INTERVIEW: Composer Olivier Deriviere Talks A Plague Tale: Requiem & More

A Plague Tale Requiem
A Plague Tale Requiem

Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Requiem is one of the best-reviewed games of 2022 – and critics and fans alike agree that Olivier Deriviere’s score played a key role in the title’s success. Deriviere even earned a “Best Score and Music” nomination at this year’s Game Awards for his work on A Plague Tale: Requiem, the latest of several accolades the French composer has racked up across a career spanning nearly two decades.

Cultured Vultures recently sat down with Deriviere to talk about A Plague Tale: Requiem. We covered his creative process on the game, how he differentiated its score from its predecessor, A Plague Tale: Innocence, whether fans can expect a sequel, and more.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your first credited work was on Hydravision Entertainment’s 2004 survival horror game Obscure. How did you land that gig? And did you always plan on composing scores for video games?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, games have always been my – I don’t know, because people talk about music, passion, and games. They are both my passion. Can we love two people at the same time? Well, I have two passions and I think [this goes back to] trying to even make games on my own because I wanted to become a programmer [at first] because games weren’t number one at the time. We’re talking 1990, something like that, and people were not aware that games could be what they have become today, but I was.

So, I wanted to make games and the first thing was like “OK, I’m not going to make music for games, [but] I need to do my own games so I can make music for my own games.” That would be that and then I did study science and study computers and all of this as well as music, and at some point, I figured that music would be my better interest because programming was not my strength. I met a lot of coders and I met a lot of artists as a teenager that were older than me and they sort of brought me by accident – because everything that happened to me is an accident.

Onto Obscure, that’s an amazing game done by people like me. We were 20, I was 21 or 22 when I started Obscure, so we were all kids trying to have fun, you know? And, actually, I’m still hopefully a kid trying to have fun with other kids.

You’ve worked on well over 20 games since Obscure, so it seems you’re still having fun. Do you take a different approach to each new project? And if you do, are there some aspects of your process that always remain the same, no matter what?
In terms of the people, it’s always the same approach. I’m somebody who would rather work with people than work on certain projects – this is my aim. I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that to release a game is already a miracle. I know it can sound weird for some people, but it is and although you know the game might not be as good as its makers would have you know, we know when we’re making a game if the game is not so good, not so great, or good enough, or might be kind of good. I’ve never heard “Oh, it’s a hit game” [during development] but the thing is, we already know.

And if I’m going to spend the next year, two years, or three years with the same people, it’s very important for me to work with these people in the best way, and my approach is to be close to them. Being almost like friends, you know? Because we’re working together on a daily basis and understanding what they want to do is the most important phase of my process. Once I understand the game, my approach can very much change depending on the needs of the game and depending on the style of the music. But I’d say, [my approach] is mainly the same.

And is your approach impacted by the constant advances in the field? Games are constantly getting more complex, and technology is getting more powerful, which means there’s great freedom but also greater audience expectations. How do you go about writing music that dynamically adjusts to all the different mechanics a single game can incorporate these days, and in a seamless way? And is this something you’ve become more comfortable with as your own skills have developed?
Well, I think as a gamer I–I don’t know about you, are you a gamer?

I am.
OK, so when I say “gamer”, some people are pedants and think “pro gamer” or whatever, but I just mean “someone who plays games.” So, I’ve been playing games and I’m not a programmer at all. I suck at games now. I feel very bad, like the last Sonic, man –

Yeah, no – in that regard, I’m very much a casual gamer. I enjoy playing games and I’m fascinated to learn how they’re made, but other people run rings around me in the skill department [laughs].
That’s fine [laughs]. The thing is, I always wanted as a gamer – the fascination I have for games is that it’s new. It’s something nobody has done before, and I know it’s been 40 years or so that games have existed, but the technology is still moving on and improving and still offering new ways of making games. My part is the music. Writing music is, of course, the core of a job for a composer, but I’m not a composer. I’m composing for games, which is completely different, and there are many approaches, and my approach is something not shared by many others.

Some people would share the same approach, like Mick Gordon for instance. I relate a lot to him. But it’s through the experience as a gamer that you can understand what music could do and this is always what I want to do. I want players to be sort of, not surprised, like “Oh, the music!” or whatever, but to be sort of supported by the music in a way that they haven’t been previously.

Because we’re doing this with the AI, we’re doing this with the lighting, we’re doing this with polygon counts or whatever, but music is always like, “Oh, that’s the nice thing in the background.” I mean, I don’t want to undermine music or composers’ work, but it’s just that you want to be part of this sort of race for excitement. And I want music to be part of it, so that is why I’m doing a lot of research and pushing for music to be more than just music.

Building on that, for a game like A Plague Tale: Requiem, what kind of preparation do you do before you sit down to write the score? Is it a combination of looking at concept art and work-in-progress gameplay footage? Do you look at any history books to get a sense of the period setting? How do you decide where to start?
Well, the first thing is that I never know what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it. And when I say this, it’s true for anybody working in the game industry. We’re like, “OK, we don’t know how we’re going to do it, but this is the goal – we want to do something like this.” So, for A Plague Tale: Requiem, it’s even more [the case]. It was not only a sequel – so as we go [in], a little easier – but also it was with the same people. You see what I mean? Like, sometimes, a sequel is done by different people.

So, it was much easier for me to approach the game. The thing is when I approach a game, the first thing, and it might sound crazy for some people, but the first thing I ask about is not the setting, the story, or the characters. But I’m talking about the gameplay mechanics and what the key gameplay mechanics are.

So, for A Plague Tale, it’s quite easy. It’s stealth and they’ve improved a lot from the previous one. We had a lot more ways of approaching combat through stealth. Also, you have control of the rats – that was something very interesting to work on. You can navigate as a rat, you can be a rat, which is something interesting. But also, there was the detective mode. You can see through the eyes of the rats to see where the enemies are, and so those were the new gameplay mechanics [not present in] the first game.

That was the first thing we started on. Like, “OK, so what do we need?” And then later, Requiem is about having a drive for narration. So, you might say it’s like a movie, although you know a movie is two hours or three hours. Sometimes here it’s 417 hours, so it’s very different and players are in control. If they want to stop and look around, you need to think about all of that. But basically, it’s making the experience as it goes with the story, which plays out very linear compared to Dying Light 2, for instance, that was completely different.

There are two things you said just now that I’d like to unpack. The first is that A Plague Tale: Requiem is a sequel and that affected your creative process. Was there much of a push/pull between wanting to give Requiem its own identity and wanting it to feel like a piece alongside Innocence?
That’s always the difficulty here because you want to be loyal or true to the prequel or the first iteration. But you also want players to feel the novelty – like this is something fresh and interesting. So, this is when conversations with the creative director or the game director are key because they tell you, “This is what we want to do. This is how we want to do it.” And for A Plague Tale: Requiem, I mean, at first, we didn’t know that it would be called ‘Requiem’. It was “A Plague Tale 2”, and when they told me the story, I felt like the island was very unique.

I don’t know if you played the game, but you go to an island at one point. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but we wanted the island to have a personality – a characterization of the island. We wanted the colours to be very unique and different, so this is also when we started to think about the choir because the choir would do these weird sounds and things, and it would be completely different from A Plague Tale: Innocence’s signature, with the cellos and the synth. So, there’s a big gap between the first half of gameplay. Requiem has, like, a transition to get into the second part because some people didn’t play the first one.

So, having the choir – it became very obvious that it was needed for many reasons, and when the title came in, it felt very connected with what we intended to do with the choir. And, of course, we have the bagpipes for one of the characters and that’s a new instrument as well, so it’s trying to give you something fresh without forgetting the themes, the musical theme. I’ve extended the first game’s main theme with something else, like a second section, and I’ve used a lot of previous themes as well and created new ones for this one.

Interesting. The other thing I wanted to pick up on from what you said earlier is the difference between writing music for gameplay versus cutscenes. Do you approach them differently due to their respective requirements, or do you essentially tackle them both the same way?
No, it’s completely different and it’s very easy to look at scenes like this – the easiest thing to do. I’m not saying that overall, it’s easy to do a cutscene, to write music on pictures. But compared to doing it with a gameplay mechanic in your mind is completely different and it’s much easier to do cutscenes. Cutscenes, to me, are very important, especially in a narrative-driven game, but our first enemy for cutscenes is your phone. It’s like, the cutscene starts, phone. So, I’m always trying to have this happen less.

For instance, with God of War, they tried to do this one-shot thing. That was amazing in the 2018 game. It’s as if it’s one shot. The thing is, when you get to the gameplay it becomes – depending on the style of your music and the way you approach it with the gameplay mechanics – completely different. It’s not loops or whatever people might think, it’s much more like a matrix. You’re looking at the game and your music and you’re writing counterpoints with movements and being like, “OK, if this happens, there’s this, this, this, this” and you can mould the music the way you want through this gameplay mechanic.

If you introduce a set of rules and you’re like, “That’s the gameplay mechanics and that’s how it works”, with the music, you can play along with the rules, or you can break the rules, or you can change and address them completely differently from one cell to another, which is exactly what happens in A Plague Tale: Requiem. So, the bottom line is, it depends on what the goals are. If it’s a game that is very systemic and you need the system to be enforced for the players to feel like, “Oh I’m there and I’m doing that”, it’s very important to have rules.

But when it’s very narrative-driven, like A Plague Tale, you don’t want to feel the [gameplay as] “exploration/cutscene/fight/exploration/cutscene/fight”. You want to feel it as a one-directional narrative drive, so it’s very important to approach each of the gameplay mechanics, although it’s the same system, with a different musical approach.

Do you have a favourite cue in A Plague Tale: Requiem, including both gameplay and cutscene music?
Every time people ask me this, I’m like, “You can’t ask a parent which child he prefers”. It’s very difficult, but I would say this: some cues are there for underscoring – I’m not undermining the use of this. But the best moments in the game, to me, are when the gameplay, the narration, the music, everything is driving you through this one thing, and I think in this game we succeeded in different spots.

It’s not just one particular cue, but many of them. Maybe when Amicia is in the barn getting crazier and crazier and losing it and killing people, or the scene where she’s carrying Hugo for the first time, or at the end, when she’s going through the nebula, and she’s lost. This is what I prefer in the game – it’s not the best music ever, it just makes the experience good overall.

Speaking of experiences, many of those you’ve had a hand in crafting have left gamers on the edge of their seats. Is horror a genre you feel drawn to in particular or is it that the people you like working with like making horror games? Or is it something else entirely?
That’s a very good question – I even wonder about this myself. If you look at the way the horror games I do work around horror, it’s never through the prism of jump scares. You know, like, “Oh, oh, it’s spooky!” and so on. It’s never about that. Horror, number one, is a genre that allows you to – when I say, “a genre”, it could be cinema, books by Stephen King – it sort of penetrates the human mind. It goes through this fear, the basic sort of feeling, and allows us to explore what can happen.

This is what Stephen is the best at doing. I mean he was the best (I’m sorry). I mean, it’s amazing how horror is more about the human mind than the horror itself. It’s how people will react to a situation. So, I think what I like to do in my music for these types of games, which are close to horror, is to explore the human condition and put myself or someone else’s vision into it, so I can do something that is more visceral musically than something that could just illustrate, even beautifully, from the outside. I like the inside, I like to go and play with your guts as much as mine, rather than be like, “Oh, look at how beautiful it is now.”

A lot of people know my work through these types of games. But I’ve done so many different games and right now I’m doing games – the next game I’m going to announce, which is very soon, you’ll be like, “What the hell?”, you know? You’re going to be like “Oh, that’s not what I expected”. It was the same when Streets of Rage 4 came out. People were like, “What the hell? This guy is making this music?”. But I can, because I want to explore in games, and I don’t think I should limit myself to doing narrative games at all.

Jumping between genres keeps you interested – do you like to mix up your musical influences, too? What most inspires your work, both inside and outside the industry?
I try to play as much as I can because number one: I’m a gamer. I love this medium and I’m always fascinated, although I know how games are made, I’m always like “Wow, it’s just incredible.” People don’t realise it, but I think it’s the most powerful thing that you’re in control of the pixels on your screen. Playing games is my hobby, and of course, it’s part of my job. I’m looking at them and I’m trying not to analyse too much, but I do.

Now for composing, I’m looking outside of the games industry, outside of the movies, I’m trying to find stuff, because I believe we need fresh ideas and I think it’s outside of our own little echo chamber that we provide something that is fresh and new. I’m listening to a lot of different styles of music, different genres that are completely under – like, drowned. Nobody listens to this music, but this is what’s more interesting for me now, to apply it to a game. Basically, I’m stealing ideas and I’m putting them in the game, and I sign my own name. [Laughs]

You know what I mean? It’s this thing, you get influenced by other people, like Aphex Twin – I don’t know if you know him, he’s an English artist and he’s making electronic music, fascinating electronic music. I have learned so much from him and I stole so much from him, but he’s never done a game the way I do it. And this is what’s interesting: I’m trying to get into these musical influences because we’re all influenced by everything else. It’s coming from somewhere. But then hopefully I turn it into my own and I make it for a game.

That’s what’s interesting: it’s for a game. It’s not an album. Soundtracks are good, but that’s not the endgame, without playing on words. But the goal is the game itself and how the music is in the game, to me.

You said that your next game will surprise people, so I’m guessing that means it’s not A Plague Tale 3. Is a third game on the horizon? I’m guessing you couldn’t tell me, even if it were.
Definitely, yeah, I’m not the one that can tell you. I guess you can ask Asobo or Focus. When we’re done with games, I mean, I don’t know about Asobo right now, but I can tell you that they need to rest, because it’s very intense and they need to figure it out. And I’m pretty sure that if they’re working on the third one, it’s not going to be soon.

As you know, the story has come to a sort of a conclusion, so you know they need–I don’t know, I hope if they’re doing any sequel that they will take the time to think about it and come up with some fresh ideas. You know this is very important, I guess.

Especially when you’re coming off the back of two very well-received games?
I mean it’s very unexpected. I must say that the whole team over there was taken by surprise. But with the first one, it was like, “What, OK?” They’re very humble people. This is also what I like about them. They don’t know how good they are, which is great.

A Plague Tale: Requiem is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X & S.

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