There’s no other game like The Outer Wilds on the market currently. What looks like a quirky tale of exploration into a mysterious solar system, quickly evolves into a grand space odyssey. It’s a game of beginnings and endings, destruction and creation trapped within an eternal time loop that you have to solve or spend eternity watching a star going supernova.
A project years in the making, The Outer Wilds is balanced on a visual and a mechanical level by a soundtrack that not only guides your actions but motivates you to keep pushing forward into the cosmos. You can thank composer Andrew Prahlow for that divine score which blends a more folksy theme with mournful interludes, grand explosions of cosmic hope and…kazoos. It’s a hell of a soundtrack, a BAFTA-nominated work of art that came tantalisingly close to winning last week.
So how was it made? How did Prahlow whip up a suite of music over the course of seven years, which bucked the easy trend of throwing boops and beeps at players, focusing instead on down to earth tunes to tell a story? “When I was talking with Alex (Beachum) way back in the beginning , I had known him before this, and we were friends in grad school,” Prahlow explained.
The main thing that was really fun for us to discuss was that I could take these folk instruments and sort of do this non-traditional sci-fi soundtrack for a sci-fi game and combine that with some of the more traditional types of synthesisers and those types of instruments for the textures. So I was able to take this big post-rock sound and make it intimate as well.
That was the most fun part to me, I felt like the score was very much the music that I love to write and just kind of transitioning that into a unique way to tell a story through the game.
There’s a charm to the music of The Outer Wilds, one that starts out with a rustic approach and grows over time to emphasise the destruction of your solar system and yet remain hopeful that in the end, life would prevail. “The most important thing that I wanted to convey, I wanted the music to start off feeling happy over time as you’re going through the loop,” Prahlow said of the emotions within the score.
It starts to feel nostalgic, very emotive and not mournful but in the realm of remembering the adventure you’ve been on even though you’re stuck in a loop. So at the end of the game I wanted it to feel very heart-warming but a little bit tear-jerking once it gets to the final scene. It started with the Banjo and folk music, and using that as the as the basis I would start to write some tracks that connects with atmosphere first, and I spent a lot of time with drones and loops while I was writing, and playing the folk instruments over that.
Eventually it helped me figure out which textures would work well, it didn’t feel out of place with the banjo and also how to combine them. I was doing it all simultaneously, figuring out ways to blend them together with the Nomai, the Hearthian and the quantum themes. A lot of trial and error to convey a unique sound and not have anything feel out of place.
One of the key elements within The Outer Wilds was exploration, with your journey eventually crossing paths with five other Travellers who inhabited other planets and kept a tune going until the end of time. Players who listened carefully, would realise that each Traveller was playing the same tune with different instruments and once they were lined up, their strumming would result in a complete track being broadcast across the cosmos.
“I think it’s really playing into the humanistic quality of the Travellers and the fact that they’re connected through the instruments and the music even though they’re all on different planets,” Prahlow said of the Easter egg and how it resulted in fans scrambling to hear the completed track.
That is what I think feels calming. They’re literally playing this infinite tune the whole entire game. When you use your signal-scope, they’re still playing all the way up until the very end of the game, so I think in a way the Travellers are playing these instruments in a sort of meditative state and just continuing on with their song as you’re trying to solve the mystery.
It was pretty exciting to see that people caught on right away. I knew that musicians would notice it, but it was really exciting to read people on reddit or on Twitter talk about how they didn’t notice at first and when they somehow figured it out on accident , people would just have this mind-blowing experience figuring out that all the Travellers are playing in unison.
When you realise the plot of The Outer Wilds, how you’re an explorer doomed to repeat the same time loop that always ends with a star exploding and wiping out all life in the solar system, it makes from grim reading. And yet throughout that entire journey, there’s always a sense of hope that guides you from beginning to end. An intentional emotion, that tied in with other themes in The Outer Wilds. “I think at the end of the game, it gets into existentialist ideas,” Prahlow explained.
Just because you might be needing to restart the universe, everyone was so excited, happy and hopeful for what you’re doing as the explorer. They’re all a little bit mournful, but still that’s the joy of the ending of the game, jumping into the idea that you’re helping everything move forward finally.
If you were looking for one single track to sell you on The Outer Wilds, Final End Times would be your best bet. Grand and majestic in scale, it’s a composition that sums up many of the themes of The Outer Wilds and the experience that the game provides. “That track I felt was very inspired by accepting fate, because it felt too intense to have a very grim-sounding sun exploding music,” Prahlow said.
With Final End Times, that’s the final loop, but I think it’s just acceptance of what is to come next. At that time I was listening to a lot of Max Richter and Johan Johansson, and I’m really more inspired by sci fi films that are more rooted in humanism. I love Arrival, I loved Ex Machina. Things like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really go in that direction even though it’s more of a love story than sci-fi. It has those elements of time travel and going into your memories. I just felt all those movies had a very nostalgic message or feeling.
As for which track Prahlow himself is most proud of? That would be 14.3 Billion Years, a tune that capped off an incredible seven year odyssey of his own:
I really like 14.3 Billion Years Later because it was one of the last things I wrote and I was able to have a suite of music, touch back and rework some of those themes with my own sense of nostalgia. It was quite an emotional session when I was recording those parts. I knew it was going to be the last time I was going to be playing a lot of those tunes. It was the final version, this whole seven year period had been such a big part of my life.
To play that music one final time, I felt like I was in my own end times in a way. The music was going to go out into the world and once I would hit send for that file I was done with the game. That one I still really feel that, i love to listen to it and remember that it was the closing of an important part of my life.
One of the funnier parts of The Outer Wilds, is when your ears are hit by the sound of a Kazoo from out of nowhere. What began as a joke between the Beachum siblings, quickly became a funny and memorable addition to the soundtrack. “As a joke, they were at home and recorded that and sent it to me for fun,” Prahlow said.
We thought it was hilarious, and with a lot of the joke endings in the game they were just like ‘why don’t we just use this?’. We have this joke song, and there’s just so many hidden endings, like ending the loop early on accident, you can break the quantum space-time and it just felt fun to do that. It was their idea to put it into the game. That was them, they get the credit for that one!
And that’s how one of the best video game soundtracks of recent memory was made. A sweeping collection of tunes that’ll tug at your heart-strings, Prahlow’s efforts resulted in a soundtrack that’ll stick with you long after the end credits have rolled on one of the best games of the 2010s.
Last Updated: April 8, 2020