Sentry is an upcoming action-defense first-person shooter being developed by Fireblade Software. The player(s) can utilize turrets, environmental destruction, or traps to defend their spaceship against waves of relentless aliens through a dynamic single-player or co-op campaign.
Barry Topping (aka Epoch), the composer for Sentry, is based out of Scotland and has been in the music industry for the better two decades. He studied music at University and toured several countries with multiple bands. We met him and chat about his journey into full-time video game composition and musically what we can expect from Sentry.
What made you want to transition from producing your music and touring in bands to producing for video games full-time?
Barry Topping: It’s weird; I can’t remember when I realized, “hey, video games have music, and it’s different from other music.” I remember the first game soundtrack I picked up on a CD from eBay. It was the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.
This was before YouTube, so at that time, the only place you could hear video game music was in video games. Suddenly I had some video game music that I could put on a CD player and listen to. That came around when I was already playing guitar and in bands, and something clicked in my head that if I was writing music for bands, I could also write music for video games.
Do you still produce your music in addition to being a game composer?
BT: Yeah, I do. So before I got my “break” working on games full time, I produced for a game called Paradise Killer, which made a sort of a big enough splash that I could get my foot in the door and start doing it full time.
Before that and parallel to that, I was always writing music for myself, whether in bands or solo electronic stuff. I did a synthwave album in 2019 called encounters, which was a semi-concept album that Mobile Suit Gundam inspired. I also still do singles on the side. I did a single this month called “Adria,” which is sort of a Parisian house tune.
I got some excellent advice from a friend of mine who is also a composer, and she told me to “just keep writing music even if it’s not for work.” There’s so much value to just writing what you want to write.
What’s your process for creating music for a video game?
BT: Well, taking Sentry as an example, you have a brief given by people making the game that says this is what we’re looking for, and this is what it should sound like.
Your job as a composer is to interpret that based on how the game looks, how it feels, what it’s like to play mechanically, and how you can apply a style or range of styles to create one cohesive soundtrack that will enhance the overall experience while playing the game.
I put a lot of myself into my music. I’m not someone who would go into a project that just wants some low-key background stuff. I like my music to be a feature of the project because, especially in indie games, there’s room for that, which I don’t think you have at higher levels. We have the space to take more significant risks.
While watching the trailer for Sentry, I noticed that most of the music was precisely timed to the action on the screen, down to guitar riffs while assault rifles burst. What’s it like composing under those precise time constraints?
BT: If you’re a film composer, you always have to write to image, and the way this trailer was put together was storyboarded. The devs knew what they wanted the trailer to look like and asked me if I could write for it.
So yeah, there were moments that I wanted to hit. It was rigid timing and it’s almost like a puzzle trying to pick the dynamic markers or hitting everything you want. To see when it lines up, like when you pick a tempo and 16 bars later something extraordinary happens, that’s a good feeling.
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Unbelievably the Sentry trailer looks scripted, but it’s not; it’s game-captured footage. We had a rough storyboard of it, but Gary (who runs Fireblade Software) had to sit there and take after take until it was perfect. So we had a rough version of it, but it was ten seconds longer when Gary captured the actual footage.
So then it’s the second pass of this puzzle-like process of changing tempos by 0.5 BPM and changing or cutting stuff to make it fit.
When composing for a game, there are so many different things a player can do while music is playing. How do you ensure the music you produce is appropriate for what the player is doing or concentrating on at that moment?
BT: You have to allow for dynamism, and by that, I don’t just mean “music goes loud, the music goes quiet.”
For example, a game I worked on, Paradise Killer, has a playlist system in music.
So your music has to be a broad range of styles and dynamics but essentially has to fit everything the player could be doing. So say there are 16 tracks in the game, and they can go around and pick them up in any order; I just had to tie those together so that every track made sense for every possible situation.
Sentry’s slightly different approach in that we have a dynamic music system. So if you take a combat level, for example, you’ll have a piece of music for the setup phase which will ramp up to a higher intensity version of the same piece of music for the combat phase.
Then that can ramp down when the enemies aren’t near you, or you haven’t seen them in a while. Then you have your final wave where it’s gonna go high up. So for Sentry, I wrote four pieces of music that all share a tempo and key along with other rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically of each so that you can move between these pieces of music dynamically based on the action on screen.
After the announcement trailer was released and it went viral on Reddit, how are you and the devs feeling about people’s reaction to the game as you push towards an early access release sometime next year?
BT: That viral Reddit post was a big shot in the arm.
I can’t speak for the other devs on the team, but I know that when I’m in the development process, in isolation, you can start to lose sight of some of the qualities that make the game great but seeing the reaction on Reddit reminded me that we’re making a great game.
As the game gets farther in the development process, we will have more to show off. Especially musically. Sentry is an exciting game to work on because it’s a chance to explore Sci-Fi Music and Sci-Fi musical themes and push those into directions they don’t get pushed very often.
On the surface, Sentry is a Sci-Fi game, but we have a lot of plans for where the game goes beyond just the industrial spaceship stuff you see in the trailer. It’ll be exciting to see how we can push the music in other directions.