I waver between thinking game-maker and animator David O’Reilly’s masterpiece, Everything, is something more than a video game and not a video game at all. Playing it feels much more like looking at a painting, or perhaps taking a psychedelic meditation retreat. In the game, the player takes turns controlling hundreds of individual objects and entities that are cartoonish abstractions of our own reality, from giraffes to microconidia to continents, clouds and eventually galaxies. Eventually, one is able to create madcap worlds-within-worlds where a murder of crows might dance with submarines beneath the ocean, or a planet-sized record player plunks out strange noises in space. (There are, interestingly, no human beings roaming O’Reilly’s worlds.)
Two elements lend this beautiful but absurd experience some real weight. The inclusion of hours of joyful and thought-provoking lectures from the great philosopher Alan Watts, and the expansive score from electronic musician Ben Lukas Boysen and contemporary classical composer/musician Sebastian Plano. Their pieces—anchored by Plano’s emotive cello and expanded by Boysen’s towering, organic ambient structures—are otherworldly and full of wonder. They swell and fade unexpectedly as the player tinkers, and they evoke something more than just beauty. They evoke awe. It is a remarkable experience, and the resulting Everything soundtrack—on the venerable Erased Tapes label—stands on its own as a startling piece of art. We spoke to Boysen and Plano via video chat, as they were drinking beers at Boysen’s home in Berlin.
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How did you get connected with David and this game?
Ben Lukas Boysen: David [O’Reilly] just sent me an email. I knew of David and I was a big fan, and he apparently knew of me, but we were never in contact. He sent me an email that was such an understatement of Everything, and so casually written, that I thought it was a spam email. He said, ‘Hello, I want you to work on my game. Should we have a Skype call?’
We got on Skype, and I saw the rolling bear animation right away that you see in the trailer. That was at a point where there was no music, just really raw sound effects. And I asked him, ‘Will the animation of the bear be like this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the final animation.’ And I said, ‘Well then I really need to work on this project.’
The entire topic of the game is dependencies, and how we really depend on each other—one thing needs the other to exist, and our existence, or any existence, puts the existence of the next thing into perspective. And I thought, ‘This is a project where I can ask Sebastian to work with me.’
You knew you wanted this to be a collaborative project right away?
Boysen: Very soon after. Because it was just too much to take on myself, and it felt beneficial to have somebody else’s creativity and thoughts working on it.
Sebastian Plano: It also came from the perspective that David had on the music, and the reference music he gave Ben. Many of the songs were classical pieces. It was all very lyrical. And the cello—or any string instrument—is just perfect for that. So Ben called me and said he had an exciting project. He came over—we had some beers first. I got very excited, because it sounded like an artistic project from the very beginning. It was very interesting and natural. The whole project felt very natural from all sides, not just the music. On David’s side, he says he didn’t know what he was doing [when he started making the game] and he just went with it. Everything came to be very naturally.
Boysen: Originally, his references included Strauss. He threw ‘The Blue Danube’ at us at first. And honestly it would make perfect sense to have that song in the game. But I told him, ‘I don’t think we can achieve that sound. We’ll have to create our own sound world.’ I would have loved to have a Strauss world, but that’s not gonna happen. Not anytime soon. So we agreed to adapt the feeling, but create our own sound.
It was very efficient, to be honest. The only other thing he said was that the game in itself can be really silly and goofy, and the music should be the glue that keeps the silliness and the message of the game together.
Plano: What the music gives to the game is this depth, this serious dimension. I don’t know if ‘serious’ is the right word. It becomes emotional.
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So how did you record the songs, logistically?
Plano: It was all via FTP. He would call or write me, and I’d get a sense of what we were after from his descriptions. Then I would make solo cello recordings—improvisations, like 15-minute takes. Different sounds, experimental techniques on the cello, long-lasting melodic lines. I would send smaller instrumental pieces, too. And then Ben, from one melodic line on the cello, would create this whole entire world.
Boysen: But it wouldn’t have worked without the cello.
Plano: Sound inspires creativity. Like the piano: you can just play one note, and it makes you want to make a whole piece. It inspires you. Ben never came back saying, ‘I like this, but can you change it?’ It was like being the perfect couple, you know?
Boysen: I just didn’t see Sebastian as a session musician. I always prefer to be partners, not boss and employee. If you work together, you have equal rights. That’s why there was nothing to change. When you send something back, that’s what I get to work with.
Plano: David’s mind was very open, too.
Boysen: Yeah, we’re not going to have that experience again anytime soon. It’s because David was really in the same creative mindset that he was in when he created most of the game. It’s sad that it’s over. It’s like this school trip that you actually liked! You go about and do your own thing and swim in the atmosphere for weeks, months. Then you go back to a world without that project. It speaks volumes about the project that we were like, ‘Oh shit, this is over now.’
The medium of games, and especially this game, must be so different to work on than short films and commercials. You’re not soundtracking a finite period of time or a finite experience. What were the mileposts and the limitations here?
Boysen: Our original concept just talked about the seven scale levels—the different sized worlds you could be in. So we started talking about themes for the different levels. Each scale level has a theme—however, when you go back into a world, you don’t want to hear the same thing over and over again. As a person who likes to play a game or two every now and again—meaning as often as I can—these dynamics were very interesting to me. For example, I play Skyrim, which has a four-hour score, and I always have the feeling that it’s always the same three tracks I’m listening to. That’s not true, but I have that feeling, and we wanted to avoid that. We came up with themes that were quite different, and they needed variation. So when you descend or ascend, there should be at least two or three songs that could possibly be triggered there. So we pretty much instantly had 21 songs, and then we realized that was not enough. Which is why we wound up with 43. And David ran all these beta sessions and tests, and people might spend a couple of minutes as a galaxy, whereas they spent hours being any kind of animal or plant.
Plano: The galaxy world is very sound-designed, it’s these massive soundscapes. And you don’t get that same use of the cello you get in other worlds. It’s there, but it’s abstracted. The different stages have different moods. But the different themes do connect across different worlds.
You can also be playing the game very quietly and silently for a while, and then all of a sudden Alan Watts is talking, and the music is swelling.
Boysen: That’s something we took directly from Skyrim, to be honest. There are noticeable silences, not out of laziness—
Plano: But because then the music can be powerful. The same when Alan Watts comes in. It’s beautiful. And the sound design, these sounds are crazy good.
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It can feel less like playing a game than meditating or something.
Boysen: Absolutely, and that’s something I only got when I played the final game. We had played early builds, but it was not the same thing. When your laptop starts venting like crazy, because it’s not made for the game, it’s not the same. But we got download codes for the PlayStation version, and then playing it, I finally understood what we were doing. Making the music, it felt very tailored: We had this track and that track, and they were all very thought-through. Playing the final thing, I feel like we let go of a lot to make this work the way it does. You know the songs and you know, potentially, how they are supposed to work. But if you’re a giant rubber ducky in space and suddenly something you wrote starts playing, that’s a good feeling. And Everything was just a very special production. It had the freedom you’d wish for in any project.
Can you talk about the ratio of organic to electronic instruments you made this album with? Let’s take ‘Were Here’ for an example, because it has these haunting sort of vocal sounds.
Boysen: That’s a classic example. This cello line that’s in here, that’s all that Sebastian sent. The cello line you hear is more or less unedited. As a composer or arranger, that’s heaven. This is something you can build around, especially if you enjoy harmonics and stuff, it’s beautiful.
Plano: The game opened the doors for some extended techniques on some acoustic instruments. It’s like I went back to conservatory times, when I was discovering all the crazy sounds I could make with the instrument.
Boysen: I added a lot of synth pads, but I just utilized the instrument as much as possible, so ultimately it’s a good 50/50 ratio of music. On my end, everything is programmed.
Plano: But there’s no midi strings, right?
Boysen: Oh, I’m sure there are.
Boysen: There would have to be here, just textural stuff.
Plano: I guess if it works for Radiohead…
Boysen: [Laughs] Well, yeah. If you combine these things in the wrong way, you’ll instantly notice it’s a midi cello playing versus a real cello—even if the midi cello is sampled off an actual instrument, it behaves differently. There’s a moment here where you do a small—I don’t know the word in English, but a small change in the way you play it—that you could not get with midi cello. I’m convinced we’re not there yet. Because it sounded like an idea you had that very moment, as you were playing it. You accented it slightly differently. If you’re working on machines, you have to find a way of not trampling over that moment, but you highlight it and work with it.
I don’t have a relationship to any instrument the way that Sebastian has with the cello. So, for lack of a better term, it’s really always a dialogue. It’s about how machines interact with that very human recording. The voices in there are sampled—they’re really just intonations that, when you stack them up, make a basic sort of choir. And as you know, David likes basic things, like the way things move in the game. Don’t waste time animating them, because that’s not the point. It’s basic and so fundamental at the same time.
Have you played it much, Sebastian?
Plano: I played it last Saturday night, that was the most I’ve played it. I was eager to sit down and play it, but it couldn’t be just any day. I was waiting for the right moment. Me and my girlfriend played it. She was very excited. It was a hell of a laugh. For me, it just doesn’t count as a game. It was actually the first game I’d played in many years. I had my own Counter-Strike team, so I was a gamer once. But this game is a piece of art. It’s wonderful what David has done, putting all these elements together. It’s very artistic, very wonderful. It makes you laugh, it makes you think, it makes you wonder.
It’s rare that something really doubles as a commercial project and a piece of art, and holds its own. It has to feel pretty cool to get to hold the record in your hand.
Boysen: It is really cool. And Robert [Raths, from Erased Tapes] did an amazing job of making it sound like a cohesive album.
This is how you want a project to be, as an artist. You write something, and you’re left alone with it. David did give a lot of very helpful feedback, but he gave us the space to think about things much more philosophically than anything else. We talked about what would work and not work, what would feel too dark or not too dark. It’s very rare that a director or a visual artist makes the decision of who to ask, and then once they make the decision, they’re open to the result. It’s not asking an artist and then bending their work into shape, it’s ‘I’m asking you because I know you will make something nice.’ That’s very rare, at least for me. Again, we’re not going to have another project like that for a while, unless the commercial gaming world changes. But the indie game world is where interesting things happen.
I always ask, if there was one existing game you could make a new soundtrack to?
Plano: Alone In the Dark.
Plano: It’s the creepiest game ever. I can’t even play it today because it freaks me out. I first played it when I was nine or 10. The emotional impact it had on me, it still has it. Having that emotional impact could help me create something. I am curious about using the effect the game had on me psychologically, and letting that open the door musically. It’s about fighting your fears. It’s a fantastic game.
Boysen: That was such a good call! I am not sure, now. But any of the old Assassin’s Creed games would be fun, because music always plays a huge role. You switch, in the games, between very different moments in time—the Roman Empire or Italy. In the last one, you play between the French Revolution and the Industrial Era in the U.K. It’s actually my least favorite soundtrack, but it’s probably the most well-made. It incorporates all these bar songs and shanties in an interesting way. I’m not really interested in listening to them outside of the game, but they really cleverly solved that challenge. That challenge could be very interesting to take on. Assassin’s Creed would offer a lot of variety.
I would say Shadow of the Colossus, but I wouldn’t dare, and I’m not sure how to score something that traumatized me that much and made me lose faith in humanity and the spiritual world!