A quick note before we begin: The following interview was conducted before the news that lead designer Robert Kurvitz, artist Aleksander Rostov and writer Helen Hindpere have all left developer ZA/ UM, obviously in involuntary circumstances. This feature focuses exclusively on Sea Power’s work on Disco Elysium, but if you want more context on recent news regarding ZA/UM, you can check out this feature. Our coverage For more details.
It’s been a year since Disco Elysium: The Final Ending launched on Nintendo Switch to a wide variety of reviews (including our ownin case you’re wondering!), but the game originally launched a few years earlier for Windows, on October 15, 2019.
Designed by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium takes place in the impoverished Martinaise district, hidden in the fictional city of Revachol. You will play as a detective who wakes up in a trashed hotel room with no memory of who he is or what he is doing in Martinaise. After meeting their respected partner, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, the two embark on a grisly murder case, leading them to explore the city and interrogate its eccentric citizens.
Disco Elysium is perhaps one of the most unique RPG games to grace the Switch, casting aside combat mechanics for skill testing and dialogue trees, allowing players to build their own story and shape the main character in whatever way they see fit. Such a unique premise and setting requires a soundtrack that transports the player to the city of Revachol and presents a truly palpable sense of place. As a result, ZA/UM recruited British alternative rock band ‘Sea Power’ (then known as British Sea Power), using the band’s extensive portfolio to bring the world of Elysium to life.
Sea Power started making music in the early ’00s and released their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, in the summer of 2003. Since then, they have released a total of eight studio albums and four soundtrack albums, one of which of course is Disco Elysium. Currently, the band consists of Yan Wilkinson on vocals, Neil Hamilton Wilkinson on bass guitar, Martin Nobel guitar, Matthew Wood on drums, Phil Sumner on keyboards and Abi Fry on violin.
To dig a little deeper into the band’s work with Disco Elysium, we spoke to Sea Power’s Yan Wilkinson to dig deeper into how they got their hands on the game, how they celebrated their win. BAFTA 2020 and whether they will return for a potential sequel.
Nintendo Life: How did you work with ZA/UM developers and Robert Kurvitz on Disco Elysium?
Yan Wilkinson, Sea Power: We really have Robert to thank for this; he was looking for us. When we first met him, one could see his enthusiasm, intelligence and a unique source of energy. He’s a pretty impressive character. In addition, his knowledge of our music is encyclopedic.
It is clear that he believes passionately in what he is creating and has been/is in the process of forming a very interesting team that takes an unusual and detailed approach to creating a world that is not just another game. He already has some very talented Aleksander Rostov prototype artwork. It is very beautiful and shows them taking a very imaginative angle.
From then on, I look forward to meeting Robert, who always amazes us with where he is willing to take the artistic path. He’ll also give helpful tips like how we’ve made watchlist mistakes on some previous albums and how we can improve them! He may have had a point. Then we will meet other members of the core team like Helen Hindpere. They are a close-knit group of talented artists and writers.
What approach did you take when creating music for the game? What kind of direction did ZA/UM provide?
Robert started by offering some concrete ideas about already existing songs from our catalog of albums and soundtracks that could be adapted to fit some of his “scenes” and landscape areas. they. He also occasionally begins a kind of free-flowing abstract descriptive monologue about how he imagines things. This will alternate between visual, audio, geographical and literary ideas. I think we understood him quite well.
He will say that the puzzle pieces are missing for important or even small meetings and we will decide who will come up with ideas for each meeting. There’s a lot of music needed so we usually work individually at first and then occasionally ask each other for help or support with extra instruments. We also just wanted to get into the atmosphere of the game and come up with our own plans. Sometimes we will be provided with a glitch video of an area/part of the gameplay, which is also really helpful.
Later in the process there was an element of fine-tuning between us and Robert, which even at a later stage was very creative and full of left-court ideas. It surprised some that the band was so technically competent backstage. We documented and designed the entire project ourselves. We also mix the whole thing. Creativity is as much in tone and production as in songwriting and playing and we love and thrive in all of these aspects.
We documented and designed the entire project ourselves. We also mix the whole thing. Creativity is as much in the melodies and productions as writing songs and playing instruments.
You mentioned Robert suggested some of your existing songs for the soundtrack; How many pieces of your existing music have you incorporated into it? For example, the song Red Rock Riviera sounds like it was made directly to describe the Martinaise district.
Right. There are some songs that are combined directly with each other. Even these have been recorded and often become more minimal and atmospheric. Some of these are easy to see why Robert asked for them. They have a mysterious mood filled with iodine. Others are rather cryptic songs from rare episodes like Against it has become a tool Spinning around in rags.
Especially with the Whirling In Rags theme, how did you incorporate Up Against It into the game? I noticed it was used on your most recent album titled ‘Fire Escape in the Sea’.
Some of the songs seem to depict their own journey and this is one of them. The song was originally part of a rare EP in a series of six (and mostly unnoticed) EPs that we released about 10 years ago. It wasn’t an obvious song to pick, but Robert requested an instrumental version. The title ‘Whirling in Rags’ not only alludes to a Sea Power song but to a motel/bar he created, a central building in the game’s structure. There are countless references to Sea Power teasingly concealed throughout the game, which is both funny and flattering.
The first new version is quite similar to the original track. A little more relaxed and open and a little more beautiful. Then, to succinctly match different moods for the rag-print Whirling, it needed to have different moods for different times of the day. I like to deconstruct songs and get lost in the more abstract moods of the music. So the late night version adopted this approach; very dreamy and innocent and magical.
Next, a party vibe is needed. What kind of party? For the fun of it, I came up with a very quick and fun reggae-dancehall version. To my surprise, the team loved it and supposedly had a dance around the office one night. The game gave the track a new life, and it appeared on our latest album as a collection of elements from its various incarnations.
Honestly, we don’t win often. So it was quite a surprise and a blow to my pessimistic nature. Ha. I’m very proud of what we did and the game won countless awards around the world and was even on the cover of Time magazine at the time, but I think one of the other games will win Bafta. So I went to bed early and heard in the morning before breakfast.
I celebrated with a better-than-usual breakfast consisting of three perfectly boiled eggs and felt a little happier than usual!
Have you played Disco Elysium or its more recent ‘Final Cut’ update? What did you do about it?
I think it’s a great piece of work that plays out on so many levels at once. Its visuals combine with the music to be very successful and create a very strong sense of place which, for me, allows the incredible text and great characters to come to life. . I think these three elements all interact and support each other to create something powerful and memorable.
Its visuals combine with the music to be very successful and create a very strong sense of place which, for me, allows the incredible text and great characters to come to life. .
Justice is pretty far away. That’s where we’re happy to be. So yes, I like it a lot! It’s a weird game I’ve never seen come up.
If ZA/UM made a new entry in the Disco Elysium world – whether it’s a sequel or a spin-off – would you want to go back to composing the soundtrack?
Like I said earlier, I’m not an optimist. These don’t have the habit of flipping over too often. I guess you never know. For the most part, though, I miss the creative side of working with Robert and his team. It’s really fun and sometimes catalytic.
Game and/or movie soundtracks are an area of art that I and others really enjoy and will do more of in the future. At this point, I’m not sure if this is a parallel career with Sea Power for us or just part of the band’s output with albums and live streaming.