Composer Laura Shigihara's independently developed role-playing game Melolune is a product of her scenario writing, character art and various other design elements. An entry in the 2010 Independent Games Festival, the first installment of its multi-part soundtrack recently was posted online.

Earlier today, Laura's highly anticipated 29-track album for Plants vs. Zombies debuted via her Bandcamp page. The game's vocal track "Zombies on Your Lawn," sung by the composer in English and Japanese, was the recipient earlier this year of a Game Audio Network Guild Award. We had the chance to catch up with the musician to hear her thoughts on sharing the long-awaited music score.

You've gone through some effort to get this soundtrack album online. As a freelance artist, what are your strategies for getting the word out on the release?

Laura Shigihara: I'm not really great with PR, so I'll probably just try to tell as many people as I can and mention the soundtrack's release on my website and Youtube channel. PopCap has kindly offered to put the news on their site and Facebook, and I've had a few friends offer to blog about it as well. Over the past couple years I've received thousands of inquiries about a soundtrack, but I haven't really been able to write back to all of them... so I'm hoping that folks will help me spread the word, and that the interest is still there :)

You're in closer contact with your listeners than would have been possible for most game composers just a decade ago. What have been the most rewarding uses of communicating with game players?

I actually just really enjoy being able to read their messages; it's very inspirational and motivating. I might be having a bad day, or I'll be struggling to get through a really tedious section in Melolune... but then I'll get an email from a mother who is telling me that her 7 year-old son downloaded the PvZ sheet music and has been trying really hard to play "Grasswalk" for a piano lesson. That puts such a big smile on my face. It really brightens my day.

It's easy to think up what you might call "silly" music, but it probably isn't the kind of thing you'd want to listen to often. What has been your approach to writing songs for Plants vs Zombies that are enjoyable and match the humorous quality of the game?

I think one of the reasons Plants vs Zombies is so funny is because its humor kind of takes you off guard. You'll be nonchalantly gardening and then all of a sudden a zombie driving a Zamboni starts plastering your lawn with ice. Then a Zombie Bobsled team comes out of nowhere. And then you hear a dolphin. The thing is, you'll be concentrating so hard on keeping your plants alive that you don't even notice that really ridiculous things are happening. And this makes it so much funnier when you finally do realize what's going on. It's sort of like "Typing of the Dead"... You're trying so hard to keep up that you don't realize you're typing some seriously funny things until after you've finished typing them.

I wanted the music to do the same thing—to combine different genres and compositional elements that weren't normally used together—but I wanted them to blend seamlessly so that listeners wouldn't notice anything was odd until afterwards. Most of the music is written in the Gothic-Classical style, but the percussion tracks are rooted in everything from Big Band Swing to Hip Hop.

The pool level is particularly ridiculous. It starts off with regular zombies, and then all of a sudden you have snorkeling zombies wearing rubber ducky inner tubes. To match the feel, the music starts off macabre; there are lots of half-steps worked into the slightly dark melody. But then it suddenly goes into this really happy and cheesy '80s "one-hit-wonder" chord progression that seems to almost be poking fun at the idea that you're desperately trying to stay alive against a bunch of zombies riding dolphins. It's very subtle, but that kind of stuff cracks me up.

Of course a central aspect of the game is the suburban zombie invasion. How did you go about working in the horror music cues in a way that wouldn't detract from the lighthearted atmosphere?

Even though the music was written mainly in minor keys with lots of half-steps, I always made sure that each piece had an identifiable melody. I think generally speaking, music that tends to be on the more melodic side helps to keep things light. With a lot of very serious and dark games, the musical arrangements often use cacophony and dissonance in order to make the listener feel detached and somewhat uncomfortable. I purposely stayed away from these elements because I wanted to make sure the soundtrack was macabre, but not too dark.

George Fan has provided the "Sunflower music lesson" cover art for the album page. How would you say your collaboration has informed the in-game music? He seems to have been an important part of getting the music video started.

Being the game's designer, George often had to do a lot of concept art. At some point I asked him to sketch a particular scene with some of the plants. It ended up being really charming, so I asked if he'd be interested in turning it into the album's cover art. As for collaborating, I think we have a very similar sense of humor, so it was easy for me to write music that matched the style he was going for in terms of art and gameplay.

We had a lot of fun brainstorming ideas for the music video. George found an instructional video on Finnish Disco from the 1970s, and decided to have the zombies dance like them. During the scene where various zombies slide onto the screen, I thought it would be funny if the last one was a dolphin. Later, George took all the different ideas and storyboarded the music video in Flash. Rich and Tod were then able to work off of that storyboard (Rich did the final art, and Tod handled the technical aspects of implementing the video into the game).


"Zombies on Your Lawn" music video

Were there other participants who made important contributions to your music score?

Although I was the only one who worked on the score, the zombie voices in the ending credits song were performed by George and my Dad for the English and Japanese versions respectively. I thought they both did a fantastic job. I noticed that some folks didn't understand why the Japanese zombies didn't sound like typical zombies... If you're Japanese or you watch a lot of Japanese television then you're probably very familiar with the crazy game shows and their comically overzealous hosts. We thought it would be really funny to have my Dad read the zombie lines using that crazy overzealous Japanese game show host voice because the juxtaposition just sounded so ridiculous.

Previously you have mentioned that the original tracks had to be modified to meet file size restrictions, and now both iterations are available on the album. What are some of the stylistic differences between the in-game music and enhanced editions both found on Bandcamp?

The original versions used higher quality samples and were created as standalone tracks, so the calm and intense parts are blended seamlessly at set times. There are also a few subtle differences in the arrangements. Sometimes the gameplay would warrant extending a particular part of the music, or cutting out another. In some levels the player would experience longer periods of zombie waves, so I'd have to extend the intense parts of the composition so it would not become repetitive. Likewise, there were a few riffs that got cut from the original versions because they were too intense for the calm sections.

Now that you have revisited this game score from two years ago, can you identify particular music skills that have matured during the making of this game?

Working on this soundtrack actually really helped me to develop one of my manual reverb techniques. I would choose 2-3 chromatic instruments (usually piano, harp, and a sine wave), and compose a melody for each instrument, making sure that all three would blend together without creating a cacophony. Then I'd go through each track and add notes that were 30-50% quieter after each existing note, but the length between the loud and quiet notes would vary throughout the piece based on the beat. I'd be very careful that none of these quieter notes created a cacophony. It's a really interesting process. Not only are you adding reverb, but you're also throwing in a bit of syncopation that adds depth to the beat and the piece as a whole. I feel that whenever I do this process now, it feels a lot more natural. I can do it quickly as if it were second nature, whereas before I had to think about it a lot.

Do you feel that the Plants vs Zombies soundtrack lends itself to the arrange album treatment, as a piano or chamber music collection?

I think it would. The piano plays such a large role in several of the arrangements, so coming up with piano versions felt very natural to me. In my spare time I've been recording a PvZ piano music series on Youtube, and I'm hoping to put together a CD in the future of just the piano pieces. A few folks have been very helpful in actually transcribing these piano versions, so anyone interested in the sheet music can download them from my website.

"Zombies on Your Lawn" received an award from GANG. Did this recognition provide any further encouragement to exploring the use of vocal themes in games?

I think it did encourage me to explore that area a little more. Knowing that folks could appreciate that style of music in games made me really happy. With my own game, I've actually been experimenting with vocal pieces a lot. Since it's an RPG, there is a lot of dialogue during the cutscenes. As a result, interspersing music with lyrics during those scenes can distract the players from reading... so my solution was to use a fake language for the lyrics. I figured this out after my friend mentioned that he enjoyed listening to Japanese music because he couldn't understand the words. This allowed him to read or work concurrently, and he could invent his own meaning for the songs.

The game's world has an ancient language (Ciroan) that is never spoken in modern times, but is frequently used in their literature and poetry. I thought this was a good basis for a lot of the song lyrics in the game. Since people can't understand the words, it doesn't distract players from reading the dialogue. "Carya de Mio" was written with a particular meaning in mind, and amazingly a lot of people actually figured it out despite not being able to understand the lyrics.

Looking to the future, now that you have released the long-awaited soundtrack album to Plants vs Zombies, do you have an idea of when you would like the next installment of the Melolune album to appear online?

I think the next installment will probably be the full soundtrack since the game is pretty close to being finished. I'm really hoping that I can wrap up the game by the end of the year, so perhaps the soundtrack would come out in January or February? There is still a lot of music left to finish, but I really hope I can pull through and get it done!

To find out more about the music of Laura Shigihara, visit the musician's Bandcamp page and official website.