[In an all-star roundtable, the musicians behind PixelJunk Eden, Flower, Night Game, and Jonathan Mak's next project tell Gamasutra their thoughts, feelings and philosophies on creating memorable game soundtracks.]
Recently four composers met to share their thoughts on the subject of videogame music. Vincent Diamante wrote the scores to ThatGameCompany titles Cloud and Flower. Teaching at the University of Southern California, while also providing photography for GameSetWatch and Gamasutra during industry events, he displays the skills and interests of an interdisciplinary artist. In the music interview "A Beautiful Flight," he spoke on the subject of the layered, interactive nature of his music for Flower.
Earlier this year Chris Schlarb completed an East Coast tour with his group I Heart Lung. Currently he is serving as the composer of the WiiWare title Night Game, published by Nicalis. He spoke about the challenges underlying the game project, which is in collaboration with Nifflas of Knytt Stories, during the Sound Current series interview "Rolling with the Sounds of Night Game."
Shaw-Han Liem is the musician behind the I Am Robot and Proud album series. In the music interview "I Am Robot Makes Game," he spoke on the subject of his Uphill City tour in Japan, taking place late last year, along with the process of embarking upon his first official collaboration with game designer Jonathan Mak, creator of Everyday Shooter.
Finally, Baiyon is the music and art director of Q-Games' PixelJunk Eden. Speaking during the Game Developers Conference in a session titled Baiyon's CMYK Vision, he offered his perspectives on the creation of new songs and visual designs for the PixelJunk Eden Encore expansion pack.
In a reflection of the international accessibility of interactive audio, the text for the roundtable discussion is appearing online in several languages, including Italian, French, and Japanese courtesy of GAME Watch. English and Japanese interpretation is by musician and translator Ryojiro Sato.
From left to right: Chris Schlarb, Baiyon, Ryojiro Sato, Shaw-Han Liem, Vincent Diamante.
To start off this conversation on the intersection between independent music and independent games, I thought I would bring up a question for the table. I wanted to know if there were any examples that came to mind from the history of videogames where the gameplay has allowed for the expression of musical improvisation in a fresh and innovative way.
Vincent Diamante: I remember a game called Ballblazer. It was by Lucasfilm, back in the mid-80's before they became LucasArts. It was a first-person sports game, and as you played there was this procedurally generated jazz solo. Some reviews at the time said that the soundtrack sounded like extreme John Coltrane solos. It was for PC and for Nintendo, and I remember playing it at the time, being this young music student, and thinking, "This music is different." It was this magical thing.
Chris Schlarb: Ballblazer? I've got to check this game out.
Vincent Diamante, composer of Flower
Chris, during your Night Game interview, you mentioned being surprised by the spontaneity of PaRappa the Rapper when you first encountered the game. Did you feel it was the first time you were able to riff or improvise musically within a videogame?
Schlarb:PaRappa was the first game where I had a sense of wonder about it. I was just talking about it because we were so excited to see the creator of PaRappa at the awards show last night. In PaRappa, you can basically freestyle. You can add extra beats and syllables to play polyrhythmically.
Shaw-Han: You could do that at any point in the game?
Schlarb: Yeah, you didn't have to just play on the beat---you could subdivide all the rhythmic elements in the game and it would start to dynamically change the environment.
I remember there was one time I was playing the level with Master Onion, and I was just going off, and the roof blew off of the room, and PaRappa was in the clouds! It never happened to me any other time. It's that feeling of something special happening. It was absolutely amazing.
Most games are so linear in their approach to composition. I come to composition from outside the game world, and am thinking more like modern composition like Eno, Reich, or Cage, not necessarily looking back at videogames for inspiration.
Baiyon, have you had the chance to listen to the music of everyone here?
Baiyon: I've played Flower. Shaw-Han and I have talked on myspace. I don't know Chris.
Chris is the composer of Night Game, which is coming out for WiiWare. All the music in the game is composed of live recordings and there are no loops. There are several pieces for each world that are from half a minute to several minutes long, and between those pieces there is a silence of a randomly determined length.
Schlarb: Have you seen the art in Night Game? It's all inspired by Chinese shadow art.
Baiyon: Oh, yes. Now I remember seeing it on the show floor.
How do you feel about the idea of adding more content to your games after they are finished? For instance if they were to say, "We want more levels for Night Game..."
Schlarb: That's what happened to me. When I first started Night Game, there was supposed to be ten minutes of music. It was two worlds, five minutes per world. It started off as a freeware game, because Nifflas has done a lot of freeware. It was going to be this simple thing that we were going to put out, and later turned into this WiiWare game. It just got exponentially bigger, and I was saying earlier that the most difficult thing about that was I had already started working on it as a small game and I did not give myself any limits to instrumentation. It then got very difficult afterward. Had I limited myself to a palette of five or six instruments, then I could have breezed through the rest of it.
As it expanded, so did the possibilities. I could use anything, and I was then responding to the stimuli of the visuals, which were changing for each world. It got very difficult because I kept having to bring in more instruments, like the trombone, marimba, mandolin, euphonium... it just kept going and going. I kept strings out of it, thankfully, though I did have upright bass. What was so difficult was deciding where to stop, because it went from ten minutes of music to fifty. I worked on it for a solid eight months in my spare time.
I know now to set limits to orchestration: I can compose for a chamber ensemble. Otherwise, where does it end? Limits can be so good. You choose a set of instruments, and then your mind starts to work within those limitations. I was coming from the perspective that there were really just two options for game music. There was either 8-bit retro-sounding stuff or orchestral stuff.
Diamante: You know, when I think of 8-bit music I think of Japanese jazz fusion. 8-bit music, whether the musicians realize it or not, connects all the way back to guys like Casiopea and T-Square.
Schlarb: I can hear that, definitely. I guess mentally I didn't feel that I fit into either one of those contexts. I really don't program. I feel like my strength is in texture, in writing an arrangement for an ensemble, utilizing instruments and musicians in the right context.
With Night Game, I was thinking the game needs to breathe. In most games you are bombarded with sound, visual input and stimuli constantly. There's no timer in Night Game, so I wanted there to be an ebb and flow. Music would come in, then it would go away, and you would hear the environmental sounds. Then the music would come back in, acting as sort of a subliminal push. Mentally you would not even recognize that the music went away, but you can kind of feel it instead of listening to it.
Ryojiro Sato (right), musician and interpreter
Diamante: In Flower, the music is more gamey, and it's mostly continuous. On level five there are these explicit breaths within the soundtrack that last a minute or several minutes.
Baiyon: Yeah, it's very interesting.
Vincent, could you conceive of how you would respond to a sequel or additional downloadable content added to Flower?
Diamante:Flower already is its own story. In my mind I feel like it is done. I guess it could be its own separate arc at the end. When I think of it that way, it sounds alright. If they asked for additional levels in the middle of things, I'm not sure how it would fit in. The arc is already set for how the music builds over the course of the game. I would definitely have to think long and hard about how to write a new score for this content that sits alongside the arc I have already done.
You never considered the music of Flower as in any way a continuation of Cloud, your previous score for ThatGameCompany?
Diamante: There were elements of Cloud, such as some of the art by Jenova [Chen], that included flowers. I was definitely inspired by that, but I was not thinking of it. The themes that I had sketched out have strong similarities. Cloud is its own thing, especially with the construction of music and how the orchestration builds.
Today, Vincent and I went to Hitoshi Sakimoto's presentation at the Game Developers Conference. Of course, this is among the most famous composers of RPG soundtracks in Japan today. After the talk, Vincent introduced himself and said, almost under his breath, "I just released my first console videogame soundtrack and it's for this game called Flower." Sakimoto's eyes lit up and he said, "Flowery? You mean Flowery? I've played it!" It's one example suggesting independent game musicians might not be fully aware of the level of attention their music receives these days.
Diamante: Yeah, I was kind of surprised.
Schlarb: That's amazing. It's a long and lonely process writing music for these games, so to have that validation really means something. I did work on Night Game for a year and nobody heard it. I got no feedback.
Diamante: And these are games that a lot of people really want to know about. When I first saw Night Game, I needed to know about it. Among both consumers and those who have been making games for years, there are those that want to hear more from the musicians who are really pushing the boundaries and making things that are different.
There are layers to the background music in Flower, and those layers will add up or peel away depending on the circumstances, which makes for an emotionally effective audio technique. You can hear the soundtrack subtly responding to your actions.
Baiyon: As a musician, I think music stands on its own. Contrary to composing for the game, I like to give the music its own individual personality. Interactivity can limit the musical possibilities.
Schlarb: I really understand that. I think it's really an interesting thing about Flower. The music responds to the player, and with Night Game we are making the player respond to the music. I'm really interested in both of those ideas.
Baiyon: Music games are getting closer to allowing the player to actually compose. I think that's really interesting, but if you are able to do some sort of music creation in the game, it does not make much difference whether you actually composed the music. Making music outside the game would be more enjoyable as an artist. What is the value of that compared to the score having been authored?
Diamante: I think they both have their own value. Going through the filter of a performance, whether it is the player playing the game or actual performers performing music, that can expand and encompass all sorts of possibilities. Back in the day, everyone had a piano in their house. People would buy sheet music of popular songs, bring it home, and play it. How would it sound? Well, that would depend on pianist, the singer and their skills. They have a set of instructions, but the music that comes out of it is their own. Maybe if I were to listen to it, I would think it's not how it's supposed to sound, but that's okay. It's their music. With videogames as well, it's their game more than it is the game developer's.
Baiyon: I think there is interaction between the composer's music and player's experience. It does not need to be as simple as pushing a button and hearing a sound. I believe in providing the listener with more musical structure. That said, when I played Flower, it was so fun.
Shaw-Han: I don't believe there is any non-interactive music. All music is interactive. Just as any kind of conversation that takes place, because it is a communication medium, there is the sound that is coming into your ears and then there is what is happening in your brain as you are listening to it. Every person will have a different bunch of chemical stuff going on in their head that is going to color their experience.
Schlarb: I think it's interesting because both are equally valid approaches. I'm interested in both ideas. With Night Game, I was more interested in creating an environment that the player could not affect. Through the visual art design and the puzzles, everything is very structured. There is a randomness to the order in which the pieces can be played, and there is a randomness to the silence in the game, all of which is something the player has to react to. There, the game does not react to the player.
I think it's really interesting, the approach that Baiyon has taken. The music is very separate from the videogame. Then there's Vincent's approach of treating them like one entity. You know, I love both of those ideas. Is there a way as things progress to combine them so that things feel alive, while cultivating a feeling or an environment?
Shaw-Han: I think it's important, whatever position you end up at on that spectrum. When I make music on a CD, that's my music and I'm the boss, right? If I make music for a game, there's this idea that it has to support the gameplay. If the gameplay has you exploring a world with endless possibilities around every corner, then maybe the idea of having the soundtrack be interpretive of your decisions supports the feeling of that game. Whereas, if you are playing a game where it's you against the world, then it makes sense for the music to be more rigid. The music is a representation of the gameplay. For me, it is interesting to play with that relationship.
Baiyon: I also worked on the visual element of the game. For me, it was a single expression. I was letting my inspiration take me where it needed to go.
Schlarb: When it's one artist, it's very easy to do that. It is coming from one place.
Baiyon: Since you all make music, you probably all understand. When it's hard, it becomes less interesting and you are not having much fun. It has to be part of a process where you have a certain facility and you have confidence in your work.
Did you struggle with the score for PixelJunk Eden?
Baiyon: Not at all. I continued the process of making music on my own and never thought about changing the music midway through. The only thing that I had a hard time with were the sound effects. I always make music to allow people to feel comfortable, but often effects in games are disturbing. Explosions or having to rush the game player, that was really new for me. Technically, I don't know if you can define a genre of "videogame music." I don't think it exists.
How would you describe the genre of minimal techno you brought to PixelJunk Eden?
Baiyon: 110 to 128 beats per minute.
In PixelJunk Eden, are there any specific references between the music and the art design?
Baiyon: It might not be very clear but this game project helped put my pursuits in art and music together. It was not necessarily my intention to match the music with the images on-screen. It just came naturally. Providing people with different experiences through the gameplay, that's the goal.
Shaw-Han: Did you start with the artwork or with the music?
Baiyon: I worked on them both at the same time. Actually, I was doing them simultaneously while talking on the phone, and I used the other ear to listen to someone else's music.
Baiyon: I was very sad to realize that when you are making your own music, you can't listen to other people's music, because you only have two ears. It was startling to realize that. With visual art, you can look at a picture and write at the same time. The process is almost simultaneous. However, there is not the same kind of analog with music. Hearing is not the same as seeing.
Chris Schlarb, composer of Night Game
Diamante: For me there are two ways of thinking of game music. There is obviously videogame music, but while I was in school I did a lot of research into this field called "game music," where instead of scores orchestras were given a set of instructions. On the sheet it would say to the clarinetist, something like: play this motif if you hear the violinist do something over this note.
Whenever I write my music I kind of personify the Playstation 3 or the computer and imagine it to be this set of performers inside the machine, and I want them to enjoy the music just as much as I am. I feel connected to technology and I want it to enjoy what I am giving it to do.
I'm always considerate of the performer. Sometimes the performer is the Playstation. I might decide to push myself a certain way, or push a studio musician or my friend, so I cannot compose without thinking about the performer, whoever that performer may be.
Schlarb: Have you guys played Bloom for the iPhone? I have an eleven year-old and a seven year-old, and I let my children play Bloom when I'm driving with my them. They will play it for... an hour. They come up with the most interesting ideas, things that I would never do.
How has your background in programming, Shaw-Han, figured into the I Am Robot and Proud albums?
Shaw-Han: Well, I spent my high school years playing in punk bands and then went to school, learned how to use computers, and those two things kind of crossed over. I think everyone here will say that the computer is probably one of the greatest musical tools to come around. It was invented to crunch numbers, but it also became this amazing musical tool, right?
I can imagine you and Baiyon performing in some of the same clubs in Kyoto. Do you remember where you played during your Uphill City tour?
Shaw-Han: I can't remember. It was like subway...
Baiyon: Club Metro?
Baiyon: That's where I have my event every month. We met there, but maybe you don't remember. My friend introduced me to you at the bar after your set. You looked so exhausted. I asked, "Are you tired?" You said, "Yeah, I'm tired."
Shaw-Han: I think my set time was 4:00 AM. It was crazy.
Shaw-Han designs the visual element of his live performances. Could you tell us a little about that work?
Shaw-Han: The visual aspect of the live performances involves a MIDI translator. Everyone who is playing an instrument is hooked up to a MIDI box, and then there is a computer that takes all that information and will translate it. I use processing, so it is basically interpreting things like the velocity of my playing the keyboard.
Schlarb: You're generating all this data...
Shaw-Han: Exactly. Everyone on-stage. The drummer is generating triggers, and so the idea is I've been performing my own music live for awhile, and I have always thought there is this element, like when you see a guy playing rock guitar, there is this big, physical, visual connection as someone in the audience that you get. You see their arm and then you hear the sound from the speakers.
Schlarb: There's cause and effect.
Shaw-Han: Yeah, and with an electronic performance you don't always get this connection. I play keyboards, but I'm only moving a small amount. The idea behind the visuals is to introduce this element which creates that visual connection. It's kind of a reverse cause and effect. With a guitar, what you see is causing the sound.
Baiyon, how was it having completed PixelJunk Eden, then discovering that more levels would need to be designed for the Encore expansion?
Baiyon: I got a better understanding following the release of PixelJunk Eden of what programmers are capable of. For the Encore pack, the thinking behind the music has not really changed, but for the visual design I was able to specify things in greater detail to the programmers. Little things like having a plant flash if you jump onto it, that has been implemented in greater detail.
How does working in a team change the process of writing music from working alone?
Baiyon: Of course there is teamwork involved and you have to have communication with people. Before the production of PixelJunk Eden, I would draw and make music. If you are a solo artist, you focus on how much you can control the artistic medium. As I was doing that, I got tired of it because I found exercises were too easy to master.
For that reason I started these exercises to challenge myself. I went to an art supply shop one day, closed my eyes, and randomly picked out colors of supplies without looking. Even if it turned out it was all green, those were the colors I took home to paint with. That threw some randomness into my work.
However, that got boring. Back then I was in school and what I did was, whenever someone was about to throw out some art supply, I would ask to have it. If a student finished a painting and left some paint behind that was going to go unused, I would use that in my own work.
Schlarb: That comes back to limits and to a certain degree how they can inspire you creatively.
Shaw-Han: I think that as soon as you get to the end of the tool, that is when you start to be creative. Actually, the simpler the tool, the faster you get to that point where you have done everything and that is when you start to use your brain. Before that you are thinking about "How do I do this?" Once you get to that point, you start to think, "Well, what do I want to do?"
Baiyon: It's actually a new experience for me to get feedback from game players. People have their own feeling when they play the game. I had the chance to witness the difference between how I imagined people would interact with the game and the reality during the playtesting. The players would have a different impression from what I intended, and that experience was very interesting.
Diamante: How do you change in reaction to that feedback? Do you go back to the drawing board and do something entirely new, or do you make slight changes here and there?
Baiyon: The first time the testers played, they said the plants did not look alive. It seemed like a mistake, so I talked with the programmers about it in order to change the layout and colors of the plantlife.
Schlarb: Did you have to deal with that, Vincent?
Diamante: Yeah, I got feedback both from players and the programmers. I could not edit my music. Once I was done with a piece of music, I really believed in it. If they wanted something else, I did not want to disrupt the music itself, so I gave them a different piece of music.
Shaw-Han Liem, I Am Robot and Proud
Baiyon: I think there is a strong connection between music and technology. Nowadays, just about everyone has home studios and can make music. However, the reality is that not everyone is making music.
Schlarb: You have to develop a vocabulary.
Baiyon: For example, if you are selecting saxophone samples, you are going to enjoy the process more if you know how to play the instrument. You become passionate about music in making it.
Schlarb: Once you're at the point where you have the facility to create some sort of language on that instrument or tool, it's only at that point of your cumulative experience that you can start to do something that is expressive of yourself.
Baiyon: I think it's kind of dangerous when you find a tool that is so comfortable that you would prefer not to explore any other options. It's not necessarily the technology or any new method of composition that is important.
Schlarb: I think that danger is there for any instrument. You can have anyone sit down with a guitar and play bad music, just as they could sit down with a tenori-on and do something that is just not inspired.
Diamante: I always thought back when I was a kid that there would be a lot of people making music around this time. Instead, it's lots of people blogging and making YouTube videos. It's kind of weird, because video involves more complex technology.
Schlarb: It's interesting that at this point people seem more interested in understanding technology and utilizing it, rather than pushing it forward. There is a lot of disposable content out there. People blog just to say something, not to be the next Hemingway. It's the proliferation of technology that seems to encourage the creation of more disposable content.
Shaw-Han: Yeah, there are sort of two sides to that, right? There are people who at one point were lucky enough to find the thing that they are willing to put all their energy into to create this art, or music, or whatever. Maybe what you make isn't going to be the greatest piece of music ever, you know what I mean? However, probably making a really bad song is better than having thought your whole life: "I could never do this."
It does mean the signal to noise ratio is high, but if it's a choice between thinking your whole life that music is something that other people do, that you have to have a cool haircut and the right clothes, and you're not in that group, and on the other hand just picking up a controller and thinking, "Hey, I can put together a song..."
I think there's something really powerful in that moment where you realize that, instead of thinking that art is something other people do.
Schlarb: That is definitely a positive.
Baiyon: Your given limitations can be the inspiration. After all these experiments, I found I like to incorporate random elements in my art. As long as at the end I can stand by my music, ultimately that is what is important.
Shaw-Han: I think especially when you are doing electronic music, you have to think about that more. With an acoustic instrument the randomness is in the physicality of it.
Schlarb: That's right. How you mic your instrument...
Shaw-Han: How long your nails are that day when you are playing the guitar. All that randomness is built into the physicality of the playing. With electronic tools, it's so sterile sometimes. If you load up the song today, it's going to be the same as when you loaded the song up yesterday. You are going to get the exact same audio input. Sometimes introducing that kind of randomness, you want to hear those mistakes. They are what make it human.
Baiyon: I don't like that I can feel full of myself while playing guitar. That does not really speak to me. You are forced to look at me playing my music, and it should not necessarily be that way. With electronic music equipment, you can cut it off from visual elements that are not necessary to music.
Schlarb: It's like stripping ego out of music.
Baiyon: With oil painting, I always wondered if you really needed all those layers and lines. If you used a computer, that would solve a lot of the challenges associated with oil painting. I question whether it is really necessary, if there is a more efficient solution. If you make a mistake on the computer, you have the option to just undo it. You can keep the ones that you really need.
Diamante: I would say that painting is three-dimensional. There needs to be that thickness to it because there are some possibility for meaning to be placed there. The painter can do whatever he wants, but I really connect with painters that are willing to allow the meaning to be placed in the painting that may not be his own meaning. There are things that can happen in the process, and there is a beauty to the process, which results in this thing that is actually outside of the painter himself and even beyond humanity. The artwork is this thing that exists long after we die and long after people stop listening to it.
Schlarb: You could take somebody like Pollock. There it was all about the physicality of what he was doing. He could not have understood himself the depth and complexity of his work. There is an interesting parallel, where we are getting to the point where that randomness can be simulated electronically, though there's no human spirit to it. There is a value equally in the cleanliness of the electronic world and the messiness of the physical world.
Shaw-Han: I think all these things fall in this spectrum of what we were talking about earlier. Getting back to gaming, various places along the spectrum of having the player control things and having them not control things. Sometimes it can be interesting to not be able to control something and just be in this thing that's happening. Sometimes it's really cool when you have something in your hand and the thing is responding to you.
As people who are designing these experiences, we go through stages where we think, "I just want it to be my song." On the next project you might be more interested in say, collaborating with the player on a song. You can move back and forth along this spectrum, depending on your interests.
Schlarb: I think that idea of "control" is really extremely volatile. I go back to visual art again for some reason, but I think of Mark Rothko. His paintings are so big. He did that, from what I understand, so that the viewer would not be able to control the painting. The paintings were so large that the viewer had to humble themselves in front of the painting. I think in some ways we deal with that back and forth in how people are going to be interacting with music, whether we are going to be dictating something or whether the player will be controlling what we have put out there.
Shaw-Han: Yeah, in Guitar Hero the music is your enemy. Basically, you conquer the music. With something like Flower, your behavior and the music are sort of one. Depending on where you fall in that spectrum for a particular project, that is expressed in those decisions.
Baiyon, art and music director of PixelJunk Eden
Baiyon: What computers cannot imitate in the work of a Jackson Pollock is what kind of color or line is appropriate to him.
Shaw-Han: For me, the whole idea of physicality in music and why that is exciting is tied up in this idea of risk. There is always this chance that it could just be terrible. You see five musicians playing and you know that at any given point the whole thing could fall apart. That risk is part of what is interesting. These five musicians played the same thing last night, but you know it's not going to be exactly the same.
Baiyon: Lacking total control can be interesting, but everyone then tries to control that. There is always the need to move on to some new process once you've achieved that control.
[Interview conducted by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This article is available in Japanese on GAME Watch, in Italian at Gamesource.it, and in French at Squaremusic. Images courtesy of Nicalis, Q-Games, Darla Records, Sony Computer Entertainment. Photos by Jeriaska.]