Halo Composer Marty O’Donnell on the Music and Design of Golem for PSVR

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Marty O’Donnell, a composer most famous for his beloved work on Bungie’s Halo Series, talks to Ben Lang about his new developer start-up Highwire Games – whose first title Golem is coming this year for PlayStation VR.

“My approach to music is almost always the same, I believe music is the direct line to your emotions,” O’Donnell told Road to VR‘s Ben Lang whilst at GDC last month. “If there’s a story and an emotional journey that we want players to go on, there’s no better way to enhance that emotional journey than music.”

O’Donnell is those rarest of artists, a composer who’s most famous works are for video games that you may also know by name. He’s perhaps most known for his work on the epoch defining first person shooter series Halo, and as part of Bungie he went on to score 4 entries in the series with his final work with the studio culminating with Destiny. That long relationship with Bungie came to an acrimonious end unfortunately, amidst a row over the use of his music (or lack in this case) in a key unveiling of the game. Later, being fired from Bungie, O’Donnell was to go on to win damages against his employer of 13 years, with company stock he claimed were owed to him as a founder being returned also.

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Now, O’Donnell is moving on – and how. He’s once again part of a start-up Highwire Games,  formed from video gaming veterans from developers such as 343 Industries (Halo 4), Sucker Punch (inFamous), and of course Bungie. Their motivation to form? To create “new experiences and reaching new audiences”. So how are they going about that?

The answer is a new virtual reality title called Golem, a beautiful adventure title which has you stepping into the mind of a young girl, capable of controlling giants. “I’m always looking for who are the characters, what is the world, what are the feelings we want to evoke,” O’Donnell says, “I don’t think it’s any different for VR than for any other story based game.”

The first real question of course is: Why is a veteran of traditional video games part of a new company throwing themselves at the as yet unproven platform that is VR? “We don’t do things for good business reasons,” O’Donnell replies, “I had a  company that did film and television scores for years, and there was this little company that was doing these cool little games called Bungie, and eventually that turned into Halo and then turned into Xbox launch title, and I enjoyed taking the risk on that – because I like new technology I like doing new things and I sort of like doing risky things.”

That risky venture has now been in development for about a year with a team of around 10 people, a size that the company founders are more than happy with at this stage. “Frankly, we’ve all been in big, big studios before and kinda like the idea of not growing even close to that big.”

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VR audio of course is a developing art, and something that many (including us) believe is crucial to a truly immersive VR experience. “The sound design side of things is really interesting because with VR, we have the technology to know where the player’s ears are,” O’Donell says, “Which means we can put sounds in very specific location for your ears and it really brings the world to life.” When asked whether he’s having to learn new tricks for sound design in VR, O’Donnell responds with an interesting tidbit. “We had HRTF [Head Related Transfer Function] on the Xbox 1” , he says, “but it didn’t really necessarily have a place because for one not everyone would be using headphones, you also had Dolby Surround sound, that came out of the speakers which I love.” O’Donnell continues “HRTF technology has really come of age, has a real reason for being.”

As well as the video game itself, Marty is working on an audio-only prequel to Golem called Echoes of the First Dreamer, “It’s a standalone, listening experience – an album made of music that’s going to tell you the story, the back story and the magic and the mystery and the world of Golem. You’ll be able to get the album and you’ll be able to listen to the music and you’ll be ready to play our game.” Echoes of the First Dreamer was part funded by a Kickstarter campaign that just concluded successfully, with the project raising over $55k.

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Golem is coming in 2016 for PlayStation VR, no specific release date is known. PlayStation VR is due for release in October this year.

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