Understanding ‘music’s eclectic daredevil’, Olivier Deriviere

Music Week continues with Bertie meeting a composer whose work had a powerful effect on him, and whose processes aren’t at all what he expected.

What is it about the music in Vampyr that appeals to me so much? I’ve played plenty of games with great music but this was the first to really make me think about it, to listen, to contemplate, to wonder. Maybe it’s the loneliness of the cello. There’s a powerful melancholy and almost yearning quality to it, in the way the bow sweeps the strings and makes that rasping, sonorous wave of noise; in and out, the sound lapping at your attention. And within it, there’s a sense of aching. The more I think about it, the more it seems to be Jonathan Reid, the vampire, alone on the streets of 1918 London. Alone while coming to terms with what he is, what this world is, and where he fits within it.

Not only do I love the sound and the associations of it, I love the confidence I picture behind it. A confidence to do things differently, to strip everything back and just present a naked sound. No orchestra, no overt demonstration of musical power, no insecurity fuelling a need to impress. Instead, a cello. A cello played almost improvisationally, with scraps of melody moving irregularly as if on a whim. A cello not afraid to be ugly, to squeak by being played on the bridge. Who does that? Who commands someone to make those sounds for a game and knows they will be OK, that they will be enough?

He is Olivier Deriviere, a French composer who describes himself as ‘music’s eclectic daredevil’ on his website. I’ll forgive you for not having heard of him, because he makes it almost a habit to work on not-quite-famous games. He jokes about it. Someone on Twitter once said Deriviere made “Oscar-level music on games nobody knows about”, and I know that because Deriviere himself tells me, wearing it like a badge of pride. But why?

It’s not because he hasn’t had the opportunity to step up, or into blockbuster game development. After providing the choral music for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag expansion Freedom Cry, the step up was theoretically there. But he didn’t take it. And he didn’t take it for one very compelling (and thematically pleasing) reason: freedom.

It’s one of the many things I didn’t expect about Olivier Deriviere. The artfully scruffy hair and the ‘off I go on a tangent’ way of talking I did. But it’s his processes that surprise me, and his attitude towards his music. He’s not a ‘music is emotions’ person or someone who believes his music is sacrosanct, a kind of gift he bestows upon a game. It’s quite the opposite. “I’m a servant for a bigger thing,” he says. “I’m not here to write symphony-whatever. I’m here to support, as much as I can, the player’s experience with the music.” And that experience involves absolutely everything you do in the game.

Deriviere is involved from the very beginning. He’s not brought in at the end to spread his musical icing over the cake, but there at the very beginning to determine what ingredients go in. “I’m always part of the birth. Always,” he says. And he insists on it being this way for two reasons. One: “you cannot have the best ideas if you’re not early in the process”. It’s not because the first ideas are the best, but because they have time to mature and evolve on their own. Give a creative person two days, two weeks, or two months, and watch the difference.

Two: he does far more for a game than simply supply the music. “I not only implement but I design. I do everything,” he says. “All the games that you can hear from me, for the last many years, it’s me designing the music system and implementing the music system.” Everything you hear, every musical reaction to you in the game, it’s designed and placed by his hand, and it’s been this way since (the appropriately named) Obscure (in 2005) through to now. That’s why he turns bigger, more restrictive projects down. Heck, that’s why he turned Hollywood down!

“It’s why Remember Me is special,” he says. It’s a 2013 game by French studio Dontnod, which also made Vampyr, though it’s better known for Life is Strange, and it’s a studio he’s worked with a fair bit. “I would never think that somebody would let me record [at] Abbey Road near London and destroy – if I may say – the whole recording with post-processing effects in the fashion of Aphex Twin.”

He loves Aphex Twin, perhaps surprisingly for a classically trained musician, and the opportunity to mash up a lavish orchestral recording in that style was irresistible to him. ‘Wow can we do this?!’ he remembers thinking. Hollywood would never allow that. It’s too risky, they would say. “Only in games can you find this,” he says. Though funnily enough, the opposite eventually happened: Hollywood phoned him attracted by his work on Remember Me. “It’s very weird,” he says.

He’s not someone who can turn 10 tracks in and be done with it. Deriviere wants to shape every musical aspect of the game he works on, which is why he embeds himself with the team from the moment the project begins through to the moment it’s released. He’s been with Dying Light 2 for three years now – he shows me the three rubber bracelets on his wrist to illustrate this, one for each year. And it’s why it’s the team making the game, rather than the game itself, that’s of chief importance to him. He needs creative freedom and trust.

The other reason I believe he feels so passionately about music in games, is because games have been a huge part of his life since he was a boy. Since he was playing around with music and games on Commodore 64 and Atari ST, and all those old machines. Since he was going to demo-making parties and getting excited about basic 3D shapes on a screen. Since he saw that star in Super Mario Bros. and how it affected the music, and added excitement by speeding up time. Games are why he studied music. “Games have always been a fascination to me,” he says, “and music has always been a need for me, so I merged the two.”

Knowing that, I begin to understand what Deriviere brings to a game, and what he means when he talks about designing music systems. What he does is weld music and mechanics together. In Vampyr, for instance, there’s something called an Embrace. It’s the vampire’s bite, but an exaggerated version of it, involving a key character, dialogue, multiple-steps, and ultimately a choice whether to kill them (embrace them) for blood-experience or spare them to spare your morals.

It’s not an easy choice to make, and Deriviere wanted the music to reinforce this, to react to you, and to pressure you. So he created something a bit like the music in Jaws (appropriately enough). “We wanted it to feel like the eagerness of the vampire to eat its prey. And so you start with the music, like, doom doom, very soft. But as you go closer to the location [where] you can bite him, the music accelerates and gets even bigger intensity, like, doom doom, doom doom. And this is all in real-time. […] It will push the players to be like, ‘yeah, that’s where you want to bite the guy’.”

There’s another more subtle example in Vampyr around the hospital areas in the game. “The creative director was like, ‘I want to feel that when I’m outside, there’s the city. But if I go inside, it’s more intimate. And if I speak to somebody, it’s even more intimate.'”

So what Deriviere did was add reverberation in outside areas in the game, and then warm the sound – because the hospital is your new home – when you go inside. Then, when you started talking to people, he increased the ‘closeness’ of the cello, allowing you to hear all the details of the sound. And in these ways he made it feel like you were getting closer to people in the game.

Or consider A Plague Tale: Innocence, a game I’m playing at the moment. In it, you play as an older girl and her younger brother, and you are on the run from murderous soldiers as well as swarms of plague-ridden rats. Deriviere and the game’s director wanted to amplify the perception of threat as felt by a child towards an adult. Again, it’s a cello – and Deriviere flinches acknowledging this, because doing a similar thing twice is something he has almost an aversion to – and the sound changes depending on how close you are to the adult enemies in the game.

“The texture from the distance was very light; and then you go closer, it’s medium; and then you go closer, it’s very low and very loud. So it goes from, like, eeeee to urrrr to vvvff,” he says. “So when you’re getting past somebody, you feel like, ‘Oh my god that’s so big!’ Because you have this music going on in your ears. But if you get away from the threat then the music relaxes and it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m good.’ So it creates this sort of tension.”

The music in A Plague Tale even mirrors the relationship you – Amicia – have with your brother. In the beginning, when you have no relationship (for reasons laid out at the beginning of the game), there is no music between you, but as you get to know each other, there is.

They’re small things you probably won’t notice – they’re certainly not as overt as music responding to every action as in Remember Me – but they are things which help build a picture of the extra lengths Deriviere goes to weaving music into the actual fabric of a game. And it’s fascinating returning to one with this in mind. Now, I notice his touch on things like the frenzied scrubbing of strings when rats approach in A Plague Tale, and how his music surfs the tension that’s ever present in the game. But I also notice it in the space he leaves in the game too, and how music isn’t always playing in your ear. He leaves room to hear the world, and I really appreciate this. He leaves room to breathe. It’s something I put down to his instinctual and fundamental appreciation of the experience of playing a game.

They’re special to him, games. It matters to him how they’re perceived. He doesn’t want them to be considered as l’enfant terrible, as he calls them, referring to a mainstream perception of games as time-consuming, children-harming things that shouldn’t be trusted. He wants people to see their art. That’s why he chooses the projects he does. Be it Vampyr being about a struggle – “we’re all struggling” – or A Plague Tale being about keeping children safe from harm. Or be it Greedfall about examining colonisation, or Freedom Cry about battling the Atlantic slave trade. They all have something to say – “Except for Streets of Rage 4!” He rushes to add.

That’s why you’ve maybe never heard of him. It’s only recently, after decades in the business, he got his first 80-plus-scored games (A Plague Tale and Streets of Rage 4). So maybe he’s blazing a trail others are yet to follow. “But I can see that developers are looking at this approach more and more,” he says, “[rather] than the previous approach that was just big orchestra, beautiful music, people that would say music is emotions. Come on.

“You’re not doing it for music itself, you’re doing it for a game, and so you need to subdue – I don’t know how to put it another way – your craft to the craft of making a game. And it’s been very difficult for me because I’ve been defending that for years and years and years and years. I mean ‘difficult’: it’s not like I’m in pain, but it’s difficult to change the perspective on this, you know?”

Who knows? Maybe he has, maybe he will. Maybe Dying Light 2 will be the convincing argument he needs. “There are a lot of surprises [in it],” he says. “I mean, is it a surprise now for people to be surprised by the thing that I do?” It depends, I suppose, on how much you know about Olivier Deriviere.