Interview with Tommi Hartikainen, Composer/Sound Designer of Alien: Blackout

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

If you’ve played Alien: Blackout, you’ve undoubtedly noticed how hauntingly effective the soundscape is. Between the eerily beautiful music and the carefully crafted sound effects, Blackout has made an impact as a true sonic experience. We reached out to Rival Games’ Tommi Hartikainen, the lead composer and sound designer, to learn more about why this thing is such a joy to listen to.

How did you come to be lead composer/sound designer on a mobile game title? What about your background—in music, in design/mixing, etc.—made you well suited to this sort of project?

One can find a differing demographic of players altogether on mobile platform, and as the control mechanisms and the device itself are so different from traditional consoles or PC, it also creates new interesting possibilities for game design. We were excited to make the Alien franchise accessible to new players and put a new spin on it.

My background is quite colourful. I've worked as a [deep breath] game designer, writer, sound designer, musician, band leader, recording-, mixing- and mastering engineer, music producer, arranger, composer, dialogue editor, re-recording mixer, foley artist, field recordist … and my latest title of audio director just stuck to me in a good way. Having a firm grasp of most of these jobs is a must, and the experience I have acquired from music production, live music, installations, theatre, film and gaming is a substantial bonus.

Were you a fan of Alien before this? What’s your history with the franchise?

I was just a kid when I first saw Alien and was immediately enthralled and inspired by it. It is still most definitely one of my all-time favourite films. I have watched all the movies multiple times and still find new details and qualities I have not noticed before. The first time I was personally pitted against a xenomorph was either the really fine Alien 3 on Sega Mega Drive (as the Genesis was known outside North America), or the acquired taste that was Alien on Commodore 64. I do think I was late to that particular party.

What was the creative process like during Alien: Blackout? Were priorities, aesthetics, etc. laid out clearly from the beginning? Or was it more iterative?

Yes, we had quite clear goals, references and inspirations from the get-go. All departments did get to define their own vision with those goals in mind. We were aiming to capture—above all else—the atmosphere of the first movie, while incorporating that into what we do. We wanted to stay true to the franchise, but also make the game our own.

What are some of the challenges specific to designing for a mobile context? Did you find them creatively liberating?

Technical challenges are extremely motivating. Working with or around limitations, and to make best use of unique possibilities mobile devices offer can be very inspiring. The mobile platform presents specific challenges most notably with available hard drive space and to a lesser degree with processing power. Taking into account the humble default device speakers some choose to play on influences mixing greatly, as it must be taken into account.

The musical score is deeply evocative: string-driven and melodic, but somehow disembodied. It’s relatively static, harmonically—there are lots of pedal points, etc.—but it never feels like it’s actually at rest. It’s a wonderful sonic texture. What lead you in that compositional direction?

Heartwarming to find people enjoying the soundtrack! The hook with the music used in-game was that I wanted it to react, on more of a subconscious level, to the game events unfolding. It had to establish the underlying mood while still staying musically relevant, yet not forcing itself to the forefront. The layering- functionality presented its own challenges, especially to the development of themes and sound envelopes, so to speak. I wanted to reflect the feel and specific qualities of the films while...quite literally bringing something of my own to the mix. The songs used in the static set-pieces are a bit more straightforward in nature and they were in a position to afford growing more eventful, while still maintaining the atmosphere as top priority.

What are your favorite tools of the trade, musically speaking? In terms of notation software, digital audio workstations, mastering software, MIDI devices, etc?

I’d hate to bore you to tears, but I probably will, as I’m using the industry standard (latest) Pro Tools as my DAW and only recently hopped from Finale to Sibelius as notation software. Nothing out of the ordinary. I do maintain a colourful collection of gear from esoteric, weird vintage stuff to common studio mainstays. Microphones, preamps, rack gear, alternative monitoring, synths, midi controllers, drums/percussion, a variety of stringed instruments and their assorted stomp boxes, amps and cabs. I did recently switch to EUCON-based Avid Artist series in DAW controllers as a fun opportunity turned up. I have always found tactile, intuitive and ergonomic tools downright essential. Especially in the high-speed world of game audio. Mostly yawn-tier stuff, though, as I feel there’s a place somewhere for every single piece of audio gear ever made.

What’s your favorite score from the Alien series?

I’m very much into a lot of them for completely different reasons, but should I have to pick one, I’d go with the original Alien by Jerry Goldsmith. Groundbreaking, evocative soundtrack.

What came first: the score or the sound mix? Did they influence each other at all?

That’s a really good question! I started creating the soundscape for the game by recording, designing and mixing the basic ambiences of the space station, the humms and dronings, and the metal sounds that are very prominent throughout the game. They had to cut deep. The music started to take a sonic shape around that and yes, there is a deep level of reciprocation and a division of certain molds between the sound effects, voice overs and the soundtrack.

An added challenge was incorporating the original sounds we received for use from the franchise’s archives. Mostly xenomorph- voices to stay as true as possible to the world of Alien, but also some foley for it and some specific environmental sounds to take some load off from the tight schedule. I had to painstakingly compile, extensively layer, re-edit and re-mix these to form the cohesive aural picture I had tried to envision. So no, there was absolutely no flipping of assets, here.

One of the first things you notice when playing Alien: Blackout is how directional the sound is. It seems like many games—even blockbuster releases—treat sound more as set-dressing than essential for gameplay. When sound DEFINES the gameplay experience—as it does in Alien: Blackout—does that influence your creative decisions?

Short answer: totally. Long, rambling answer: The gameplay is number one. Everything has to facilitate, deepen or support intuitive gameplay. Soundwise, voice overs are always number one. Nothing carries as much emotion and creates such immersion as the human voice. Voice mixing, I feel, is one of my strong suits, so that played in our favour here, luckily.

We did have lines of dialogue between direction, game-, graphic- and audio design open non-stop throughout development, even though me having to spend so much time behind closed doors in the studio sure creates little bumps along that road, at times. I think we managed practically everything I set out to say with sound, here, and a reasonable compromise with the rest. Our audio programmer, Ville Ojala, did swimmingly incorporate my unfathomable jargon and wild ideas into concrete events in the game. He also took part in sound design when doing so, as it should be. Audio programming is a vastly underappreciated discipline.

Are most of the sounds created digitally? Or did you record foley?

From the sound effects I created, there are only a handful of sounds of digital origin. I did do a whole heaping bunch of metal sounds in particular, but also ventilation sounds, fans, radiators, electronic devices, switches, whistles and such.

What was your favorite sound to create, and how did you go about making it?

Having to choose just a single sound, I’d go with one of the very specific metal tones I did. One that was bendy, punchy, crackly, short and percussive. While the most comedic one to make, it was used in a most unamusing situation in-game. Campfire-mode, engage! My family got a new microwave oven, and while I was heaving the metal monstrosity from the car to our place, I happened to apply pressure on the surface plate and it made this glorious bouncy sound with a very pleasing resonance that followed. Instead of the kitchen, I carried it to the studio, close-miked it in a small, dry room with a 421 and...I think it was an 47- replica I turned out liking the most for some reason, recorded a few appropriate elbow-presses on the thing, edited the best few takes, threw on a whole slew of processing, et voila! I had yet again managed to both act and look incredibly silly at work.

LISTENER QUESTION (from Mike Andrews): What inspired you to create an original soundtrack to Blackout (without relying on preexisting cues and motifs from the films)? Were you given complete creative freedom?

I thought we’d be able to get the best of both worlds with an original soundtrack that’s inspired by—but not in debt to—the films. The xenomorph voices I re-mixed from the originals do plenty on their own to establish a direct auditory association with the franchise feel at a precise key point, in my view at least. I consider a cohesive, uniform approach most often the best way to approach audio, and having to borrow all music from the films clearly seemed more like a hindrance than a selling-point in favour of the game.

For all the new fans you’ve gained via your work on Blackout: where can we find more of your work?

We here at Rival Games are always working to create more quality entertainment, so my advice would be to stay tuned!

Alien: Blackout - The Perfect Organism Review

by Patrick Greene

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

For our full audio review, click here!

When Alien: Blackout was announced just days into 2019, it was met with a hurricane of bad publicity. And anyone even tangentially familiar with the gaming industry over the past few years could understand why: we’ve been told time and again that the future of gaming is mobile, and anyone who’s tried to play anything remotely “serious” on a mobile phone can tell you it’s almost always an awful experience.

I, too, cringed during the BlizzCon announcement about Diablo Immortal. I, too, boycotted Star Wars Battlefront II because the loot crate system was so clearly a cash grab.

I, too, desperately wished for a sequel to Alien: Isolation, which is not only the best Alien game ever made but one of the great survival horror experiences of our era.

And I, too, felt my stomach sink when the new Amanda Ripley game Fox had been teasing turned out to be a mobile experience looking for all the world like a Five Nights at Freddy’s clone.

But you know what? I’ve been playing Alien: Blackout in beta for nearly two weeks, and I want to go ahead and give you the bottom line right up front: it is available today for purchase on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore, and we wholeheartedly recommend you buy it.

It’s mobile for a reason

Getting the obvious out of the way—it’s cheaper to develop a mobile game, and Fox is already deep into production on the Cold Iron Studios shooter coming later this year to PC and consoles—there are actual storytelling reasons for this being a mobile experience.

In Blackout, as in Isolation, you play the role of Amanda Ripley. Having survived the nightmare aboard the Sevastopol, Amanda has been hiding in the vent systems of the abandoned Mendel space station (a Weyland-Yutani vessel). She’s hiding, of course, because she’s not entirely alone: there’s a xenomorph on board. She’s been able to survive this far by patching into security systems with a rudimentary, handheld terminal.

And here’s the first stroke of genius in Blackout: because we play entirely from a first-person perspective, and interact with our environment almost entirely through this terminal—which exists in real game space, and can be put down and picked up—our mobile devices start feeling like the terminal itself. That simple design choice engages our imagination: turn the lights off, put some good headphones on, and you’ll forget you’re playing a “mobile” game at all.

More on gameplay in a moment.

So does it “feel” like a mobile game? The answer, in my honest opinion, is not at all. There are zero microtransactions, and the developer has publicly stated that there will never be any. You aren’t incentivized to earn coins. There are no ads. You aren’t unlocking cool new hats for Amanda to wear.

It’s a completely immersive, in-universe experience from beginning to end. Even the menu designs, which are reminiscent of Alien: Isolation, feel thought-out. Minimalist, with a touch of cassette futurism.

You pay $4.99 USD once, and you get access to a full experience that I’ve personally played for more than ten hours and haven’t gotten bored of yet.

A little help from my … friends?

The game begins when a Weyland-Yutani ship carrying four crew members is forced to dock at the Mendel for supplies. Realizing this crew is her best bet for getting off the station, Amanda reaches out to them via the handheld unit. Without key components, the crew is stranded—so you quickly reach an agreement to help get the ship flight-ready in exchange for safe passage.

Luckily for the crew, Amanda is an engineer. She’s managed to restore power to sections of the ship using solar panels, but the panels only provide power for eight minutes before the system cuts out and you’re in a blackout.

Try to avoid that.

Most of the game is played via a map of whichever deck you’re trying to guide the crew through at any given time. From this map—which exists on your phone just like the overlay exists on Amanda’s portable unit—you can open and close certain doors; monitor patches of the deck via motion sensors; and scroll through a handful of security feeds. You can also check in with members of the crew, telling them to hurry up, hide, etc. You can set objectives for different crew members (which is often vital, given the ever-expanding objective lists and the consistent eight-minute cutoff). They’ll have to divide to conquer, but the second they divide things get much more complicated.

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

The xenomorph, which resembles our dear friend from Isolation (closely modeled on Big Chap), is genuinely terrifying. I still get a little chill when I pick him up on one of the security cameras—especially if that camera shows his tail thwipping up into a ceiling vent, where I’ll be forced to track him using nothing but my ears (all the while guiding the crew through their tasks).

And this brings me to the next little brilliant mechanic in the game: this entire time, Amanda is vulnerable. In order to use the handheld units, she has to patch in to emergency power reserves controlling door access. And to do that, she has to open the doors of whichever tunnel corridor (or room) she’s in. So in order to access the map—and to keep an eye on the crew and the Alien—Amanda has to leave herself totally vulnerable to a sneak attack.

When this happens—and it does, a lot—you typically have a matter of a second or two to figure out which direction the Alien is coming from and which door you need to close. This might not seem like much, but as the game goes on you find yourself SURROUNDED with open doors.

And as soon as you close the door, your terminal goes black. It’s been powered down. So then you’re in a situation where you have no idea where the Alien is, what your crew is up to, etc. All you can hear are distant noises of scuttling and screaming.

One of my favorite aspects of Isolation is the fact that you have to really earn your progress saves. Not only are save points far from one another, but the machines take time to operate. And you’re completely vulnerable during that process. It’s great, then, to see the developers of Blackout using that same idea in a mobile game. The terminal takes FOREVER (in reality only about two seconds) to power on again. But you are completely and utterly blind during that process. And when it’s back on, you have to race to play catch up or you will lose any idea of where the xenomorph is.

The key to advancing is keeping as many members of your crew alive as possible, and this is where I see real potential for replayability. Between my iPhone and my iPad, I have five different concurrent save files at different stages and with different crew members alive. It’s great fun to try switching up tactics—once you get a feel for how the Alien’s AI operates (it’s not as sophisticated as Isolation, but it’s quite good), you can start taking real chances. Opening and closing doors in different areas to draw attention towards regions where you’ve got a motion tracker running; telling one crew member to run into xeno-infested territory so another crew member can finish a time-sensitive task; creating Alien 3-esque channels to direct the Alien around to certain places where he’ll have fewer escape options; etc. I look forward to swapping strategies with you all. I think we’re going to have fun with this, doing speed runs etc. as we get better.

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

The final stages are honestly brutally difficult. I haven’t been able to keep more than one crew member alive going into the final level, and that’s made things extremely complicated. But also VERY fun. The stakes are increasingly high (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there), and the possibility of making fatal mistakes goes up quickly.

In other words: it’s a real game. You’re going to have to work at it.

The Devil in the details

One of the reasons Blackout doesn’t feel like a mobile game is the consistent attention to the production design. The sound design and the musical score are both top-notch (I would buy that soundtrack in a heartbeat). The orchestral score, composed for this project, is hauntingly evocative. If you play this without headphones on, you are going to be getting only a fraction of the full experience.

Because you’re trapped in a hole most of the time—and because the security cameras and motion sensors only give you direct monitoring capabilities for a fraction of any given map—you HAVE to use your ears to make it through. Seriously, crank up the volume. You’ll hear faint scraping sounds when the Alien’s in the ductwork; you’ll hear crew members breathe heavily when the Alien is close; you’ll hear the Mendel shuddering in the vastness of space. And you’ll hear the voice acting, which is absolutely triple-A quality. The characters are distinct, and their personalities shine through as the game progresses—making it especially fun to try beating it with different combinations of them.

And the graphics are just astounding for a mobile title. I’ve played via screen mirroring at length—casting from my iPhone to an Apple TV and a Chrome Stick—and I can’t get over how good it looks. It’s not Alien: Isolation: the Alien will occasionally change direction unnaturally, crew members’ mouths don’t move perceptibly when they interact, etc. But none of that really matters, because virtually everything you see is via a closed-circuit TV system. And when you see from Amanda’s first-person perspective, it’s extraordinarily high-quality. Textures, shading, etc. It looks like a console title.

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

Twentieth Century Fox/D3 GO!

Is it Five Nights at Ripley’s?

No. I get the comparison—and there are some direct mechanical similarities, in that security cameras play a major part and you’re vulnerable as the creature moves around—but they feel nothing alike. I enjoy FNaF to a degree. I’ll play it for ten, fifteen minutes. But Alien: Blackout is much more strategically deep, and SO much more immersive.

The verdict

After one day of playing Alien: Blackout, I was prepared to give it four out of five stars. I was blown away by how much fun I was having, but I was nagged by this constant thought of “Oh, but it’s not Isolation 2. At the end of the day, we’re getting this instead.”

But having played it at length, now, I am giving it five out of five. It stands on its own, and to enjoy it for what it is is to separate it from what it isn’t.

It isn’t a sequel to Alien: Isolation. I still hold out hope that we’ll see a sequel (or a side-story from Creative Assembly) someday, and maybe we will. But that’s not what this is.

This is Alien: Blackout, and it’s fucking awesome.

Go play it and see for yourself.

Rating: 5/5

It's official: Alien: Blackout is a mobile game, and it's dropping January 24

by Patrick Greene

“Heeeeeyyyyyyyyy …”

“Heeeeeyyyyyyyyy …”

Fandom has been buzzing about what “Alien: Blackout” could mean ever since Fox applied for the trademark back in November. We’ve known about an in-development shooter from Cold Iron Studios for nearly a year now, and speculation about a sequel to the legendary Alien: Isolation has been running rampant for years.

And just days ago, Fox began releasing a series of teasers saying “Amanda Ripley” and “Read. Play. Watch.”

With the release of today’s official Alien: Blackout trailer, we know what the “play” stands for: a mobile game.

Developed by D3 Go in conjunction with FoxNext, Alien: Blackout is set to release on January 24th at a price of $4.99 (you can preorder it today on the App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore).

Wait: it’s a mobile game?

Yeah, it’s a mobile game. This is either totally “meh” news or completely devastating, depending on who you are and what you’ve been looking forward to. Speaking personally (this is Patrick’s opinion, not necessarily the opinion of PO in general), I think this is totally fine. Fox is being very clear that this is a small piece of a larger picture (they even highlight the “play” in “Read. Play. Watch.” at the end of that trailer). If this were the only thing happening in our franchise this year, I think it’d be pretty upsetting. But the reality is we still have a Cold Iron game in development (which looks from all angles to be a marquee-level enterprise on consoles, PC, etc.).

We’ve already spent years being consistently told that a direct sequel to Isolation isn’t happening (which is awful news, considering it’s an unimpeachable masterpiece). Fox isn’t marketing this as “the” Alien: Isolation sequel. It’s probably healthier in the longterm to look at this as a nice little side experience. If Creative Assembly announced last year that they were working on the official followup to Alien: Isolation, and then announced at a major event that it was mobile-only—this would be a different story. But as it stands, this is just a little side product that fits into the bigger picture and offers another chance to engage with Amanda Ripley.

To that end: the basic mechanic here is that we are playing the role of Amanda, who is guiding a crew through a crippled WY space station using emergency controls on a holographic map. Similar in appearance (and apparently in practice) to the “rewire system” sequences in Alien: Isolation (see below), the gist is that we’ll be making decisions about which doors to open, which resources to conserve, and which risks to take as we help this crew escape a xenomorph.

A rewiring sequence in Alien: Isolation

A rewiring sequence in Alien: Isolation

The control layout in Alien: Blackout

The control layout in Alien: Blackout

Another bit of personal opinion here: the best mobile games are the ones that feel built from the ground up for a mobile experience. A reason Pokémon Go is so popular is because it uses inherent strengths of mobile phones—their mobility—as a core mechanic. Angry Birds took off because it could be controlled easily with a single finger, and its design was simple enough to work cleanly and fluidly on basically any smartphone processor. The only mobile Alien game I play with any regularity is a freakin’ pinball game, and it’s brilliant because it is absolutely nothing more or less than what I want out of a mobile gaming experience. It’s a few pinball tables that I can pick up and play for ten minutes while waiting for the commuter train in the morning. I get a chance to immerse myself in Alien for a few minutes, and it’s just engaging enough to make me turn the music in my headphones off (but not so engaging I miss the train).

I personally think Alien: Blackout will work. The concept is simple, the functionality won’t strain processors, the mechanics don’t depend on dexterity (which goes to hell the second you play on a mobile device), and the game is relatively short but built to be replayable (seven levels, with different outcomes each time based on choices you make). In that way, it sounds quite a bit like that Offworld Simulator Amazon Echo game we reviewed last April: it’s simple, repayable, and fun, and it’s a chance to have a little more Alien in our lives.

What about “read” and “watch?”

We still have “read,” which could be the about-to-drop Aliens: Resistance (coming January 23, i.e. a day before Blackout releases). Resistance is set to star Amanda Ripley, so that’d make a lot of sense—and it’s closely tied to Aliens: Defiance, which was a hit for Dark Horse critically and commercially. There’s also an Isolation novelization coming from Keith R.A. DeCandido (which of course is another Amanda-centric product).

And “watch” could signify many, many, things, but will most likely center around the long-rumored streaming series. A film announcement is unlikely given the state of the Fox/Disney merger, and last year’s short-film competition entries are likely still in production, so a web series (animated or otherwise) would make quite a bit of sense.

All this is to say: there is A LOT coming this year for Alien fans. Whether or not you’re thrilled about Alien: Blackout, rest assured that this is the first of many upcoming announcements.

It’s going to be a banner year for us.

Even if it kicks off with a mobile game.

final note.

Check out what Patrick and Jaime have to say on the news in this exclusive Rumor Control Video Update episode.