Ari Pulkkinen Interview: Shadows and Stardust (November 2008)
Finnish-born Ari Pulkkinen has been the resident composer and sound director of Frozenbyte since 2003. During his time at the company, he has created acclaimed scores for Shadowgrounds, Shadowgrounds: Survivor, and Super Stardust HD using a range of acoustic and electronic elements.
In a rare interview, Pulkkinen gives an insight into his experiences as a composer. He discusses his origins as a demoscene composer, his transition to working on official projects, and, especially, his recently acclaimed soundtrack to Super Stardust HD. Shortly after he responded to this interview, Pulkkinen also confirmed his involvement on Trine, which he hints at here. This interview originally occurred at the site VGM Rush and has since been republished.
Interview Subject: Ari Pulkkinen
Interviewer: François Bezeau
Editor: François Bezeau, Chris Greening
Coordination: François Bezeau
François: Ari Pulkkinen, it is an honor to exchange with you today. We will start by discussing your most recent project, Super Stardust HD. What was your objective with the soundtrack?
Ari Pulkkinen: Thank you very much! Having time for a spotlight on a game music site like yours is always a treat!
What comes to SSHD, the first track that was qualified in was "Starfighting Across the Universe", used in the first world. Believe or not, it was originally named "Darkside IV" and made for the StarFight: Comrades demo, a sequel in the StarFight game series which was then cancelled in 2004. So, basically I did the track five years ago in 2004 and remixed it for SSHD in 2007. This track is really important because it created the basis for the entire soundtrack — it's memorable, fast, intensive, heroic, demoscene-flavored, and somewhat 'space action'-inspired.
The original Super Stardust featured a memorable gameplay and music experience back in the good ol' Amiga days. I think there's some tribute going on with SSHD soundtrack.
François: Given a lot of soundtracks for games of this nature tend to focus heavily on electronica, what was the inspiration for including "organic" instrumentation in many of the pieces?
Ari Pulkkinen: Simply to put it, it gave me much more options with the melodies making it much more heroic. And, I like to mix genres like this — I don't like to be categorized...
François: Did you find it difficult converting such futuristic sounding pieces into something that could be played by an orchestra for the Team Expansion, while at the same time, retaining the elements that made the originals so catchy?
Ari Pulkkinen: This is a very good question. I wonder if any other game has done this? It was a really interesting case — I had to lose all the key-electronic elements what made the original versions so likeable — but the key was that I didn't lose those catchy tunes in the process! I'm really proud of this conversion; it proved to me also that I can deliver Hollywood style quality which is kinda long process to make in the end without the real orchestra playing it.
François: The project you worked on before, Shadowgrounds, had its soundtrack released on CD. Is there any chance that SSHD might receive the same treatment?
Ari Pulkkinen: That depends solely on Sony right now. I would have released SSHD soundtrack a year ago if it would've been up to me. I really would like to make a CD, but there's a bunch of legal terms preventing me. Hopefully in the future these things won't be issues in any game soundtracks.
François: On the subject of orchestral music, more and more games these days seem to rely on it for their scores as opposed to retro game music which was more electronic. Some scores actually sound like they are coming straight from Hollywood. What is your opinion on this trend?
Ari Pulkkinen: I'm basically OK with that, though it depends purely on the game. Not all music coming from Hollywood is bad you know. However, I'm challenging all the game composers around the world to make something own and unique. Hollywood style may fit in your project but is it perfect? Does the melodies and compositions lose something, or gain?
François: You admitted being an avid gamer and game music fan. What are some of your favorite games and soundtracks? Also, are there any composers who had a big impact on you?
Ari Pulkkinen: Basically I've liked all those games which have had memorable soundtrack. A few good examples are the Lucasarts adventure games, the Warcraft series, and other fantasy related games. Though more ambientish, great example of really good immersion comes from original Fallout tracks too.
When we're going into the name-game, there's artists like Mark Morgan, Michael Land, Glen Stafford, Matt Uelmen and Jeremy Soule who have my stamp of approval.
François: Do you think it is important for a composer to play games and listen to what other composers do?
Ari Pulkkinen: I think it's very important. You can see how the other composers have managed to create the atmosphere and what techniques they have used, and what techniques they should have used and what they have missed. Game music is always best in-game, in a certain situation where it is planned, so I try not to judge game music without seeing and hearing it myself.
François: Do you notice any differences between Japanese, European, and American game music?
Ari Pulkkinen: I haven't played that many Nintendo and PlayStation games, so there's much yet to be surveyed. However, what I do know that it depends much of the project how music is used on a game. I know that game musicians in Japan are much more respected and even more famous than their colleagues in the West. Japanese composers also seem to be the first ones to explore new things and try different ideas unprejudiced. I like that music plays a bigger role in Japanese games too; it's one of the key elements how characters are enhanced, themes strengthened, and tense atmospheres are made.
François: What is so special about music that made you choose it as a career? And more specifically, why music for games? Also, do you have an ultimate goal, a dream you would like to fulfill one day?
Ari Pulkkinen: Music has always been a big part of my life. Music was just an important hobby for me for a long time, but when I got a chance to do it as living, I went for it — and I haven't regretted a thing about it.
And the reason I like to compose to games is simply that there's so much freedom of choice. So much to explore and to see. So many different concepts and designs which are usually much more interesting and daring than in any movies or television series. Nonlinear interactivity makes games also much more interesting in the audio front than linear media.
Now that I think of it, game music has been a safe haven for me. I get to compose music what I like and people will hear it thorough the world. I'm not limited to any mainstream rules or linear cuts.
I'd like to compose to a game where there are many open lands, different locations, ancient battlefields, different emotions, life and death, and lore the size of a school library... hmm, heh. Reminds me little bit of World of Warcraft type of thing.
François: You have been quite active in the demoscene, having won several prizes for your compositions. Has the experience you acquired helped you in any way while working on games?
Ari Pulkkinen: It certainly has changed my point of view in all art. First thing, when you are making an art of your own, money should not be the first thing on your mind. Second thing is that handling something that is made in a hurry and with a schedule is certainly a good feature when doing this of work.
François: How difficult is it to come up with fresh and original music today? How do you go at writing music?
Ari Pulkkinen: Making fresh and original music is not that difficult in the end, at least not for me. I'm always trying to think outside the box. When I'm collecting reference music, I'm not just looking from one direction — I'm searching mostly feelings and components that could go well together. I'm definitely not cluing a track made by someone else to my music program like some who like to make their own music "sounding just like that track but a twist". That's just lame.
François: Some music is enjoyable in the games, but when taken out of context, it is not so entertaining. What do you think is the trick to make music that is both enjoyable inside and outside?
Ari Pulkkinen: The trick? It's simple — you have to have heart and soul. It's in the notes and compositions. It's the melodies that keeps music so interesting after we have played the game or watched a movie. It's the memorable themes that you like to hear after playing the game. If a listener feels something when listening music, it usually means that music have had some kind of impact on them, and that's good.
François: While video games are becoming more popular with time, they (and their music) are often still considered as childish and geeky entertainment by the general public. Does this bad opinion affect you at all?
Ari Pulkkinen: Nah, it's good to be the underdog on the mass public view. It keeps me motivated and trying better. I like to compose music both for young and adult taste, making it more universal and memorable. I belong to that generation that thinks gaming is as cool and entertaining (or more) as watching movies.
I'd say games are more educating too. I learned English really fast by playing legendary games like Monkey Islands and Fallout. Games also made me more interested about the world, skiing, and fishing, and told me to survive a nuclear holocaust. Sweet.
I also believe that this is an issue we won't be talking in five years from now. Games are becoming more and more mainstream, and there's no turning back. Eat it up movie industry!
François: Does the fact that game music is not a genre in itself, instead borrowing elements from electronic, rock, orchestral and more genres, mean that it cannot be a pioneer or creative voice? Also, do you think that people who never played a game in their lives might be interested by this kind of music?
Ari Pulkkinen: I think it's not a fact in the first place. Depending on a person it is as a fact if someone can claim that movie music is not a genre. Is it not? There's much in games that are unique, like interactivity and all the crazy and weird designs that you see or hear in the linear media.
Still, if game or movie music are not their own genres, sorry if I say this so bluntly — I really don't give a rats ass! I don't want become labeled anyway because I'm not into genre-naming my own music either. There are too much genres and sub-genres in the world today, which makes me believe there's actually too many people who have absolutely nothing to do in their life. I wonder when they are going to invent sub-genres in game music..
I think that anyone can be interested about any music that's out there. Does the 'game' label make game music more lame and less acceptable in the public view? No. If it's good, it's delivering.
François: Do you have any tips to share with people who might want to work in game audio?
Ari Pulkkinen: Respect the ones that have come before you and made popular, fresh, and unique material. Respect your audience. Don't fight too much against the mainstream but still try to create your own style. Think outside the box.
François: Can you give us any details concerning your next project? What can we expect to hear?
Ari Pulkkinen: I'm working with an untitled game project that is hopefully out in Q1/09 on PlayStation 3. It's a new and different concept for me. The soundtrack will not consist any electronic instruments or samples, only acoustic ones! It's going to be really interesting with a middle-age fantasy theme. The fans of adventure and fantasy games and movies will be praising this one, I'm sure! [Editor's Note: This game has been confirmed to be Trine]
François: Plans of starting a mainstream music career are in your head. Is this something that could be happening soon? What kind of music would it be?
Ari Pulkkinen: I have plans to make music out of game context, but that will be just the opposite what mainstream rock and pop radio and television stations and idols are playing to us. Sure, they might be entertaining and sometimes even good, but where is the heart and soul I wonder? I know how the industry works and I don't like it — it's mostly about making money. Bubblegum entertainment for the masses that don't know any better.
My own music will be melodic, mostly acoustic, and filled with heart and soul. Live instruments and music performed by talented musicians and singers. There will not be any overcompressed or overmastered tracks like the ones we are hearing from radio stations. I like to keep them simple like those classic tunes in the 60's when the most important thing was the melody.
François: Which artists are you listening to these days?
Ari Pulkkinen: I'm not listening to any particular artists, but the genres I'm mostly listening are classical, soundtrack-channel, acoustic music, blues, and easy-listening. When I'm on party mood, I'm listening to rock, house, electro, and beats. On my summer cabin I'm listening finnish good' oldies folk-songs and humorous songs... it's all about the situation.
François: Besides music, what are your other interests in life?
Ari Pulkkinen: In the summer I want to go away from all of this. I become the 'average Ari' when I'm going to my summer cottage in the shores of the biggest lake Saimaa in eastern Finland. I like fishing, building something, drinking some beers, watching around, walking in the forest, you know — just feeling relaxed and unimportant. It's peace for the mind, eyes and ears. Other than that, I like sports, watching movies, playing games, and having a good time with my wife and friends. Getting to know the world where we live in isnn't a bad idea either!
François: Thank you for your time and kindness. Would you like to add anything else before we conclude?
Ari Pulkkinen: Thank you! I've launched a new website, including a game musician's and sound designer's blog, here. Come and get your insider's fix on the game music industry!