Interview with the Senior Audio Director Steve Szczepkowski from Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Interview

We had the opportunity to talk to Steve Szczepkowski, Senior Audio Director from the upcoming Marvel game Guardians of the Galaxy and ask him about the challenges of creating the soundtrack for a videogame.

First of all, thank you for taking our questions and I hope you enjoy answering them a bit.

Steve: Thank you for your interest and for reaching out to discuss. It is my pleasure

If you look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you'll notice that music has always been an important part of the films, from the first Iron Man to the latest Spider-Man. But it was the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie that actually started using licensed music tracks like Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede specifically, whether in trailers or even to add depth to characters like Star-Lord. What about the video game implementation of the Guardians? Can players look forward to a few classics as well?

Steve: Absolutely!! We have 31 licensed tracks that were chosen based on their fun factor and the overall vibe that would lend to itself to the game. Whether activating them during the Huddle or having a cue appear as you hit the throttle of the Milano and blast across the galaxy, I think there will be some great surprises and I can guarantee there will be plenty of smiles when players hear them for the first time in the game.

Very few of our readers can probably imagine all the work that goes into creating music for video games. Can you give us a concrete example of the challenges you face? And where do you get the inspiration for your work as a sound director?

Steve: It is a huge amount of work. First, selecting tracks and stress testing them to see how they fit can be time consuming, because some work better than others. Then there is the entire legal side of clearing these songs for use in the game, which can also take quite a while. Then there is the score – I work extremely closely with the composer, Richard Jacques, to ensure that we deliver the right emotional backbone at the right time.

I also worked with an amazing talent here in Montréal, “La Fabrique des Monstres”, who are global singers and performers in the Death Metal community. They can do things with their voices that are very different from theater actors. We spent close to a year designing creatures as well as alien voices for the game. It was a huge undertaking, but I wanted the results to feel special and I think they do.

My inspiration comes from everywhere…music and films mainly. I also read fiction all the time, I’m a huge Stephen King fan, and horror and Sci-Fi films etc. We all draw inspirations every minute of every day without realizing it - from liking an expression someone used in a conversation to seeing an article of clothing that we think looks good and can we pull off. It’s just about being tuned into what comes across your radar on a daily basis, and then putting your spin on it to make it your own.

Where do you see the differences between film and video games in terms of music and score? Do they exist at all or are the two industries very similar in that respect?

Steve: I think video games are constantly striving to attain that cinematic experience, but with you the player interacting with the story. However, they are very different, as films are usually shorter than video games. The other main difference is that film is a linear, controlled medium. You know exactly when that explosion will happen – you can control the elements around it so that the entire focus of your audience will be on that moment. Video games do not always have that luxury - the player can be doing anything at any time and they won’t always be doing what you would need them to do. Sometimes you realize what they can do may break what you wanted to achieve. It’s complete chaos, but in a good way. You have to learn to embrace it and be clever. Where they are similar is that their goals are the same – to give the audience an escape, an adventure that takes them away for a few hours and hopefully puts a smile on their face when they get off the ride.

What do you think actually makes a good score for a video game?

Steve: That’s very subjective, so I will wrap my answer in that blanket right off the bat. In my opinion, whether it’s a full orchestral score or it’s a simple piano or acoustic guitar, it’s about creating a connection with the listener. Being able to create something musical that strikes an emotional chord with the listener, connecting on some level with the listener. That in my opinion is what makes a great musical score.

In your experience, what do you think is the state of music in video games? Do gamers today appreciate a good score and soundtrack at all? As an audio director, are you appreciated by the gaming community?

Steve: I think music is extremely important and does not always get the credit it should. It often needs to be crafted in very complex ways. For example, dialog branching offers so many challenges. How do you weave seamlessly in and out of a conversation that has multiple branches? Do you rely solely on loops and sacrifice some of the emotional moments, or do you separately score each branch?

I don’t think it’s the gamers responsibility to give credit to that, as they paid for the amusement park ride. They don’t care about how many hydraulics are hurtling them through the air at break neck speed, they care about the experience. I’ve never thought about the mechanics that drive a roller coaster, but I’m smiling when I get off a good one.

Being appreciated by your peers is nice in any field you work in. I’m not above accolades…! (Haha) I’ve played on stage in bands since I’ve was 14, so of course I like hearing applause after I finish a song, but it’s not what drives me. Being better at my craft, knowing I’m doing a good job and that people enjoyed my work – that’s what drives me above anything else.

Besides your work as an audio director, are you also privately involved with video games or did you have any contact with the medium within your private environment in the past?

Steve: I play games when I have the time…! I think it’s important to see what other talented people are doing and get inspired by great works out there. It can be hard to find that time when you are in the thick of development, but I always come back and see what others are doing.

After all the work with music, can you still really enjoy it in your free time and is your private taste in music perhaps also reflected in your work?

Steve: Definitely. I still perform live as a guitar player, and with the Star-Lord Band it re-ignited my creativity to write and record again basically for the sake of doing it. My taste runs the entire gamut of styles. I will always be a hard rock, heavy metal guy at heart, but I also find pure enjoyment in R&B and funk, some pop, some rap. For me there has always been only 2 genres of music – good and bad. I don’t care if it’s the Bee Gees or Motorhead, both bands make me smile for different reasons, and I think that’s all the matters.

Thank you very much for taking some time to answer our questions!


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