Specular Maps

Casey Jarman
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Like comic books, video games hold a peculiar place in the public imagination. Closely associated with misguided youth, they’ve served as scapegoats for shortening attention spans, antisocial behavior, and violence. But there’s another persistent question—which comic books endured for decades—that now hounds interactive media: “Are video games art?”

The answer, of course, is “Sometimes.” At a time when video games earn considerably more money per year than Hollywood movies—and the biggest games have budgets north of one hundred million dollars—the industry’s top developers have grown similarly risk averse. But one doesn’t buy the latest Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed for a highbrow gaming experience any more than one goes to see Furious 5 for a profound evening at the movie theater. What’s happening in indie games—just as in independent cinema or small-publisher comic books—is generally a lot more interesting than the trends in mainstream video game production.

The past decade has been a golden era for independent games. Development tools have gotten cheaper and more accessible; console makers have opened up their digital marketplaces to indie developers; mobile gaming has evolved; and there’s a growing demand for diverse experiences and interactive storytelling. Also, there’s no denying the artistry of many of the projects at the vanguard of this movement. Jonathan Blow’s 2008 breakthrough Braid, which deconstructs Super Mario Bros.–style game play while examining issues of mortality and memory, set a high bar for artistic integrity. For an indie offering, it also made a lot of money, which helped open the floodgates. In the decade that followed, tiny development teams have reinvented many of gaming’s classic genres and delivered some profound storytelling, from the suspenseful and gutting 2013 masterpiece Gone Home to the subversive and hilarious 2017 platformer Night in the Woods.

As much as independent games have flourished in the past ten years, the most astonishing development might be in their soundtracks, for which a relatively small community of musicians—the vast majority strangers to modern pop music’s traditional model of album cycles, touring, and merchandising—has built an exhilarating, thriving, and often avant-garde musical universe in the shadows of the traditional music industry. Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for FEZ, and Lena Raine’s for Celeste, among others, aren’t great just “for game music”; they’re deep and groundbreaking electronic works that tip their hats to the lo-fi “chiptune” sounds of gaming history while building sonic cathedrals on top of them.

Often, these artists are trained in aspects of game-making. Many are programmers themselves, and most have functioned as sound designers in at least some capacity—creating the effects and ambient noises that accompany a game’s action. When they’re making a game’s music, they often face incredibly complex issues of implementation. Most modern games use some form of procedurally generated music, meaning the audio shifts depending on the timing of a player’s movements, for example. Sometimes this involves simple trigger mechanisms, but often it’s much more nuanced: the percussion or distortion might intensify or fade if the player moves too slowly; bright melodies might start to stack on top of one another for a player who’s on the right path. These implementation choices can make or break the player’s experience with game music.

Lena Raine worked as a level designer with a major game studio before quitting to pursue music more fully. She says she noticed that the success of a game’s music can depend not on the artist who makes it but on the person who decides how it fits into the game. “On a smaller project, where there’s maybe one audio person and one composer, it makes sense for the composer to be intimate with the implementation,” says Raine. “I always want to be as hands-on as possible.”

Writing music for games is an entirely different beast, Raine says, from writing for television or film. “You can’t write an entire score and pop it in in post. That’s how bad video game soundtracks happen. As a player, you notice, and it doesn’t make sense.”

But the inverse is also true. Game musicians can’t take the raw and disjointed audio “stems” that make up many modern game soundtracks and release them as albums. They must have a multitude of skills that use both sides of the brain: the left side for the mathematical work of implementation and the right side for the gut-level work of building an affecting soundtrack. “I was thinking in both of those spaces continually as I was writing and finishing each area’s music,” Raine says of Celeste. “Whenever I finished all of the music for a level, I analyzed it and thought about how I wanted to present it [on the album]. I did it knowing that there was going to be a soundtrack, but it also served an archival purpose for the game’s team members to listen through—almost as a model on how to implement the music.”

Of course, it’s possible to play a game without really noticing the music on a conscious level. Chris Remo, a game designer and musician who made the low-key scores for Gone Home (which also makes masterful use of Riot Grrrl music from the ’80s and ’90s) and Firewatch, says that sometimes you shouldn’t notice. “The soundtrack, but also the writing—I think they’re often best served by being treated the same way that the art textures are. Where they’re not jumping out at you, they’re not trying to be the most important thing in the room—they’re just all working together to contribute to the atmosphere of the thing. Obviously, there are times to break that rule. But generally speaking, it’s important to remember that you’re not writing a soundtrack by you. You’re a game developer. You’re part of the team.”

For the past two years, I’ve been interviewing game musicians for a column called High Scores, for the website Bandcamp. While Bandcamp doesn’t supply hard numbers for album sales, it does provide album charts. Video game soundtracks, more often than not, hover around the top. A number of companies have popped up to release these soundtracks on vinyl. The Los Angeles label Iam8bit produces elaborate, limited-edition releases, often on colored vinyl. Japanese imprint Brave Wave is largely dedicated to revealing the groundbreaking—and often overlooked—artists behind Japanese gaming’s 1980s and ’90s golden age (many of whom were women, in contrast to the mostly male composers of today’s Western games). French imprint G4F Records and the UK label Data Discs are two other prominent, game-focused labels, and indie rock imprints like Ghost Ramp and progressive/experimental labels Erased Tapes and Ghostly International have gotten in on the action as well. It’s not unusual for the vinyl release of a popular indie game soundtrack to sell hundreds or even thousands of units in preorders. Jim Guthrie estimates he’s sold well over thirty thousand digital copies of his Sword & Sworcery soundtrack since its 2011 release, and over five thousand copies on vinyl. Those would be staggering numbers for most independent musicians.

Indie game soundtracks are as diverse as the games they accompany. Some collections are particularly game-y, like the catchy and minimal songs for Toby Fox’s immensely popular (and peace-loving) puzzle RPG Undertale. Others are sonically ambitious, enlisting full orchestras, like Jon Everist’s score for Battletech. For his soundtrack for the hand-animated Cuphead (an independent project later picked up by Microsoft), Kristofer Maddigan brought dozens of musicians together to record hot jazz that sounds very much like a product of the last century.

For the accompanying compilation, I’ve avoided curating an overview of the game music canon—which seemed both logistically impossible and rough on the ears. Instead, you’ll find tracks representing a particularly futuristic thread of game music that’s often slow and glacial, built up with arpeggios and chorus effects. This is definitely a representation of my personal preferences. More ambient than action oriented, these are songs of exploration. You won’t find any gallant, Final Fantasy–style orchestrations or amped-up boss battle songs here, as fun as those can be. These are experimental and electronic tracks full of dreamlike possibility, which is an effect I think game music achieves particularly well. It’s music to get lost in. I hope it will lead you to discover this strange and wonderful world of musical possibility, which is still expanding and maturing.

—Casey Jarman

1. Chipzel, “Friendly Diplomacy”

Chipzel, a.k.a. Niamh Houston, is from Northern Ireland. She is perhaps best known for the intense and pounding Super Hexagon soundtrack—and for performing live with a modified Nintendo Game Boy. She also reimagined Danny Baranowsky’s excellent soundtrack to the rhythmic dungeon-crawler Crypt of the Necro Dancer as a chiptune opus. “Friendly Diplomacy,” from the space exploration game Interstellaria, is a sweet, shimmering track that shows her range and knack for infectious melodies. “This piece, along with the majority of the Interstellaria score, was heavily inspired by Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VII soundtrack,” Houston says. “As far as I remember, I wrote this piece in the very early hours of the morning. It’s my favorite time to write, because it’s so easy to get completely lost in sound when you don’t have the demands of the day and the world is asleep.”

Niamh Houston’s favorite game soundtrack: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion by Jeremy Soul. You can find more of Chipzel’s music at chipzel.co.uk.

2. Scntfc, “Epiphany Fields”

Scntfc is Seattle’s C Andrew Rohrmann, who made the soundtracks for games like Old Man’s Journey, Virtual Virtual Reality, and Galak-Z. “Epiphany Fields,” from the acclaimed adventure game Oxenfree, was one of three songs originally intended to be written by a character in the game, Ren, and his band, the Redhead Bedwetters. “The idea was that the Redhead Bedwetters would have a demo that players could discover in-game and then download in real life,” Rohrmann explains. “This eventually became the very real cassette that came with the Oxenfree collectors’ edition.”

Some of C Andrew Rohrmann’s favorite game soundtracks: Jet Set Radio Future by Hideki Naganuma, Hohokum (various artists), OlliOlli 2 (various artists). You can find more of Scntfc’s music at scntfc.bandcamp.com.

3. Ben Babbitt, “Glowing Arms”

Ben Babbitt, from Los Angeles, is a composer and producer who worked alongside Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy to make Kentucky Route Zero, the award-winning magical-realist video game series on which “Glowing Arms” appears. He also publishes his own music, performs solo and in collaboration, and recently scored the film Paris Window by Amanda Kramer. “Glowing Arms,” Babbitt says, is “performed by the character Cyrano in a subterranean tiki bar called the Rum Colony. There’s so much amazing old tiki and lounge music that I got into, and I was also thinking about Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks by Brian Eno, as well as this incredible record by Sam Wagster called The Glossary of Surfing.

Some of Ben Babbitt’s favorite game soundtracks: Oikospiel Book 1 by David Kanaga, Midnight Club: Street Racing (various artists). You can find more of Ben Babbitt’s music at benbabbitt.bandcamp.com.

4. Lena Raine, “Resurrections”

Seattle composer Lena Raine’s music is full of memorable melodies and diverse instrumentation that reflect its author’s far-flung musical influences—from House to vintage RPG soundtracks and classical music. “Resurrections” is from her masterful Celeste soundtrack. “‘Resurrections’ is a very multilayered track that incorporates an entire narrative arc,” she says. “In reality, it’s about five different pieces stitched together.” The song is about “putting a face to your inner dark side, in an attempt to escape it—only to become overwhelmed by it.” While Raine had worked in game music prior to making Celeste—notably on Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns and Hackmud—this is clearly her auteur moment, and the launchpad for a promising career. She has since released the soundtrack to her own indie game, ESC. It is similarly impressive.

Lena Raine’s favorite game soundtrack: Xenogears by Yasunori Mitsuda. You can find more of Lena Raine’s music at radicaldreamland.bandcamp.com. The Celeste soundtrack is available on vinyl via the Ship to Shore PhonoCo label.

5. Disasterpeace, “Compass”

Based in Los Angeles, Richard Vreeland is one of the best-known composers working in video games today. His game music includes soundtracks for Hyper Light Drifter and Mini Metro, and he also wrote and recorded the score to the cult horror film It Follows. “Compass” is from the critically acclaimed game FEZ, which is one of the subjects of the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie. “It’s been a while,” Vreeland says of composing “Compass,” “but I remember being inspired by the idea of trying to make a steady, ethereal, but uplifting piece of music, something that felt stable and central, something you’d want to return to. I remember the galaxy map music from Mass Effect 2 being something that stuck with me at the time.”

Some of Richard Vreeland’s favorite game soundtracks: Super Mario 64, Super Mario World, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island by Koji Kondo; Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars by Yoko Shimomura. You can find more of Disasterpeace’s music at music.disasterpeace.com. The FEZ soundtrack is available on vinyl at polytroncorporation.com.

6. Ella Guro, “planet 193 (unknown anomaly)”

Ella Guro is a creative handle of Liz Ryerson, another Los Angeles–based musician who has composed arresting and bold experimental compositions for a number of avant-garde indie games, and who hosts the podcast Beyond the Filter. “Planet 193” is from the gorgeous and strange game MirrorMoon. “I was trying to go for very soft sounds on this track,” Ryerson says. “But soft in a way that is kind of weirdly off-kilter/painful—like a soft shout or something. It was inspired partially by the sound design on ‘Kid A’—the track, not the rest of the album—and Vespertine by Björk.” This is an expanded version of the in-game track.

Some of Liz Ryerson’s favorite game soundtracks: EarthBound (Mother 2) by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka, Equinox OST by Tim and Geoff Follin, Animorphs (Game Boy Color) by Randy Wilson, Evergrace and Forgotten Valley by Kota Hoshino, various soundtracks by Stéphane Picq. You can find more of Ella Guro’s music at ellaguro.bandcamp.com.

7. Jim Guthrie, “The Ballad of the Space Babies”

Jim Guthrie released his first cassette almost twenty-five years ago. He helped define Toronto’s musical underground as a solo artist and as a member of Royal City, Human Highway, and Islands. He has shared the stage with Feist, Beck, Arcade Fire, and Sufjan Stevens. His band-centric background is a bit of a rarity in game music, but he’s a favorite among many game music composers. “The Ballad of the Space Babies” comes from the pioneering mobile game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery. The song makes heavy use of the very un-futuristic (but beloved) Casio SK-1. “This song was a pretty big moment in the creation of the soundtrack for Sword & Sworcery,” Guthrie recalls. “It was also one of the tracks that really changed how we felt about what we were making once we put it in the game. It took the project to the next level and put gas in the tank for everyone working on it. It was a special moment for me.” 

Jim Guthrie’s favorite game soundtrack: Super Mario Bros. by Koji Kondo. You can find more of Jim Guthrie’s music at jimguthrie.bandcamp.com.

8. fingerspit, “Marketing Director”

Paula Ruiz, who releases music as fingerspit, was born in Seville, Spain, but now lives in Valencia, where she makes games with her partners at Deconstructeam. She is a self-taught musician who cut her teeth making hip-hop instrumentals, playing covers on a cheap keyboard, and improvising guitar music over her favorite albums. “Eventually,” she says, “I mixed all of those together and started creating my own things.” In Deconstructeam’s narrative-driven game The Red Strings Club, this song plays when the character Larissa Robillard visits the titular club. “It was made to try and represent how she is,” Ruiz says. “An empowered trans woman who is open about her sexuality. She is wild, fun, and charismatic.”

Paula Ruiz’s favorite game soundtrack: Shadow of the Colossus by Kō Ōtani. You can find more of fingerspit’s music at fingerspit.bandcamp.com.

9. Waveshaper, “A Picture in Motion” 

Waveshaper is the electronic music artist Tom Andersson, from Jönköping, Sweden. He has created many albums of retro-futuristic synth-wave with both dance club and pop sensibilities. Among his influences are ’80s movie soundtracks, computer games, and French house music. This track is one of his four contributions to the intense and stylish French fighting game Furi, which he began composing early in the game’s production process, using sketches and storyboards as inspiration. On “A Picture in Motion,” he says, “the idea was to create a calm track with a sense of hope. This is the game’s first level with daylight, and I really wanted to give the player a relaxing, motivational feeling before the next boss fight. It’s quite funny: on this track I mainly used my forty-year-old Roland Jupiter-4 synthesizer for a modern video game.”

Tom Andersson’s favorite game soundtrack: Turrican II: The Final Fight by Chris Huelsbeck. Track used courtesy of G4F Records & The Game Bakers / © 2015 G4F Records – The Game Bakers. You can find more of Waveshaper’s music at waveshaper1.bandcamp.com. You can purchase the Furi soundtrack at furi.bandcamp.com.

10. Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano, “We’re Here”

Acclaimed Berlin-based composer, producer, and sound designer Ben Lukas Boysen has released nine albums of electronic music since 2003, but 2016’s Spells and Gravity were the first under his own name. He has also composed music for feature films, games, art installations, and advertisements. Sebastian Plano is a classically trained composer, producer, and multiinstrumentalist also from Berlin (via Argentina). His 2013 debut album, Arrhythmical Part of Hearts, placed him among the pioneering artists combining acoustic instruments and electronic music. “We’re Here” appears on their jaw-dropping soundtrack for David OReilly’s surrealist universe-painting sandbox game, Everything (which also features hours of audio from famed philosopher Alan Watts). “The game deals so much with interdependencies and how the world we live in is interconnected,” Boysen says. “One thing builds on top of another. This had to be mirrored in the soundtrack too. Themes appear in one track and are rediscovered either stylistically or compositionally, either as single elements or entire variations, elsewhere. There are seven overall themes that technically make up the whole score, but their variations and mutations are vast, to the point where you think you are listening to a whole different song altogether.”

Favorite game soundtracks: BioShock Infinite by Garry Schyman and various artists, Alone in the Dark by Philippe Vachey. “We’re Here” was written by Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano. Published by Erased Tapes Music Publishing and Decca Publishing. Courtesy of Erased Tapes. You can purchase the Everything soundtrack in a variety of formats at www.erasedtapes.com.

11. Chris Remo, “Dedication”

Chris Remo is a game designer, writer, and composer who has made soundtracks for games including Firewatch, Thirty Flights of Loving, and the forthcoming In the Valley of Gods. A longtime San Franciscan, he recently relocated to Seattle. “Dedication” is from the soundtrack to Gone Home, a remarkably subtle and generation-defining 2013 game that won a number of “game of the year” awards and earned praise from major outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times. “I made the soundtrack for Gone Home during a year when I had recently returned to San Francisco and couldn’t afford a permanent place to live,” Remo says. “So I was bouncing between friends’ couches and often-dubious short-term Craigslist shares without any sense of permanence or security. I think that transient life meshed well with working on Gone Home, a game about adolescence and discovering how you fit into the world. I kept thinking about the kind of music you make when you’re a teenager sitting around with your friends in someone’s garage, noodling on your instruments and feeling really connected, even if what you’re making is sort of aimless.” 

Chris Remo’s favorite game soundtrack: Grim Fandango by Peter McConnell. Listen to Chris Remo’s music at chrisremo.bandcamp.com.

12. Yllogique & Araignée du Soir, “Temporal Fox”

The animation director and musician Julie Robert (Yllogique) and producer–musician–composer–sound designer Camille Giraudeau (Araignée du Soir) began their musical collaboration in 2013 in Paris, while surrounded by indie video games, animated movies, and lots of music. From that collaboration arose their soundtrack for award-winning sci-fi game Event[0], as well as collaborations on Accidental Queens’ games A Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story. The duo is currently working on a debut album. “For this song, the main inspiration is summer,” they write of “Temporal Fox.” “We were asked to do a really chilled-out, minimal, trip-hop-inspired piece of music. Vibes of Jean-Claude Vannier (and his heirs Air) and Trey Spruance’s [group] Secret Chiefs 3 can be heard here, as well a vintage Korg MS-20 rev 2 synthesizer, which sadly had to be sold recently.”

Favorite game soundtracks: Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II by Michael Hoenig, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery by Jim Guthrie. Track used courtesy of G4F Records & Accidental Queens / © G4F Prod. and Distribution by G4F Records. Purchase the soundtrack to Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story at anotherlostphone.bandcamp.com.

13. Eirik Suhrke, “Razor Girl”

Eirik Suhrke is an Oslo, Norway–based composer and songwriter who began writing music for games as a hobby in his early teens, and has been doing it ever since. He has written soundtracks for games including Super Crate Box, Ridiculous Fishing, and Spelunky, the seminal modern classic created by Derek Yu. “Razor Girl” is from Japanese game designer Ojiro “Moppin” Fumoto’s striking minimalist shooter Downwell, first released for mobile phones in 2015. “The track title is a reference to a character in Neuromancer, as well as a Steely Dan song,” Suhkre says. “The Downwell soundtrack was inspired a great deal by music from Metroid II: Return of Samus on the original Nintendo Game Boy.”

Eirik Suhrke’s favorite game soundtrack: Little Nemo: The Dream Master by Junko Tamiya. Purchase Eirik Suhrke’s music at phlogiston.bandcamp.com. The Downwell soundtrack is available on vinyl via Black Screen Records.

14. Taylor Ambrosio Wood, “The Dream Forest”

Taylor Ambrosio Wood is a composer currently living in Seattle. She began her music career when she was nine years old, playing the Zimbabwean marimba and mbira (a traditional Shona thumb piano). She studied at the Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain. “The Dream Forest” is from Balthazar’s Dream, a puzzle/platformer game set within the dreamworld of the titular dog. “To convey Balthazar’s dreamworld through music, I wanted to use instruments and textures you wouldn’t normally hear together,” Ambrosio Wood writes. “I used mbira with hang drum, marimba, voices, metallic percussion, woodblocks, synths, and many other unusual sounds. I also played with how tuning affects our perception of music by using ‘out-of-tune’ instruments interlocked with those in standard Western tuning. The combination of de-tuned instruments, unusual textures, and cyclical interlocking patterns creates a sensation that things within this sonic world are not quite right.”

Taylor Ambrosio Wood’s favorite game soundtrack: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery by Jim Guthrie. Purchase Taylor Ambrosio Wood’s music at taylorambrosiowood.bandcamp.com.

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