Composer Boris Salchow takes on zombies, humor for ‘Sunset Overdrive’

By Randi Altman

Insomniac Games and Boris Salchow are frequent collaborators, so it was no surprise when the game developer tasked the composer to score the cinematic music for its next-gen shooter zombie game Sunset Overdrive, which was published by Microsoft Studios exclusively for Xbox 1.

The game itself is frenetic in its gameplay, but doesn’t take itself too seriously as proven by the game’s humorous and satirical feel. The German-born Salchow (Ratchet & Clank: A Crack In Time, Fuse, Resistance 2&3) took great care to make sure the funny didn’t come off as campy or too cute. He also used many different influences, from alt-rock to 1960’s Hollywood orchestral music to zombie horror to spaghetti western to minstrel ballads.

Let’s dig into the composer’s process…

What did Insomniac ask of you for this score?
They asked me to create a score for the narrative part of the game, which is told through so-called “cinematics.” Style-wise the game’s over-the-top story asked for a very different approach than you would usually encounter in apocalyptic games. We used a lot of lo-fi post-punk elements infused with big percussion and noisy synthetic textures. I also had to make sure I kept the energy going and the fun flowing at all times. As far as I remember there is not one spooky or creepy tune in there, even though it is actually a zombie game. Everything is either action or fun.

How did you go about preparing for this one?
In the music you will find punk-rock cues, medieval bard songs with R-rated lyrics, a Mary Poppins spoof, glam-metal pieces and other oddities. So stylistically the preparation happened from cue to cue really.

But as soon as I had a rough idea of the overall game design, I did put together a fantastic team that helped me throughout the project — engineers, studios and a group of great instrumentalists covereding all those diverse styles in the game. Having those people ready to go was essential for this project.

What is your workflow like?
On this project I would write the tunes at my studio and then send it to the client for approval. Once the track was written and signed off, I would start replacing all the mock-ups with real instruments. Very often the different parts of a piece were recorded in different studios at different times. It was quite an elaborate process to keep everything organized, but towards the end the whole thing worked like a Swiss clock.

Was the client getting updates throughout the process?
Oh yes, all the time. There were only very few recurring elements, so we had to work together very closely this time.

Finally, how did you incorporate the humor of the game into the score?
It took a lot of experimenting to find the right approach. If you listen to the score of the cinematics, you will not find anything that remotely sounds like a score of a comedy. We realized that the humor in the game works best if it is not underscored with a humorous moment. That would make it too “cute” and it would lose its edge right away.

Then again there are a few hilarious nonsensical moments — like when Buzz Osborne from the Melvins finishes a musical performance, then grabs an umbrella and ascends into the sky like Mary Poppins. That one, for example, got a cute score.

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