LittleBigPlanet 2 was 10 last week! Boy does that make me feel oooooooold! To mark the anniversary, as with the first game, I thought it’d be fun to revisit the licensed soundtrack and put together a few playlists that feature some of the music we evaluated that didn’t make the final cut. There’s also a bit of musing on the subject after that but, again, to keep things focused I’ve steered clear of discussing the game’s original soundtrack or my other sound and audio work on the project. So, without further ado, heeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s…
1) The LittleBigPlanet 2 Licensed Soundtrack
These are the licensed tracks you are already familiar with. Technically, LBP2’s licensed soundtrack also includes all of the licensed music from LBP1, which was required to ensure backwards-compatibility with all of the published LBP1 player-created levels. But I haven’t included any of it in this playlist to keep things clear. Please note that the Spotify playlist is missing eight tracks – there are different versions available, but I don’t think it makes sense to include them given they weren’t the versions found in the game. That’s because we licensed quite a few instrumentals, remixes and edits which are only available from unofficial sources such as YouTube (hot bed of music piracy that it is).
2) The LittleBigPlanet 2 Alternate Universe Soundtrack
This playlist is made up of tracks that were considered for the game but didn’t make the final cut. Note that both the YouTube and Spotify playlists contain tracks that aren’t available on either service. The vast majority of these tracks didn’t make it in to the game due to creative choices that we made – from memory, there was only one track we tried to obtain but couldn’t get (which kinda broke my heart at the time).
3) The LittleBigPlanet 2 ‘Brief Says No’ Soundtrack
This playlist is made up of tracks which, whilst interesting and appropriate along some vectors, ultimately didn’t fit the brief/direction well enough. Many of these were from early on in the search and worked well in linear form when mocking up ideas in videos, but they either fell by the wayside as the brief was honed and developed or they just didn’t have enough energy to support gameplay. But, nonetheless, lots of good stuff in here that is well worth a listen :)
I hope some of you find new music and artists in those last two playlists. I’ve certainly enjoyed hearing them all again. It blows my mind that 11 or so years on from when I first heard many of these tracks, it’s precisely the same ones that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and the feelings they invoke remind me of the experience we were striving to create rather than the one we actually shipped. I friggin’ love music – it’s powerful stuff <3
In my LittleBigPlanet 1 licensed soundtrack retrospective I discussed the process of putting it all together in a fair bit of detail, so I’ll try not to rehash all the same points again here, although there will inevitably be a bit of overlap. But I’ll start by focussing on the differences between the projects as I see them.
If the setting for the first LittleBigPlanet game had the high level direction of “a journey around the world” then the equivalent elevator pitch for LittleBigPlanet 2 was something along the lines of “science through the ages” or possibly “science fiction through the ages”. This offered rich pickings for the art department but proved a little more abstract and tricky on the music side of things. Fortunately, I like a challenge!
The concepts of science, sci-fi and time are certainly flavours touched on by the soundtrack but, for me, the best way of making the music choices feel tangible and appropriate was to dig in to the specifics of the art direction, the ideas and feelings evoked by it, and look for musical analogies that backed those up. The original score borrowed from this too, but was much more concerned with characterisation, drama and exposition, so I didn’t feel the need for the licensed soundtrack to duplicate that effort and that simplified things quite a bit.
Looking at my notes from this period, my concerns at the beginning of the project centred around wanting to acknowledge the musical tropes entrenched in the sci-fi genre without allowing the whole soundtrack to descend into pastiche. I set a target of having “no more than 50% of the soundtrack being electronic in nature” in acknowledgment of the fact that player-created levels would have no such aesthetic restriction and therefore needed a more diverse palette of music to draw from. Overall, trying to retain what worked well in the first game’s soundtrack whilst striving to give it a new flavour and identity of its own was clearly the order of the day, and playing against genre conventions (or subverting them) also had the up-side of retaining that “unexpected” edge that the first game’s soundtrack had.
With all this in mind, fairly early on in development, around May 2009 – which was essentially a pre-production phase as not all the team were working on LBP2 yet – I put together a music montage video, taking the concept art for each area of the game and setting it against my work-in-progress licensed music ideas. It was quick and dirty, but a great way of getting the ball rolling. My high level direction for each area of the game at this point, informed primarily by the high level art direction, was:
- Da Vinci’s Hideout: “historical”, but with a hint of modern tech
- Victoria’s Lab: 19th century Frankenstein experiments, B-movie
- Popov’s Factory: punky, edgy, industrial
- Henry’s Garage: clinical, near-future
- Eve’s Asylum: new-age
- Higinbotham’s Mind: retro 8-bit, psychedelic
- The Cosmos: ethereal and spacey
- The Popov’s Domain: awe of the human body, experimental/avant garde
From that initial selection of tracks, only Ladytron’s Ghosts (Spotify | YouTube) made it in to the final game, but Squarepusher and Röyksopp were in the mix at this stage too, albeit with different tracks to the ones we eventually decided to use.
As alluded to above in the notes accompanying the ‘Brief Says No’ playlist, the main issue encountered when working with linear video is that it offers a radically different experience to the interactivity and pacing found in a game – something that works in one context won’t necessarily work in the other. But that doesn’t totally undermine or invalidate the process – keep in mind that there is no game at this early stage of a project. Similar to 2D visual concept art, or an X-video of visual reference material, the idea behind a music concept video at this point in development is simply to create a starting point, a packaged-up palette or mood board that acts as a source of inspiration and discussion, a way of realising and testing aspects of ideas and assumptions, how they sit together and, crucially, communicating all of this to the team in an easily digestible format so that we can start to get a collective sense of what we’re trying to achieve together. Indeed, this music concept video was the first time we had a cohesive experience that drew all these visual and aural ideas together in one place and, in that regard, marked an important milestone for the project.
Come December 2009, a year before we shipped, those ideas had been further refined towards something which looked a little more like the finished game:
- Da Vinci’s Hideout: “historical” music with a modern twist
- Victoria’s Lab: haunted, dirty indie rock
- Clive’s Factory: retro shtick, robotic elements
- Avalonia: clinical near-future, contemporary electronica
- Eve’s Asylum: organic, beautiful
- The Cosmos: epic, bad-ass space tunes, 8-bit retro arcade
Those are the internal names we used for each area, BTW, in case you are wondering why they don’t all quite match those used in the finished game! You can see that the project was evolving, with the number of themes going from eight to six, which was as much a case of merging overlapping ideas than simply wholesale cutting/axing, although the reduced content requirements were inevitably part of that decision as the whole team got onboard and we entered full production. The music direction was similarly altering course in places, both in terms of refinement, as I identified ideas and music that were even more suitable, but also in terms of better supporting gameplay now that this was starting to manifest.
The aspects that hadn’t fully come together yet were: the Soviet/Hollywood mashup component of Clive’s Factory; quite what “organic” meant for Eve’s Assylum in the context of some of its high intensity gameplay (bit of a juxtaposition there!); and the fact that we’d made zero progress on the music sequencer gadget which was lined up to cover the 8-bit side of things intended for The Cosmos. Everything else was looking pretty good or, at least, the direction and path forward was clear.
At this point, 10 of the of 21 tracks that would eventually be licensed for the game were in the mix, although we didn’t necessarily view them as definite “keepers” as it was too early to say for sure. Which is an interesting retrospective indication of how the direction was coming together, particularly as it more-or-less tallies with my feelings at the time which were that we were off to a good start and just needed to plough on with the task of looking for more suitable music. We hadn’t started the licensing process yet (i.e. seeking permission to use the music), so there were no guarantees that we would be able to use any of it irrespective of how well it suited the game. With a licensed soundtrack the requirement is therefore for an overprovision of suitable music so that you have some ‘Plan B’s to fall back on.
Up until this point, all the music suggestions had come from within the team. And compared to the first game there were a lot more people pitching in, which was great to see. I think having been through the process once already, and perhaps because the end result had contributed so much to the project’s identity and reception, folks were keen to get involved and weren’t so easily put off by the apparent restrictions imposed by my process and direction, and the amount of hard graft involved in trying to satisfy it.
Every track I evaluated helped improve the brief – testing or reaffirming is just as useful as refining or nailing it. The end result features tracks or artists originally put forward or found by myself, Dan, John and Rex on the Mm end, and Martin Hewett from the Sony side of things. But I recall other great suggestions, many of which are in the above playlists, coming from a bunch of people, including Alex, Costa, Jim, Jonatan, Mark, Martin and Tom, and even outside the team from pals at Sony like Jo. I’m sure there were others I’m forgetting too, but it was a real team effort <3
The Patter Of Tiny Feet
We started working more closely with Sony music licensing on the run up to the game’s announcement, and that really expanded the amount of material being reviewed and considered. This timing was perfect because the direction was honed enough for Sony’s searches and suggestions to be focussed and productive.
As with the first game, Rex pulled another absolute blinder by suggesting Passion Pit’s Sleepyhead for the announcement trailer. It was a tricky one to get right – try and find something with the appropriate emotional tone that backs up the sense of community and achievement, moving in to the future together with a new project, and all the while acknowledging the sequel’s more digital aesthetic. We tried a few different things, and even tried to license another track as our plan A but, in the end, I think we ended up with something that worked perfectly for the trailer:
The ebb and flow of the track is absolutely ideal for this purpose – it builds smoothly but also comes back down quite sharply which allows the trailer to change gears both in terms of expanding the messaging and helping to retain interest. And the pitched up voices (Irish Gaelic ones at that!), gel quite brilliantly with the little Sackfolk. The only downside is that it wasn’t a great fit for LBP’s gameplay, which is why we’d initially tried to get another track which was a bit more consistent with its energy – it’s nice to have the music that becomes strongly associated with the project through its marketing appear in the game if at all possible. We knew that was unlikely to be the case when we chose Sleepyhead, but the announcement trailer was important to get right, so we went for it and eventually found an appropriate and meaningful place for it in the game’s end credits.
Towards the end of development, we’d taken the difficult decision to slip the schedule and release the game in January 2011 rather than our original plan of hitting the all-important Christmas market. The game just wasn’t quite baked yet so it was done for all the right reasons. And that did me and the soundtrack some favours, because there were a couple of tracks that didn’t clear until as late as October 2010, which was cutting it a bit fine even with that extension. That included a track which had taken six months to clear, for no particular reason other than, sometimes, that’s just how long it can take for someone to say “Oh, go on then”.
It’s been touching to read comments from LittleBigPlanet 2 players over the past week, how it was a big part of many of their childhoods and that some of them still regularly listen to its soundtrack. Music has that wonderful facility to be enjoyed outside of a game, and I think that only grows in relevance over time as gaming platforms age, making them increasingly difficult to engage with. But I love that memories of the game, and its community, can be invoked and live on through all of these artists’ wonderful music and the contribution they made towards making LittleBigPlanet 2 very much “itself”.
Happy birthday, LBP 2! <3