Facing the Music

Six Ages: Lights Going Out has been Feature Complete for a while. We’re still testing it, and pushing towards Content Complete. One aspect of that is composing the music. The game takes place generations later, and things are very different, so while a few pieces will be the same, most need to be new. (To save time, the various UI-related sound effects will be the same.)

There seems to be no shortage of freelance composers out there, but I sort of accidentally found Neha Patel via Twitter (before Elon Musk began ruining it). We had a discussion about game soundtracks, I checked out her portfolio, and asked her to fill Stan LePard’s shoes. The fact that she knew who he was was a plus (it also speaks well for how Stan tried to help out other composers).

My basic design approach is to look at the events and come up with a couple dozen themes or categories. Many of these ended up the same as Ride Like the Wind — “Strife,” “Request,” “Opportunity” — but some situations are different, and I also decided to add some new categories. So music may be called “InternalPolitics,” “ExternalPolitics,” or “Decay.”

A farmer inspects ice-covered furrows. A scarecrow is in the background.

I prepared a list of these, and then for each one, made a short text file describing how the music will be used. I also include 2-4 illustrations to help Neha see the mood we’re after. Here’s Decay:

The world is getting worse

This music is used when the situation involves the overall deterioration of the world. This could be the failure of large political institutions or trade networks, acid rain, crumbling walls, climate change (in this game, it’s cold), greed, imminent starvation, toxic clouds, abandoned temples.

These are all bad situations, but they aren’t overtly supernatural or related to the forces that are explicitly trying to destroy the world.

The purpose of the music is to evoke a feeling, so when Neha sends a draft, I run it by Elise Bowditch, who also reviewed the music for Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind and King of Dragon Pass. I play it without explanation, and get her thoughts. Does it suggest monsters? impending doom? annoying neighbors? Does it feel optimistic or despairing? Elise is good at describing (one piece sounded like a “circus of horrors”). If it doesn’t seem to fit, we may need a completely new approach.

Assuming there’s a plausible match, we can then worry about specifics, like whether crashing cymbals are appropriate or the instruments should be swapped out. Occasionally a piece that really isn’t working can be radically transformed by changing an instrument.

Or sometimes a piece that didn’t give the right feeling for one situation ends up working fine for another.

We’re still in the process of creating music, but it’s coming along nicely. I kept hearing “ChaosHorror” in my head even when I was working on other stuff, which I consider a good sign.

Author: David

Creator of Six Ages and King of Dragon Pass

2 thoughts on “Facing the Music”

  1. I recently found that the word Leitmotif exists for my favourite technique in animated movies (Pixar and Studio Ghibli) to have music that matches the character and lays down an emotional track https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitmotif I recently found out about its use in movies in a TCM bio of Max Steiner, who showed how to use it in King Kong. Glad to hear you’re using it.

    On a different note, as a game programmer you get to hear some music way too much. Though a few decades later, hearing the same bit brings back the memories of the past. For example, the menu music in Outlaw Sprint Cars for the Sega Genesis, http://www.agmsmith.ca/OutlawSprintCars/19940105%20Sprint%20Cars%20Game%20CES%20Version.mp4 or the Pony Tales music my cube-mate was playing all one summer at work.

    Anyway, hope you get a good high quality recording, in case you need to remix it.

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