We thought we’d take a moment to introduce you to one of the key members of our creative team, lead composer and sound designer James Marantette. It’s thanks to his talents (both writing music and collaborating with his team) that you can enjoy this fabulous album — and it really is fabulous. Whether you want some cheerful music to wake you up in the morning, to listen to on your drive to work, or even as you read the Redwall books themselves (it’s the perfect musical companion) you’ll want to check it out.
But what goes into writing an album for a video game? Are you curious? That’s what we talked about with James today, and his answers might surprise you.
Q: Hi, James! Big fans of your work over here ;). Now, tell us, as you approach each level, what’s your process like for writing the gameplay music?
A: I would say it’s fairly parallel to painting: I have all of these colors in my toolbox, and the space starts off so empty… I either pull up my go-to composer starts (violin/keyboard) or I look for a more esoteric instrument that gets me thinking in a different way. Then the name of the game is experiment. I try to get a lot of ideas out. I play with themes, try some chord progressions, and if I’m constantly falling into a specific rhythm with my ideas, I might switch to percussion and build a beat first. I end up with a whole lot of sketches really quickly, and whatever really struck my ear becomes the building block. I then stick all the ideas off to the side and focus on fleshing out the best one. I fill in missing pieces, and figure out just where it fits in the level. Then I think about how it would loop, transition, and how we got to it/where it’s going. If it’s sounding good “on paper” I’ll then throw a rough version into the level with basic interactivity to see how it really works. Then it’s refining or back to square one.
Q: What do you find is the biggest difference in writing music for video games, as opposed to another medium?
A: I think the biggest difference is clearly the linearity of it. I just don’t know the exact moments a player will be doing each action. For our trailers or our cinematics as an example, I’m far more focused on the left-to-right. What time stamp do we need the music to build towards, what tempo allows this musical idea to last long enough, do I need to write an additional part just to fill the 5-second gap due to the re-edits they sent over? For the gameplay, I’m thinking up-and-down. What parts of the percussion are muted during “safety” zones? At any moment this song could shift, so will that transition that sound good at every possible moment of this loop? If not, do we solve with more music, or with programming help on how we fire the in-game event? Of my 10 instruments in this song, what parts are always playing, and what parts are assigned to “rest”/”tension”? Both mediums have ways they are more challenging and ways they are more forgiving. I enjoy the technical puzzle that comes with non-linear game music more, but am fortunate on The Scout to dip my toes into both ponds.
I’ll peel back the curtain for you a little bit: The levels in Act 1 employ a few different methods of tackling interactivity. First level is just a bunch of linear songs on a few different playlists triggered throughout the level. Though, there is a music loop for the caves and a small stinger used in the maze. Levels 2&3 use layering and a tension system to try and match the players danger, along with a few specific tunes triggered at precise moments. Level 4 is several full looping ideas; when you cross certain triggers it cues up the next idea (or in a few cases, abruptly interrupts). The final level is a bunch of short loops grouped into playlists. It cycles through and at certain spots will cue up the next playlist to increase tension. The implementation of all of this is something I really love and am constantly learning more about. So I’m looking forward to improving these systems and how I write for future levels.
Q: How long did the Scout soundtrack take to write and produce? Can you describe the technical process?
A: Oh, I would say music was written in parallel to the rest of the audio for about a year if you count in the other composers’ work. It’s really down to my boss giving a green light on what songs fit his vision and which don’t, but there’s a lot of trust between us and I get a lot of leeway to travel the path I want. So the process was fairly straightforward; mainly, Keith [Medley] and I reviewed what songs we had — which ones were level-specific and which ones had just been used for early promos — and compiled a list. That got accepted, and then we cleaned up the songs as much as our time frame would allow (otherwise I would still be tweaking stuff to this day). After mastering (doing final adjustments to the sound so that it sounds as good as possible in as wide a range of speakers as possible) we packaged it up and sent it off!
Q: How does the art and gameplay of the level affect the music?
A: Gameplay is king. Art and the story are vital for me to start figuring out what instruments I want to use or what “colors” we’re going to have, but what the player is actually supposed to feel moment-to-moment dictates the end result. Sometimes I might have a great idea on paper, it makes sense with the story, it fits the character sketches and environment concepts, but when I stick it in the level and walk around it doesn’t enhance the experience. So art and narrative are the core inspiration for how I start a piece of music and where I get ideas but the gameplay is what helps me refine it. The final level of Act 1 is a good example of this: it originally had gritty, dark music which did thematically work with the pillaging and loss the character would have been experiencing. But the gameplay was frantic, and needed to have an element of fun and heroics. So it took a few rewrites before we landed on something that better matched the mood and pace we wanted the player to have. And that directly came from playing through early drafts.
Q: What, if anything, was a source of inspiration for the Scout soundtrack? Any other music, film, or art?
A: The actual book Redwall has been an inspiration for handling dark themes. Keeping an air of fun and adventure despite the death and seriousness is something I draw inspiration from. [Composer] Howard Shore built a set of themes and colors for every race in Lord of the Rings and I love how much those melodies reinforce the history and ideologies of the races they represent. I can hear music whenever I see pictures of Minas Tirith, Orthanc, or Rohan. The actual Redwall music from the old audiobooks, and the overall European history the novels encapsulate is a major inspiration. There are a lot of really cool instruments that are only recently beginning to come back into popularity, and I want to get as much of that into this universe as possible. Trying to write for a hurdy gurdy is an example of that. My instrument count is growing, and I’m really excited for some of the stuff we’re cooking up for the future.
You can get the Scout sountrack links here.