words by rob whitfield
Everything is a game where you can be quite literally everything. A digital toy box where one moment will see the player controlling a ladybird, and the next moment they’re a galaxy swirling around space passing by other celestial bodies. Created by animator David O’Reilly, who’s probably best known for the video game animations in the movie Her, Everything is an absurd, yet often thought provoking experience. As players shift between animals, plants, objects and bacteria they are treated to audio recordings of philosopher Alan Watts ruminating on eastern philosophy and the cycles of nature.
Underneath all of this, acting as “the glue” between the silly and the serious is the whimsical, dreamlike score of Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano. Slow cello melodies, light piano and ambient synthesizers best characterize the soundtrack of Everything a soothing, anchoring element in a game that seemingly has no constant; no beginning or end; no limits to where you can go.
The collaboration began with what Ben describes as “simple, informal mail” from David O’Reilly. “He explained the game in its basics to me,” Ben explains. “The beauty of it is all about things depending on each other and how we need to work together to make things better, and how perspectives actually matter.” This last point was especially pertinent to Ben and encouraged him to get in touch with Sebastian to collaborate on the album. The two had previously collaborated on a commercial project and Ben felt that their differences in opinion and process would help to expand the concept of the game to the music as well.
“We hadn’t known each other long,” Sebastian says. “So it was really interesting and beautiful the way the collaboration came to be. There was this natural connection, just us making music with no questions.” This was a pleasant surprise to both artists as Everything was a far bigger project than their previous collaboration, with 43 tracks coming out of the process despite the fact that the two of them weren’t even in the same room for most of the recording process.
Sebastian would record solo cello pieces that he would send to Ben. “A twenty minute solo cello piece would have different movements,” Sebastian says, “ and all twenty minutes would be improvisation from beginning to end.” He would edit these improvisations before sending over to Ben, but the aim was to try out different approaches to playing cello. Some improvisations focused on rhythmic textures, while others featured multi-tracked cello, others simply had long melodic lines. “I would send these improvised lines to Ben and then he would come back to me with this beautiful piece he had created [from those pieces].”
“It was always very inspiring,” Ben says, “and from a compositional point of view, extremely rewarding. I would look forward to getting these stems knowing that in those twenty minutes there are potentially five to six tracks depending on what you do with them.” This approach as described as the “DNA” for many of the tracks on the soundtrack, the only exceptions being a few synth focused tracks that were written towards the end of the project.
Ben points to a track that features on the CD release of the soundtrack, ‘Winding and Unwinding’ that best exemplifies this approach. “It shows the architectural process. You’ve got this simple three-note theme, then you build in a couple of piano notes around that and then add more cellos”
“There’s a lot of multi-tracking cellos,” Sebastian adds.
One of the interesting challenges for the duo was the lack of control they had over how players would experience the music. Unlike a movie where the musical cues are defined, video games have to be more flexible. A game like Everything has to be even more flexible. “You might spend an hour as an atom floating around and then only spend a couple of seconds in space,” Ben says. “We anticipated that by just thinking about how the music could work without depending on player decisions. So we wrote different themes and variations for the individual environments.”
The game also utilized randomized periods of silence between pieces to spread out the music and ensure that listeners wouldn’t hear the same pieces too frequently. Ben describes this as something that he has personally enjoyed about other video game soundtracks. For Everything it helped to make the soundtrack feel more organic. “Nothing’s really locked in place,” Ben explains. “You can trigger a piece of music in one environment and leave it instantly – the music will still go on for a while, even though it doesn’t belong in that environment anymore.”
“Related to that,” Sebastian adds, “I can recall a time when David stepped in and said, ‘let the music flow, but not take too much attention. Don’t let it be dramatic’.” That was one of only a few times that David offered any guidance to the duo, preferring instead to offer them freedom to do as they wished, trusting that they would produce something that worked best for the game. Perhaps one of the only other notes the director gave the composers was to avoid making the music silly to reflect the absurdist nature of the game. Ben describes the music as the “glue between silliness and message” – something that is playful and gives depth to the game itself.
Despite this level of freedom there is one section of the game which features music that Ben and Sebastian did not compose. The two of them skirt around describing the level in too much detail, but anyone who has played Everything will likely know what they’re referring to. It’s a level that appears only once and upends many of the rules the game establishes in its early hours. For this section, without either Ben or Sebastian’s knowledge, David took parts of their music and reversed and manipulated the sounds to create an entirely new piece.
“It’s basically sound design,” Ben says, “and it works stupidly well. I’m actually really thankful that he took that out of our hands.” In part this goes to show just how adaptable the duo’s music truly was as David was able to reshape it for new purposes. It also shows just how well the team understood one another, with David able to easily manipulate music into something that still works within the soundtrack, whilst serving a need of the game experience.
After several months Ben and Sebastian’s work on Everything came to an end. Whilst there wasn’t originally any plan to release a soundtrack CD, this was something the duo instantly set to work on.
“I think it’s just that if you’ve worked on something like that for a while, egotistically you want people to hear it,” Ben says.
“Honestly, there were some very strong pieces in [the game] and the feedback we were getting from other people gave us the impulse to want to release an album,” Sebastian adds.
Ben took a first stab at curating a selection of tracks to feature on an album, with the intention of showcasing the breadth and scope of the whole soundtrack. By his own admission, it wasn’t very good. This led to another collaboration with Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths, who took the 43 tracks and cut them down to a simple ten-track album that rather than trying to showcase the full range of what Ben and Sebastian recorded, focuses on being a well constructed ambient record. Sebastian calls out the fact that Robert chose to open each side of the album with the same piece, with ‘Opening Light’ the first track of side B, being a variation of the album’s first track ‘Opening’.
In order to create the ten-track album, Robert was given the full soundtrack Ben and Sebastian created and given free reign to pick and choose the tracks that would make up the collection. “He got really inspired by the music,” Sebastian says. “When he sent over this playlist, it made total sense for us.” The songs themselves are largely left untouched, with only one track being edited for release. The track in question was cut short as the group felt that at eight and a half minutes long it was becoming tedious on the album despite being fine in the game.
Whilst the physical release imposed limitations on the duo, Ben is quick to point out that despite curating a ten-track album from the Everything soundtrack, all 43 tracks are being made available digitally, for what he describes as the “collector set”. Whilst those people are sure to exist, it’s also clear that releasing everything was important to Ben, a life-long fan of video games and their soundtracks. “The soundtrack game has been very strong over the last few years,” he says towards the end of the interview. “Even if you don’t dig that deep, there’s some beautiful [releases]. However, they’re often incomplete.”
With both Ben and Sebastian having recently hosted an episode of the 6 Music’s Freakier Zone dedicated to their favourite video game music (including some delightfully weird picks) the culmination of Everything feels like the completion of a lifelong ambition.
Everything by Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano is out now on Erased Tapes
Order it here