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Scoring Horizon Zero Dawn

Joris de Man • Joe Henson • Lucas Van Tol
Published July 2017
By Tom Flint

New Horizons

Blockbuster video game Horizon Zero Dawn took six years to make, and required its three composers to invent an entirely new sound world.

“Guerrilla felt that this was a special project, something different,” explains Music Supervisor Lucas Van Tol, reflecting on how Horizon Zero Dawn differed from Guerrilla Games’ highly successful Killzone series of futuristic combat games for the Sony PlayStation. “After working on a couple of first-person shooters, you know what to expect,” he continues, “but with Horizon everything was unknown. It was exciting and scary, and more involved and creative than the previous titles.”

Lucas Van Tol was Music Supervisor on the Horizon Zero Dawn project.Lucas Van Tol was Music Supervisor on the Horizon Zero Dawn project.For the game, Dutch developers Guerrilla envisioned an immersive world set in an ambiguous era some time after an apocalyptic event, where players would be able to roam freely and explore the environment in the role of a character called Aloy — who, in contrast to the first-person style of the Killzone series, is viewed from a third-person perspective. To ensure that the world would be totally convincing to exploring players, Sony-owned Guerrilla carefully worked out every detail of the landscape, and created descriptions of all the civilisations that inhabited it. Naturally, the score had to support the story, so a great deal of thought was given to what kind of music might exist in such a place and time. Game Director Mathijs de Jonge expressed his musical vision to Lucas in the form of a short list of desiderata, which Lucas developed into a brief for the composers.

“The main pillars in our game are machines, tribes and beautiful nature,” explains Lucas. “So we made sure we had composers that were good at tribal, electronic and organic music. We wanted to use as many real instruments as possible and stay away from the heavily compressed, overly wet ‘epic’ sound that you often hear.

“We also wanted music that would leave room for the sound design to take the foreground, because both are important. I spent a lot of time researching birds, for example, and made a huge Excel sheet with information about what regions and habitats they live in, what time of day they sing and chirp... that sort of thing. I used that research to make the birds react in a natural way.

“I also worked on the sound for the user interface, of wind and rain, Aloy’s main costume, objects that you can pick up from the ground, like potions, plants and stones, and the background murmur during a quest. And the sound of baby Aloy in the cinematic intro is my daughter Laura, who I recorded when she was six months old.”

Hiring The Composers

Joris de Man was one of three main composers behind Horizon Zero Dawn.Joris de Man was one of three main composers behind Horizon Zero Dawn.It was clear to Lucas and his team that the huge project would require several composers, and it seemed appropriate to look for people with varying specialisms to tackle the different aspects of the game. First on board was the classically trained Dutch percussionist Niels Van De Leest, who was asked to work on some percussion, hunting and diegetic music. He was soon joined by Brighton-based Joris de Man, who had previously...

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Published July 2017