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Comic Con 08: Interview With Bionic Commando Rearmed Composer/Director Simon Viklund

Comic Con 08: Interview With Bionic Commando Rearmed Composer/Director Simon Viklund

July 28, 2008 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Comic Con 08: Interview With Bionic Commando Rearmed Composer/Director Simon Viklundon Twitter

He’s from Sweden, which should indicate his music is amazing. The people from GRIN were actually on-hand at Comic Con to tell the fans first-hand about their upcoming Bionic Commando titles. Simon Viklund is the composer and creative director for Bionic Commando Rearmed and the lead sound designer for the 3D Bionic Commando due out this year.

We greedily pulled him away from the crowds at the Bionic Commando booth mainly to talk about Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, but we did briefly discuss the games he’s currently working on as well. I still can’t believe he’s from Sweden and is not involved with the demoscene.

So, will there be exploding heads?  Read the transcript and be amazed after the jump.

OSV: We’re here with Simon Viklund from GRIN, the creative director and sound designer for Bionic Commando Rearmed, right?

Simon: Well, yeah, on the prototype I worked on the sound design, but then it turned out it was so much work with the creative direction alone, it was full time. I pretty much just went over to just doing the creative direction and the music for that game and two other guys made the sound effects for it.

OSV: And that’s for Rearmed, correct?

Simon: Yeah, and for Bionic Commando I still work as the lead sound designer kind of supervising the sound designers there on the sound design. I’m involved with anything you’ll hear in that game. The music composing – I’ve written some music for it, and I approve the music that’s written by others. I’ve been directing voice actors. So anything that’s sound-related in any way, I got my dirty fingers on that.

OSV: So sound design for Bionic Commando and creative director and composer for Bionic Commando Rearmed.

Simon: Exactly.

OSV: Who is the composer or composers for Bionic Commando if you’re able to say?

Simon: Well, it’s one guy on our team, Jonathan Craftwork from GRIN, and there’s me, and then there’s Jamie Christopherson from Sound Deluxe which is an outsource company that we use to write the music too.

Before the project ends, there will be some contributions from two newly recruited guys we have at GRIN who will work as composers and music directors for all the GRIN titles, but at this point, it’s not decided or we’re not sure if they’ll have the time to actually produce something that will end up in Bionic Commando, but it’s a couple of different people who contributed to the soundtrack.

OSV: Okay, Jamie Christopherson has done some scores here, and his name has popped up frequently. So as the creative director and composer of Rearmed, what do those individual duties entail as far as the creative director aspect?

Simon: Well, as creative director it’s up to me to determine what in the original games needs to be preserved as-is, or as the way it works in the original game, and then to decide what we need to polish and maybe cut away completely and replace with new stuff. Where to take the game. It’s a remake not only visually but also mechanically.

The enemies behave a little differently, the weapons you get, you have a few more weapons, so that’s pretty much my job coming up with all those ideas. Like, we have this laser weapon that bounces around the environment which is suitable for a side-scroller game so you can bounce it around between platforms. That wasn’t in the original game. The fact that in the original game the rapid-fire device, which was an upgrade only for your regular weapon, I came up with the idea of having rapid-fire devices for all individual weapons. All weapons in the game can be upgraded.

The bosses, we’ve replaced how they’re supposed to behave, what their weak spot is. Then I worked closely together with an art director named Jakob Tuchcen, I worked closely with him as the art director of Bionic Commando Rearmed, and together with him I came up with the functionality of everything. This is how the boss or the weapon or the enemy is supposed to work, you come up with how it’s supposed to look in order to work like that. That’s pretty much my job, deciding how you experience the game. Are you supposed to have a health bar, or how do you gain health? All that stuff, that’s game design.

OSV: It’s very interesting, because it’s not very typical that you have a composer/director for a title, and the only example I can think of off the top of my head is Akira Yamaoka with Silent Hill. He’s the producer of the title and then he does the music, so it seems like a really cool experience for you. Would you say your primary passion is music?

Simon: Well, I’ve worked as the lead sound designer and composer at GRIN for 7 years before I got the chance to be creative director, and it’s pretty much because I’m such a huge fan of the original Bionic Commando. That’s why they found me so suitable. But my regular title, I’m not working regularly with creative direction, but hopefully, I mean, I love composing music, but I would love it if they think I’ve done a good enough job to do creative direction on other titles as well that aren’t necessarily like my favorite games from my childhood as it is with Bionic Commando. I’d love to explore that aspect of game development too.

OSV: Well, it sounds like a dream come true. As a composer, being really in love with a certain title from back in the day, and it pops up again, and you get your first shot as creative director with this title that you loved as a kid. It sounds like a cool experience.

Simon: Absolutely. I’m pinching my arm every now and then to see if it’s not a dream.

OSV: So given that you composed all the music, what was your direction for the music in the game?

Simon: Well, everything was pretty much up to me. The 3D Bionic Commando gets the symphonic-like orchestrated Hollywood sound because it’s a grand game with big outdoor environments and cinematic sequences whereas Rearmed has the bright colors, and it’s a side-scroller and it has the cartoon look to it, so it’s like, I don’t know… I’m not saying that 3D Bionic Commando’s not fun, right? But the visual style was leaning more towards the techno kind of music with the bright lights and bright colors in the game fit with techno, breakbeats, and electronic music better.

OSV: I noticed you used the Buzz software for composing music for Rearmed, right?

Simon: Did you find out yesterday, or somewhere else?

OSV: I think I read it somewhere. We just spoke with a demoscene musician from Australia, and his name’s Hunz, and he’s a scene legend, and he uses Buzz when he writes music. We just interviewed him and he said he just finished his new album and the problem with Buzz, as much as he loves it, it sometimes has these weird bugs and it crashes and you lose all your work. I was wondering if this happened to you frequently or did you have any problems using Buzz on your end?

Simon: Yeah. [Laughs] I was always like, saving the song, “Area 05 version 1,” then I’d work for a couple hours, and then I’d save version 2, then I’d save version 3, then I’d save version 4 because sometimes a file might be corrupted so it doesn’t even load, and I’d have to go back to the version before. You have to do this manually because the program won’t do it for you. If you’re working for hours and hours and then the program crashes, you’re… you’re screwed pretty much! So it’s not that user-friendly.

It’s a freeware program that was programmed back in 98 or something. It’s like 10 years old. The scene on that, programmers are still programming like, not the base software, but the machines and generators and samplers and oscillators and synthesizers and stuff. Also, effects like compression and distortion and stuff. That’s still being created, new versions of those things, but the stability of the program and the basics of the program have been the same since years back. It’s not something a professional should use, but I chose to use it because I feel at home in that kind of environment. I started making music in FastTracker II, and it’s kind of a tracker program with real-time effects, so you have compression and the delay and reverb and all that stuff. It’s kind of a poor man’s Reason in a way.

OSV: Right, and you’re answering my next question here. I was going to ask why you decided to use it.

Simon: Yeah, it has this sound.

OSV: Yeah, and it’s something about Buzz, it produces a very distinct sound, and it’s a very oldschool sound, and I think you’ve mentioned that before. Did you use it specifically for that reason?

Simon: I would never use it to make like cinematic orchestral music. That would never work at all. You need like Logic or something with proper sound libraries and everything. Pretty much everything all the pads and synthesizer sounds are generated by buzz and then for all the beats I brought in some samples, like snares and drums, and put that through a couple distortion filters and then some compression, then added that beat to some pads and everything else. So the BUS files aren’t that big, I didn’t use that many samples, all the pads and everything are generated by Buzz itself, and that’s just oscillator information.

OSV: That’s very cool. You mentioned you used FastTracker, and of course that’s associated with the demoscene, so are you involved with the demoscene or have you been in the past?

Simon: I was not. I made a lot of music, I started in 97 I think making music in FastTracker II, but I never put my songs up on the Internet or anything. When I listen to those songs today, it’s a horrible experience because the music is so bad, but…

OSV: Oh, come on! Everybody has their old tracked songs and they’re emulating all the greats at the time, so they can’t be that bad. I think this title is going to do well, and I think people who are fans of Bionic Commando Rearmed are going to want to hear more of your music, so maybe you’ll have to put together some kind of EP or compilation of vintage Simon Viklund and get it on the Internet finally.

Simon: Ah, I don’t know if that’s where I’m heading, like a celebrity or anything.

OSV: You know, it’s really funny actually. Recently on the site, we follow the demoscene and we keep up with the music side of it, and we found some music that we liked and did some reviews, and it happened to be that we just did three reviews of artists from artists in Sweden in a row. It just turned out that all this music that we like is coming out of Sweden, so it’s a running joke with us that Sweden is known worldwide for putting out this amazing electronic music, so when I saw that you were from Sweden and GRIN, I thought this guy definitely has to be in the demoscene, and if not, he definitely has to get in it.

Simon: Actually, I wasn’t involved. Like anyone, when you start to make music, you’re like, “Ohh, I managed to make it like I had it in my head, and I managed to get it right,” then you take lunch, come back to the computer and listen to it an hour later and it’s horrible. And then when you work a little better and a little more you get to the point where you can create a song and leave till the next day and listen to it, and it’s not horrible until the next day, and then maybe it lasts a week, and now I’m at the point where I can make a song and I can listen to it for a year or two. I mean, it still holds its ground.

OSV: So have you arranged all the music that was featured in the Nintendo title, or is there tracks that you didn’t include? Are there new tracks that weren’t in the original that you composed for the game?

Simon: Everything that I composed has been released on iTunes. Everything I’ve composed for Rearmed. There’s a track that’s a compilation of the song that plays in the main menu of the game that ends by a cross-fade into another version of the song that’s played at another part of the game when you rescue Super Joe, you hear that song, which is a different version of the main menu song, and when you go into that part of the song, it kind of fades out and the song ends, so you don’t get to hear everything. So you hear tid-bits and small pieces of the entire soundtrack on the iTunes soundtrack that is available on iTunes.

OSV: As far as in-game, are we going to hear every song that was in the Nintendo game in Bionic Commando Rearmed?

Simon: Yeah.

OSV: Okay, so I saw an announcement on the website about the VertexGuy, and he’s an awesome guy. He’s done some Contra stuff and Bionic Commando, he’s a really good guitarist. Is that just a promotional thing or will that be featured in the game?

Simon: It’s not going into Rearmed, at least. I don’t know whether or not it’s going into Bionic Commando. That’s kind of the producer pulling those strings without actually consulting anyone from GRIN, so I don’t know about that. I wasn’t the one who pressed for that or anything, but I guess it’s pretty cool that they’re making different interpretations of the same main theme. So we have the orchestrated version, we have the electronic techno version and the rock version, so it’s pretty cool that the same song can be interpreted in so many ways.

OSV: Okay, I have a fun question now. Are we going to see any exploding heads in Bionic Commando Rearmed?

Simon: You’re going to have to buy the game and play till the end to find out. I will not answer that!

OSV: [Laughs] Okay, very fun. So again, you do sound effects, you do music, and now you’re doing directing. It sounds like you’re an all-around guy. How did you get into this? Do you have a music background? How does one get to where you are today?

Simon: I played the violin when I was a little kid for a couple years and then I went on to play, I’m a classically trained piano with private lessons in piano for seven years or something. I don’t play much today, but that’s pretty much how I got started. I learned to play the guitar and the bass on my own, and I sing a little bit in the shower at least, so I’m just into listening to music, playing music, creating music, and as I said, in 97 I started making electronic music and listening more to electronic music. I listen to a lot of rock music too, but a lot of electronic music as well. My dad played the saxophone and the violin and the clarinet, and my mother played the piano. We’re just a musical family I guess.

OSV: And then the sound effects. That’s a really specialized area. How did you get into that?

Simon: Well, I knew the guys who founded GRIN before they founded the company. As they were starting up, I asked, “Can I do the music for whatever it is you’re doing?” I was still in high school back then, and the were like, “Yeah, sure!” I was working in my spare times in the evenings and on the weekend with the music for their demos which they used to find investors to start up the company for real. Then once we could start out the company for real, we had investors and everything and started up, then they hired me, so I started of just doing the music, and then it came naturally since I was involved with music that I could be involved with sound too. It needs to go together in a way.

OSV: You want that cohesiveness.

Simon: Exactly. And the music needs to leave space in the sound image for the sound effects and vice versa. Even if it’s two different people working on sound effects and music, they need to collaborate and work together to make the overall sound design really come together.

OSV: I think that’s interesting. I think that’s something that gamers don’t really think about, or aspiring musicians or game composers even don’t really think about that aspect of it.

Simon: Its’ easier in movies because you know exactly this is the scene and this is what happens in the scene, whereas in a game the player is in control, so you’re not really aware what’s going to happen. When is he going to shoot the rocket launcher? When is he going to hear the death screams from the enemy or whatever? I mean, it’s an interactive experience and it’s really hard to create sound design for games, it’s a lot of work making it work in all situations, that’s hard. And now that we’ve moved up to triple A titles and more high-profile games, which isn’t how we started out in the business, but now that we’ve gotten to that level, I mean, I’m the supervising sound designer and we have two others, and as I said we just hired two guys to do music direction and music composing, so now it’s an entire team that’s working on that, the sound and the music for GRIN titles, whereas just a couple years back it was only me doing both music and sound effects.

OSV: I guess that’s a sign of the success at GRIN, so congratulations to you and everyone there. What are some of these titles you’ve worked on at GRIN in the past?

Simon: In 2001 we worked on a PC title called Ballistics, in 2002 we worked on Bandits: Phoenix Rising, also for the PC, and leading up to Bionic Commando in 2008, we did sound design for Ghost Recon Advanced War Fighter.

OSV: I’m curious how it feels to have your music up on iTunes. You mentioned the iTunes release for Bionic Commando Rearmed, and alongside it, they put out the original Nintendo Bionic Commando score on iTunes as well. I’m sure you’re going to be gaining fans as your music is available to the world now, so I’m wondering how that feels as this guy coming into a startup company in high school and writing music, and now your music is out there, finally it’s out there on the Internet. I wonder how that feels.

Simon: I think it’s cool. I just don’t want to take too much credit for it, I mean, these songs are remakes. They have the same melodies and harmonies. I didn’t write those, those are from back in the original game, and a lot of the reasons that people like them is the nostalgia factor. They recognize the melodies and appreciate how they’ve been treated. So it’s not only up to me, but I love the fact that I’ve gotten this chance to be a part of that process and bring such a great game and great music back to the people who enjoy it, and if new fans find their way to the game, although it’s primarily for the retro scene I guess, people who enjoy oldschool games, but if the music and the game finds its way to new fans, that’s just awesome. I hope it does.

OSV: Well, congratulations again. You mentioned earlier you like a lot of electronic music and a lot of rock music. I’m curious, what artists are you into so people can an idea of your influences?

Simon: I don’t know if it’s completely out of fashion here in the US, I know it’s in in Sweden, but I actually still listen to a lot of grunge rock, like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, and that kind of stuff. They don’t release albums anymore, but I cannot stop listening to them. I guess what you listened to when you were around 15 in your teenage years, that will stay for the rest of your life.

OSV: Wow, are you and I the same age because you just listed all my top five favorite bands. Alice in Chains is my number one favorite band of all time and you know they kind of got back together.

Simon: I’m born in 79.

OSV: So you’re a little older than I am, but I loved that stuff through early high school.

Simon: Stone Temple Pilots are playing here in San Diego on Sunday, and I’m going to catch that concert before I go back to Sweden.

OSV: Is that when it is? I was planning on making it out, but it was just so busy and I didn’t end up buying tickets, and they were like $40 a pop. That’s so awesome that you’re going to see them though with their little reunion tour they’re doing in the United States.

Simon: They were in Sweden in 94. That was the last time they were in Sweden and I didn’t see them, so I’ve never seen them live.

OSV: Well, I guess I know that you have good taste and I completely trust you with any of the games I know you’ll be working on. [Laughs]

Simon: Well, that’s the rock. There’s the electronic music too. In my opinion, the British artists, those are the ones that, to me, make the best electronic musician. There’s a label called Lot49 and they put out a lot of what they call electro-funk. I love that. Like Meet Katie and Elite Force and Vandal. There’s the French too that have that same kinda vibe, but more disco and funk with electric bass and disco feel to it, like Justice, and of course everyone should know about Daft Punk, that kind of electronic music I enjoy. And American…

OSV: Nobody likes Americans, right?

Simon: Americans are strong in rock. Well, the British are too, of course, I mean, I listen to Queen and some old stuff too, and that’s a lot of Britain, but good electronic music from the States, people say it comes out of Detroit. I listen more to Crystal Method, that’s Californian. They collaborated with Tom Morello with Rage Against the Machine and even Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots sang on one of their tracks, so that’s pretty cool. Kind of a merge where two of my main genres that I listen to like rock and electronic music kind of merged there with Crystal Method, so that was kind of cool.

OSV: I hadn’t actually heard of that. I’m going to have to check that out because I didn’t know that ever happened. You know, we’re seeing all these cools things like Linkin Park and Jay-Z, and all these various things that are just so cool that they’re crossing boundaries and blurring boundaries between musical genres.

Simon: Absolutely, yeah.

OSV: I want to know, do you ever get the chance to write music outside of games anymore now that you’re so busy at GRIN?

Simon: I am too busy, yeah. I used to, and as I said earlier, I’ve made some tracks that I still can bare listening to, but I think I have a user on MySpace where I put out some of my personal stuff, but I don’t have much time writing music. I’m sitting alone in my apartment with my acoustic guitar like strumming, but electronic music, not so much. I spend enough time sitting in front of my computer at work, so when I get home, I watch DVDs and stuff like that. I’m not that creative in my spare time anymore, which is bad in a way, but also I get to do that and get paid for it at work, so it works out anyway. I’m happy about it.

OSV: Well, we’re definitely going to be looking forward what you produce in the future. I just want to ask, any last comments about the music for the gamers? Anything you want to say about the music in the two games? Final words, last comments?

Simon: I hope that people will realize how much I realize the music and the original game when they play the game. If you’re interested in any way about oldschool gaming and side-scrollers, or the next-gen Bionic Commando, check out Bionic Commando Rearmed. Download the soundtrack on iTunes. Search for Bionic Commando Rearmed there. Listen to the podcasts. There’s a Bionic Commando podcast you can listen to as well, and of course check 3D Bionic Commando when it comes out this winter.

OSV: Well, thank you so much Simon, it’s been great talking to you and great getting to know you. We’re looking forward to what you do next, good luck with the release and working on the Bionic Commando for the current-gen systems! Thank you so much.

Simon: Thank you.

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