Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt chats to FTL: Faster Than Light and Into the Breach composer, Ben Prunty, about taking a different approach to the apocalypse, and the importance of knowing when to silence do the talking.
t took almost a year for Ben Prunty and the development studio, Subset Games, to come up with the right sound for Into the Breach. The game – a fairly minimal strategy title where a crack team of human pilots fend off an endless horde of alien kaiju at the end of the world – needed to be different from what people expected. There was to be no Neon Genesis Evangelion-like hyperpop intro here, no mournful Nick Cave-inspired homages to The Road. No, this needed to be different. It needed to stand out. This would be the studio’s second game, following on from the cult status of FTL – it needed to land.
“We spent almost a year where I was coming up with various music prototypes and then we would all agree they didn’t work,” Prunty tells me in an interview. “It was pretty frustrating. Then Justin Ma [Subset Games’ artist and co-designer] finally sent me that 2cello take on Hans Zimmer’s Mombasa on YouTube and said, ‘make something like this.’ So I did, and that became the trailer music you can hear as a bonus track on the album. Then I took that style and expanded it out into the whole game, adding variations for each island.”
In a moment, Prunty and the team discarded the sounds they were toying with before – lo-fi electronic ambiance, synth drones, white noise, precious few melodies – and instead Prunty resolved to bring in more ‘human’ elements. The straining of a cello that you can hear front and center, the looping of guitars caked in delay and reverb, from which you can hear the fingers on the strings. After writing one specific guitar riff, Prunty found the axis on which the rest of the game OST would form.
“The guitar wasn’t originally planned to be a part of it,” he explains. “I was getting a little better at playing guitar at the time and once when I was working on a track I thought, ‘I wonder what this would sound like if I played guitar over it’. Turned out it sounded fantastic, so I just kept going and muted electric guitar became one of the core parts of the soundtrack. So there wasn’t really any plan, it just worked out really well. Muted electric rhythm parts carried that 2cellos energy really well.”
This would be the start of the game getting its now-iconic sound. Into the Breach doesn’t abide by strategy game convention. Its soundtrack is not quiet. It’s dynamic – it presents you, player, with a simple question: ‘what does desperation sound like?’ Over the course of an hour (in the original game), and now with two bonus tracks as of the Advanced Edition update, it tries to answer that question. Even if, at the time of launch, the way the OST ducked genre convention confused a few people.
“When the game first released, there did seem to be some surprise among reviewers at the music,” Prunty recollects. “Several people said they couldn’t figure out what genre the soundtrack was, which made me very happy.” And that ties into what he and the team wanted to do: as with FTL, it would have been rote to simply retread old ground. That’s not what Subset is about. “Our goal was essentially the same as it was with FTL: make music that breaks expectations. For FTL, the goal was to avoid Star Wars-esque bombast. For Into the Breach it was to avoid folksy guitar, which is somehow now pop culture’s official music of the apocalypse.”
Some of the most powerful moments in the game come before combat proper kicks off – when your pilots and their hulking mechs are surveying the battlefield, braced, knowing full well this next fight could be their last. Every deployment counts. Every move and decision heavy with the weight of fatal possibility. Here, Prunty insisted that the music cut out. It’s a very small detail, one you may not even notice if you’re rushing through your deployments and sending your gimlet-eyed pilots once more into that eponymous breach. But when those moments hit, they’re some of the most distressing, human moments you’ll experience in the entire game.
“Silence is a really powerful tool in game music,” he explains. “I wrote a document for the developers detailing exactly when to start and stop the music and they implemented it. The most important thing is how the game cuts out the music before a mission starts and then starts the music right when the last mech lands. I’m pretty passionate about making sure the music isn’t just playing constantly, because I think constant music fatigues the player and can erode the music’s impact.”
Into the Breach was a success when it launched – and in my eyes, this compelling, listen-to-it-even-when-you’re-not-playing-the-game OST helped reinforce the title’s commitment to minimalist strategy gameplay and tight game design. Prunty puts it better, though; explaining what it is about the combination of his music and the game that makes it stick in your head – that evokes such strong emotions and imagery, even with fairly minimal tools.
“For Into the Breach, I think the reason it works is that the music has a steady rhythmic energy without having overly complicated melodies. The melodies are there, and I think they’re strong, but if they were more complex I think it would be distracting. When playing a game where you spend much of your time just considering moves – rather than actually implementing them – you want to be energized by the music, but not distracted by it.” Later in our interview, Prunty namechecks Severence and its minimal soundtrack, noting that he’s obsessed with the way it takes a theme and applies it everywhere. Listening back to the Into the Breach OST, you can see why this resonates; that same artistry, and knowing application of theme, is at the core of what he achieved with this music.
Coming back to a title some four years after it launched is never easy – there’s a gulf of other projects, of other themes, motifs, and melodies wrestling for headspace in that time. Recapturing what made it special was tricky.
“I was really uncertain that I’d be able to recreate the vibe,” Prunty explains. “But it turns out my production skills have grown so much in the last five years that it was much easier than I expected. I can work much, much faster now than I could even just five years ago. It also helped that most of the presets I saved from the original project still functioned on my new PC setup.”
Prunty’s expertise shows; the new tracks retain that muted, insistent guitar at their heart, but bristle with anxious trills and percussive moments that keep you on edge – that simply bleed anticipation. Coming back and listening to them will remind anyone that spent even a minute with the original game why Into the Breach is considered a modern classic. A classic that wouldn’t be the same without the exemplary, unexpected music that gave it life.