How do you make sure your nostalgia-fueled game has a familiar feel, but still brings something new to the table? Jem Alexander speaks to the audio director and two composers on Yooka-Laylee to find out
As a throwback to classic 90s 3D platformers, the feeling of nostalgia that Yooka-Laylee evokes is easily one of its key selling points. This is true of the colourful aesthetic and bouncy-jumpy gameplay – both of which have been modernised to take advantage of (yikes) 19 years of technical progress.
Musical instruments haven’t changed much in that time, so the audio team has a less tricky job ahead of them when it comes to creating a similar-but-different vibe of music and sound effects for the game. This is especially true when you consider that many of the composers worked together at Rare on games like Battletoads and GoldenEye 007. So how has their approach to music changed in that time?
“I have to say it hasn’t really changed at all,” says Grant Kirkhope, a composer for Yooka-Laylee who made music for Banjo-Kazooie at Rare. “I still write the way I always have. I just sit down at my keyboard, load up an instrument sample and mess around until I hear something that I like.
“Back in the N64 days I had to try and squeeze as many instruments and SFX as possible, into the tiny amount of memory, using as aggressive compression as I could, without it sounding completely awful! These days I can use huge sample libraries that sound amazing as I’m usually providing a mix ready to go. It’s light years ahead of where it used to be.”
David Wise, another of Yooka-Laylee’s composers who wrote music for Donkey Kong Country, agrees. “The main thing that has changed is the palette of sound we now have available,” he says. “And the more of these we have, the more critical the decisions are when deciding what to use and how to use them. The days of a very limited sound to work with are gone, replaced by the responsibility of making sure these great instruments support the game.”
The best way for the composers to support the game in this way is to play it. What a shame,? eh? Luckily, David Wise lives just round the corner so can pop in any time for a play session.
I needed to get the pace right... And then throw in copious amounts of ukulele
“I find it helpful to play the game myself and also to watch other people play the game,” he says. “Fortunately, the internet makes developing music for games accessible from anywhere in the world with decent internet .”
This is handy, as Kirkhope and Steve Burke (another member of the audio team) live further away. Audio director Dan Murdoch says that despite this, the whole team had a visibility on the game to inspire their work.
“They had absolute access, but I’d try to help out with more documents, screenshots and info to help the workflow,” Murdoch says. “The composers had remote access to the project in development, so could try out anything in editor.”
So how do they make sure to keep a consistent style across the whole game? “To be honest, we often are happy to let their own styles shine through individually,” he says. “The style guide is quite simple, ‘write music like you did in the 90s’. We gt away with this as each composer is scoring very different parts.”
For Kirkhope, writing music like in the 90s means creating something that will give players the same joy they felt playing Banjo-Kazooie.
“My main goal is to try and write music that gives the listener a feel for what the two characters are about,” says Kirkhope. “There’s lots of little oddball moments in the music that I’m hoping will raise a smile. Also all the levels in the game are very different so I’ve had to write music that I haven’t really written before. I’ve had a lot of fun with Yooka-Laylee and I’m hoping that’s reflected in the music. I still get a lot of mail even now about the music in Banjo-Kazooie so I don’t want to let anyone down!”
For David Wise, his main inspiration comes from the name of the game. “Clearly with a name like Yooka-Laylee, my main choice of instrument was the ukulele. However, for the minecart tracks I needed to get the pace right to reflect the speed of the cart and pitch the music to be serious enough to focus the player’s concentration. And then throw in copious amounts of ukulele!”
Murdoch insists that just having the right people working on the game is all that’s necessary.
“I understand why the relaxed attitude to style may seem concerning, but we are working with composers who completely know the score... had to sneak a pun in somewhere,” he says. “People have been clamouring for a spiritual successor to Banjo Kazooie for years. The impetus for recapturing that style of composition on Yooka-Laylee is coming from the composers, they want to bring it back as much as anyone. I trust them to send me tracks that bring me back to playing Rare N64 games and they have delivered. After all it’s the signature sound they created that people really appreciate. It’s an indulgent nostalgia trip, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”