January 25, 2011 11:00 PM | jeriaska
Musician Chris Schlarb, based in Long Beach, California, became involved with the independent gaming scene through his record label Asthmatic Kitty. Swedish designer Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren had been sent a copy of the musician's experimental album Twilight and Ghost Stories, leading to a collaboration that quickly ballooned in scope.
Though Nifflas typically writes his own music using synthetic instruments, "Night Game" was intended to feature recordings of live musical instruments. Centering on a glowing, rolling ball that the player guides past obstacles in nocturnal, outdoor settings, the concept became the basis for a multi-year project. Following its nomination at the Independent Games Festival Awards, the game was renamed NightSky and was recently published by Nicalis, Inc. for the PC.
In this interview, the musician takes a look back at the making of the puzzle game with an emphasis on the design decisions underlying the score. The soundtrack album, which received an honorable mention in this year's IGF Excellence in Audio category, can be streamed in full on Bandcamp. It appears together with the composer's both highly personal and collaborative original albums Psychic Temple and Twilight and Ghost Stories.
Excerpt from Videogame Music in Context NightSky segment
How did it come about that you initially got in contact with Nifflas?
Chris Schlarb: I met Nifflas through my record label Asthmatic Kitty. John Beeler, who is a gamer and handles all the tech stuff there, was a fan of Nifflas's games. John sent over a number of recordings by artists on the label, and eventually Nifflas wound up liking a record that I put out called Twilight and Ghost Stories.
He ended up getting in touch with me in mid-2007 at the time when he was working on the very beginning of NightSky. What started out as me writing five to ten minutes of music for what was intended as a small game turned in to close to fifty minutes after a year and a half. I'm elated at this point to see that people are finally playing the game.
Chris Schlarb in Long Beach, California
Before NightSky was released for the PC, you performed music from the game live. What were the results of introducing those compositions into a new environment?
About a year ago I was asked by my friend Glenn Bach to perform music from the game for a festival he put together, called the Slow Sound Festival. Even though the game wasn't out, there was still a lot of interest in it. I put a quartet together with Andrew Pompey on drums and acoustic guitar, Anthony Shadduck playing upright bass, and then Justice Constantine playing drums and vibraphone. It was an incredible experience to take this music I had worked on in the studio, in a somewhat hermetic environment with a lot of control and refinement, and stand beside these other musicians taking up these melodies and rhythms that I'd created. All of a sudden they're breathing this new life into them.
Performing it in front of an audience was amazing and was one of the best receptions I've had performing live. People really connected with the music, even without the context that it was part of this videogame.
You've mentioned that in discussions with Nifflas you decided on a general range for the length of music tracks. How did that lead to the strategy of randomized track placement found in the game?
Even more important than deciding how it would sound, early on it was important to figure out how the music would fit into the game. I knew that I didn't want to do looping music. The first time I sent Nifflas a track he looped it, and it didn't sound right. I was writing with real instruments, in a style that wasn't meant to be repeated over and over again. There was a certain amount of space that was required. People talk about the ambiance of Nifflas's games, and what I didn't want to see happen was having the player's actions dictate the way the music behaves. It wasn't going to be something generative, where the player acts and the music reacts in turn.
Something that could happen is the player solves a puzzle in ten or fifteen seconds and the music cuts off. I didn't want that to happen. Talking it through with Nifflas and deciding we're not looping, and focusing on four to five minutes of music per world, that meant that it didn't make sense to write one five-minute piece for each world. That led to the decision to write four or five one-minute pieces per world. What could happen then is they could be broken up and have silence inserted between them, randomizing the amount of silence, and randomizing the order in which the songs were presented within a world. Once we'd worked that out and Nifflas put this music engine together, we did some additional tweaks to how often tracks repeated.
Essentially we were placing the music on top of the game. In a way, it's outside of what the player is doing. That's in contrast with the idea of your solving a puzzle and then the music stops or starts. Instead, the music will continue if you die, as if it's part of a continuum that exists outside of the player's actions. At the same time, there's not a desire to punish the player in the game. There isn't a snare drum suddenly cutting in to get you anxious or pumped up.
Nicklas Nygren of Nifflas Games, photo by The Travelling Salesman
How did you see the use of silence functioning in the game?
Once we figured out that we were going to be doing four or five shorter music tracks per world, it was obvious to me that there was no need to play tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in the same order every single time you're in the world. Conversely, a world may take someone ten minutes or twenty minutes to complete, so if we randomize the music it won't feel as repetitive.
One thing that was an ally there was being able to use silence. I suggested to Nifflas that if we have a random silence generator of between twenty and fifty seconds between pieces, then not only can we randomize the music but the songs can be composed to come into and out of silence in a very natural way. That's one reason there aren't songs on the soundtrack with bombastic intros. Obviously that wouldn't work in the context of refining this music engine.
Playing NightSky, it feels very natural to me. There's room to breathe in between these tracks. It's not this mechanical thing where there's a clock ticking somewhere, and after ten seconds another music track is triggered. There's not this sense that somebody's on my back, so I'd better hurry up and finish this puzzle. That wasn't the game we were making.
Do you find Nifflas in designing his games wants not to manipulate the player emotionally? Was this a concern of yours in the making of the score for NightSky?
Nifflas is a sweet person and a great designer. I do think we have a similar sensibility. In NightSky, because it's physics-based, the ball moves the way you imagine it should move. There's a consistency that emerges out of respect for the player, and as a composer I try to have respect for the listener.
You're an independent artist and you've built your own studio in Long Beach. Is it a personal ideal of yours to have creative control over your work so that it reflects your interests as a musician?
Psychic Temple was that way in that I didn't have expectations on a commercial level, so long as it reached a level of quality that I deemed acceptable. Obviously every once in awhile we have to take jobs that are a little more complicated. You can't pick and choose every project. I'm very fortunate to work with a label like Asthmatic Kitty where I've never been told, "Please change this on your record." Likewise, working with Nifflas there was that kind of mutual respect that's very important for creating good music and good games. That's my ideal.
You've mentioned that during the making of NightSky you observed your children playing the game. Did that provide any insights into the way the music was informing the gameplay experience?
Even my children playing the game, I felt good watching them play and seeing how they would react to the music. Hopefully people are not conscious of what's going on with the music, but they're experiencing something new. At times the music goes away, and you're hearing the wind blowing or the sound of the ball. That was the closest we could get in a simple way to something that felt organic.
Do you see the use of live instrumentation being a natural choice for the outdoor theme of the NightSky environments?
That was going to be my approach to it, no matter what. Working with real instruments is what feels most natural to me. Working on NightSky, I had an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a marimba and percussion instruments, along with access to musicians who could play. That was the world that I was coming from, producing music and working on scores for short films. I think Nifflas knew coming in, based on my album Twilight and Ghost Stories, that I didn't have a heavy electronic influence to my music. This is my first game score, but it sounds like my music.
How does working with other performers, which has been a key element of your original albums, influence you creatively?
Creating any kind of art can be a very solitary experience. When you have the opportunity to work with others, they're going to make the art better with their feedback and participation. Maybe they're going to assuage some of your own neuroses. Many years ago I toured the country performing solo guitar and I still like doing that, but I think there's a certain kind of joy and inspiration that comes with the friendship and fellowship of playing with other good musicians... people that push you, that support you.
On Psychic Temple there were, including myself, 29 musicians involved. Every one of those people who played is a good friend. Andrew Pompey is one of my best friends in the world. Whatever time signature or style I'm writing in, he picks it right up. My wife and I take our kids to him for music lessons. It was thoroughly enjoyable to be recording with them, collaborating with them, and seeing their reactions to the music. I can't have that kind of interaction with a keyboard.
Now that the game has been released, what kind of response are you looking for the music in NightSky to have on the listener?
I used to have this idea that unless somebody had an extreme reaction to my music, either extreme hatred or extreme pleasure, that I hadn't created anything that was worthwhile. Nothing lukewarm. I don't think about that as much now as I used to. With this game I felt my only responsibility was to this world, and sometimes that meant just playing an acoustic guitar: Sometimes a single guitar is more powerful than an entire orchestra. It says exactly what needs to be said.
This article is also available in Italian on Gamesource.it. NightSky is currently on sale for the PC and will be available soon for the Mac at the Nifflas website. To find out more about the music of Chris Schlarb, visit the musician's website. Photo and video by Jeriaska.