The Sounds of Half-Life: A Place in the West (or how I stopped caring & learned to love Moss)

Ross Joseph Gardner on 12. February 2020.

This post was written by our sound designer, Chris Jolley - you can check him out on Twitter and at his website. And in the picture below. Venture forth at your own risk.

Doctor Gordon Jolley, who had hardly earned the distinction of his synthesiser at the time of the Black Mesa Incident...

My involvement with Half-Life: A Place in the West started with some simple sound design – a cool sci-fi ambience for the original title screen of the app and some basic menu navigation sounds. It was a short but sweet gig, and I found I got on with the comic's creators, Mike and Ross (both frauds), swimmingly. Not long afterwards Mike/Ross (hereto and forever after referred to as "Moss") asked if I wouldn't mind composing a short piece of music for the Steam Greenlight trailer, and it was during this process that the idea of creating a soundtrack for the comic was born...

The original trailer for Steam Greenlight

And nuts.

A soundtrack for a comic? Whatever next?

Nevertheless, myself and Moss persevered. There was an initial thought about how we might integrate it into the comic itself... Could we somehow tie it to the action on page / screen? How would we do this? VR and eye-tracking? Possible, if a little Combine in nature, but it would impose quite severe restrictions / limitations in terms of page content and layout, which is one great strength of the comic book over other artistic formats. Such a burden couldn't be laid upon the shoulders of the fine artists who work tirelessly to bring Moss's twisted (and sometimes rabid) ideas and feedback to life... they have enough on their respective plates.

So a straight forward accompanying suite of music it would be, with the conciliatory option of being able to play tracks in the app whilst the reader loses themselves in the wasteland that was now the Earth. Sorted.

'Sorted' - who doesn't wanna get lost in this paradise, eh? Hey--is that Tom Hardy?

But what of style? How would the music sound? Would we try to walk the line between the soundtracks of both games? Fresh instrumentation? A few knowing winks to the existing music of the Half Life universe? In the end, yes... yes to all of these questions and into the musical gumbo the answers went.

Before I started to write the music, I went back and revisited Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and some other parts of the expanded universe. I reminisced about playing the original HL "back in the day" and being amazed 1) by the quality of the game and story (that train ride at the start... still one of the greatest openings to a game ever) and 2) by the sparseness of the soundtrack and how it was used - HL seemed to come from a time when games had a constant soundtrack, with no respite, so to play a full-on, story-driven FPS was weird enough, but to play a full-on, story-driven FPS that wasn't constantly bombarding the player aurally was something pretty unique and standalone (feel free to let Moss know how wrong I am, and how many other games at the time or earlier had done this, in the comments). The game, its story and its world had stuck with me since I had first played it, so I'd like to think there was a healthy amount of the original HL in the music.

Everyone loves this opening sequence. Everyone but Michael Pelletier. Which is fine, because no one loves Michael Pelletier.

HL2 kicked things up another gear in terms of the spectacle of its world and the evolution of the story and characters through whom it was told. I hold a controversial opinion about HL2 – I believe that "Water Hazard" was the best level in the game.

Coincidentally, Ross was also recently seen raving about this controversial chapter right here. He is often seen raving, actually.

Have they gone yet?

For those that haven't alt-tabbed away in disgust, let me attempt to explain myself. The way that the world opened up in "Water Hazard" was the first things I noticed – it felt like it got huge. No longer did you feel confined to tight corridors / sewers / streets (at least not while you were on the hover boat thing*). It was quiet and serene in places – a weird thing to enjoy for someone who is banging on about the music HL, but this calmness and absence of music (and a lot of sound in general) really gave the rest of the soundtrack some room. I know I've talked about the sparseness of the soundtrack in the original game, but that never felt as calm as this did – I vividly remember feeling calm whilst picking my way through the watery maze, hoping that some of the people at Valve had felt the same way and had designed a path I could take that went on for ages. Sadly, I don't recall there being such a path... or if there is, I sure as hell missed it.


So, now I had reminded myself of what I felt HL was all about, it was time to get to work on Volume I (ambitiously titled, as we had no idea if a soundtrack as DLC for an online Steam-only comic would even sell). I loved designing the synth sounds for Vol I; very dark, ambient and brooding, but at the same time fragile and scared. I loved how the piano seemed to sit in the mix with all these synthetic sounds – something very human among the very alien landscape that fell out of me.

The cover for VOLUME I - art by Ivan Miranda and Ester Salguero

Most of the synth work on Vol I was with soft-synths (VSTs). No real reason that I can remember... my collection of hardware synths at the time wasn't as extensive as it now is I suppose, but I had the tools I needed to make the sounds I was hearing in my head and that's all you really need. I remember powering through the writing / mixing part of the soundtrack quite quickly – almost sending Moss a new track, and an excitedly scrawled accompanying email, every other day – not bad when I was doing this solely in my free time around work and parenting activities.

I can't remember exactly when in the process of writing Vol I Moss asked for a new trailer track to go with the launch video for the release of the 3rd edition of APW, but I do remember there being a discussion about a slight change in style from that of the Greenlight Trailer / Vol I... Luckily, as with pretty much every conversation I've had with Moss, we both really wanted the same kind of thing. "John Carpenter" was bandied around quite a bit (in terms of his musical work on his soundtracks), as was Vangelis, so I was keen to give this new style a try. This was the beginnings of the idea that lead to the evolution of the soundtrack's sound from Vol I into Volume II.

The Second Trailer for Steam

As mentioned, I had collected a lot more hardware since Vol I, and I was keen to use it. One of most important bits, even though it didn't (and still doesn't) make a sound, was my Kenton Pro Solo MkII Midi-to-CV converter (there's a plug for you). It allowed me to better integrate my Yamaha CS5 into my workflow and it is that synth that you hear all over the tracks in Vol II (the arpeggio in "Kempinski Stares into the Abyss", the pad and lead in "The Scientist and the Artist" etc., which by the way is my favourite track on Vol II). I love that synth and its sound fitted so well that I couldn't resist using it to add to all the initial ideas I had jotted down, mainly on the piano to start with.

I hope we're getting paid for this.

Vol II, I feel, had a lot more "musical" content in it. Still dark / brooding etc. (as is my way) but the melodic side of the world was starting to show itself. Now the story was firmly rooted in New Franklin, it felt like there was a bit more structure to the world and the characters, and I wanted to reflect this in the music. The comic, and its creators, had also grown in confidence as it had been well received – another ingredient to add in.

The cover for VOLUME II - art by Kristian Rossi, Ivan Miranda, and Ester Salguero

Personally I feel that Vol II packs a bit more of metaphorical wallop than Vol I, and I remember feeling that when I finished it, but wasn't totally sure that it had been the right thing to do, even after it had been released. However, with the benefit of perspective that time brings, I can now make a bit more sense of the driving feeling I had whilst I was writing it.

We even had the time / idea of writing an extra track for the comic's readers, and HL fans in general (you lucky people) to celebrate the anniversary of the release of the original game. It seemed fitting, and also less time consuming, to create an original version of a track from the original game’s soundtrack - "Hazardous Environment" had always stood out to me as a favourite, and after a quick pluck of a guitar string to confirm the "twang" that gives the track its feel we were off. I hope that I did it justice in my own way – it wasn't too much of a stretch to incorporate it into the vibe that I had going at the time, so perhaps that says I was really in the HL zone? Or that may just be me being big-headed.

Hazardous Environment

I've been very pleased with the reception the soundtrack has had thus far – you've all been most kind. I'd love for it to continue to grow into a Vol III (wink and nudge in the ribs to Moss – keep cranking out those chapters) and take a deeper look at the characters and themes I feel that the previous two volumes have only lightly touched upon thus far. One character I'd really like to explore further is the city of New Franklin itself...seemingly a gleaming bastion of hope when we first clap eyes on it, by the end of Chapter 6 it's caught a bad case of the "Black Mesa's" (if you catch my drift). Exploring the city musically, as one would navigate its twisted streets, sounds like a journey I'd like to take, and I invite you, you intrepid comic book connoisseur  (and hardcore blog reader, assuming you've managed to make it to this point without your eyes bleeding) to come along with me...just mind out for the headcrabs.

The latest chapter in the A Place in the West saga

Going further still, perhaps even burst out of its Steam cocoon and become available on other platforms and in other formats...did someone say vinyl? Yes, I did – I'd love to hear it scratched into the 12" lacquer surface of a record, and to see the brilliant cover artwork that both volumes have had so far, bright and proud, nestled in among someones record collection. Excuse me whilst I get all misty eyed for a second...

What can I say – very tentative plans have been started for this future domination of the soundtrack section of your friendly neighbourhood record store...but for now let's just sit back, crank the volume up, listen to and enjoy what we have, shall we?

Volume I and Volume II are both on sale over at Steam right now. Check them out!

Right, I'm off for a lie down...

This post was written by Chris Jolley.