Samuel Laflamme: Composing Nightmares in Outlast and Outlast 2
Written by Ryan Noble
Fresh off the horrifying heels of Outlast 2's release, which is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, I managed to get some time with Samuel Laflamme, the composer behind the haunting soundtracks of the Outlast series, so that I could pick his brain on composing for the scariest series I've ever had the fortune - we love scary, remember - to play.
Ryan Noble: Firstly, for those that don't know the name behind their musical nightmares from Outlast, could you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Samuel Laflamme: I’m a Montreal based composer. I’ve [composed music for] a lot of TV shows, commercials and films, usually on aimed at a French Canadian audience. Movie soundtracks have always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always been interested in using music as a storytelling tool. When I was young, I was a fan of Danny Elfman, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer. I remember listening to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack for the original Batman, and it was a life-changing experience for me. I later studied music, and... I discovered electronic music and really liked the possibilities these new techniques of composition gave me.
RN: How did you get into composing music for video games?
SL: A good friend introduced me to some guys who were starting a small new video game company called Red Barrels Studio. When I met the co-founder and artistic director, Philippe Morin, I felt we were on the same page about the role of the music in a game or a film. I suddenly felt that making music for video games could be really interesting, and it was an opportunity for me to compose for orchestra and explore different musical ideas.
RN: I love that friend. Good job, friend. Do you have a creative process for beginning a composition, or does it tend to be different each time?
SL: My main creative process is to try and give myself as in-depth an understanding of a project as possible. The more I understand the point of views and ideas of the artistic director, the more I’ll understand the role that music can play in the project. Then, I try to figure out how I could create a distinctive, unique score. I can be inspired by characters, locations, plot - whatever I feel sets the right tone as a score. That information will also tell me which instruments to use, what kind of scale, what kind of pace the overall score needs to have, etc. I’ll also speak with the Audio Director about the interactivity of the music within the gameplay, the conceptualization of the programming, integration, and structure of the music.
RN: What inspires you? Other than keeping gamers on edge at all times, of course.
SL: I’m really inspired by other forms of art. I love architecture, which might sound silly, but the colour and images have a great impact on how I create music. I can be really inspired by simply being in a place. The rhythm of architecture is important. So, too, is the entry of light, space, etc... I can walk in a tight corridor and feel stressed... then, I try to remember that feeling and re-interpret it musically. Being in a large, modern space can give me a totally different feeling than being in a Christian school, or a Gothic church... I am very sensitive to how other creators from different artistic disciplines express their ideas through their medium. There are common points from one art form to another. I try to find how to express a scene or a level of game design musically. And the most important thing to me is storytelling, and how music [can be used for this] storytelling.
RN: That's really interesting. I've never really thought of musical inspiration coming from architecture, but it makes sense. Has anything changed for you personally since working on Outlast? Obviously the game was highly successful, and the soundtrack was a big part of that. Has that changed how you work in any way?
SL: It established my name as a video game composer. I still compose for film and TV, and still love it. What I love most in video games is storytelling. Again, my passion is creating the best score I can by working with a game’s distinctive style of storytelling. Outlast was a great opportunity to explore ideas. I understood in this project the importance of finding a specific sound palette for a specific project. Producing my own samples to add my personal signature to the score and working with musicians who can push your ideas further by sharing their own life experience and sensibility. Before Outlast, I was more a studio nerd, spending all days alone in my little studio.
RN: Did you get to see the scenes and/or play the game as you were composing, or were you given specific moods and themes to compose around?
SL: Yes, it is really important for me to be involved from the very beginning of the creation of an entire project, and it’s one of the aspects of composing for a video game that I appreciate the most. Music is not a post-production asset in video games, and there is no reason it has to be post-production in TV and film. [However,] most of the time music comes after editing and I have had to deal with a temp track used during the editing process many times before.
So, for Outlast 2, two and a half years ago, Philippe Morin called me and we started to talk about the role of the music in the second game. I’d witnessed the writing process, and it helped me to understand the new direction of the game. I knew the score had to be really different, and I knew, too, that I needed to find a new angle of viewing the score, which led me to explore unknown musical approaches. When Red Barrels started the level design process, I was able to test cues with Francis Brus (Audio Director, sound designer) within the game and see if my ideas made sense and worked well.
RN: Did you play the game once it was finished? I know that some people can't go back to a project once they've finished working on it, just in case they find something they wish they'd done better. Do you feel the same way?
SL: Near the end of the production, I was able to install a strong version of the game on a PC at my studio. I needed to see the game from start to end and see if the music mix was good, or if there were cues that were missed, etc. My music team and I played the game and we were completely blown away by the game! We screamed so loud that at one point I had to ask them to shut up... I wasn’t able to listen to the score and do my job.
RN: That's brilliant. When people working on a game are scared of it, you know it's going well. Is there a single track that you're most proud of from the original Outlast?
SL: There are few of them... I liked the "Male Ward Chase"; for me it was a challenge in music interactivity. But, my favourite track was the "Arrival at the Asylum" at the beginning of the game. I still feel it sets the tone I wanted to set [and I'm] really proud of this one. Also, the "End Credits" track was a lot of fun to create. It came from nowhere, but as I really liked the effect in the end credits of Blade Runner, I was confident I could do this in Outlast.
RN: Did you learn anything from Outlast that has changed the way you've worked on Outlast 2?
SL: Exploring, exploring, exploring... Oh, and exploring. [While working on] Outlast, every time I finished a recording session, I would always do one more take, just in case I was lucky enough to find something else. And from those extra takes, there were some magical moments that gave me more ideas to push the entire score further. So I understand [now] that I need extra time in recording sessions to explore...
In Outlast 2, I needed to view the project from a perspective that could push me out of my comfort zone. This way, I was able to disconnect from my intellect and connect to my instinct and primal feelings. These are the emotions I must connect to if I want to create something viscerally scary and unique.
RN: Sounds great to me. How has the soundtrack changed for Outlast 2, and why is that so?
SL: I stopped using an orchestra, mainly because I wanted to find myself in a new area of creation. I focused on the location and the plot of Outlast 2 to find the right tone for the score. The story of the second game is really different to the first game, and my goal was to bring a new flavour with the score, but at the same time, I needed to pinpoint some key moments that remind [players of] the identity and signature style of Outlast. [At the same time,] the more originality I could bring to Outlast 2, the more I could achieve the same level of freshness and surprise the first game had at the time.
RN: For Outlast, you discovered that a cymbal and a violin bow created a sound similar to a human scream, and it was used throughout the game (to great effect, I might add). Have you found such a sound for Outlast 2?
SL: I have some important samples from guitars and some other string instruments, but the most iconic new sounds came from a custom-made instrument built of wood and metal strings, called the “Redneck Bass”. You can listen to it in the track 11; "Bring Back Our Messiah!"
RN: I'll definitely do that. I can't wait to hear the "new sounds". Are there any instruments that you feel really lend themselves well to horror?
SL: Any kind of instruments that can be played with bow. I don’t know why, but I find those instruments really useful for using tremolo articulations*.
(*Author's Note: Musical notes that seem to 'tremble'. Don't worry, I'm not judging you if you didn't know that... I had help from Google.)
RN: The violin was a driving force behind a large portion of Outlast's soundtrack, and it really seemed to capture – and create - the tension and emotion of the game. I'm actually listening to the soundtrack as I write this and I can feel my heartbeat rising with the violin in “Wheel Chair Dude”. Does Outlast 2 have a similar focus on a particular instrument or style?
SL: I started with basses and guitars, and every kind of instrument that reminded me of a rural, ghost town, while also carrying a distinctively Southern vibe. I tweaked them to get an unfamiliar texture [which could] scare people. I used a lot of small and weird percussions to create the rhythms. And, finally, the Redneck Bass was an original way to create some new sounds that have never been heard before. This sound palette became my playground to create the score of Outlast 2.
RN: Obviously, as we're a horror site, I have to ask... Do you enjoy horror in your spare time?
SL: No! [laughs] That was the first question when I met the guys from Red Barrels in 2012... They asked me if I was a horror fan and a gamer... I said "no and no", but we shared the same vision of a good score in storytelling.
My work is to express an emotion in the most honest and unique way. My sensitivity to fear, stress and anxiety led me to create the music for Outlast. I’m really concerned about how to create a good score, a good piece of music. The type of music I use to create an emotion is, in the end, only based on my human experience. Hopefully, I’m not the only one to be sensitive [to the kind of music I am creating].
RN: We'll let you off. You're doing great work by scaring everybody else, so we can't be too mad that you don't like horror yourself. Are there any horror soundtracks that stand out to you?
SL: I don’t know if it’s considered as a horror, but I really loved David Fincher’s Seven. I remember being a teenager and seeing it, and I found the storytelling so brilliant, and the script, too. I do remember playing Phantasmagoria all night with friends, too, and it was a fun experience.
RN: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure you're insanely busy finding just the right music to terrify people in Outlast 2 and I can't wait to play, and hear, the game. Before you go, are you working on any other projects that you'd like to share with us?
SL: After completing Outlast 2, I will work on a comedy TV show - only to work on something completely different, I like to jump from one mood to another... The comedy show is brilliantly written and directed. It’s pure joy to score. It's really different [to composing for the] Outlast series, but it gives me a balance in my life and it helps me to go from one extreme to another.
RN: I would never have guessed that your next project was a comedy show, but it makes sense that you'd want something a little lighter after the tension of Outlast. Otherwise you might end up in Mount Massive Asylum from the original game. Full circle. Then I'd have to come and find you and it'd be a whole messy thing. I'd probably die. So, let's not.
On that morbid note, thanks again for your time – it's appreciated and insanely interesting.
Outlast 2 was released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on April 25th, and you can pick it up now for roughly £25. While you're at it, pay close attention to the soundtrack, because Samuel Laflamme (and his team) has worked extremely hard to terrify you with their compositions. Good luck, everyone.
To listen to the full soundtrack for Outlast 2, watch the video from YouTube below, where Laflamme has been kind enough to upload his latest nightmare fuel.