Returnal Soundtrack, Bobby Krlic, 2021
Among early titles for the PlayStation 5, Returnal was probably publisher Sony’s biggest system exclusive. Developed by Housemarque, the game offered an intriguing mix of third-person shooting and rogue-like elements. Each time astronaut Selene – stranded on the alien planet Atropos – dies after fighting extraterrestrial creatures, she is resurrected, and her environment changes. This surreal time loop plays into Returnal’s dive into psychological horror, as Selene is haunted by visions of her own home and must piece together the mystery of this Hades-like nightmare world through audio logs. While the game’s difficulty level and lack of a save feature drew some ire from gamers, critical reception of Returnal was strong overall, with reviewers highlighting the game’s unexpectedly well-developed story and immersive atmosphere as some of Returnal’s strongest suits.
Crucial to the game’s captivating ambience was the Returnal soundtrack, written by Bobby Krlic – a fitting choice to fulfil composing duties on this title. Krlic’s first two albums The Haxan Cloak and Excavation had explicitly dealt with death and established Krlic’s ability to “build[…] a whole world” through his music, according to Pitchfork’s Excavation review. The same article correctly stated that “Excavation is more soundtrack than a regular album”, so it was no surprise that Krlic’s career would ultimately head in that direction – after producing works by the likes of Björk, Troye Sivan and Goldfrapp. Making his film scoring debut on 2016’s Blackhat, Krlic’s breakthrough was arguably folk-horror movie Midsommar. This work netted him a Best Original Soundtrack award at the 2020 Ivor Novello Awards and a nomination as Breakthrough Composer of the Year at the 2019 International Film Music Critics Association Awards.
A self-professed fan of video games and their music (starting with 1996’s Quake), Krlic had been involved with Returnal since mid-2019, beginning to compose music after two months of discussions with the developers – “trying to do a kind of sci-fi horror that hopefully hasn’t really been done before”, as he put it in an interview. Returnal allowed Krlic to delve deep into the use of modular synths, while using elements explicitly customised for this project – samplers, software, even a bespoke synth rack. Krlic decided to focus his music on the protagonist’s emotions instead of the game’s action elements – underscoring Selene’s sadness and confusion, as well as her sheer determination to unravel the mysteries of the location holding her prisoner. For the soundtrack album, Krlic arranged his interactive layers of sound into bespoke arrangements to ensure “that whatever narrative is in the source material comes through in the soundtrack.”
Krlic does indeed accomplish his goal of writing a sci-fi horror game score that hasn’t been done before – partially because the Returnal soundtrack doesn’t submit to genre stereotypes. Krlic carefully avoids so many of the clichés horror scores dip into – this score has none of the genre-typical and often ineffectual whining strings and dissonant brass explosions in store. Instead, Krlic’s work is far more ambitious. He effectively writes a low-key, almost entirely textual soundtrack featuring nary any identifiable melodic material. In lieu of delivering jump scares and quivering crescendi, the unsettling music mostly shrouds Atropos and Selene’s past in a perpetual mist that never reveals the actual shape of the creepy characters and events hiding within.
But it’s this delay, this consistent tension that makes Returnal’s unnerving aspects so effective. We expect monsters are lurking in the shadows, but we have no clue what they look like, when they might strike – and, importantly, whether they are ultimately nothing but a figment of our imagination. Krlic’s music leaves us perpetually on edge, but without the cathartic release of the pent-up tension finally exploding. Only on “Helios” does the Returnal soundtrack reach a sustained level of malice and threat. A cold, industrial pulse is more domineering than anything else on the album, before it is countered on the other end of the tonal spectrum by a harp figure that plays like a voice lost in the dark. Krlic harnesses the rhythms’ stoic, relentless forward motion to create a piece of slow-moving horror that squashes any brief hints at melodic uplift and redemption.
The remainder of the Returnal soundtrack is far more subdued and nearly static in its mood. How does Krlic then keep listeners attention with what in other composers’ hands might turn into mere underscore? Firstly, he puts that custom-built synth rack he mentioned in interviews to excellent use. From opening track “The Crash” onwards, Krlic does an outstanding job at manipulating instruments to the point where the line between music and sound design, acoustic and electronic sound sources disappears. Krlic shapes his pieces as immaculately sculpted collages of drones and enigmatic noises, creating puzzling, haunting textures that indeed have not been heard on a horror game score before and create a unique sound world.
The resulting compositions are far from monotonous – not only are Krlic’s combinations of timbres constantly spell-binding, but his pieces develop flawlessly. Their minimalist nature often sees them relying on repetitions of a single striking motif, such as the sharply crescendoing string note from 2:05 on “The Crash”. However, Krlic judges the impact of his ideas perfectly and keeps tracks seamlessly moving from one disquieting combination of sounds to the next. Such judicious sense of development, combined with the music’s novel textures, sees the Returnal soundtrack developing an irresistible atmospheric pull that sustains the entire album and leaves no room for filler material.
Particularly powerful is “Citadel”, which only requires a few drones, spectral voices and wavering synths that emerge and retreat into the shadows to create vast, empty spaces filled with unknowable entities. “Motionless” sets an unexpectedly maximalist, melancholic synthwave melody against fuzzy, burnt-out bass sounds that drag the once hopeful music back into the depths of loss and hopelessness. “Murals” delivers the soundtrack’s most emotionally complex and moving passage – an astonishing, chromatic three-note string motif with a sharp attack on the first note that viciously cuts into the melody’s nostalgia and regret.
Krlic crafts all his sonic ingredients with immense care. However, while he relies on a vast range of sounds whose origin is often unidentifiable, his most important tool is immediately recognisable: the human voice (if again manipulated in many different ways). It’s the disembodied, chopped-up, eerie vocals – mostly female and thus likely standing in for Selene – that give the Returnal soundtrack its emotional power. They also turn the score into an examination of its protagonist’s psyche and the world engulfing her – very much in line with Krlic’s stated intentions.
These voices imbue the music’s generally muted demeanour with a much-needed hint of humanity and warmth. As always though, the score’s expression remains tantalisingly ambiguous, as the voices’ often anguished tones don’t make for soothing listening, again hinting at the absence of something (peace in this case) than its presence. The score’s persistently emerging feeling of bottled-up remorse and guilt manifests through these wordless vocals, leading to the score’s most hair-raising moments.
At first, closing track “Dream Already Seen” offers glimmers of hope through melodic motifs shimmering in the far distance, but these are crushed through blindingly harsh dissonances. After all this, the female solo voice heard on previous cues returns, far removed, as if crying for help. Then the voice suddenly crescendoes, moving closer and closer to the listener in a heart-stopping moment of genuine creepiness, before it subsides, leaving the score’s ending enigmatic and up to listeners to decipher. It’s a beautiful demonstration of how Krlic lands a final gut punch without the need for any theatrics, thanks to the supremely powerful atmosphere he has conjured throughout the Returnal soundtrack.
- 01 - The Crash Krlic, Bobby 4:29
- 02 - The Forest Krlic, Bobby 4:07
- 03 - Helios Krlic, Bobby 4:53
- 04 - Citadel Krlic, Bobby 4:00
- 05 - Murals Krlic, Bobby 3:30
- 06 - Recessed Krlic, Bobby 3:32
- 07 - Motionless Krlic, Bobby 4:12
- 08 - A Mysterious Device Krlic, Bobby 2:02
- 09 - Dream Already Seen Krlic, Bobby 4:56