I will take literally any opportunity to trot out my favorite game design quote of all time. In a design book about the original Dark Souls, director Hidetaka Miyazaki is quoted as saying "a certain kind of refinement, elegance, and dignity are very important to me… My idea of dignity is something that I pursue with every project I work on and not just Dark Souls."
The clincher is in the follow-up from artist Masanori Waragai. "I remember when I was drawing the Undead Dragon, I submitted a design draft that depicted a dragon swarming with maggots and other gross things," he said. "Miyazaki handed it back to me saying, 'This isn't dignified. Don't rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can't you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?"
I think about this quote all the time when I play FromSoftware's games—even when they're often full of silly, gross, or undignified moments, they tend to work harder to convey a specific tone than most other videogames I've played.
That's very much the case in Armored Core, a series that long predates Miyazaki's tenure at FromSoftware. In a PC Gamer article about why there's no other mecha game quite like Armored Core, contributor Noah Smith attributed much of that unique tone to the music of composer Kota Hoshino: "Missions will often feel more like work than play, a mood accentuated by a discordant aesthetic. Hoshino's soundtracks blend post-punk, trance, and jazz piano into eerie jams that somehow fit perfectly with the on-screen action. The alienating, depersonalized stream of contracts and the free associative post-punk music work together to leave these lingering feelings of dread, awe, and confusion."
Kota Hoshino has been with FromSoftware since 1998 and composed nearly all of the studio's games, so I wanted to know who sets the tone. Does the music guide the developers, or the other way around?
"Hoshino-san will be the lead composer on AC6 as well," said Armored Core 6 director Masaru Yamamura. "In terms of that back-and-forth between sound design and game design, a lot of it comes down to giving these broad themes and motives for the game, such as this dark, old SF feel. We wanted this sense of loneliness and sense of nostalgia in the game, so we give him these nebulous 'keywords' and he'll compose whatever he likes based on that. We get those [songs] back, put them in the missions, and see how it plays out. Maybe we need some peaks here or troughs here and adjust that based on the tempo and timing of these missions and the boss battles and such. As [the songs] come back we give him more keywords to work with, and just let him go to town on it, basically."
The 10-year gap since the last Armored Core game played a big part in determining the tone FromSoftware wanted to convey, because both the developer and the fictional setting have evolved dramatically since 2013.
"In terms of how [those 'keywords'] differ from previous ACs, this time, while establishing a feel of old nostalgic sci-fi, the scale and the technology of the world has vastly increased since the previous AC games," Yamamura said. "You're going to see these kinds of images and settings almost up in space in AC6. So we wanted that scale to be conveyed through the music as well. A lot of that musical direction ties into that aspect of the game as well."