked on because I missed it…so disappointed in myself. But what came next got my mind off that failure rather quickly – we recorded some audio that will feature in the final game (with some heavy modifying, undoubtedly). Mick orchestrated us as we mimicked high and low winds, and performed a variety of chants and sounds. If I was a betting man, I would put my money on them being utilised in Chief Thunder’s stage music.
Mick closed out the panel by holding a 20 minute Q&A, which was unfortunately populated by impossible questions such as “if Orchid is coming back, how did you do her theme” and “how did you approach making new characters’ themes, as I assume there are some”. *Sigh*… But he did leave us with a tantalising riddle of sorts: “Every original Killer Instinct character’s theme will be included in the game, but will remain hidden. To find them, you must fight against your instincts.” Finally, just know that the music is in phenomenal hands as everything Mick composes, he sends to the original Killer Instinct composer Robin Beanland for his approval. “As a fan, I would not accept anything less”.