Reinventing the sound of terror in Vampyr

With its Gaelic choir and glitch influences, Olivier Deriviere's soundtrack is a deliciously refreshing new take on composing for horror games.

There’s never been a truly great vampire game where you play as the monster.

Vampires in games are actually shockingly difficult to even come by. Enter The Matrix had them, which I thought meant they’d be in the final Matrix film. I was let down by that. The Xbox 360 had Vampire Rain (not super) and Dark (perhaps the absolute worst game I have ever played) and some Castlevanias (which were fine). No good Bloodraynes in a while either. So you’ll have a hard time finding someone as excited as I am for the forthcoming Vampyr from Dontnod Entertainment.

In Vampyr, you play a doctor who has turned into a vampire, but is still trying to live by the Hippocratic Oath so he doesn’t want to feed on people, which is maybe the most ridiculous premise I could come up with for a game? It’s like pitching a game where you turn into a werewolf but also your character is conflicted because he doesn’t want to ruin any of his nice pairs of pants. Sure. What a complicated ethical conundrum.

Jokes about the premise aside, Vampyr does seem like an incredible new vampiric adventures, which promises the complex open world choices and the ability to make it through the game without engaging in combat if you don’t want to; the sort of promises that I’ve seen on a dozen games in the last few years that then couldn’t live up to their own expectations. I don’t know if it’s my bias for cool bloodsucker content or what, but I have a good feeling about this one. Maybe it’s the setting based on a plague that no one without a minor degree in history even knows existed.

Helping build my internal hype for this game is the score from Olivier Deriviere. The French composer, who is billed on his website as “the music's eclectic daredevil,” has built a name for himself in games -- especially through his work on Dontnod collaborations like 2013’s excellent, bizarre Remember Me. He’s also responsible for scoring the horror gems known as the ObsCure series, and for doing music on the 2008 reboot of Alone in the Dark, where the music was the only functional element.

I got to talk to Deriviere about his work on Vampyr, which shows an artist in total control of what he’s making, and what he’s making is complicated and impressive on a scale I’m not sure what to do with. Quite simply, based on this soundtrack, the game itself has a lot to live up to.

Right out of the gate, the track “The Struggle” is just a total banger. And yeah, I’m talking about a string quartet time period piece. It’s been a while since the overture of a game just devastated me with how killer it was. Deriviere says the game spoke to him about how to start building this. “The Thirst” is similar, except it breaks some of the mold by adding glitch beats in. Deriviere loves splicing hints of industrial sound into otherwise time period accurate music.

“There’s a lot of digital magic you can use to create this layered and obsessive mantra about the lust for blood,” Deriviere tells me.

At a very early stage of production, creative director Philippe Moreau made it clear he didn’t want the score to sound anything close to what audiences might expect, Deriviere explains. “So no orchestra. He wanted to express the industrial era and the grittiness of the nocturnal streets of London. The only instrument I brought in that you would associate with this time period is a cimbalom. It gives this extra color so typical that you already know where this game takes place. [...] I’ve always followed the same [principles] since my very first game: feel the game as a gamer, play through it as many times as possible to make sure you understand what mindset is at stake, and then provide what supports and enhances the experience in a more meaningful way.”

With vampiric lore and culture as complicated and varied as it is, the need to have a few touchtones must exist, but there is certainly also a desire to add your own stamp to the genre. How did temptation draw Deriviere in? “I think the main theme would allow you to guess this is about vampires. It is in the flourishment of linked notes. It feels inescapable,” he says. His signature treatment here was to then avoid orchestras and pipe organs, but assign similar arrangements to analog synths: “I would detune them to add to the madness of the game.”

The track “Insane Family” is one of the more upsetting pieces of scoring I’ve ever heard. Deriviere explains that the secret to crafting this came from living in the themes of anger and revenge that the track thrives upon, but that Eric-Maria Couturier (the soundtrack’s star cellist) led the charge.

“I wrote the whole thing starting from the cello part,” Deriviere explains. “I would record Eric-Maria Couturier with no click track, which means that he is totally free tempo-wise. Therefore he can express his own feelings. I must praise his performance; he is a genius.” The support tracks were then added after the main recording. “I didn’t want to add much instrument or harmony because I think the cello was enough, so I ended up striking metal bars and a big bass drum in my studio to add a range of heavy percussions to the cello. You could say this is a concerto for cello and percussion.”

The entirety of the album drips with choral influences, which seems rare. I can understand building tracks from a click-track-less cello score, but reverse-engineering a mid-range choir is a choice.

“I was in Boston so we recorded some incredible singers from the Vox Futura choir,” Deriviere says. “The lyrics were written by Stéphane Beauverger and translated into Gaelic to relate the condition of the vampires in the game. What was amazing is that the singers knew Gaelic for both meaning and pronunciation. Sometimes you feel luck plays a big part in your success.”

After he says that, I have to ask Derivere how he balances the beauty and emotion of moments like that against a game where your hero literally sucks blood from innocent people. His answer lives in the spaces between scares: “Horror in this music is really suggested; mostly it’s inner feelings, never to scare you but rather to make you feel ill at ease. And on the other side of that, some cues are more expressive but still quite modest. There’s never too much exposition of emotions. I like being subtle in the way I write music. Emotions are not simple and should never feel obvious, because they never are.”

I ask about Deriviere’s approach to furthering a narrative via song. “It supports the narrative and the emotions. Although I support them too, I tend to judge my achievement in how I connect the music to the player’s experience. It may sound trivial, but in my opinion only a very few games, and even fewer composers/developers, really push the boundaries of interactive music. Maybe for good reasons, but I have mine too.”

Album artwork for the Vampyr Original Sound Track Vampyr Original Soundtrack on Bandcamp.

Two of the games Deriviere has scored, Remember Me and The Technomancer, went largely underappreciated at their release. I often wonder if this is a brutal hit for musicians to suffer, when overlooked games are sometimes impossible to revisit. “I am already extremely lucky to be where I am now,” Deriviere says, “and I don’t want to become bitter because I’ve never experienced scoring a hit game. What matters most to me is the people I work with, because I don’t just provide music to developers, I share the whole development with them. Whatever the outcome I give everything I can to support and enhance the vision of the game.”

Deriviere brings up another of his games, Get Even, which is a newish title and still has the potential to find the audience it deserves. The game about kidnapping and memory alteration and revenge. It is, like most of Deriviere’s games, a weird mash-up of genres. “Every in-game sound can become musical. This was a huge challenge for me and I think one of my best achievements for interactive music.”

I have to close by asking Deriviere who his favorite vampire in the history of vampire fiction is and why? “I had for a long time a big crush on Gary Oldman’s performance of Dracula,” he says. “It might be a predictable choice, but what [director Francis] Coppola made is still a masterpiece. But I must say Petyr from the documentary We Live In The Shadows has recently become my favorite. Who cannot fall in love with a truly alive Nosferatu?”

Vampyr releases today on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam.