Monday, 11 February 2013

Feature| Soundtrack To The Future

My first contact with Disasterpeace’s work was through his own netlabel, Pause. Roll forward two years and Rich Vreeland [Disasterpeace] is announced as composer for the upcoming and highly anticipated independent game Fez. The game itself had been in development since first being announced in July 2007, resulting in an online gaming community baying for a release, and in April 2012 they finally got it. Whilst not breaking any records, Fez was well received by both its audience and critics. However, what was most interesting was the level of attention paid to the soundtrack, which was so great Kotaku, a popular gaming blog, dedicated multiple articles to it.

In recent years mainstream games have been frequently criticised for a lack of artistic depth in their content. In response, the gaming scene has seen a rise of indie developers. With the success of games like Minecraft and Super Meat Boy, this new group of developers have entered the industry as serious competition to the long-established order of game production. Following this, an increasing number of established artists in the chiptune scene began writing soundtracks for indie games. I spoke with James Primate, composer of the soundtracks for games including upcoming Gnomoria and popular iOS game Junk Jack, about the link between the game and music communities.  He said “there is a lot of audience crossover, especially within the development community, so there has been a lot of synergy”.

We also discussed how he began writing soundtracks. Having originally started composing by being “bored one day when a dev[eloper] emailed”, James began to write soundtracks and build up a sizable resume. He now has soundtrack credits on multiple games. Whilst talking with Rich about his involvement in Fez, I found a very different story.  Rich told me, “I played a show in Montreal back in the fall of 2010, and I met Renaud Bedard [Fez programmer]. We talked and he expressed interest in having me write a song for Fez. I suggested doing the whole soundtrack, and before long that was what ended up happening!”. However artists manage to find work, it’s clear in both cases the independent gaming scene is the new key.

An important motif in the independent movement has been the return to old development ethics. The small size and nostalgic vision of these developing groups (Super Meat Boy was made by only two people) has led to an increase in outsourcing soundtrack work to lesser known composers. The chiptune scene, as a result, has become a hotspot for developers looking for game music. Chiptune itself is a nostalgic re-appropriation of sound chips from archaic game systems; the two communities almost seemed destined to intertwine.

Whilst speaking with James and Rich it quickly became obvious gaming and music had both been important influences in their youth. James told me about his early years living on a house-boat in Key West, Florida. “I had to take a rowboat in to go to school! All our power was from solar panels, so we didn't have much in the way of electronics. But I did have a Gameboy!”. With his parents’ love of music influencing him through childhood, James eventually attended Berklee and The Boston Conservatory where he began to study classical music. Rich also came from a musical family, he told me “My mother sang and played piano, and my father had church band practices in the basement. My sister and I were influenced by this…”.  The combination of their love for games and music helps explain how it is these two worlds collided later in life.

But is writing soundtracks for independent games a viable career path? Both artists currently work full time writing soundtracks, in fact as I write this James explained he was in the process of working on four. However, James insists it’s not for everyone. “I may make it sound a bit easy, but I guess I should make it understood that I'm coming from a place where I have 2 music degrees from top schools and have been making music professionally for my whole adult life, so it was fairly easy to do, with a bunch of luck”, yet he insists “that isn't to say that an amateur couldn't aspire to a career in game work…, just that it’s not something that one casually finds success in”. Rich also attended Berklee, and has been writing music since the age of 17. Whilst their work as composers did start as a hobby, it was also clearly something they were well-versed in.

Due to the monetary constraints of developing games independently, the internet has become a key component in promotion, distribution and financing. Grassroots fundraising site Kickstarter has seen a huge boost in the number of developers using it to fund their projects. The Humble Indie Bundle began a chain reaction of copycat sites, who bundle multiple indie games together under a ‘pay what you want’ scheme.

As music and game production changes, freelance work as a developer or composer is becoming a reality due to the internet.  Chiptune prospered almost entirely due to the internet, where music is distributed, gigs organised and shows hosted.  Services like Soundcloud and Bandcamp are making it easier for musicians to promote their own work. Steam’s newly integrated ‘Greenlight’ system has allowed independent developers to reach a larger audience. Coupled with ‘Bundle Culture’, which is in the process of combining multiple mediums, grassroot projects have more of a chance to succeed than ever. All this has put the ‘power back in the people’, making independently funded and created work like Disasterpeace’s Fez soundtrack far more likely to attain cult and commercial success. The future of the games and music industries has been dramatically re-imagined.

Written by Andrew Kilpatrick
Image sourced from here
Thanks to Matt Rhodes, Alex Kelly & Brandon Hood for helping with editing!