With the resurgence of vinyl, and many classic game soundtracks seeing a re-release on the format, the Flickering Myth writers look back at some of their favourites; next up is Kris Wall with The Last of Us……
Anyone that knows me will know that The Last of Us is one of my favourite games of all time, right up there in the Top 3 in fact. I’ve made little secret of it, and can regularly be found talking about it with anyone that will put up with me droning on about how much I love it so. Naughty Dog took the well-worn post-apocalyptic genre and created an absolute modern masterpiece of storytelling out of it, and one of the few games that I’ve ever awarded a perfect score. You can read my glowing review of it right here.
What I haven’t really talked much about is the truly wonderful score and award-winning score by Gustavo Santaolalla that underpins the game, weaving its way into the emotional fabric of the story, complimenting the excellent writing and acting perfectly, becoming an integral character to the tale in its own right, whilst giving the amazing visuals an added haunting beauty, the score ultimately enriching the impact and experience of the game on just about every level it possibly could.
Upon inception of the The Last of Us, creators Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley compiled tracks that they found inspirational to use in their search for a composer for the game. The search soon leading them to Argentinian composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, who it turned out had already composed many of the tracks that Druckmann and Straley had compiled, with Straley describing Santaolalla’s music as “organic instrumentation, minimalist, dissonance and resonance with the sounds”. Luckily for Naughty Dog, Gustavo Santaolalla had always wanted to work on a video game but had refused to work on a game that didn’t have a focus on story and character, making The Last of Us the perfect project for him.
It’s hard to describe Gustavo Santaolalla’s music for The Last of Us without experiencing it for yourself, it’s beautifully understated and minimalist, whilst also managing to sound huge and overwhelming, washing over you in waves of beauty and horror, hope and fear. To create this work, Neil Druckmann didn’t give any specific direction, but offered Santaolalla the story and the themes of the game, giving him the creative freedom to approach the project in his own way, with Santaolalla saying he appreciated the freedom and felt it assisted his creative process. He felt the need to “go into some more dark place, more textural and not necessarily melodic” while composing the score, challenging himself by using a variety of instruments that were unique and new to him, which gave “an element of danger and innocence”.
The score was created in collaboration with the Nashville Scoring Orchestra, who recorded the more grandiose orchestral side of the score at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, while drums and percussion were performed and recorded by Gustavo Santaolalla, M.B Gordy and Jonathan Mayer at EastWest Studios in Hollywood. Gustavo complimented his work by attempting new things such as using a detuned guitar to create a deep noise, while achieving unique sounds with it by recording in different rooms such as bathrooms and kitchens for different acoustics. The overarching goal was to create music that would evoke reaction from players, with the familiarization of sounds evoking feelings previously felt and linked to those sounds.
SPOILER ALERT !!!
Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us was so integral to my experience and my love for the game that it allows me to remember exactly how I was feeling during particular parts of the game, the sheer heartbreak as Joel’s daughter dies in his arms during the shocking prologue, the scene where Joel and Ellie emerge beyond the quarantine zone and she sees woodland animals for the first time and your heart melts, the intensity of trying to search for Ellie in the midst of a battering snowstorm as she fights for her life, or Joel’s heart-pounding race to find Ellie in the hospital during the brutal climax of the game. Like Hans Zimmer working with Christopher Nolan, it was the perfect matching of composer with material, Santaolalla having a clear understanding of every single story beat throughout the game, along with the vision and talent to create a score that would emphasise an emotional connection to the characters and story. Beyond the truly incredible acting of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson bringing Joel and Ellie to life, the final moments of the game where Ellie questions Joel about his bloodthirsty actions to save her from the operating table still haunt me to this day, quite simply down to a perfect symbiosis of writing, acting, and a score that made that final lie, that single emotional beat, pack the weight of a sledgehammer that has stayed with me until this day.
Once again I find myself coming back around to trying to describe Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us, which proves difficult because it’s able to be so many different things at once, able to capture the minute and the monumental within seconds, capturing the sheer horror of this world in one moment, and heart swelling hope in the next. It’s at once moving, yet crushing, the weight of this world bearing down on you the player, as well as Joel and Ellie, as you embark on the journey. Yet through it all there’s also a feeling of hope to the score, imbued deep within the desolate and haunting sounds, which comes alive through the exploration of the relationship between Joel and Ellie, the score managing to underpin and elevate the feeling of care and responsibility that Joel comes to feel towards Ellie as he becomes a surrogate Father figure entrusted with her safety through this violent world, while the loss of his own daughter hangs over him like a dark cloud. It truly is an incredible thing to hear and behold and as I’m sat here writing this, I’m overcome with a serious need to play this game from the beginning and experience it all over again.
In the video below, you can see the man himself discuss his creative process for the game
And if there’s any doubt about the love, respect and sheer impact that Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us has had, it was chosen as the first venture into video game vinyl output by the iconic movie print maestros of Mondo. Working together with British graphic designer and illustrator, Olly Moss, they created a stunning 4LP package featuring beautiful hand drawn artwork by Moss that sold out at pre-order in a matter of hours, making it a real collectors item. Sadly it is now discontinued and my search for it has found it reselling for some crazy prices, but it’s definitely one which I still hope to find and own one day. The score is the true definition of a musical masterpiece.
You can buy Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us at Amazon UK and Amazon US
Kris Wall – Follow me on Twitter