Baiyon and Danny B at the San Francisco Metreon

This year at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, four music composers met to compare their experiences working in independent games. Baiyon has previously been responsible for designing the art and music of Q-Games' Playstation Network titles PixelJunk Eden and PixelJunk Eden Encore. He is currently collaborating with the Kyoto-based company on a music visualizer for the Playstation 3.

A contributor to the game arrangement community OverClocked ReMix, Danny Baranowsky has recently received recognition for his original compositions for indie games. His soundtrack to the forthcoming Super Meat Boy was an Excellence in Audio finalist at the 2010 Independent Games Festival. Music for Canabalt, Steambirds and Gravity Hook HD is streaming for free and lossless downloads can be purchased on Bandcamp.

Two strands of Laura Shigihara's career have recently coincided, bringing industry recognition to her pop music and videogame themes. This year she was presented with an award from the Game Audio Network Guild for her pop song "Plants vs Zombies" from the soundtrack to PopCap's tower defense title of the same name. The musician is currently taking on multiple creative roles on the development of her own independent game Melolune.

In 2007, Alec Holowka received the Seamus McNally Grand Prize together with Derek Yu for their game Aquaria, part of the successful Humble Indie Bundle fundraising effort. The following year his newly formed studio Infinite Ammo premiered Paper Moon at Kokoromi's GAMMA exhibition at GDC. Currently in production is an ambitious project for which he is contributing music, design and code, called Marian.

Interpretation during the group chat and translation of the Japanese-language portions of the the talk have been provided by translator and musician Yoshi Miyamoto.


Alec Holowka and Laura Shigihara

To begin this conversation on the topic of music for independent game projects, what in your opinion are the major advantages that indie games currently have going for them?

Laura Shigihara: Creative freedom is important. I think that in the current music industry it can be difficult to break out of particular genres, but in independent videogames you can often do whatever you want.

Alec Holowka: I think the indie game scene is a great place to be because you can write something completely honestly and people will often respond to that in a positive way. My music has done well with fans because people can recognize that it comes from a place of honesty and they can relate to it. In some cases indie game developers can actually take elements of the music as inspiration to change the game design. It can be really organic and go back and forth.

Danny B.: I don’t have any kind of experience making mainstream games, but before I got into videogame music I was doing film. There your music exists to enhance the emotional impact of exactly what’s happening onscreen. With games, more often you need to score to a scenario. “There’s some zombies making their way across a lawn and some plants are shooting at them.” This is where I think some of that freedom comes from, too.

Baiyon: I’ve done a track for a movie called Moog, about Moog synthesizers, which featured Stereo Lab, Tortoise and "Blue Monday" by New Order. They already liked my music, so there were no special considerations involved. The same was the case with PixelJunk Eden, where I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted. It's fortunate that there's so much love for indie games, but when people say they like my music "because it's indie,” that makes me really sad. The value isn't in these categorizations such as "independent" or "mainstream." I'm interested in a game that's so dedicated to achieving its aims that it has little time for such value judgments.

Danny: The line between indie and mainstream can be really blurred at this point. Where do PopCap and Q-Games fit in? We also have a genre of music in America called “indie music,” but really it’s acoustic rock.

Baiyon: The important thing to me is that “acoustic rock” actually means something musically. How can you consider “Indie” to be a genre when that word has nothing at all to do with the quality of the music? Blunt categorizations, like defining Japanese music and American music as "genres," carries with it the same kinds of problems. It worries me whenever I hear some superlative statement that boils down to “It’s indie, therefore I like it.” Using a term like "indie" for the sake of convenience is one thing, while deciding it's enough to evaluate the quality of music is another.


PixelJunk Eden Encore for Playstation Network

Alec: Because indie games are smaller, they often can take more risks.

Baiyon I haven’t worked on lots of games, and on this one I was told to do whatever I want. Maybe I just lucked out.

In terms of risks that games may be shying away from, there appear not to be too many that ask the player to explore the ethical implications of their in-game actions. Do you see games as an appropriate venue for introducing ethical dilemmas, even while so many hold out as selling points an invitation to escape from such troubling considerations?

Alec: Often players are encouraged to destroy everything around, regardless of how it affects the non-playable characters or the world they're in. It can be interesting when a game turns that on its head and says, “Wait, you were just a huge dick.” It has more weight than a novel or TV show can have because you performed those actions yourself. Shadow of the Colossus totally does that. You’re killing all these giant creatures, and it’s not exactly clear whether that’s a good thing or not.

The idea of purposeful negative feedback to morally challenge the player is a scary idea because potentially you could turn off lots of players. There’s this attitude that games are supposed to be fun before they’re anything else, but I think that there’s many different kinds of fun. Catharsis can be fun. In working on the intro to Marian, at least one of the people on the team was disturbed by it, and I thought that was a really good thing.

Before you began Infinite Ammo, did you ever consider joining a game studio?

Alec: When I was a kid I really wanted to work for Squaresoft. Back in the day, when they were doing Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, that was sort of the dream job. I definitely like the idea of a group of people unified behind a common goal, and that’s what I’ve been trying to replicate. The greatest problem for me is that the majority of my team is not in the same city that I’m in.

The use of motifs in the music of Aquaria reminds me of the themes for each character in Final Fantasy VI. Is that one area where you have drawn inspiration from the Squaresoft titles?

Alec: The music was a huge inspiration, in terms of what was done with really basic sound samples. One of the goals with writing the music in Aquaria was to use basic “Nintendo” sounds first, and once the themes worked well with the bare minimum number and quality of instruments, to expand them into full arrangements.

Final Fantasy VI has been a huge influence, both in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. It was one of the first games I played that blew my mind in terms of creating a narrative and a huge world that you could explore. I think my favorite game before that had been Super Mario World, but Final Fantasy VI felt more adult to me at the time. There’s a sense of maturity to it, even though it’s rather goofy at times.


Marian teaser by Infinite Ammo

What have you responded to in Danny B.’s music?

Alec: He’s really good at mixing retro and modern-sounding stuff, like an action movie soundtrack mixed with a catchy Amiga game theme. Because he’s a drummer first, a lot of his music has interesting overlapping rhythmic patterns.

Laura: I like that there’s a lot of things going on at the same time. It reminds me of old Nintendo music. I thought those were like inventios in that there are so many melodies going on at once.

How long ago did you first start getting into percussion?

Danny B.: In fifth grade I signed up to play the snare drum. I didn’t know that it included all of percussion. All through junior high and high school I was playing the glockenspiel, timpani, snare drum or bells in the back of the band room, and in a lot of orchestral music the percussion is resting for a big part of it. I got to participate, and also stand back there and observe the whole orchestra, seeing how it all works.

In terms of finding inspiration in Nintendo games, would you consider Hip Tanaka to be someone who has changed your notions of what is possible with game audio?

Baiyon: He was an inspirational figure in guiding my approach to writing music for a game. During my own visual design and music composition process, thinking back on his creative output made me realize the vastness of games' potential to express the two together. I think in his day he was early to understood the rules of game music and then set about to play with them.

How would you describe the process of working together on In the Collaborations 3?

Baiyon: He has been among my favorite composers and I discovered we shared a common language during our brief interview. Things just clicked. We both were looking outside the sphere of games for insights and respected the same DJs, like Ricardo Villalobos from Chile. My sense of the possibilities broadened when I heard he had written game music influenced by dub. There was some sort of artistic connection there, or there was about to be. Therefore the idea of a collaboration came very naturally to me, and when I asked if he would consider it, he was very enthusiastic. The entire process was so much fun. I went into the conversation thinking he was just a game composer, but I left realizing he was first and foremost a musician.

Danny B.: Living in Japan, do you think it might be easier to break into the mainstream? The culture seems to be a little more receptive to experimental music.

Baiyon: It's very difficult. I think it's the same situation the world over.

Laura: When I was younger I was offered a couple record contracts in Japan. At the time I wanted to go there because I thought that the industry was more welcoming to different kinds of music. However, I found out that there are other things where there is less leniency than in America. There’s a certain idea of what hip-hop music is supposed to sound like. Even with English words, they would want you to say it in a Japanese intonation. I thought that was strange.

Danny B.: I’ve always had this weird utopian vision of Japan, where everywhere you go you hear videogame music. Finally somewhere where I’ll fit in!


Super Meat Boy by Team Meat

When did you first get started contributing to OC ReMix?

Danny B.: That was ten years ago. I grew up on Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, and so it was badass to go on there and get game remixes. I remember my cousins would always turn the sound off on the videogames, and I would be like, “Are you serious? The music is the best part!”

I got my first remix posted in 2003 and it was like one of the most awesome things in the world. One of the really popular remixers on there, Protricity (Ari Asulin), was local. He actually taught me how to use Reason, which is still what I use today for 90% of my music. It can’t really be overstated just how big OverClocked ReMix was for where I am.

How did you wind up meeting game designer Adam Atomic?

Danny B.: That was through OverClocked ReMix. Every once in awhile he would send me games he was working on, and one time I checked out this one called Gravity Hook. I loved how it looked, how it was totally reminiscent of the 16-bit era, and I noticed there was no music. I said to him, “So, you’re going to need music for this?” And he says, “Nah, I don’t think this is going to need any music.”

I think my exact words were, “Fuck you, I’m going to write music anyway!” I then cranked out track A in about 40 minutes and sent it to him. I think that made a really big impression on him. Gravity Hook was the game that kind of got me known in the indie game scene, then like a month after that I was at TIGJam in Phoenix.

Do you all do live performances of your videogame music?

Laura: Recently I've been trying to play some of the themes from Plants vs. Zombies on the piano. It was kind of challenging at first because the original arrangements were rather busy and featured a number of other instruments, but it's been a fun challenge for me. Sometimes when I play at events, I'll try to work in a videogame song or two.

Alec: I do a really amateurish version of that, called pajama jams. I set up a day in advance to put on a webcam, dress up in my pajamas, and people can watch me playing piano for four hours. I play some of the game stuff, and the way I feel about it is it’s sharing the music with everyone. They're in the chat, I’m not dressing up fancy, I make a lot of mistakes. The thing I like about it is, it’s a personal connection with people who like your stuff. It sort of demystifies it a bit. It shows I’m just a regular dude playing the piano.

Danny B.: It’s definitely something I want to get into. Since we do a lot of synth stuff, it can be difficult doing it live. If you have a bunch of synth arpeggios in the background, do you get a bunch of keyboard players? Do you get a drummer on an electronic drum set to play your samples? How do you play your music and still make it a compelling live show?

Baiyon: This may be a topsy-turvy kind of perspective, but I've often felt uncomfortable feeling good while onstage. The sense of my ego being inflated bothered me. This worried me, so I went and watched some videos of my favorite artists performing center stage. They all looked serious. Then I took a look at videos of some afterparties, where they were performing as DJs. They appeared to be having more fun.

It seemed to me that being a DJ was a better means of communicating with the audience. A band has got to be the main attraction, but with my performances the emphasis is on creating an atmosphere. Whenever I am playing music and I see somebody leave the floor, get a drink and start talking to a girl at the bar, I think they’re enjoying my music more than the ones just paying attention to the music.

Danny B.: You know, I always grew up wanting to be a rock star, so I’m into that ego thing. I want to get up there with my keytar, shoot laser beams and do jump kicks.


Translator and musician Yoshi Miyamoto

Baiyon: I used to perform live with a laptop in front of me. However, I realized that it made me full of myself. I wanted everyone to pay attention and maintain absolute silence. It wasn't any fun. My mindset changed completely upon switching my focus to being a DJ, and playing music was fun again. I think being a DJ is a good move for musicians who are worried about excesses of pride, and I say that out of personal experiences where being a DJ relieved me of my egotism.

Alec: Yeah, when I do my webcam performance, I know that most of the people on there aren’t really paying attention. A lot of them are doing work and just kind of listening to it in the background. There will be people insulting me in the chat and stuff. Someone will say, “That really sucked,” and, yeah, it kind of did. I’m cool with that.

How much music did you wind up writing for Meat Boy?

Danny B.: The thing is, I didn't write anything for it. Edmund had been working on Meat Boy, and Adam Atomic had told him about me. I got an email saying they’re launching in a week and needed music, "Show me everything you have that is usable." So I just linked him to everything lying around on my hard drive. They were sketches, around twelve tracks, and he picked six of them. Somehow it turned out to be a relatively cohesive soundtrack, even though none of those songs ever knew about each other. For the past six months I’ve been remixing my own music, making it huge, bigger and badder. Every track is a love letter to videogame music from 20 years ago.

Is this part of what captured your interest with Plants vs Zombies?

Danny B.: That’s why I think I like that soundtrack so much. It kind of embodied everything I was trying to do. The audio matches the visuals.

There's also a Japanese-language "Plants vs Zombies"?

Laura: Yeah. My Japanese isn’t that good, so it can be hard for me to write lyrics. When I was finished I asked my dad to look over it for me and offer suggestions. I wanted my dad to do the zombies, because I thought it would be funny if instead of sounding like a zombie it were like those over-exaggerated Japanese TV show hosts.

Have the Super Nintendo era games had a big impact on your musical style for Melolune?

If I were to say what my style is about, I think having vocals combined with the 16-bit aesthetic is a main part of that.

What do you feel were the main strengths of the old school sound chip game consoles?

Laura: One of the reasons I think chip-based music was so good was because those composers really didn’t have much to work with. If they wanted to make something that sounded good, that could be looped over and over again without getting annoying, they really had to have strength as composers. If I look at Yoko Shimomura’s older work, the music is so catchy and melodic that I still remember it even though I haven’t played it in years.


Melolune IGF trailer

A number of female game composers have been extremely influential, writing music for NES classics like Castlevania, Bionic Commando, Mega Man, Life Force and Bomberman to name a few. Is the history of women in game audio something that interests you, or should gender not enter into such discussions?

Laura: Admittedly if I hear that a composer is a female, something about it is a little bit cooler to me, like when I found out that a girl did the music for Mega Man 5. Beyond that, I don’t think that much about it. I am curious though as to why there are a number of Japanese female game composers, but relatively few American ones.

What motivated you to create your own game?

Laura: A long time ago I had written a story that I’d always envisioned as an RPG. I had been drawing pictures of the characters, especially the Leebles (the little cat-like creatures) ever since I was a kid. I guess I just really wanted to share that story with people, along with the music that kind of came about concurrently.

Have you found it a struggle to capture this image from some time ago and channel it into an actual game design?

Laura: Some parts. The scenes in my head were kind of grand, but I had always imagined it as a Super Nintendo game. Once I became comfortable with the program and building cut-scenes, it became easier.

How many vocal tracks are in the works for Melolune?

Laura: Right now there is Liele’s theme “Traces,” a Leeble song which will play during the credits, the main theme and Dominic’s theme. I think I’ll have one or two on top of that.

Are there any plans for Plants vs. Zombies music appearing as a soundtrack album?

Laura: I would really like that. I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries and I tell people, “Yes, I’m trying!” It’s just got to be pushed through PopCap's legal department, so I ping them about once a week. (laughs) As soon as I get permission, I’m all ready to go. I have all the original tracks before they were modded.


"Plants vs Zombies" in Japanese

At the moment, how are you dividing your time between joining other projects and completing work on your own?

Laura: For about six months after Plants vs Zombies came out I had the opportunity to just focus on my game. More recently I’ve begun taking videogame soundtrack contracts with a few indie developers, some mobile and facebook game companies, doing some work with EA and of course PopCap. I’ll be balancing both of those.

Do you approach them differently?

Laura: Definitely. With the exception of working with PopCap, the producers will have pretty distinct ideas of what they want for the music. Oftentimes they are interested in doing a lot of iterations to find what they are looking for. Whereas with my game, I have a lot more creative freedom. Personally, I think this is the best way, because I don’t view my style of music as being a very iterative process. The best work that I’ve done has been kind of spontaneous.

Danny B. did the mastering for the soundtrack album to Aquaria. What kind of process was entailed in this collaboration?

Alec: I wrote the music for the game while programming it and working on the design. All my fans wanted me to release a soundtrack, but I didn’t know how to master it and couldn’t afford to pay anything...

Danny B.: In indie games the only currency is ideas, man! In mastering, to get an idea of how the mix sounds, I'll take it to the TV, the car stereo. If you know your game is going to be played on a TV, not everyone’s going to have a giant surround sound system or studio quality monitors. You have to hear, you know, if your bass is completely blown on these speakers.

Baiyon: I do the same thing while mastering. When I tested the audio for Eden on a surround sound television, it had a lot of bass. But I was going for the sound of a club atmosphere, which made it so I had to readjust all the settings carefully. Something that someone ought to try is putting their music through an old TV, set up some speakers and sample the sound. I did something a little like that on Eden.

I was also working on the graphical presentation and wanted a certain image for the game. I hooked up an 8-bit Nintendo to my television and started pounding on the casing of the console. I had a video camera with me and just kept capturing screenshots for about an hour. This is something I would do as a kid, because occasionally you'd get these incredible looking bugs as a result. I captured some of the patterns that came up while banging on the console and that served as the inspiration for the image on my business card.

Danny B.: That’s what it looks like when the Nintendo is glitching out? That’s awesome, dude.

[This article is available in Italian on Gamesource.it and in French on Gameblog.fr. A Japanese-language edition of this article is currently in progress. Translation is by Yoshi Miyamoto. For more information on music by Baiyon, Danny B., Laura Shigihara and Alec Holowka, visit their official websites. Photos by Jeriaska.]