David Valjalo peered into the auditory world of game soundtracks for us in a wide-ranging interview with former Relick-er Paul Ruskay.
Homeworld is a milestone for space strategy sims. I’ll wager that some time since its 1999 release NASA burned its entire archive of the original Star Trek series and replaced it with a single copy of the game in the section of its employee library called “What The Future Will Probably Be Like And How To Survive It”. It’s a titan of the genre remembered and revered for myriad reasons. Be it the delicately balanced systems rumbling beneath its clean lines of (at the time) unprecedented beauty or, not least, it’s atmosphere. A big part of that atmosphere was conjured by the award-winning musical maestro Paul Ruskay, whose journey to, with and beyond the project has, until now, gone untold. I chatted with Paul about everything from Radical Entertainment’s role in the Vancouver scene of the 90s to his return to space with Strike Suit Zero next month, and why he spent so long out of sight and sound.
RPS: How did you get into scoring games?
Paul Ruskay: I got my first job in the industry at Radical Entertainment [in Vancouver]. I was like employee 42, in 1994, when Radical was doing Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo titles. The industry was still kind of underground, and I got hired right out of music school. It was a different landscape back then – I fell into it sideways, didn’t actively go out with it in my mind to be a composer. In your mid-twenties everything’s a bit of a muddle. They brought me on as an audio lead. Back then, if you’re an audio guy – the first consoles I worked on were the Genesis and Super Nintendo – you were dealing with 500k of memory, the software tools were just extremely primitive. The first game I worked on was Pele Soccer, then there was a roller hockey game, and a project which became Grid Runner. [In general] at Radical I always ended up on the sci-fi or creative projects. I was the composer on Grid Runner and in some ways, if you listen to that stuff, the genesis of Homeworld is in there: the synth, it was an arcade/sci-fi setting. For the Grid Runner project – at the time we were all just on 386’s in the office – I went out and got a budget to produce the soundtrack at a studio with a live drummer and we booked out the studio for a month, because everything was so new I could just adopt roles. I was writing music but also overseeing the production, bringing musicians in. Grid Runner was really unique, that really opened up my ears in terms of my strengths and weaknesses, that project solidified my path for producing soundtracks. When I started in the industry it was just one audio guy doing everything, usually, and that was the experience that I carried forward.
RPS: Was the transition from cart to disc as a musician a frightening prospect?
Paul Ruskay: In 1996 when PSOne showed up, it was the transition from the cart to Red Book audio. We all went into the presentation room and they’d just gotten one of the blue PlayStations from Japan and had Ridge Racer. It was like a full audio produced track and that’s when I realised wow, ok, this is getting intense because now there’s no difference from any recording of produced music. You can now put a looping track on an actual CD. That was the wake-up moment when I knew I was going to continue in this industry. I convinced Radical I needed some skill upgrades so I got them to let me do the film scoring and orchestral courses at the University Of British Columbia.
RPS: The effect of hardware cycles and new tech on audio professionals isn’t something you often hear about in the game industry…
Paul Ruskay: Now that I’ve been through so many hardware cycles, the thing that’s always been at the forefront of my mind has been: am I going to make the jump to the next platform? It was like the jump to the Z-axis at Radical – when that Z-axis came not all the animators made the jump and the same goes for audio. You have to stay relevant to the industry by making sure your skillset is in-keeping with the revolution that the entertainment is happening at.
After Homeworld I worked on a bunch of stuff – Turok, Damnation – but I pretty much just kept my head down. There was a bunch of smaller, anonymous titles too. When the big economic downturn happened I was at TGS in 2008, I remember going to a conference and the Nikkei had dropped and I was like oh God, here we go. So I just realised then we were heading into a recession. If you’re running a smaller independent shop, during those times of a hardware rollover, all the work dries up. I almost went out of business straight after Homeworld 2. It was a wake-up call. We were having a rollover into Xbox 360 so all the work in town dried up. Circa 2003 all the companies I had worked with in Vancouver got bought up so all of these clients could then internalise their audio.
RPS: How did you make the leap from Radical to Homeworld developer Relic Entertainment?
Paul Ruskay: After Grid Runner there was a project called The Divide: The Enemies Within, it was an interesting project on PC. One of the programmers was Alex Garden who started Relic. That’s how tiny the community was. After The Divide shipped, Alex disappeared and started Relic. At that point I wasn’t that happy at Radical, felt like I was being creatively stifled. Radical ballooned up to around 200 employees and had this relationship with Disney who were just piling money in. There were all these games in development under the ESPN umbrella, they wanted to take EA on, and I don’t know the mechanics of the meltdown but there was just too much, it just grew too quickly and basically Disney pulled out in September 1998. The summer of that year I’d bought studio space a few doors away from Relic, accumulated all this studio gear and set up a work station. I was designing my exit. I’ve been in that space for 13 years, it’s now Studio X Labs. I’d been at Radical for four and a half years and when they missed payroll in 1998 I just called Alex. It was one of those coincidences, they weren’t happy with their current audio guy and they were in the process of firing him so I stepped in. I started from scratch, they didn’t really have a first-person game mapped out, so I came on and, in typical fashion, though I came on to do cinematic stuff I just basically took over the whole project’s sound design.
When Radical laid off about 80 people overnight a bunch of studios formed. The hockey team became Black Box. There was Barking Dog which was the Grid Runner team. Radical was like this incubator. Teams peeled off. I went out, hired some people, I had like four dudes on work stations, and hit all these games companies that formed overnight. So in 1999, while working on Homeworld, we were working with a few other companies. We were working with Black Box, Barking Dog who were doing Homeworld: Cataclysm and there was a company called H2O who were doing Eden Chronicles. I just spring-boarded into the epicentre of this new game industry.
RPS: Homeworld has a very earthy, primitive tone in stark contrast to, say, 70s and 80s sci-fi which is much more aurally bombastic. How did you craft and create the sound? What were the influences?
Paul Ruskay: During that period everything was instinctual. There was no internet, really, no reference points. The thing with Homeworld, my big influence was, obviously, the Blade Runner score and I was also a huge fan of Brian Eno. There was just something about that form of composition. There’s that moment in Blade Runner where he’s walking up the stairwell and there’s that Arabic singing in it… and the other thing is the art director, Rob Cunningham, had spent some time growing up in India and he turned me onto DJ Cheb i Sabbah – that was the biggest influence, DJ Cheb. He was just doing this kind of DJ’ing but with traditional Indian instruments. You mix DJ Cheb with Vangelis and with Eno and those are the main forces. On Blade Runner there was this synth-sound with world music instruments, that guy just got it right, we all sit under different schools but that combination of sound palette with the visuals – for me that’s what sci-fi is.
RPS: It’s a strange paradox – looking at the future with primitive soundscapes…
Paul Ruskay: It’s almost a brain chemistry thing were so much of music is an emotional response. There’s such a mystery to science fiction in presenting a vision and there’s also that sort of globalisation thing, the world is moving towards cultural fusion with that through-line of synthetic sounds. I was listening back to the Homeworld soundtrack recently and what struck me is it’s almost archival now. People don’t even use that equipment that it was created on anymore. I did some of that Homeworld stuff in a MIDI-only version of a really old sequencer. When I listen to it now, so much of it was created based on the restrictions of the technology of the time. It’s like listening to recordings from the 1920s, so much of the quality of that music is wrapped up in how it was captured. Only over the past two years have things stabilised for me, in terms of the studio and work, while working on Homeworld I was working on these other projects simultaneously, so when I was creating that stuff it was all done under duress. That’s what I mean about instinctual, I didn’t really think about it, we were under so much pressure from the publisher to produce this thing, we had no idea what we were doing.
RPS: Did you have a brief from Relic, or any kind of direction?
Paul Ruskay: Well that was the thing, and why working on Strike Suit Zero was a sort of homecoming, because they were under so much pressure and stress themselves that they just kind of left me to my own devices. I remember this moment during the Homeworld thing – the shit hit the fan in January of 1999 were the Relic team realised they actually had to build a narrative. Nothing had really been thought out. I remember telling a designer we really need to have battle tracks, for when Raiders showed up, for example, and a light-bulb went off in his mind, it was that basic, we were all trying to figure out how to make a compelling experience. The thing about Homeworld that was amazing was they had this audio engine that was way ahead of its time. They had this amazing system of control, it was the first project were we got the audio space correct in terms of the realtime mixing; it feeling a certain way in certain contexts but still all a continuous experience and it was all because we were using these realtime filters.
RPS: Being so hands-on with the Homeworld production, how has your experience and process on Strike Suit Zero compared? You’ve been working with a studio based in Guildford, UK, as opposed to the same city.
Paul Ruskay: Strike Suit – I’m so happy those guys are having that success. I’m coming out of a period of mid-career malaise.
After the Xbox 360 came along everyone shifted to this John Williams type stuff. The 90s weird synth stuff fell by the wayside. How could I compete with the big orchestral kind of thing? For a while I was just trying [to compete], to be so much more professional. It’s such a different thing when a client, like Born Ready, comes to you and says remember that thing you did ten years ago? Do that again. It made me think: what did I actually do? Was it any good? Born Ready had their own ups and downs, I’ve been on this thing for like two years. It was so cool because it’s just been this soundtrack that’s been sitting in the studio for two years. They had their restructuring and so on. It’s been this totally great meandering inquiry into this thing from the past. They’ve put zero pressure on me, supported me. It’s happening instinctually again, rediscovering that Homeworld sound. It was also like: how do I raise the stakes and not look like a one-trick pony? It was about reaching into the past but also moving into the future. For the past couple years Strike Suit has been this little island I keep going back to, it was such a slow and long process, the first track I wrote for it was in August 2010. Once I jettisoned the idea of recapturing something, and started working with the guys from the MIDIval pundits – this electro group working out of Delhi – it came together. Those guys brought Indian instruments into the score, I’d send them stuff to improvise over. And then I just fell in love with [Japanese singer-songwriter] Kokia, too, who Born Ready brought to the table, in terms of sheer musicality. I sent the tracks over to Tokyo and she sang on the tracks. She’s just unbelievable.
RPS: What are you up to now – what are your Post-Strike Suit plans?
Paul Ruskay: Well, speaking of all of this Homeworld stuff, I have started audio production with a new developer in Vancouver called Blackbird Interactive. It’s Rob Cunningham’s company – the art director of Homeworld – and one of the founders of Relic. I can’t go into much detail, but it is an amazing RTS concept that is set in a new property of theirs.
RPS: Thank you for your time.