The Soundtrack of Our Lives
While the Portal games are beloved for their twisted puzzles and equally skewed sense of humor, many gamers love the series’ music as well. Hence the new Portal 2: Songs To Test By (Collector’s Edition), a four-CD collection from Ipecac Records that includes music from both this sequel and its predecessor. We spoke to one of the people responsible for these tunes, composer Mike Morasky, about his work on the game.
EGM: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you first get involved with Valve and the Portal games?
Mike Morasky: My path to Valve was long and circuitous, but ultimately hinged around a couple of old friends I’d worked with in other capacities on other types of productions. They’d come to Valve to spearhead the “Source Film Maker” project, and it was through them that I became aware of what a unique company Valve is and, fortunately, what a good fit it is for someone with my type of background.
Originally, the first Portal ended somewhere around the firepit sequence. Kelly Bailey had done the excellent music up to that point, but was busy with Half-Life 2: Episode 2, so I was asked to join the team and help with the “new” second half, the ending, and some earlier glimpses “behind the scenes.” Then, when Portal 2 was starting to heat up, I was super excited by what I was seeing and the team that was working on it, so I was pretty quick to sign up.
EGM: How much leeway did Portal’s developers give you with the music? Did they suggest a particular style or mood, or did they leave those rather basic decisions up to you?
MM: At Valve, every project is different, but we tend to expect “leafy” decisions to be made by the artist doing the execution, but also expect that those decisions be informed by a relatively deep understanding of what the project’s design goals are as well as how those designs are being executed and then received by our play testers. In both Portal and Portal 2, I spoke extensively with team members regarding their designs and regarding any input they may have had about the music. More importantly, though, we always try to integrate that type of input with the “on the ground” designs that are succeeding as we are developing the project to hopefully come up with a holistic solution that works not just for each artist but also for the game and the design principals upon which it is based. So the final executive decisions are left up to the artist but, ideally, with a solid understanding of the project and its goals.
EGM: What about in terms of who you get to work on the songs with you? Like, if you met Jimmy Page in a bar, and he said he was a huge Portal fan, do you have the creative freedom to bring him into the studio or do you have to get a bunch of people to sign off on it first?
MM: I guess freedom is relative. I tend to think of our way of working as being this reversal of the classic expression “from responsibility comes freedom.” So if I were to learn that Mr. Page was a fan, I’d first ask a whole bunch of questions: Would it be good idea aesthetically? Financially? Logistically? Would it add value to the project for the fans? What do my colleagues think? If I don’t ask those questions, someone else is going to. But if I’ve already asked all those questions, and the result is positive, then it’s a no brainer. The key to this is that eventually we all know what is expected of us, at which point we are all, more or less, free to do as we deem appropriate. There’s got to be some kind of a proverb here, “when all are managers, none are managers.”
EGM: So since you have that freedom, how often do your old bandmates from Steel Pole Bath Tub call you up, looking for work?
MM: Hah, they are both doing just fine without my help, I assure you.
EGM: Were there any songs or pieces of music that you wrote but didn’t use for the original Portal, but then either did use them for Portal 2 or maybe reworked them for that game?
MM: No, not really. We did try to re-use some pieces from the original as a sort of tie-in but it was just causing confusion so we took it out. I believe the portable radio still generally plays the muzak version of “Still Alive,” though.
EGM: How much music do you end up writing or even recording for a game that doesn’t get used for one reason or another?
MM: It depends really. There was a bit of that in Portal 2. Experiments that didn’t really pan out, I guess. I tend to write a lot up front, filtering it as I write, well before it gets to the production stage.
EGM: When it came time to assemble this collection, how involved were you in terms of the sequencing or other aspects?
MM: Totally. We went for a semi-chronological approach to the sequencing, peppering it with the non-chronological or PR based elements, which we then play-tested on various individuals. Seemed like a logical design that would keep the collections interesting as they were originally released incrementally.
EGM: Besides the Portal games, you’ve also worked on the Left 4 Dead series, Team Fortress 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. How does doing music for the Portal games compare?
MM: I love my job and the amazing people I get to work with, so even though the projects, approaches, and implementations are different, the basic goals and tasks of design are usually pretty similarly enjoyable on a higher level. I’d say it’s actually refreshing to work on so many different types of projects. So, for example, as I may be getting tired of working on some electronic music, I’ll then find myself in the studio working with some extraordinary session musicians or helping a team with an implementation problem. Keeps things fresh, which really suits me.
EGM: Did you ever write a song for one game, but then, maybe as you’re recording it, realize it would be better for a different game?
MM: No not really. The design process tends to narrow the focus of the piece pretty early on. I do however, occasionally pass themes and motifs from one game to another when it makes sense.
EGM: Some of my favorite movie soundtrack albums are the ones that Peter Gabriel did for Birdy, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Long Walk Home, and what makes them good — and listenable outside of the context of their respective films — is that Gabriel took the snippets he made for the films’ scores and expanded them into full songs. Did you do anything similar to the tracks on this collection, or are they exactly as they appear in the game?
MM: Yeah, much of the music in Portal 2 is either interactive, short bits for specific purposes or trailer/menu underscore. All of these required some assembly and often some effort was put into making them enjoyable in the standalone context of an “album.”
EGM: The Portal games have, of course, gotten a boost from the Jonathan Coulton song “Stay Alive.” But what did you think of the song when you first heard it?
MM: Gabe [Newell, Valve’s co-founder] asked me what I thought of “Still Alive” before we released the game, which is the only reason I can remember having an opinion. Knowing how insanely subjective musical opinions are, including my own, and how we like to quantify things as much as possible at Valve, I gave the most objective answer I could. I said that the song was clearly not designed as a “theme” in the traditional sense, nor was it really in line with the music in the rest of the game. I did point out however, that the tune had gotten completely stuck in my head and that, mixed with the sweet pop nature in strong juxtaposition to the rest of the game, would make it likely that it’d succeed as a surprise ending as it was intended. I don’t think any of us had any idea that the tune or the game would succeed nearly as well as they did.
EGM: Another musician involved with Portal is Mike Patton, the singer for Faith No More who is the voice of the Anger Sphere in the game, and who co-founded the label, Ipecac Records, that’s putting out the boxed set. Given his connection of Valve, did you ever ask him to work on any of the stuff you did for Portal?
MM: I’ve been a fan of Mike’s for decades, and have known him for almost as long. I view his involvement with the Left 4 Dead series and Portal as being very successful, and hope that we can find a way to work together again in the future. Mike is such a uniquely talented artist that I’m sure we could have found some way to work together on Portal 2, but for some reason it just never came up.
EGM: So of all the games you’ve worked on, which stands out as your personal favorite to play and which do you think has the music that you’re most proud of?
MM: Oh, that’s a tough question to which I don’t believe there is a singular answer as my world would be incomplete without any one of them. Because of the standalone nature of the TF2 and Portal 2 music, I tend to listen to those the most. But I very much enjoy a good game of Left 4 Dead 2, which is by far the best way to experience those pieces. I also just now listened to some “Midnight Riders” and I was struck at how much I miss them. I hope they are okay.