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Outer Wilds | The Sounds of Campfire Sci-Fi with Andrew Prahlow

Composer Andrew Prahl explains how the intimate soundscape of indie adventure game Outer Wilds defied convention and Covid.

What if traversing the stars felt more like backpacking? Spaceships made of wood, fellow astronauts camped out on other planets, plinking away on banjos and toasting marshmallows. The cold, black abyss of the stars may be terrifying, but if you look hard enough, and turn your ear to the cosmos, the sound of a harmonica might just lead you home. 

That’s the atmosphere that welcomes you in Outer Wilds (available on Steam), a mesmerizing space adventure game that gathered quite the cult following after its release in 2019, and justifiably so. 

The game puts you in the shoes of a newly-minted space archaeologist in a distant star system, jetting off on his first mission to study the ruins of the ancient civilization that had colonized your system eons ago before mysteriously disappearing. Twenty-two minutes after you disembark, however, the system’s sun spontaneously explodes, taking you and the universe along with it.

Then….gasp. You wake up, staring at the same stars next to the same campfire you started the game at just a few minutes ago. You’re trapped in a time loop, one that resets every time you or the universe die out. Armed with your memories, a few key tools, and your trusty wooden landing module, it’s your job to figure out what’s happening, and (maybe) how to stop it.

Key to Outer Wilds’ camping-in-space aesthetic is the score by BAFTA-nominated composer Andrew Prahlow, for whom Outer Wilds is his first major project. It’s a beautiful mix of cozy, banjo-forward folk sounds, blended with an Explosions in the Sky-level post-rock sweep perfect for those moments when the scale of the universe opens up to the player.

The score, like the game, has received justifiable praise, and both returned for the game’s acclaimed DLC, Echoes of the Eye, which added a new planet to explore and a new, even more alien soundscape for Prahlow to explore. In fact, for his extended album release of the DLC’s soundtrack, The Lost Reels, Prahlow is one of several names in the video game world in contention for the Grammy Awards’ first trophy for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media

Off the back of the score’s first live performance at the Lodge Room in Highland Park, Los Angeles, Prahlow spoke to me about the score’s impact, what new directions he took for Echoes of the Eye, and how it ties into Outer Wilds’ themes of life, death, and perspective. 

Score of the Worlds is a biweekly interview column from Clint Worthington, host of the movie music podcast Right on Cue.

How surprising was Outer Wilds’ success to you and the team? Between the original game’s release and Echoes of the Eye, it (and the score) gathered quite the cult following.

It wasn’t apparent initially since the game exploded in 2020, during COVID. We could see that it was becoming more popular on the Internet, but we didn’t get the chance to see it in real life. But we were still quite nervous about Echoes of the Eye because people judge sequels.

Musically, I was a bit scared with this one, and gameplay-wise we were all trying to do something different. But we pushed it in a different direction for Echoes, which is why people really resonated with it. It was new, instead of just an extension of the original game. It’s a whole new story, a new purpose for the existential themes the first game touches on. It’s a bit more terrifying in certain ways. Because of that separation, people found something new in it.

Your score for Outer Wilds is notable for being so different from anything we typically hear in space games — just like the game’s aesthetic, it’s very banjo-forward; there’s this cozy camping vibe mixed with the post-rock sensibilities you’ve thrown in as well. When it came to doing Echoes of the Eye, how much did you want to differentiate your score from the base game?

In the first game, I wanted to use instruments that feel noticeable when you’re a human on Earth in real life. In Echoes, I wanted to experiment with things that felt otherworldly. The first game is the joy of learning how to play music with your friends around the campfire, but Echoes is about experimenting with those instruments to create something unfamiliar.

I was touching base on many analog synths for which I would mangle the audio. I pushed the guitar effects in even more far-out directions, where they’re almost unrecognizable as a guitar. I ran with that throughout the game, all the way to the end. We could handle all these crazy textures and make things feel like they’re still in place in the atmosphere of the game but very out of place if you would hear them on Earth in real life.

You hear that a lot in tracks like ‘Lost Signal’, where there’s a lot of feedback and distortion. It feels like you place a greater emphasis in this score on more ominous, atonal pieces. 

Alex [Beacham] said in the beginning that we were approaching this as a descent into madness. You’re going down into the depths of this new planet. So I approached the score that way, where it starts with the river and tracks into that. That’s the bridge from Outer Wilds into Echoes of the Eye. And towards the end of Echoes, that’s when I get to push things to their limits in many ways. 

There’s room for a fuller sound, where you introduce many more instruments and elements that aren’t present in the original score, like vocals. I’m curious about how you incorporated those into the score.

At the very beginning, when you’re approaching The Stranger, the super-planet you arrive on, there are vocals in the actual game. In The Lost Reels, I extended that even further, manipulating those vocal passages to their extremes — where they get so washed out that they sound like halves. They just become a part of the chord progression.

With Lost Reels, that’s where I got to play with that. It’s more of an extension of the game itself; there are fewer boundaries when working on a record as a record and a reflection than when you’re working in-game. Here, I can use the collective imagination we used to create the game and extend that further into pieces that people can look back on after they’ve finished it. 

The wooden panelled interior of the spaceship is cluttered with camping gear and instruments.
Rustic at the end of the Universe: Aboard the wood-panelled spaceship in Outer Wilds. | Mobius Digital Games, 2019.

Is there a particular track from The Lost Reels that encapsulates some aspect of the game or the scoring process?

‘Older Than the Universe’ is the final, ultimate reflection, at least for myself. At the end of the first game, cello comes in for the first time during the end credits, and ‘Older Than the Universe’ expands on that idea. Playing ‘End Times’ with an entire string ensemble, it swells, and the guitar comes in. I essentially used orchestration to create mashups of a lot of different tracks. Then I remix them acoustically, like how I have the original Outer Wilds melody playing with ‘End Times.’ Then, after that segment plays, with the string ensemble and the guitars, I bring back the ‘Main Title,’ re-recorded through telephone mics. 

That was another reflection of my approach; imagining Outer Wilds in its own real-life place, somewhere far off in the distance, and you’re hearing the game’s soundtrack as an actual lost signal far away. As if we had Signalscopes. It was just a fun way to imagine it as if there was a real Golden Record that the Hearthians or the Nomai, or any of the alien civilizations release. What might it sound like to us in real life if we found that?

That’s something I love about both scores and how they tie in thematically to the game: They touch on these ideas of time and scale and perspective, where we’re viewing the sheer size and significance of the universe through this tiny little pinhole, perhaps even millions of years in the past. How satisfying must that feel, to be able to play with those ideas musically?

That’s the most fun part for me, honestly. Because we can do that a bit when we’re developing the game, but then writing this record, we’re in full creative mode where we can go in and figure out ways to connect these ideas to ourselves as humans, rather than connecting to characters. Rather than thinking about it as, “Oh, this is how this character would feel,” I could say, “this is how I feel.” The fans felt this in some ways as they were playing through the game.

But you’re correct: The whole thing, game, and score, is a musical reflection of what life’s existence means to people and the different ways we can think about it. The time we have on this Earth and how important that is. And how important to connect with each other. 

A view over the tree tops and the Village, with a telescope protruding from the Observatory.
The Village where the game begins, with the Observatory in the foreground, in Outer Wilds. | Mobius Digital Games, 2019.

That feels most encapsulated in the ‘Travelers’ theme of the base game, where all the different instruments your fellow Hearthian explorers are playing come together in one transcendent tune around a campfire at the end of existence. You revisit that theme in Echoes of the Eye; I’m wondering what new thoughts you wanted to add to that tune.

That was fun because the original ‘Travelers’ tune is one of the first things I wrote ten years ago for the game. For Echoes, I got to return and add a new instrument. It was initially challenging to figure out what that instrument would be and how to construct it (because we still wanted to play it manually). We wanted it to be something you couldn’t put your finger on. 

But Alex, [concept artist] Ian Jacobson, and I got to work together on this. I came up with this weird hurdy-gurdy instrument in my head but wanted to make it more alien and unfamiliar. The drone of the instrument is like a guitar loop, then the melodic part is this weird theremin-sounding thing, which is a synthesizer combined with a slide guitar I got in Louisiana (the guy I got it from told me it was built from a haunted door). That felt like the right pick for the bayou-influenced wetlands you’re riding around in for a lot of the game. 

So I combined those three things to create this theremin-sounding instrument, then used counterpoint to write another melody on top. They all had to feel they could constantly play throughout this piece. But they all had to feel like they could stand independently when using a Signal Scope. It was fun to go back and write something that felt at home in the ‘Travelers’ tune but was new.

Did you ever name the new instrument?

We never actually named it; we just called it “The Stranger’s Instrument,” or “The New Travelers Instrument.” But I don’t know if it needs a name because the new alien civilization never had one. You can’t read any of their text; the story is told through music or clues. There’s no dialogue until the very, very end sequence that connects back to the first game. So it felt right not to name anything because you don’t know what anything is. You’re unfamiliar with all of it.

What was the production of the score like? Did you bring in any other musicians?

For the last three years on Outer Wilds, I recorded everything myself except for the whistling, the cello, and the violin. So it was a lot of layering over time, in some cases quadruple-tracking, or whatever the five-track version of that would be. The process was long, but I’m used to recording things myself.

You played this score for a live audience recently, the first time this music has been played out in the world like this. What was that experience like?

That was crazy; I didn’t know what to expect since I’d never done a show for this. People showed up early, and the line wrapped around the block before the show opened. People got there early. Afterward, I met hundreds of people waiting in line to speak to me, and people gave me fan art. It was incredible. I had no idea that’s where this project had gone. I knew people were excited about it but didn’t know they would be just so happy to be there.

All of us can celebrate that we’re listening to music together and in the same room. It was one of my favorite days of my life, easily. 

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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.

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