Checking the Score: Interview With Vampyr Composer Olivier Derivière

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

Hardcore Gamer recently had the privilege of interviewing Olivier Derivière, an accomplished composer who has worked on video game scores for over a decade. His credits include scoring the Alone in the Dark, Remember Me and Get Even soundtracks, receiving notable acclaim over his work on Remember Me. We had a chance to talk about his process on the upcoming action RPG Vampyr, focusing on the use of specific instruments, integrating industrial sounds with more classical music and using his soundtrack to serve the vision of the games he works on rather than simply serving his own musical vision.

[Hardcore Gamer] The soundtrack for Vampyr largely revolves around a solo cello (played by Eric-Maria Couturier). What inspired you to focus on this particular instrument?

[Olivier Derivière] Vampyr has a very particular setting. It takes place in London during the Spanish flu epidemic after World War I and you play as a doctor, Johnathan Reid, who has transformed into a vampire. So everything in the game happens at night with very few people on the streets. There is a sense of emptiness and solitude that we felt a solo cello could express perfectly.

Though the cello plays a crucial role in the soundtrack, there are some tracks like “Industrial Landscapes,” that have more of a focus on other instruments, in this case the piano. What helped you decide when to use which instruments in any given track?

The instruments featured on the soundtrack, beside the cello, are bass flute, piano, double bass and cimbalom. Each instrument has a specific role to play on the score and in telling Vampyr’s story. The flute characterizes Lady Ashbury, one of the main characters in the game. She is a very old vampire and I think the delicate tones of the instrument matches perfectly with her status and personality.  We also have a cimbalom which is very distinctive of this period of time in London.

Though other instruments come and go, industrial sounds are prevalent throughout the soundtrack. What led you to experiment this particular musical field for Vampyr?

Although I am classically trained I fell in love with electronic music during my youth. When we first talked about the colors of the music with creative director Philippe Moreau and art director Gregory Szucs we started by discussing the darkness of London at night and since it takes place in 1918 there is a lot of industrial landscape. All of that allowed me to get away from any orchestral soundscapes. We needed something gritty, modern and dark so I went electronic all along but never to sound futuristic of course. I spent the larger amount of my time on creating the right textures and although we hear them on the OST, there are far more textures in the game. It’s just that I usually arrange the OST as a storytelling experience rather than compiling ambient tracks.

The track “The Thirst” employs beautiful yet unsettling singing throughout. Was integrating choral elements alongside the industrial soundscapes a challenge?

The addition of a choir was inspired by the idea that some external force is taking over the main character. Nothing is more impactful than the human voice; we, as human beings, are built with a direct connection with voice, our ears always focus more on that particular sound. So we used the choir to express mainly two different forces. The first such composition is the call for blood, “The Thirst”. The repeated mantra is to become obsessive, hypnotic and then unbearable as the vital call for blood is for any vampire. The second force is rather the opposite, it is what vampires and humans fear the most, extinction. To blend the choir with the industrial layers was a great challenge because they needed to sound both natural and supernatural but with tons of post-processing, I think the combination is quite effective.

You’ve composed for other horror video games before, including Obscure, Alone in the Dark and Get Even. What about Vampyr is different from these past projects?

Horror is a genre that has a lot of stereotypes. Mostly people think of horror music as something that scares you, with an extensive use of atonal effects and sudden jump scares. I have never used any of these effects. Each of the projects you’ve mentioned have their own take and I think it is more underground for all of them. I never want music to express clarity, simplicity when it comes to human feelings and moreover when it is horror. The complexity of the setting in Vampyr, being a doctor AND a vampire made the musical journey very interesting. The cello is playing the two conditions of the main character, as if they are fighting each other, by playing with double strings, two notes at the same time.

Is there any single track that exemplifies the soundtrack as a whole?

Not really. Vampyr is an action RPG that can take quite some time to finish. Music needs to evolve all the way and you need to keep some surprises for the players. The main theme “The Struggle” is quite evocative but it doesn’t include many other aspects of the soundtrack. I hope that when you listen to the OST for the first time that you are surprised by the musical arc.

Is composing for an interactive medium like video games a challenge, considering the player’s actions aren’t always in your hands, and the music you’ve created can’t always be experienced exactly the way you intended?

Since the beginning of my career scoring games I have been advocating how interactive music can really change the player’s experience. Many composers, developers and therefore players sometimes don’t understand how critical this can be for a game’s experience. I’ve been traveling the whole world to give talks at conferences and share my achievements to, hopefully, incept some new ideas to the younger generation. And to answer your question, I would say that I am in service of the game. This is not concert music, there are restrictions that are meant to serve a greater vision than my personal musical vision but if you embrace the deeper meaning of what is a video game, if you compose music according to its language then you discover a whole new world that is waiting to be explored.

Vampyr is quite a dark video game. Did its genre or setting inspire you in any way?

Regardless of genre, what I am more interested in is its meaning and value. I never compose any cue in a video game without having the right meaning and purpose for it. What we discover in Vampyr is the struggle within the main character and I embraced that as an allegory for any human being. We always face moral choices in our lives and despite our deepest goodwill we are all in contradiction with our values. All of us. Vampyr is about that too. On the one hand, being a doctor healing people is also acting as a breeder for the vampire. However, being a vampire feeding on people can also serve the society by exterminating the “bad” people (murderers, drunks that beat their wife, manipulators) to allow the doctor to focus on the “good” people. Nothing is simple, just as in life.

To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, composer interviews, musical analysis and more, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.