We chatted with the Argentine composer and producer, creator of the music that still plays in our heads for both installments of The Last of Us.
The sound box of a video game is an element as important as the rest to promote immersion, feel inside. When all the pieces fit together, what Gustavo Santaolalla defines as “emotional accentuation” occurs. Because to win twice an Oscar Award from the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you need to contribute something different, something of your own. The Argentine composer, who acknowledges that he always wanted to compose for a video game, is the face behind the music of The Last of Us and its sequel, one of the leading works of this generation that is already ending. Santaolalla recently spoke with FreeGameTips in a pleasant digital meeting.
“I hope to go to Spain again soon,” he begins, saying with a big smile as he strokes a prominent beard. “It is a place that I feel as very, very mine; from my last name, my grandparents… it is a place with which I feel that I have a personal debt ”, he adds. “I have a special connection with Spain.” This trip responds to other professional purposes that will be revealed soon; but in our conversation we prefer to talk about his general vision of life and death to understand his creative criteria when composing, specifically, for The Last of Us.
At a certain point in the interview there is talk of specific plot aspects. We will notify the beginning of the part with spoilers.
Gustavo Santaolalla, during a recording session with his banjo.
“It has been very nice, very reaffirming my commitment to the project. I was working on the game for about three years. “
The beginning of this story is not at all bizarre. One day the phone rang, picked up, and heard Neil Druckmann’s name on the other end. Closing that deal was a matter of seconds; even more so when the call occurred a second time and for the same reason: The Last of Us Part 2. “It was a very nice moment for me. For starters, the experience of the first game was wonderful, I had never worked in a video game, although I had been offered something related before. It was something that always interested me a lot; my career has generally been very diversified ”, he begins with a serious gesture. “I started as an artist, I continued as an artist, with works as a soloist or as part of a band and production for other artists and films … but not in video games, and look, my son is a gamer. I always had the feeling that I was going to do something for a video game, ”he continues. Santaolalla does not consider himself a regular player, he is more interested in what he is capable of transmitting and how interactive leisure is able to define his own language through the audiovisual plane.
“When I met Neil and he told me the story of The Last of Us, when he told me what was different about this title compared to others, such as the emotional content, the importance he gave to the story and not only to the game in yes … it fascinated me. It was such a beautiful experience that, obviously, when talking about taking a second, I said to myself that I wish he would call me again, ”he adds with a perfect Argentine accent. “It also happened to me at a very special moment in my life for different reasons. It has been very nice, very reaffirming my commitment to the project. I was working on the game for about three years. “
The Last of Us Part 2 | Naughty dog
Sitting back in the Naughty Dog recording studio is something he admits he wanted to see happen. “It was very positive to feel that we were going to be working together again; and I am very happy with the result. Another thing that was very important to me, apart from the admiration I have always felt for Neil and for what he does, is that this was not a Rocky 8; And I mean, it was not just another sequel like so many other sequels that simply get on the wave of success for the fame they have. It seemed to me that, again, Neil came with a great story, new characters and things that I sensed could conflict, but were very good; they had all those elements of what I like most about their work. It was all very good, everything has been very positive ”, he insists.
The first thing he thought after knowing the story was an inescapable element to start composing, although he already anticipated some pieces by mere creative will. “What was clear to me is that, in the first place, we had already developed a language that we could continue to explore, that there were musical motives that they had to communicate because they were already part of what The Last of Us is. We also had to put new songs on the table and, of course, when it came to the instrumentation I knew that we were going to have elements such as the guitar and the ronroco, which are in the first category, only I felt the need to introduce new timbres ” , relates. And the banjo appeared. “Parallel to The Last of Us, I had wanted to experiment with the banjo for a long time, so due to its sound and doing it in a way that was not very conventional, I realized that it could give a special sound because it seems to have a kind reverb the instrument itself. Although it is an instrument of African origin, it also has a lot to do with American culture. So, being a story that takes place there, I thought it was a good element. ”
He wasn’t entirely sure if those compositions would fit into The Last of Us Part 2, but he didn’t hear a single “no.” “I must admit that when I presented it to him, I had my doubts. I was hesitant to be told that putting on the banjo was not a good idea; but it was very well accepted by both Neil and Naughty Dog and PlayStation. I have always found total freedom in them to try what I want. Of course, some things went in and some did not … A lot of music is made for a video game. Much, but much; more than we later hear, “he says. A circumstance that is also transferred to other artistic manifestations. It is something that assumes, but prefers that it is missing. Have to choose. “It is a very interesting process. When I participate in movies or other work, I usually compose a lot of music before anything is filmed. He was already used to pieces being left out. In this case you have no choice but to work like this because the game has to be developed and you have to compose from the story, from drawings … It is a very nice process, “” parallel “, he points out after a brief pause.
From Gustavo to Neil; from Santaolalla to Druckmann
For The Last of Us Part 2, there was a reciprocal relationship between him and Neil because some pieces inspired the creative director of the play to channel fragments of the story. Their great personal friendship was translated into a total conjugation between what they both heard through these sound compositions.
“In fact, it has happened to me that some of the pieces that I have composed beforehand have served Neil to write something that I had not thought of; which finally ends up adding to the game. We feel it as a very interesting artistic collaboration. It is different from the world of cinema, where you usually compose when the music is already edited. Here it is the other way around. Here the music is created at the same time that the game is created and I love that process ”, he adds again, laughing.
Santaolalla recognizes that in The Last of Us Part 2 music serves more to communicate what we are seeing on screen than to be necessarily catchy melodies. However, he does think that many of his pieces for this work will be remembered more over the years. “There are quite strong themes and motifs in the game that will become more recognized over time. It is true that the sensation is of music that is accentuated more emotionally and that creates the emotional environment for things to happen. It is a music where the themes are not so clear. The main theme of The Last of Us Part 2 is always present, but I think that over time they will feel more familiar; it is true that they are not so obvious that the first game ”, he assumes, aware of this intentional process.
From this part on, the interview addresses questions whose answers include storyline spoilers; even sensitive from the original work.
On the existential emptiness of life
The conversation now turns to the artistic procedure behind the end of the game. Santaolalla tells us about life, death and what love and hate mean to him. “The music of Joel’s death was the last thing I did, it was the last thing I composed, very last. I woke up one morning, I knew I had to, I took the instrument and … it came out. ” And period.
“It is something very sense, but it is one of those things that come from my unconscious. When I was younger it was harder for me to articulate, but currently what I try to play in my music is something that has to do with that existential void that we all have and that accompanies us all in moments of sadness; but that it also accompanies us in moments of peace and, although we are at peace with everything, we may also have a certain melancholy knowing that we are part of a whole and that at the same time we are separated from everything because we are tied to this body, to this such a finite life that we have ”, he says after a long argument.
“It is part of the journey,” he argues flatly. “That produces a feeling of anguish, of existential emptiness that, even if you are in a happy moment, you always have a certain component of melancholy. My music has something of that. It is neither sad nor happy, but it has part of both. I think my music works well both in life and in death because, ultimately, both are the same thing ”, he says, convinced of the repercussion of his way of thinking in his music.
What is hate? About Ellie and Abby
In the confrontation between Ellie and Abby at the end of the game, Santaolalla sees love and hate. His vision is very particular: “It is like love and hate. Neil says that the first game is closer to love and that this game is closer to hate. I feel that everything is love and that hate is actually a perverse form of love; but everything is love, after all. What we do not hate, what is indifferent to us, does not mean anything. What we hate is a perverse way of loving. I don’t think they are two sides of the same coin, but rather that the coin is love and it also contains hatred within that, ”he says, gesturing with his hands.
For the Argentine musician, talking about things like this for a video game is “amazing” because “what for me is truly incredible is that we are talking about such profound things through a video game, that a game can lead you to that. This is what makes Neil a genius ”, he wields his admiration for the person of Druckmann. “One of the things that I find revolutionary in the game is that, at a given moment, you become the other person, the person you were fighting with. You see the other side and you see yourself from the other side, ”he admits with surprise.
And he returns to other reflections on life itself. “There are many people who cause us rejection in life because, without realizing it, they have a lot in common with us and we reject many people because of this, even though they are more like us than we think. So, having that clear from the beginning, I never had revenge as the engine to compose music, but more love. Because we have much more in common than we think of those with whom we are against. Sometimes, we do not realize how unpleasant we can be and, all of this, is what really mobilized me the most, much more than necessarily thinking of revenge. What united all the characters, what they had in common, is what finally served as my driving force, “he explains.
“Abby seems like a very important character to me. He seems to me a key character because he mobilized the whole story. If not, it would have been very one-dimensional. Manichaeism; the good and the bad ”, he maintains. About Joel, he believes that “after having committed a fact, let’s say, doubtful, he somehow prevents the cure for the human race. So, Abby’s introduction seems spectacular to me because everything mobilizes you, all the organization chart and the universe that you had built suddenly turns around and it’s great how it happens ”, he ends. And that, in short, helped him compose the music for the end of The Last of Us Part 2. “He had the piece at the end of the game for a long time. I had been thinking about where it could fit for a while, and suddenly I saw the end and knew where to place it. I thought: this piece I had, although slightly different, was just as nude; It was one of my first pieces with the banjo, and I think it really is an issue that leaves the situation very open, as open as the end of the game. ” Gustavo Santaolalla says goodbye with personal satisfaction, he says, having done a job at the height of the title, now available exclusively for the PlayStation 4 family of consoles.