April 22, 2010 1:00 AM | jeriaska
Swedish game composer Mattias Häggström Gerdt last year wrote the soundtrack to Xbox Indies, Dream-Build-Play finalist Kaleidoscope. The musician is currently working on two independent games: a follow-up title by the same developer and another offering for XBLIG called BlindEdge.
His arranged videogame music, appearing under the handle Another Soundscape, can be found on OverClocked ReMix where he serves as a submissions judge. The Another Soundscape website similarly offers his music for free download, including the previously released Artoon and The Perfect Match.
This discussion continues a short series of interviews conducted during PAX East with independent game composers participating in the IWADON: Hiroyuki Iwatsuki Tribute Album by videogame-inspired music hub Game Music 4 All.
How have you reacted to the online reception of Kaleidoscope, your first collaboration as part of Team Morsel?
Mattias Häggström Gerdt, composer: It’s been extraordinary. I’m floored by all the positive comments and to see it get a 7 out of 10 from Eurogamer. To get a good score from a major gaming website was definitely a highlight for me.
The Morsel development team includes a programmer, artist and musician. Are you finding that this is a good dynamic for independent game design?
Yeah, I’m very surprised how well it actually works for us three, even though we’re in different time zones. We get along very well and all of us are interested in the overall design.
In writing original game scores, do you deviate from your approach to working on OCR tracks?
Not in terms of workflow. The main difference, and also the biggest joy of working with independent games, is that you have a much clearer idea of the mood you're going for. For example, BlindEdge is very action-oriented. We wanted high tempo, intense drum and bass mixed with real instruments, both guitar and dulcimer. I can then keep that style for multiple tracks.
On OCR, it’s always more of an experiment to take the original song and see in what direction it takes you. Working with memorable melodies and getting an understanding of how they are built is definitely a way to learn about old school videogame music. I start by playing the melody on the keyboard and see what evolves. I never go into remixing with a fixed mindset. That's the main difference.
Are there independent game soundtracks that have appeared recently that have captured your interest?
I definitively love Tomas Dvorak’s Machinarium soundtrack. That’s a great example of capturing the look of the game. It’s similar to a fairytale, but somewhat distorted. Disasterpeace made a very memorable main theme for Rescue: The Beagles. The slow, developing motif is very well done.
You've mentioned that in retrospect Morsel's starting out with a platformer for a first title was not an ideal choice. Why was that the case?
Yes, because the way we went about it required creating a level editor and there were a lot of graphical and musical assets involved for the various worlds. Making a big game to start with was a great learning experience, but maybe not the best choice as a first project. We are currently midway through production on our next one: a more modest undertaking, but hopefully much tighter.
Kaleidoscope launch trailer
What audio software have you found to be most useful?
For me, I couldn’t live without Propellerhead’s Reason and Record. You can do so much, it’s extremely stable and user friendly. I get very creative with the different ways you can route anything to everything. It’s both great for entry-level musicians and as part of a bigger studio environment.
A number of independent developers have a difficult time figuring out how to do PR for their game titles, and some are resistant or dismissive of the entire concept. How have you gone about getting the word out on Kaleidoscope?
As you say, there are people who say PR is not a big deal, but it really is. If the game looks great but no one knows it exists, it doesn’t really matter. For Morsel, each of us has taken on an area of responsibility in organizing PR. I work mainly with social media like twitter in order to connect with any potential fans. Sang was working on our facebook page. While the game was in beta stages, Matthew took it upon himself to email a lot of the sites covering games to see if they would write about it.
BlindEdge appears to be a total change of tone from Kaleidoscope. How did you come to join the development team?
One of Matt’s colleagues in Newfoundland works as a 3D animator at the same company. That was how I got introduced to Marvin. He creates amazing graphics in really dark, interesting environments. BlindEdge for me was very interesting because it's adrenaline pumping, dark action. It’s fun for me to flex those muscles a bit. (I’m even getting to play some electric guitar.) The soundtrack is not going to be very big, but it’s about halfway done and has turned out really well so far.
What essential features do you look for in a project before choosing to write music for it?
If they are interested in me, that’s definitely a start. (laughs) For me, I always appreciate when someone approaches me and already has a picture of what I do, and if they have a vision of what they want the music to do, in terms of enhancing a mood or adding another layer of complexity. I’m kind of an idealist, so I’m always wary of games involving micro-transactions. So many are more out for the money than are out for delivering a good experience.
Kaleidoscope has an interactive soundtrack, with layers of instruments being introduced in response to the player's actions. Are there other experimental aspects of game composing that you would like to explore in the future?
There is already so much that can be done through music to add an extra layer of complexity. I’ve been studying film music for a year and the things that you find when you read analyses of scores, what the composer had in mind for each cue, there are entire mazes of stuff that the music does that people may or may not consciously think about. It’s an interesting dimension of music that could always be explored more.
The soundtrack to Kaleidoscope was released as a free download on OverClocked ReMix. Was this a worthwhile experiment in terms of generating interest in the game?
I personally think it was a really great thing to have OCR release it and most of the feedback was good. On the other hand, we were rather rushed to release the game. I think both I and OCR could have done more to spread awareness of the free soundtrack. It felt a little as if it sneaked by between several of the bigger OCR projects.
"Neon Glaciers," an Omega Five arrangement
Do you view “Neon Glaciers,” your contribution to the IWADON compilation, as a reflection of what you have learned submitting music to OC ReMix?
The arrangement is similar to what you find on OCR, except that it’s a bit more true to the melody. Iwatsuki writes very jazzy melodies, and for the IWADON project it was really important to me to pay respect to his original work and highlight what makes it great. The Omega Five soundtrack has some fantastic melodies.
Are there things about the composition “Glacial Fortress” that spoke to you, in terms of its relationship with the highly stylized genre of the sidescrolling shooter?
That’s something I respect tremendously about shoot ‘em up music. They all seem influenced by progressive jazz rock bands like Casiopea and others. They have intricate melodies and interesting chord structure and rhythm. To me, it’s highly advanced music, highly energetic and complex. At the same time this category was one of the first kinds of videogames that ever came out.
I also really like that it’s not often orchestral. Traditionally with shoot ‘em ups, it’s a lot of synth. I can get tired of orchestral game music because more and more it seems like something you have to do, when we know there’s a whole world of synthetic sounds that have never ever been used.
It’s one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had, having the original composer hear my tribute arrangements of their work. Of course, partially this is something I do for myself, but I also really, really love the original music and think it deserves to have a spotlight put on it. When the composer appreciates what I’ve done, that’s just a fantastic experience, especially when it comes to the Japanese composers. It’s not very easy to get in contact with them, both because of the language barrier and that everyone tends to be busy.
What advantages do you find the indie scene affords?
You often do get a lot more freedom with the style of the music. You can experiment more because the games are often experimental. For example, I’m probably the world’s biggest fan of the game Space Giraffe by Jeff Minter. I’ve played it for close to a hundred hours. Everyone else hates it, but I think it’s bloody brilliant.
What advice would you have for musicians interested in composing for indie games?
It’s always good to take a genuine interest in indie games so that your music can carry the same spirit. If you find a developer that you love, try to talk. At the same time, obviously, develop your own craft.
[For more music by Mattias Häggström Gerdt, visit the musician's personal website.]