How Astro the Android changed my life (and could change yours)
‘Everything’s moved so quickly, I’ve had to remind myself it’s really happening,’ says Lucy Merrett, who made the pounding electronic soundtrack for Cyber Security Challenge’s educational game Astro the Android.
Lucy offered to make the soundtrack for free as part of her undergraduate course in music production at Leeds Conservatoire, and the game’s electronic beats attracted the attention of a top British game studio who have since offered her a part-time job.
The game was produced by CSC UK in partnership with the National Crime Agency (NCA) as part of the first Cyber Choices Challenge: a follow-up, the Winter Cyber Choices Challenge, runs from 20 November 2023 until the end of the winter term (closes 2359GMT Sunday 17 December 2023).
Lucy’s cyberpunk-inspired beats were an instant hit with the game’s target audience: school-age children learning about online risks and how to stay safe.
‘The kids loved it,’ she says. ‘Some of the feedback we got from teachers was that the kids were blasting it loudly in class and the teachers had to say, “Guys, calm down a bit, this is an educational experience, it’s not a rave in the classroom.”’
‘Such a great experience’
Thanks to her experience designing the game, Lucy opted to specialise in video game music, and is now studying for a Master’s degree in music for interactive games at Leeds Beckett.
She is also starting work as the Sound Design Department Assistant at PitStop Productions, a top British game audio studio who cast, directed and captured all 248 voice actors for the role-playing epic Baldur’s Gate 3 which has sold 10 million units on Steam alone since it came out this year.
‘Doing the Cyber Choices Challenge was a massive part of me getting the job,’ says Lucy. ‘If I hadn’t explored that world of game music and sound design, I wouldn’t be doing the Master’s course, either.’
Lucy heard about the Cyber Choices Challenge project through her father, Alan Merrett, Senior Officer in the National Cybercrime Unit at the National Crime Agency, and knew it was the perfect opportunity for part of her undergrad course in music production where she was required to collaborate with another creative. Lucy says that she was passionate about the project and helping to steer young people away from cybercrime because she is very close to her Dad. So, she offered to work with the game’s developer, computing lecturer Zayd Dawood.
The game is a Mario-style platformer in a futuristic landscape which teaches young people the basics of Britain’s Computer Misuse Act 1990. Astro explores a two-dimensional cyberpunk world, and until Lucy got involved, Zayd had planned to use bland, royalty-free music available online.
‘They were trying to develop a game that could educate kids in school about staying safe online,’ says Merrett. ‘I thought this would work really well as my final project. It was such a great experience.’
‘There can be a different path’
Lucy and Zayd exchanged emails, and she suggested that a techno vibe might fit with the game, where Astro explores factory-like cyberpunk landscapes while learning lessons about cybercrime. Lucy researched by looking at similar games, and then listened to different techno artists for inspiration.
Using Ableton Live (software favoured by techno producers) Lucy made different tracks for each of the game’s four levels, over the course of four months.
‘It was right over the winter: it was quite intense,’ she remembers. ‘It was a lot of writing music, a lot of heavy techno electronic stuff.’
‘Lucy admits that she went into the project ‘blind’, having no experience of sound design or game music. She says, ‘I just did what I thought felt right, knowing that kids were going to be playing it.’
She says that creating music tracks which evolve slowly with the game sparked her creativity, as did the game’s purpose. Lucy says that in her own experience, she is aware that among people her age, there ‘can be a different path’ where people can be tempted into hacking and cybercrime, and was keen to help the NCA get the message across.
Lucy says she had been interested in music since a very young age, playing cornet in the Warrington Youth Orchestra, but was drawn to electronic music production because she didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight. When it came to soundtracking Astro, pounding electronic beats were a natural choice: Lucy says she has always had a passion for the heavier end of electronic music, having started to listen to dubstep artists like Skrillex when she was 10.
She says that the job offer from PitStop Productions came as a surprise, after she applied on impulse earlier this year.
She told the studio she was doing a Master’s, and they amended the role so she could do both, she says. ‘They couldn’t have been more accommodating. Every so often, I think, “Oh my gosh!”, but it’s just great.’
The Winter Cyber Choices Challenge 2023 runs from Monday 20 November until 17 December 2023, offering weeks of great gadget prizes for winners who make the right Cyber Choices. Click here to learn more.