Interview: David Housden (Thomas Was Alone)

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**SPOILERS OF THOMAS WAS ALONE BELOW**

How did you begin working in the game industry?

I began working in the games industry whilst I was at university. My teacher developed a relationship with a local iOS developer and managed to convince them to allow a student to do the sound design and music for the game which they were working on. We were all given the chance to audition for it and we had to write a demo along with a cover letter of why we felt suitable for the role. Luckily for me, I was chosen and got my first credit on a published release in my second year of uni.

I guess my real ‘break’ came after this though; I used to play guitar in a band and we were on tour. One night we played with another band called Who’s Driving Bear’s Driving and I got chatting to their guitarist, who turned out to be a developer at Jagex. We got chatting and I mentioned that I was studying music at uni with a view to working as a composer, and I asked if he’d be able to arrange any work experience for me. I sent him some of my work over and he said he’d see what he could do.

I didn’t hear back from him for a few months, but then he called one day to tell me that he’d just began working at a new start-up called Bossa Studios. They didn’t have any work experience as such, but their lead designer was working on a personal project in his spare time and he needed a composer. It was a foot in the door, so I of course said yes, and he put me in touch with this guy who turned out to be Mike Bithell.

He told me about this little 2D platformer he was developing in his spare time and asked me to write him a demo, as we wasn’t convinced by my (admittedly very poor) student portfolio. So, I spent a couple of days writing this piece that I felt captured the essence of the game and sent it over. He loved it and it ended up being the title music for Thomas Was Alone. The first piece of music I wrote out of university for my first job and it was for my biggest project to date. A lucky break to say the least!

What are the best parts of your career as a composer?

Shot2

The best parts of my career are… well all of it I guess! I write music for a living! It doesn’t get much better than that. I guess the magic moments where you work with someone of real ambition, trying to tell a story and create an emotional experience for the player are the ones I look forward to. The random, iOS games with no real point other than to extract money from the player over a prolonged period of time can become quite tedious to work on, because they’re nearly all derivative works and you know that if they could get the license to use an existing piece of music, they would.

They’re not interested in originality, or creating an atmosphere for the player, it just has to be there and unobtrusive. Plus, they’re always the projects that want you to be able to turn everything over within a week or two, and as such it can be difficult to get the quality of work to the standard you’d like. But who am I kidding, the worst day of writing music is still better than the best day you could have working in an office somewhere, so I’m really not complaining!

The awards nights are incredibly special as well. The BAFTA’s was one of the best evenings of my life, despite not winning in my category.

What’s your favorite game(s)?

My favourite games of all time are probably Final Fantasy VIII, Silent Hill 2, Kingdom Hearts, Resident Evil 4 and Broken Sword SotT. I love all survival horror to be fair though, the Project Zero/Fatal Frame series was incredible, the first 3 Silent Hills and also more or less every single Resident Evil through to Code Veronica was fantastic.

I’m really looking forward to The Evil Within being released this year as it looks like a long overdue return to true survival horror, rather than the third person action titles which seem to be passing themselves off as survival horror, due to having zombies or another arbitrary ‘horror’ cliche enemy.

Ultimately though, the games that resonate with me the most are the ones with incredible stories, which make you completely empathize with your character and their plight. Those rare ones that leave you emotionally reeling and leave an everlasting impression on you, are the ones I’ll always look back on with the most fondness.

What moment(s) in gaming really resonate with you to this day?

I guess I started to answer this one in the previous answer, but the most powerful moments in gaming which I can remember are *spoiler alert* when you discover that after hours of pushing through some of the most terrifying environments ever created and enduring all manner of psychological torment (courtesy of those kind folk at Konami) in search of the truth, you discover that you (James Sutherland) in fact killed your wife and this entire journey was nothing more than physical manifestations of the guilt, grief, and inner torment you were repressing inside. It’s one of the darkest, deepest, most emotional games I’ve ever played, as well as one of the most terrifying (just thinking about the hospital or the prison gives me chills) and is the highlight of the series to this day, in my opinion.

Other than this, I think the moment shared between Squall and Rinoa on Ragnarok, when the Eyes on Me music played in full was one of the most touching scenes I’ve seen to date. I played these games when I was at an extremely emotionally impressionable age. If I’d have played FFVII when I was a little older, I’m sure it would’ve had a bigger affect on me. It was just the timing I suppose, of being a teenager and going through all of the romantic pitfalls one experiences in life, and then playing as characters all going through the same trials and tribulations but in a fantasy universe. It was just awesome.

Where did you draw your inspiration from with Thomas Was Alone’s soundtrack? Where do you continue to draw inspiration from?

Mike gave me some references to work from but I didn’t really like many of them. The Moon soundtrack by Clint Mansell was one cool example he referred to, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do much with the other pieces listed, and ultimately if I’m writing music which I don’t feel, or that I’m not particularly comfortable with, then it’s going to have an adverse effect on the game. So, I took a chance and pretty much did my own thing. I think the reason he liked it and didn’t fire me on the spot is because I focussed so hard on creating the emotions and atmosphere that he wanted, I just did it in a way that I knew how. So the instrumentation and construct of the music mattered less to him than the emotional impact the pieces were likely to have on the audience.

I’m not going to lie, he did have to continually remind me to include some electronic elements in there; I was constantly trying to make the pieces more organic and cut down on the chip-tune element, but I feel that we compromised on a good balance by the end of it.

My biggest personal influences were Explosions in the Sky, Hammock and Mono, post-rock bands who specialize in creating ambient, cinematic soundscapes. I also took a lot from Einaudi and Michael Nyman. I think this probably comes through in my use of piano, as almost every piece was written around a minimalist piano line.

As for what continues to inspire me to this day, I guess just beautiful music. The pieces that you hear which bring a tear to your eye and have the ability to make you stop everything your doing and just listen to them in awe. That’s what I try to create in my music and that’s what inspires me.

Thomas Was Alone has a very unique style in offering minimalist graphics combined with a very well thought out narrative and soundtrack. Obviously there is a story to be told in the game. What were you, the composer, trying to portray in the soundtrack?

I was trying to focus on the pure emotions attempting to be portrayed and capture them in their rawest form, allowing the story itself to deal with the intricacies and to keep the narrative moving. There’s a stage where Thomas begins to lose his friends to the environment and ends up on his own again, so here I tried to write a piece of music to represent the overwhelming feeling of loss. Nothing more and nothing less than that. I think it’s the simplicity of this approach and the honesty behind it, combined with the innocence of the characters, which has resonated with people so much.

The key themes which would crop up throughout were loneliness and isolation, but also this unerring sense of hope. Things would be very sparse and minimal to represent how desolate things can seem when your alone, but then it would be written in a major key and I made sure that the chip-tune elements (which I kind of used as a voice for the characters) always brought a sense of optimism to proceedings. If I had to use one word to sum up the soundtrack it would be bittersweet.

What mood did you want to set in the atmosphere?

Kind of touched on this previously but I wanted to capture the highs and lowpoints of life. In their most powerful, heartbreaking, spectacular form. I wanted to make people cry; I wanted to create moments of elation and euphoria; I wanted to give people an outlet and a sense of catharsis from whatever they were dealing with in life at the time. And I hoped that somewhere on the soundtrack there would be a song which resonated with them personally. 

Any particular parts of the game that really stood out to you? Perhaps some moment where everything just made sense and you felt good about the outcome?

The part which struck me the most was *spoiler alert* when the characters you’ve just spent the last few hours going on this journey with, sacrifice themselves in order for the other AI to escape. This selfless act of altruism really reinforced the innocence and pure decency of the characters personalities, and in a deeper sense probably reminds us that we all used to be like that to an extent, particularly when we were younger.

Most of us like to think that we’re good people, but growing up in the modern world you lose that sense of innocence and the black and white view of right and wrong, good and bad. I think playing this game has reminded a lot of people of who they were and perhaps to an extent still are, and this can only be a good thing. Although if you were to ask Mike he’d probably tell you something completely different, this is just what I took from it.

Who is your favorite character in Thomas Was Alone? Why?

thomas

I would have to say Thomas because I used the little guy as a reflection of myself. I was writing the music for myself, rather than just for the game. It’s actually quite an autobiographical soundtrack, because these are my emotions which I’ve portrayed through music.

Freedom will always break my heart every time I hear it, because it sums up how I feel when I’m heartbroken but know deep down that it’s for the best. The characters all died, so that someone else could experience life. This is an immensely sad thing to happen, but ultimately something good comes from it and this is precisely what the music is saying at this point of the game. It’s these conflicts of emotion which have been ever present throughout, culminating at their most powerful moment. It was Thomas’ journey, but my emotions became his and vice versa and for that reason he holds the closest place in my heart. 

If only one overall message could be produced from Thomas Was Alone for people to hear, which message would you choose? Why?

I think I’ve probably talked about this at length already, but I hope people come away from it with a feeling of hope. Bad things happen in life to everyone and they can hurt immeasurably, but the feeling doesn’t last for ever. There will always be a brighter day and something to look forward to in the future, regardless of how dark things can sometimes seem. This sense of optimism and brightness is what I’d like people to take from the game.

If someone was looking for advice on how to start chasing their dream jobs and you were constrained to one sentence, what would you tell them?

Work hard, harder than you thought yourself capable of and never give up if you truly believe in what you’re doing; the only way you won’t achieve your goals and dreams is if you don’t work hard enough for them or if you stop trying at some point – if things haven’t happened for you yet, then it’s probably a sign that you’re not ready for it, so keep going!

If you’d like to keep up with David Housden, you can follow him on Twitter here.

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Author: Darkrast

Co-Founder of Dpad Press.

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