Music man David Valjalo follows-up his exploration of the big-budget orchestral soundtracks in the mainstream games industry with a look at the other end of the scale – the super-low-budget, ultra-catchy, sometimes kitschy scores of indie darlings. He rounds up the men behind Hotline Miami, Sweden-based Dennis Wedin and Jonatan Soderstrom, two of the soundtrack artists they hand-picked, US artists M.O.O.N. and Scattle, and FTL composer Ben Prunty, to get the scoop on making music for small games and, quite often, small change.
Recently we learned all about the revolution in game music that had transformed soundtracks into orchestral epics. A newfound respect for and understanding of the importance of a score, in big budget games such as Black Ops 2 and the Assassin’s Creed series, had lead developers to embrace composers like Jack Wall and Jesper Kyd, giving them unprecedented creative freedom and powers. Sounds great, doesn’t it? A game soundtrack renaissance.
Well, here’s something less glitzy: aspiring game music composer Ben Prunty upped sticks in 1999 to move from his home in Maine to California with the ambition of breaking into the scene equipped with little more than a burning passion for game music. Most recently you might have heard his work proving a spacey soundtrack for the excellent, interstellar, roguelike-like FTL: Faster Than Light, but how long did Prunty have to wait for his big break? Around 13 years.
“I just thought it would be really cool to make music with computers,” he tells me, “even though I didn’t know anything about music theory. I got a copy of Sonic Foundry’s ACID program. I got it from a paper catalogue. I went to school for audio engineering then taught myself music theory. There’s not a whole lot of game industry presence in Maine – just trees. California was the place to go.”
At the time, in 1999, game music was starting to advance in scope and style, thanks to the boost in technology that the disc-based age had ushered in. “There wasn’t as much recognition [for game music] back then,” says Prunty, “but there was enough for me to want to find out more about artists that I really liked.” One such artist who helped and inspired Prunty belongs to the high-profile composer camp I interviewed previously. “I was a huge fan of Jesper Kyd. In the old days he had a little forum on his website and people would go and ask him questions. So I would go there and he’d recommend things. He recommended Cubase as a tool to use and that’s what I use to this day.”
Though game composers can, in theory, work from their homes, freelancing like a writer as many choose to, Prunty’s geographical move was motivated by a belief that being close to developers also means being close to employment. “The two pieces of advice I always give are, one, write music all the time and, second, go out and meet developers, find out where they meet, what parties they have, go to them, meet them. They’re the two most important pieces of advice I can give. You can [outsource] once you’re established, you can work wherever you want. But before then, the importance of meeting people face-to-face is incredible. Every gig I’ve ever gotten was a result of me knowing people as friends. I’m working on Gravity Ghost right now and the reason I got that job was I went to a big game jam we have here, saw the game demoed and asked the developer if I could do music for it.”
It didn’t, of course, all fall into place immediately. Prunty found himself working day jobs and composing in his spare time for indie games, many of which would never see the light of a monitor. “I got to California and I got side-tracked. I was fixing computer hardware. I got a lot of random hobby projects, indie projects that got cancelled. A lot of indie projects are cancelled, they never make it to completion, probably around 90 per cent of indie games that get started don’t get finished. But all of that gave me experience.”
Prunty’s belief that you need to be where the action is makes sense, but then you hear a story like that of Hotline Miami, a game as beloved for its darkly pulsing soundtrack as it is for its strategic ultra-violence. “We had a temp soundtrack in place for the game,” says one half of the game’s dev team, Jonatan Soderstrom. “But when we couldn’t get the licenses for the tracks I went out on to Band Camp and found a bunch of cool music you could download for free. That’s how I found M.O.O.N.”
“It started with Jonatan sending me a Facebook message”, says M.O.O.N., confirming that the internet age has made virtual networking a new avenue for a budding composer.
Scattle, another contributor to the game’s synth-infused, throbbing 80s-inspired tracks, had a different route to the project. “I’d seen the game on an indie games blog and got talking to Jonatan, who I’d worked with briefly on another game, who then sent me a build when it was called Cocaine Cowboy. I was like ‘it’s sick’. Then I sent him an email asking if I could contribute and that was that.”
Each indie game music developer has a unique story and their individual approaches to projects differ wildly, too, as evidenced by the varied soundscapes they conjure for titles like FTL and Hotline Miami. Prunty’s aim was to avoid any cliched sci-fi fanfares: “The lack of orchestra in FTL is actually a deliberate decision. A lot of people write sci-fi soundtracks with an orchestra in mind, thanks to Star Wars and Star Trek, I suppose. I thought that if I took out the orchestral score, let it just be electronic but with a cinematic sound – because there’s still a lot of non-chiptune type sound going on in FTL – I thought that if I just didn’t have an orchestra, I could give it a more unique sound.”
For Hotline Miami, Soderstrom and Wedin set out with a clear vision for their own audio, similarly committed to defying convention: “It was early on we decided we didn’t want music that sounded like game music, we wanted it to sound like a movie soundtrack. The final soundtrack has the exact same feeling as the original temp track we had.”
“We tried to capture the mood of the 80s, not make it sound chiptune-y, or what you’d expect from pixel-art games,” says Wedin.
Scattle and M.O.O.N. had different approaches to their roles in the Hotline soundtrack. Scattle was tasked with scoring parts of the game itself while M.O.O.N.’s work was recruited to contribute directly to the soundtrack. “My tracks were actually made separately from the game,” says M.O.O.N. “I was trying to create an atmosphere of what it would be like to be isolated in space, a real feeling of being out there, surrounded by different sounds. That’s what I was going for, and worked well with what they were after.”
Scattle’s approach was to go back to some source material that he felt was in-tune with the era that Hotline was evoking. “I went to early [John] Carpenter, Escape From LA. I was trying to match the action with my sound, in a way. At the end of the game, there’s all these fucking bullets flying and I thought it was right to go with something loud, something 80s. I always like to think about what the player’s actually doing, and try to match my sound to that.”
Another advantage to indie game work is how open developers are with their work, unafraid to show and reveal as much as possible before release to get a composer’s creative juices flowing. It’s a freedom of information that runs counter to stories from the opposite end of the spectrum, where studios can leave the soundtrack to the final countdown to release which often ends up rushing artists to completion on a triple-A title.
“They had a nearly finished game to show me,” Prunty says of his FTL experience. “I could sit down and play it, and I knew it was great and knew I wanted to make music for it. I wanted to evoke the feeling of an old PC game but still have a deep atmosphere to it. There’s chiptune stuff to go along with the look of the game, but I wanted to suggest that there’s more to the world than you’re seeing. There’s already a lot of that in the game – a story that’s not really explained to you, text events that hint at more stuff going, a bigger picture, and I wanted to reflect that in the score.”
Scattle had a similar experience with near-finished code to score, summing up the simplicity and focus of his own process in a single sentence: “I saw the game and just knew how it should sound.”
As an indie game composer, your signature sound can be a result the tools you use as much as the style of title you’re working on, and each composer gets passionate when you ask the simple question: what do you use? “I use samples, but my audio workstation is Renoise,” says Scattle.
“You use Re-Noise?” M.O.O.N. interjects. “I’ve never heard of anyone who actually uses that.”
“It looks so technical,” says Scattle, “but I’ve been using it for a year and a half now and I’m really comfortable with it.”
“My real baby is a Waldorf Blofeld synthesiser, it’s really just a tank. I create all my sounds within that,” explains M.O.O.N. “I’m a very technical guy, so I take a very technical approach, I do most of my producing within a computer program but the Waldorf is my partner in crime.”
Prunty’s weapons of choice are all finely detailed on his website over here. It’s all equipment that you can probably pick up for – if not a song, excusing the pun – then certainly for a couple of thousand dollars’ investment, a far cry from the costs required to create professional live music for, and in, a big studio.
Intriguingly, indie game composing doesn’t just have a lower cost barrier to entry, it also has the potential to deliver greater rewards, suggests Prunty. “It might actually be a bit more lucrative to be an indie game composer rather than a triple-A composer. Indie devs are more flexible with payments, you often get to keep the rights. I have the rights to the FTL soundtrack which means every soundtrack sale goes to me. That can be very lucrative. There are plenty of composers out there that make no money on indie games, of course. I just happened to be lucky to be attached to a project that became wildly successful.”
But even with success, Prunty sees the need to remain close to the indie game scene physically. “I recently quit my last non-game music job, doing music full-time, it’s great. Only since FTL have I been able to do that. The FTL sales have been good to us. There were many times I felt like giving up, I wasn’t making it, but all that time gave me the experience, the skill in writing music, the network flow and ability to get things done quickly, to prepare me for FTL. Maybe some day I won’t need to be in a big metropolitan area but right now the ability to go to GDC cheaply, not having to fly out, it’s really great.”
And even with Hotline Miami under his belt, Scattle is still trying to cram as much work into his itinerary as possible: “I just want to be doing everything I can so that if something falls through there’s always work to fall back on.”
There may be a clear divide between the jobs available – and the security of such jobs – to an indie game composer and the established big budget freelancers, but artists like M.O.O.N. aren’t cynical about the resources available at big game studios. Rather, he suggests, indie composers are ready to embrace them: “A big budget thing would be incredible, but for me it’s all about creative control, as long as I’m still experimenting, doing what I want to do, that’s what’s important to me. To have a huge budget for me to take things where I want them to go, I don’t see a downside to that.”
When queried on the big budget end of the scale, on the proliferation of me-too orchestral scores, Prunty is honest about the positives and negatives but, perhaps unsurprisingly, expresses adoration for the work of his mentor, Jesper Kyd. “I felt the Assassin’s Creed 2 soundtrack was really unique and interesting – on the other hand I played Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 2 but didn’t notice the soundtrack at all. So maybe there is some that, where they’re trying to ape Hollywood a bit. I think the take away from that is you’re going to have some generic soundtracks in triple-A and some really excellent ones, but the same applies to indie games. You’ll have some me-too soundtracks there, too.”