Thursday Report: Play Me A Song, Jack

I’ve always believed music is a perfect way to start any project. Perhaps more than any other medium, it transports you somewhere immediately, and all you really need to do to understand it is listen. In that way, a sense of tone is immediately in place, and from their it really lends to the imagination. Music is abstract enough that it doesn’t dictate what should be built around it, while providing that framework of ‘mood’ right from the get-go.

As such, I’ve discovered that all my recent game projects I’ve started with music. Even projects I haven’t yet started, I’m sitting on music for.

I’ve found writing music to be maybe the only creative activity I find difficult to put down once starting. Something about piecing everything together, and finding something new among the twelve few notes there are, is very satisfying once the ball is rolling. As such, it’s eaten up large portions of my spare time.

For this particular project, I began the very beginning of the game — the player entering the garden. ‘Breath of the Wild’ became reknowned for its radical step away of traditional soundtracking, opting for greater stretches of silence, and subtle piano motifs to compliment the vast open world that was new to the franchise.

So I started with this fresh in my mind — trying to find very simple melodies to punctuate moments of pause. And while this seemed like the way forward, I couldn’t ignore that I would also need to convey something entirely different — work needing to be done, plants emerging, characters going on about their day — a growing metropolis.

I started focusing more on arpeggiated chords for the piano, and to build that sense of adventure: rapid fire wind instruments (there’s surely a more accurate term for this).

All of sudden I had something that was showing an inkling of Sufjan Steven’s ‘Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind’, the closing track to his 2005 release ‘Illinois’.

I knew then immediately who I had to look to — Sufjan’s own inspiration for this sound, Steve Reich. While ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ had always been a favourite record of mine, I had never really dived into his other prolific works. It wasn’t long before I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.

The foundation of Reich’s music is using melody to create rhythm, where we typically see this process done the other way round. Pitched percussive instruments like xylophones, marimbas and even pianos, are layered many times to create a wall of sound and unusual rhythms compliment one another to create something vastly larger than the sum of its very simple parts. At least, that’s my uneducated assessment.

Although I’m unaware of any other game that’s taken this approach to its music, I’m cautious not to sound like a Steve Reich wannabe. And afterall, hours of heavily layered music might be distracting to a player that just wants to focus on the game.

So I went back to the silence that I started with, and the piano melodies, and thought there was still a place for both.

The result, hopefully, is a sound that begins quiet and gradually builds. Sometimes, at least — maybe not always. I’ve begun scripting a system that will hopefully delivery music more dynamically, playing music at key moments, but with the likelihood of music playing becoming ever more increasing.

So all of my compositions so far have had a focus on both quiet and more ‘full’ moments, they begin often with simple piano, that may or may not build into something more rhythmic, with a deep body of strings underneath to give it more of a broody, pensive quality.

I’m sitting on at least half a dozen music ideas, but I’ll share just of them today (although you might have heard the others in the background of the various videos I’ve been sharing on social media). This is what I had written to be the main theme of the game — the melody that will appear and reappear in various places throughout.

Whether or not this piece will be played while game is running, or whether this is more of an introductory piece, I’ve yet to decide. Maybe a little bit of both — I’m hoping to strip each and every song into its elements to re-purpose them in as many ways as possible.

It’s certainly not finished, but I think it gives a good sense of how I’ll be working with music in the game. While everything else I have so far feels more static, I was able to get this piece to move between three distinct sections, and I’m very proud of it for what it is.

Enjoy!

Expect slower Thursday Reports as we move into the holiday season, but I’ll be back at it as soon as I can for the new year.

Happy Holidays!

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