I was talking with Game Informer creative director and friend Jeff Akervik one day, and somewhere in the conversation NHL 98 came up – specifically its intro. I never played the game back in the day, and I don’t think I could remember hardly any sports game intro off the top of my head – that’s how pedestrian most of them are.
Akervik was not only adamant that I see the intro, but that it was one of his favorites in all of video games. After finding the video on YouTube and chuckling at the thorough ’90s-ness of the production and a bygone era of the NHL, the metal guitar riffs kicked in, sending the intro to another level that concluded – fittingly – with an explosion.
Suitably impressed, I was curious how the whole thing came about. In these days of pervasive licensed music, the NHL 98 intro is striking for its tenor and commendable for simply going for it.
One of the people behind the intro is Jeff van Dyck veteran video game composer and audio director who has won BAFTA awards for Alien: Isolation and Shogun: Total War Warlord Edition. Van Dyck and Saki Kaskas both wrote the music for the game, and I talked to Van Dyck about the game and his time with the NHL series.
The Word of that Game Was ‘Distortion’
“Nobody was really filtering what we were doing,” says Van Dyck of his and Kaskas’ work on NHL 98, “and it seemed like the further we pushed it the more people liked it.”
Despite the relatively harmonious process of working on the game itself, Van Dyck did not get off on the right foot with soon-to-be-employer Electronic Arts when he interviewed for EA Canada in Vancouver in 1992. Van Dyck answered a job posting for an audio programmer even though he wasn’t a programmer at all.
“I was interviewed by all these programmers, and I just failed that interview miserably,” he says. “But two weeks later they phoned me back and said, ‘You’re a crap audio programmer, but you’re obviously really good at producing music. We’d like to offer you a job in our audio department.'”
Despite his proficiency, van Dyck wasn’t trusted with game music straight out of the gate, but was tasked with creating sound effects for the PC version of the NHL series on the then-standard Sound Blaster sound cards. After writing music for inline skating title Skitchin’, Van Dyck earned composer duties for NHL 96 on PC.
Van Dyck says that all the music for the game was streamed so they weren’t limited by the technology at the time, allowing him to record music and put it straight into the game – a process which led him to bring Saki Kaskas to EA, whom Van Dyck met through the Vancouver music scene, and the two were in a jazz/prog-rock band. Kaskas’ guitar work impressed those within EA, and the pair co-wrote music through NHL 98.
“[Producer Ken Sayler] said something like, ‘There should be a voice in here, an announcer, saying some stuff. Can you write some stuff?” remembers Van Dyck of composing music for the intro. “And I said, ‘I’m not really sure what he should say,’ and basically [Sayler] just rattled off what you hear in that intro. It was very flippant, the way he issued it. I think he was expecting me to re-write it, but at the time I just went, ‘Well, it sounds good enough to me.'”
Van Dyck wrote and jammed along to the game, composing mainly on keyboard (mapping bass and drums onto the keys) and trying to go with the flow of the vibe he was getting from the game itself. He gravitated to the en vogue industrial sound of the time, adding synths and a drum machine. Van Dyck says engineer Ken “Hiwatt” Marshall had a lot to do with the overall sound. “The word of that game was ‘distortion’ – there’s distortion on everything in that game. At some point were we going to push the music so hard that the execs would say, ‘Look you guys, you’ve gone too far with this?’ But nobody every said, ‘stop.'” Appropriately, a running gag during recording was ending songs with an explosion, which thankfully made its way into the intro itself.
Marshall used digital plug-ins to produce effects, and liked to include some “trickery,” says Van Dyck, into the songs, including producing and recording feedback from a radio and distilling a song of Kaskas’ down into what ended up sounding like a drill solo. Van Dyck says that they weren’t really limited by technology or budget, and at one point they flew a drummer in from Toronto to record although they sampled him and used some loops in the game rather than his actual playing.
At the end of NHL 98, Van Dyck didn’t take much notice to how fans reacted to the game or his work – in the pre-heyday of the internet, his attitude was to just move on to the next project. “EA appreciated it,” he says. “They knew we were stepping out of the box to do something that stood out.”
Moving Into a New Era
For NHL 99, Van Dyck knew he was going to once again work on the intro, but foreshadowing the future, the intro and its music was built around a licensed song – David Bowie’s classic “Heroes.” Van Dyck thought the use of Bowie’s song was very cool, even though it wasn’t his choice and he didn’t know how everything went together with the music he composed until he saw the final product.
NHL 99 was written after Van Dyck moved to Australia, and as fate would have it, Van Dyck lived blocks away from EA Australia. This enabled him to do some work for their titles like Rugby, Cricket, and Australian Rules Football, as well as EA’s Sled Storm, among others. EA Australia was also the distributor of Sega’s Shogun Total War, and this lose connection enabled him to be hired onto that project, which led to another successful phase in his career.
Today Van Dyck composes music and audio for indie titles, including PC RTS Forts. He is also working on a project to honor Kaskas, who unfortunately passed away in 2016. Van Dyck is finishing off the solo album Kaskas’ was recording at the time, including getting some of Kaskas’ friends to play on it. Van Dyck hopes to have the project finished in the summer of 2019.
EA’s shift toward using EA Trax and its licensed music was part of what led to Van Dyck moving on from the NHL series and the company, but his and Kaskas’ work is remembered fondly. Van Dyck says he gets messages from fans who love the music during his run, saying it brings them back to a better time of their youth, even if the artist in Van Dyck is always critical. “I listen to some of my older stuff and I cringe a little bit because I feel like I’m better at it now than I was back then,” he says. “Why did I mix it like that? Why are those notes there?”
I disagree. Watching and listening to NHL 98 today, it seems almost perfect.