Thomas Was Alone composer David Housden: from ‘quarter life crisis’ to BAFTA nominee

Thomas Was Alone review

Straight out of university, David Housden quit pop-punk his band to focus on composing. Before he’d even finished setting up his iMac he found himself working on British indie puzzle platformer Thomas Was Alone. His procedural score would earn him a BAFTA nomination for Best Original Music and kickstart his career as a composer, producer and sound designer for games, TV and film. He tells us how it happened…

What was your first involvement with Thomas Was Alone? What stage was the game at and what did you make of it?

It was a couple of weeks after I graduated from university. I played in a pop-punk band throughout uni and we played a couple of shows with another band who’s guitarist was a Flash developer at Jagex. We got chatting after one of the shows and I mentioned that my dissertation was about game audio composition and I was looking for work experience within the industry. He very kindly agreed to see what he could do. A few months later, just after I graduated I heard from AJ again saying that he’d left Jagex to go and work at a new start up called Bossa Studios. They didn’t have any work experience as such but their lead designer was developing an indie game in his spare time and was looking for a composer. This turned out to be Mike Bithell.

I had a bit of a quarter life crisis after graduating and decided to leave my band and focus solely on composing, so I sold all of my guitars and amps, and bought an iMac with a piano and few bits of software. And it was at this point that Mike wrote to me introducing himself. He’d heard my portfolio and hadn’t really been blown away (understandably as it sucked!), but luckily had heard enough that he was interested in hearing a demo from me. So he gave me a rough outline of the sort of thing he was after, and I went away and wrote something, for the first time on my new gear. It turned out to be completely different to what he’d asked for! It was all piano and melodies and next to no electronic synth elements, but I had to send it because he was expecting something from me. Anyway, somehow through fate, or by luck he loved it and that piece of music is now the title track of Thomas Was Alone. The first piece I ever wrote out of uni.

To answer the rest of your question, I was involved right at the start of development. Which was fantastic, and one of the main reasons the end results have proven to be so successful in my opinion. It’s a habit more devs really need to get into.

My first impressions were – don’t tell Mike – ‘How the fuck am I going to make this interesting?!’ it was at face value a game about jumping, coloured blocks. However, after mere days of working on it, it became obvious that it was something so much more. And it grew into this beautifully artistic tale of friendship and personality types, introspectively exploring the world of game development.

Thomas Was Alone composer David Housden.

Is making music for a game with only quadrilaterals as characters particularly challenging?

Initially it was incredibly challenging to try to bring character to 2D shapes. At this stage there was no narration, no script. Just a rough outline of the sort of themes of each level. Friendship, danger… the epiphany came when I began to write for them as humans instead of as AI, that’s when the ideas began pouring out, and – I hope – became a facet of what makes people empathise with them so readily. Because these are human emotions I’ve attempted to portray. After getting past this hurdle, I realised there was an entire story to be told with the music. Usually developers are screaming at you to use soft tones and not be agressive or repetitive. To sit in the background and try to stay unnoticed, but this was the antithesis of that approach because it was so minimalist and sparse in every other sense, it left a huge gap for the music to really shine and become an intrinsic part of the experience.

Talk us through the process of making the game’s procedural soundtrack – what did it involve from your point of view?

Yup, that was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done! Added on months to the workload… [laughs] no to be honest, it was Mike’s call. He was really keen on having a procedural soundtrack to keep the experience fresh and away from the unimaginative, monotonous audio a lot of games are cursed with these days. The initial suggestion was that I write a track and then retrospectively cut it into three blocks – intro, middle and outro. Each of these sections had to be able to integrate seamlessly with all of the others, and then they’d be randomly generated, so you wouldn’t hear the same arrangement each time.

Being fresh out of uni, I thought it was my job to shut up and do as I was told, so I humoured him for a bit and did some experimenting, but I soon got over myself and just told him it was a dreadful idea! In order to work, it required abrupt stops at the end of every section, and in real life notes don’t magically finish their decay at the end of a bar. There was no room for the notes to resonate naturally. This isn’t such a problem for electronic forms of music but when you’re writing for traditional instruments, particularly when it’s such ambient and minimalist music, it would have sounded really unnatural.

So he came back to me with a wickedly complex suggestion, in that instead of breaking the whole track up, I break each instrument up instead. So I’d write a base track of one to two minutes in length, and chop the rest of the instruments up into 4/8/16/24/32 bar loops, then these would be randomly generated over the base track. So every single loop had to be able to coexist with any other loop at any given time. Pretty much like a construction kit or something you’d get in Dance Ejay or something of the like.

So it was a completely backwards way of working for me. And it was only after the first three or four tracks that I really started to get my head around it, as Mike will tell you. You can hear me becoming progressively more adventurous with my writing and ideas as the game develops. There was a real learning curve there. It was an absolute labour of love but I’m really glad to have done it because people can replay the game 100 times over and they’ll never hear the same piece of music twice. I don’t think there’s many other people who can attest to that. In fact I often get fans writing to me asking if they can get a copy of the in-game music because they prefer it to the soundtrack version! So it’s comforting to know that Unity’s audio engine can apparently put together a more imaginative arrangement than the lowly composer…

Thomas Was Alone

What has Thomas Was Alone meant for you personally, and in terms of your career?

Yeah, I was 22 when I first started work on Thomas, so pretty young in comparison to a lot of my peers I guess. It was indeed my first job out of uni, and at the time it was something I was doing purely for the experience and to build some contacts. Despite this, I really threw myself into it and pushed myself to create the best pieces I was capable of. It’s pretty surreal to now have that work recognised by the British Academy, IGF and Develop awards.

As a direct result of the work I did for Mike, I was commissioned to score Monstermind which was Bossa Studios’ first game for Facebook. This went on to win a BAFTA and I also worked on their following release Toy Run. More recently I worked with Jonathan Ross on his debut game Catcha Catcha Aliens for iOS. Stephen Fry also does the narration, so that was a really cool project to be a part of. My friend AJ, who initially introduced me to Mike, left Bossa to start his own indie company and they were picked up to become a partner studio for Microsoft. So I actually worked on the music for a game called Janksy which was was the featured app of the Windows 8 launch. We’ve recently been discussing work on their latest IP as well.

Then this year I’ve been nominated for a BAFTA and Develop award as well as receiving an honourable mention for excellence in audio from the IGF. As for now, I’m currently working on two titles for independent developers which i’ll hopefully be able to say a lot more about soon! I’ll shortly be starting work on Mike’s ‘Project 2′, and I’m going to be scoring my first film this year. In addition to this, I was recently signed to a publishing contract with a New York agency who outsource music to film and television studios such as Fox, Warner, Paramount, HBO and MTV to name but a few. So it’s been a really crazy experience for me as I’ve only been in the industry for two years.

Although it wasn’t always like this. I clearly remember sending out e-mails to around 200 developers when I graduated, only to hear back from three of them. Of those three replies, two of them were rejections and one was an offer for an interview at TT Games as a junior audio designer, which I didn’t get! I remember thinking ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake here, there’s literally no graduate work available’.

So to go from that, to where I am now just shows how incredibly lucky I’ve been to work with such talented people. The whole experience has really inspired me to keep pushing myself and grow as an artist. Hopefully in five years’ time I’ll be able to look back on the work I’m doing now and say “What the hell was I thinking!?”. Truthfully though, I’d be happy just to keep working with similarly ambitious people and great storytellers.