The Last Guardian's Composer On Living Up To Team Ico's Legacy

The Last Guardian’s delays have almost always eclipsed the game itself. But it is indeed a real PlayStation 4 game now, created over many years by many people.

Takeshi Furukawa was one of those people. He’s The Last Guardian’s composer and the conductor for the game’s orchestrated score. Furukawa composed music for television shows such as Star Wars: The Clone WarsStar Trek: Enterprise, and more.

We recently had a chat with Furukawa via email where he gave us his impressions of Team Ico’s past work, when he joined The Last Guardian, and some of the philosophies behind composing the game’s score, which you can pre-order on vinyl here

How would you describe the music for The Last Guardian? Was there a specific theme or mood that you wanted to evoke?

Takeshi Furukawa: The music for The Last Guardian is best described as a traditional orchestral fantasy score. While the focus of the game is the intimate and emotional bond between the boy and Trico, the music in contrast aspires to highlight the cinematic grandeur of the epic narrative and majestic locale. The beautiful visuals on screen, characterized by vivid colors and soft light served as key inspiration for the music. To complement such quasi-Impressionist aesthetics quintessential in Ueda-san’s works, the score employs a timeless tonal palette of orchestra, choir, and piano, reminiscent of the stirring adventure soundtracks from my own childhood. It is my hope that this score delivers the same sense of wonder and excitement I myself experienced as a child through my favorite games and films.

Have you played  Ico or Shadow of the Colossus? Did you take any inspiration or cues from the music in those games?

Yes, of course! As a life-long enthusiast of video games, I have long admired both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for their beautiful art direction and unique music. Inheriting the legacy of Ōshima-san and Ōtani-san was at the same time a tremendous honor and a nerve-wracking experience. Both games have seminal soundtracks, each with their respective identity, so to likewise create something unique for The Last Guardian felt like a herculean task. To this end, I felt it best to start with a completely blank canvas, neither being conscious of nor deliberately avoiding the heritage of the previous scores. Ultimately, I was true to my instincts and wrote music reflective of my sensibilities without worrying about the opinions and expectations of others.

When did you officially sign on to compose the music? How has the music changed since you joined?

I was officially invited to join the project about five years ago. However, due to the delay caused by the platform switch to PS4, my composing efforts started in earnest about two years thereafter. I’ve been told that they held several rounds of searches with a number of candidates considered. As I was not privy to the music production details prior to my involvement, [Sony Music Publishing’s Tommy Kikuchi] was kind enough to weigh in on this.

During the early production phase of The Last Guardian, the team was focused on experimenting with gameplay mechanics. Temp music (music borrowed from existing works as placeholder) was used for both in-game development and trailers released to the public. All the while, I was tasked to search for a composer, as there was no question that The Last Guardian’s score needed a unique and original voice. We auditioned many candidates and presented them to Ueda-san, with Takeshi’s music being chosen. In this regard, nothing changed when Takeshi came onboard; rather, this was the starting point for the music. – Tommy Kikuchi

Did the development team have any requests for the music?

Ueda-san and Ito-san (Tsubasa Ito, the audio lead with whom I most frequently interfaced) envisioned The Last Guardian’s score to be free from restrictions burdened by conventional video game scores. Game composers generally need to be mindful to render the music adaptable in a non-linear fashion, a constraint that sometimes impedes with its pure musicality. However, for The Last Guardian, I was given carte blanche to simply focus on writing good music, with the technicalities of integrating the score fearlessly burdened by Ito-san. Furthermore, Ueda-san wanted the score to inherit Western sensibilities rather than subscribing to the idiosyncratic musical tastes popular in Japan. His feedback was always broad and conceptual, never micro-managing, and thus accorded me much freedom concerning the actual musical details. As we all shared the same artistic sensibilities, nothing throughout our collaborative process felt forced or inherently mismatched. I truly enjoyed every moment working with the development team.

Does the protagonist have his own theme? What about Trico? And do their themes ever blend together?

Yes, absolutely! Customary to my approach working on symphonic scores, my first step was to draft several themes to serve as the foundation. The thematic identities are all melodic, instead of specific instruments, and as such make recurring appearances in various forms throughout the score. The boy and Trico’s themes don’t interleave, as I wasn’t as concerned with the more academic, for the lack of a better word, aspects of composition. Instead, I simply aspired to write melodies that resonate emotionally and is hopefully memorable.

How has your past work affected the instrumentation in the compositions of The Last Guardian?

My experience influences me to favor the natural sound of the orchestra, instead of one that is artificially produced and manipulated. Other composers have conceived and utilized the orchestra as one of many elements in synth hybrid compositions to great effect and success. In contrast, I think of the orchestra as a self-contained unit, and even prefer recording everybody together, rather than the separate sections discreetly, as it results in a more cohesive ensemble. I believe a symphonic score like The Last Guardian definitely benefited from this traditional approach, as it gives the music a distinct and symphonic color not often encountered elsewhere.

You’ve said that composing for this game has been a “subtractive process.” Why is this your chosen route for The Last Guardian and how does it benefit the game and soundtrack?

As a subscriber to “less is more” and “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” I strive for simplicity and clarity in my music. Nowhere else did this feel more appropriate than on The Last Guardian, as Ueda-san also is an advocate of refined and minimalist aesthetics. It has been said that people can only digest a limited number of simultaneous visual and sonic elements, with anything beyond becoming noise. I therefore was extremely careful not to disrupt the serenity of The Last Guardian’s aural world. This isn’t to say that I was pedantically counting the number of notes, but rather always being mindful of arbitrarily adding anything superfluous. A simpler presentation always delivers a stronger message, and draws a deeper emotional reaction from the audience. I believe it was Debussy who likewise said, “music is the space between the notes”.

What video game soundtracks have you liked in the past?

Some of my favorite video game soundtracks are naturally those that I grew up listening to such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy V. Besides their contribution to hours of my childhood bliss, as a composer I appreciate their musical effectiveness despite the limitations faced at the time. More recently, I thought the score for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was absolutely stunning.

For more on The Last Guardian, check out our interview with the director, Fumito Ueda, hereHead here for some of our hands-on impressions, and here to see us play through the game’s TGS 2016 demo. You can also watch us play Shadow of the Colossus in its entirety here. The Last Guardian releases on December 6 for PlayStation 4.