Talking With Composer Doyle Donehoo About Aliens: Dark Descent

Cinelinx’s resident musicologist returns with a conversation with the composer of Aliens: Dark Descent.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Doyle Donehoo, the composer for the recently released video game Aliens: Dark Descent. Donehoo has worked on a number of projects, including Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, Sniper: Ghost Warrior, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, just to name a few.

How familiar were you with the Alien universe before working on this game?

When the first movie came out, on a monster Panorama curved screen, I saw the movie multiple times. Just the opening scenes totally creeped me out. After that I got the scores on vinyl and tape and all release versions of CD. I also collected books, graphic novels, posters, collectors’ magazines, movie programs, picture books, buttons, you name it. I did that for ALIENS as well. SO, I was a fan.

What did you think of getting the chance to score a game featuring the Xenomorph, one of science-fiction’s most iconic monsters? 

As you can imagine, I was pleasantly surprised. I had studied the scores of Goldsmith, Horner, and Goldenthal over and over, and I had clients in the past who had referenced these scores for what they needed. I feel like I have been preparing to create music for the Alien universe all my music career. The fact that I could write music for Aliens, THE Xenomorphs, was a bonus for all that preparation.

What did you think about getting to score an Aliens game in general?

You have to take advantage of all opportunities that come your way, and getting to score for what you have long prepared for is a bonus, and fun to do.

Were you given any specific guidelines by the game’s director before working on the score about what they wanted the music for the game to sound like?

I think we were on the same page from the beginning. They were creating environments similar to what you see in the first three movies, and I wanted to create music that was recognizably ALIEN. Sort of a love-letter to the Alien franchise and to the many fans. I am a fan, and I want to experience the Alien universe. I want that feeling and I want that emotion. Therefore, I thought we should give the fans no less than that.

I know you said that you took inspiration from what Goldsmith, Horner and Goldenthal did in their respective films, but would you say the game leans more toward one inspiration than the other? That is to say, is Aliens: Dark Descent more Alien or Aliens or a little bit of everything blended into something new?

The overriding musical influence was set down by Jerry Goldsmith; he wrote the musical language for the Alien universe. All composers that followed were influenced by that, some more than others, and each added their own take as well. The game is influenced by all three movies, with environments in space aboard a ship, in a colony and in an industrial environment. I was influenced by all three movies and composers, so for those environments, I wanted to match those feelings and emotions of the game and movies and build on that.

Were any themes directly borrowed from any of the Alien films?

Not themes, but sounds, sounds that became iconic to the Alien environment. Sounds that when you hear them, you know you are in the Alien universe, and you had better check your ammo. I ripped all the Alien music CDs and cut out all the sounds I could find to use as a reference. Echo Col legno, echo trumpets, echo flutes and bassoons, strange strings and glisses, and more. When you hear them, it really puts you into an Alien mood. All parts of the Alien musical language.

Did you focus on any particular instruments when putting the score together? 

Mainly I used orchestral instruments and other tools and instruments that were not available to the original Alien franchise composers, but still sounded Alien. This allowed for some different approaches to leave my own mark on the Alien franchise.

Follow up to the previous question: did you include any particular instruments that the previous films did NOT utilize in order to make it sound different from the films?

I couldn’t help but use instruments that were not in the movies. Today, composers have a vast array of virtual and hybrid instruments that didn’t exist 10 or even 2 years ago, and I made use of them while keeping to the spirit of the franchise. A good part of the score is pure classically orchestral and much of it is hybrid. There are a lot of people out there torturing traditional instruments to get new sounds out of them. For composers, it is audio paradise.

How long did you have to score Aliens: Dark Descent? What stage of development was the game in when you were brought on board?

When I came on, there was plenty of time for development, relatively. They had a well put together proposal, as well as some in-game environments to set the mood, not that you needed something to get you into the mood for the Alien franchise. They had a well thought out plan for the game and its environments, and they knew what they wanted from me for specific situations.

I know video games aren’t always the best environment for character themes however I have to ask…..are there specific themes/motifs for the Aliens/Alien Queen in this game?

In video games, you can’t always compose for specific situations. For a 40 hour game, you have to spread out an hours’ worth of music, for example. So much of my composing was for general situations: exploration, story-telling, discovery, horror, encounters, running away, assaults and more. The boss-fights do have their own sound and themes in keeping with being Alien.

Do you have a favorite cue from the score?

Aliens: Dark Descent Main Theme was a lot of fun to do, but I really enjoyed creating creepy sonic environments.

How did working on Aliens: Dark Descent compare to other projects you’ve worked on?

Every project has its own challenges, and I enjoy them all when I am in the moment. Whatever I am working on at the time is my favorite project.

I want to thank Doyle Donehoo for taking the time to talk with me about Aliens: Dark Descent. The game is currently available for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. I hope you enjoyed our conversation about the game!

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Becky O'Brien
Armed with a PhD. in Musicology, Becky loves to spend their time watching movies and playing video games, and listening to the soundtracks of both whenever they have the time. Can usually be seen writing for Cinelinx though they also do a bit of work for Screen Age Wasteland too. Their favorite superheroes are Batwoman and Spider-Gwen.