(note: This is a transcript of an episode of a podcast I was invited to take part in. The hosts were eager to talk to me about the music in the newly released game Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box and I feel honored to have been invited to appear on their show. The hosts will be familiar to anyone: Frankenstein's monster, Bigfoot, and an alien. Their podcast is called "Frankenstein, Bigfoot, and an Alien Discuss Game Music and Ice Cream". Look for it on iTunes. My segment appears about halfway through last week's episode...)
MATT: Thank you, Alien. I'm happy to be here.
BIGFOOT: (English accent) Welcome, Mr. Sayre.
MATT: Hi, Bigfoot and Frankenstein's monster.
BIGFOOT: Oh, go ahead and call him "Frankenstein". He's grown accustomed to that particular appellation.
ALIEN: Begin this interrogation by giving us the history of your project and the human faction that has created it.
MATT: Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box is a new hidden object puzzle adventure game based on the paranormal romance novel Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. Liu. The game basically covers the first half of the book. You play as Dela Reese, a young woman traveling in China. She finds a mysterious riddle box and once she opens it she discovers an ancient warrior, Hari, who has been trapped within for centuries. He is cursed to serve as a slave to whomever possesses the box. You try to rid him of the curse and deal with the Magi, the antagonist who is responsible for the curse and who wants his riddle box back.
Our team, PassionFruit Games, was formed specifically to make this game and, we hope, all its sequels. Tiger Eye is the first in the Dirk & Steele (the psychic detective group Dela belongs to) series of books and it's an exciting series, perfect for video games. The members of PassionFruit Games previously worked at Her Interactive (I did contract work for them, the rest were full-time), where they worked on the Nancy Drew Dossier series. Unfortunately, the Dossier series did not pan out (even though Resorting to Danger won Yahoo's 2009 Hidden Object Game of the Year award) so the team was laid off. The day after being laid off, however, we were already planning this new venture. And last month we shipped TE: CotRB!
FRANKENSTEIN: Ahh... funn, ME play!
MATT: Oh good, glad you liked the game, Frankenstein! So far the reviews have been very positive and we're very proud of the work we've done.
BIGFOOT: I was surprised to learn that you did over 70 minutes of music for the game. Dear chap, that's a great deal of music for a casual game!
MATT: Yes, I decided early on that since this game and company are our own "babies" (even the author, Marjorie, is a founding member of PassionFruit and wrote the game's script) that I would go way above the typical amount of music found in a casual game. For the two Nancy Drew Dossier games, for example, I only did around 13 minutes of music for each. In total there are, as you say, over 70 minutes of music and over 200 sound effects. I also contributed to the voice casting and edited the hundreds of voice files for the game (I also got to perform the very last line of the game... three whopping words which are not "I love you", by the way). It was all a labor of love (pun intended) as I wanted the game to really shine in every aspect... couldn't let audio be a weak link!
And, as an aside, I must mention that the soundtrack is available on the PassionFruit website as part of a package with the game or alone. It will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, and all the other major online digital music stores soon.
ALIEN: Capitalism will be the downfall of your species. That will make conquering your planet a straightforward undertaking. The time approaches!
BIGFOOT: Come now, Alien. Let's leave those matters for another time. Getting back to topic, one of the things that stood out to me was the length of the menu tune. Over 7 minutes! Dear fellow, that's a real shocker!
MATT: The menu tune was the first piece I composed for the game. I wanted it to be the basis from which the rest of the music was derived. And it does contain the three main musical themes for the game: the Riddle Box theme, Hari and Dela's love theme, and the Magi's villain theme. Here are the three themes:
FIG. 1 - Riddle Box theme
FIG. 2 - Love theme
FIG. 3 - Villain theme
Most of the pieces in the soundtrack contain an aspect of one or more of these themes. Sometimes the relations are explicit. Sometimes they are more hidden. But it's important for a game soundtrack to have enough coherence to form a pleasing whole.
ALIEN: Yes. My people have analyzed the Tiger Eye soundtrack. And we constructed a visual representation of the overall structure of your soundtrack. Behold!
FIG. 4 - Visual representation of Tiger Eye's soundtrack overall structure
MATT: Hey, that's Stonehenge!
ALIEN: Correct. That is its human-given name.
MATT: That was constructed thousands of years ago!
BIGFOOT: Yes... indeed... our extraterrestrial friends do work in marvelously mysterious ways. Moving forward... does that formation of stones look like it represents the musical relationships accurately?
MATT: Yeah, it's very accurate. Looks like the solid lines represent more obvious connections while the dotted lines represent more hidden connections, such as melodic inversions or fragments of theme. You can really see how most pieces link back to one or more of the three center melodies. Also, you can see how not all of the pieces are connected to another one. While I love coherence in my soundtracks, I find that not every piece needs to be connected to every other one. Most of them use similar instrumentation or a similar "feel" though so nothing really comes out of left field.
MATT: Yes, left field.
BIGFOOT: Sorry, one of his legs comes from a baseball player. He's sensitive about baseball.
MATT: Gotcha. Anyway, maybe it would be helpful to talk about some of the specific pieces in the soundtrack? I'd love to give a little extra information about some of my favorites or the ones I find most interesting...
MATT: Ok, A) Main Theme ... I've talked about how it contains the three main melodic ideas for the game. What's interesting though is that as a 7+ minute piece only played during the main menu , I sort of consider this as an "Easter Egg". How many people will actually sit and listen to the entire thing? That would probably only happen by mistake, if the player happens to answer the phone or otherwise be interrupted before they click "Play". Players who have not yet bought the game and are only playing the one-hour demo will especially be disposed to getting into the game as quickly as possible. That's the idea behind casual games anyway, right? To get in and get out whenever you want, as quickly as you want. But anyone who does hear the entire thing will be presented with a trip through the characters and emotion of the game, further helping to give the game an identity.
B) Find the Riddle Box
FIG. 5 - Find the Riddle Box snippet
This piece was created after a couple rounds of beta testing where the feedback indicated that players would probably like a more upbeat tune early in the game. I was probably about half done with the soundtrack and agreed that the music could be a little more upbeat. Going in to the project, I was envisioning lots of lush and beautiful pieces that would help relax and inspire the player. So I was thinking tempos would generally be slower and activity lower. But this is a game and the player does need a little kick in the pants every so often to propel them to the next scene and keep them playing. Also, music is all about contrasts and having a combination of quick, fun and slower, lush pieces just gives every piece more significance. I was very glad the beta testers were there to remind me of something so important.
ALIEN: This is why we breed Rigelian Flugmarfs after feeding them Goom treats. Makes the entire process less stressful for all involved. You will continue!
MATT: Yeah. Flugmarfs. Anyway, going on... C) Neuron Connection
FIG. 6 - Neuron Connection snippet
Talk about a contrast... this piece is the biggest departure of all. I wanted this to sound like it was recorded in the player's head, sort of muffled and mysteriously active. The neuron minigame takes place essentially in Dela's brain so I wanted this piece to feel very "inner" and contemplative. It's a thinking game, after all. I think the piece also really helps to grab the player's attention if it's been drifting at all.
FRANKENSTEIN: Brain loud. SHHHHH..... Quiet! (throws his laptop across the room)
MATT: Sorry, Frankenstein. You probably shouldn't play that so loud.
ALIEN: Final warning, Frankenstein. Cease all throwing. (shoots beam from his pinky finger towards the laptop, which starts floating and moving towards Frankenstein, repairing itself along the way)
BIGFOOT: I never fail to be amazed by those beams. Sorry, please do continue.
MATT: D) Bonus
FIG. 7 - Bonus snippet
This music is for the bonus level, a simple matching game which can grant the player extra "Psi Points", or hints basically. It's another departure piece, more exciting and fun than most of the others. I wanted to include it here to show how it hides one of the main themes, the love theme, within its melody using a common compositional tool, inversion. The contour of the melody is basically inverted, going up instead of down and down instead of up (at least for the first couple of measures, then the melody goes in its own direction). You can see it here:
FIG. 8 - Bonus - love theme inversion
E) Together We Rest
FIG. 9 - Together We Rest snippet
This piece actually introduces an entirely new melody. I didn't want to use too much of the love theme early in the game so I created a new melody more about their growing friendship. It also is one of the more Chinese sounding pieces in the game, with the melody being introduced by the erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument.
BIGFOOT: I do love the erhu. It reminds me of an instrument my mother played when I was but a wee foot. (takes pipe out of his bag and begins loading tobacco in it) If only I could play it, but I'm afraid my siblings took all the musical talent in this family! (lights a match and starts to light his pipe)
FRANKENSTEIN: FIIIRRRE!!! Burn Frankenstein... NOOO!!! (jumps up, knocking over his chair, pushes Bigfoot over and runs out of the room, screaming - more crashes and screams coming from the next room)
BIGFOOT: (picking himself up) I should have known that would happen. Lost in my own memories, once again. Don't worry about old Frankenstein. He'll soon forget why he's afraid.
MATT: Poor guy. I guess I'll just keep going. Ok, F) In the Restaurant
FIG. 10 - In the Restaurant snippet
Now this piece is the most Chinese sounding one in the soundtrack. It's a new melody once again and uses many Western instruments but features the erhu and a Chinese flute. I wanted to include it here because it is a fun and catchy melody and completely transformed the scene once it was implemented. It really brought the player into an authentic restaurant in China. Next up is G) Games at the Dirt Market
This scene is all about helping kids find their lost toys and playing games with them so it had to have a very playful feel. It transforms the Riddle Box theme into a 3/4 time signature and turns it into a bouncy, joyful melody. It's easily one of my favorites from the soundtrack and shows how malleable, while still recognizable, any melody can be. And finally, H) A New Disguise
FIG. 12 - A New Disguise snippet
This piece is unique because it is the only one, besides the Main Theme, to go through all three melodic themes. The Riddle Box and love themes are not as explicitly stated as the villain theme, however, as this scene is one of the more tense ones, seeing Dela and Hari needing to escape the scene of a crime. A lot of stuff came to a head right before this scene, so it made sense for the music to come together as well. The love theme actually blends right into the Riddle Box theme at one point, as you can hear in the snippet in FIG 12.
FRANKENSTEIN: (walking back in, quietly humming and holding a flower) Prettyyy... many parts... (hands flower to Matt)
MATT: Thank you, Frankenstein.
ALIEN: Frankenstein is constructed of many different parts as well. An inefficient and dangerous way to create life. Will you humans never learn?
BIGFOOT: Haha... so true, Alien. But this piece does seem to affect him more than any of the others. (Frankenstein smiles then closes his eyes then quickly falls asleep)
MATT: Glad it has soothed him. Anyway, those were some of the pieces I thought were worth pointing out.
BIGFOOT: I am glad you shared your insights to these pieces, sir. Now, I have heard about one of your theories concerning game composition and modularity. Something about seeds? Do share.
MATT: Yeah, this is just a way of looking at composition that one of my teachers and I developed in grad school. Since game music doesn't always come when expected, it's useful to look at game music as modular and try to structure it in a way that makes sense no matter what order you hear it in. So instead of plodding along, melody after melody for instance, you sometimes just allude to a melody or other musical idea with a short snippet of it, even if only for a few notes. If this snippet comes early in the gameplay, it becomes a "seed" and grows into something full later on when the player encounters it in its full form. This is a very satisfying experience, whether or not the player realizes why. If that snippet comes later in the gameplay, after the player has already heard the full theme, the snippet is then an "echo". That is also a satisfying musical event. It's important to season the music throughout the soundtrack with these seeds and echoes.
TE: CotRB was more of a linear gaming experience, however, so modularity wasn't that important when constructing the soundtrack. I could control when the seeds and echoes appear. One important seed comes in the very first cutscene, when a flute briefly appears in a dream and plays the first part of the Riddle Box theme. As I've already mentioned, that theme continues to grow throughout the game. Then, a very effective echo comes in the very last cutscene, as the protagonists go forward towards their next adventure in a cliffhanger ending, the melody comes back as an ominous echo.
ALIEN: We have seeded many planets with our kind. Yours is next!
MATT: Yeah, you keep saying stuff like that, but...
ALIEN: Quiet! You will be our laborers. And we like your doughnuts. We will need many more doughnut fabrication centers.
MATT: That might not be so bad.
FRANKENSTEIN: (waking up) Doughnuuuuts....
BIGFOOT: Oh dear, Frankenstein's waking up. That means our hour, regrettably, is almost up! Before we go, could you talk a little bit about the cutscenes and scoring music for them?
MATT: There were a ton of cutscenes in TE: CotRB, something like 25 of them. And I was responsible for all the audio in them. I must say doing the cutscene music was in many ways easier than doing the gameplay music. Being tied to specific visuals takes some of the pressure off. You know exactly what's going on while your music is playing, unlike during gameplay when it's much more abstract. Also, the cutscenes have a great deal of dialog so the music is always secondary to that.
There is a great deal of pressure providing the audio, however, as the audio is always last in the cutscene assembly line. I had to wait for the cutscenes to be time locked before I could really sit down and start writing the music and adding the voice and sound effects. This meant that I had to be on top of my game to really crank out the audio tracks. I was actually still working on them the weekend before launch. If I'm late, the game's late. Yikes. I ended up doing 3 cutscenes a day on some days. But that's just the way it is. It's pretty exciting and always extremely rewarding to see how it works in game.
ALIEN: Our time expires! Now give us a summary.
MATT: Ok, sure!
What went right:
1) No time limit for the soundtrack. Oh so nice to be free of the 1-minute loop beast. Ended up with 70+ minutes. And being part of the team from the start meant I didn't have to rush to finish that much music.
2) Communication with the team. Both the art director and producer have musical experience and were very helpful in communicating what they needed for a scene or cutscene. Any change requests were very effectively communicated.
3) The material (the story). Marjorie's book is a paranormal romance novel. I normally wouldn't read such a thing but when I did I discovered an entertaining story full of suspense and emotion. The story isn't all sappy lovey mush (if at all), but it is rather a captivating read with a variety of emotions that lent itself very well to an array of musical moods.
4) Team's drive to succeed. PassionFruit Games was born out of harsh times. The entire group had been laid off in the middle of an economic disaster and decided to tighten their belts and make their own game. Our fate was in our own hands. Nobody wanted to be the weak link so there was a dedication to making the best game possible to try and bring this new romance reader market to games. It wasn't easy, but our survival depended on making a great game so the drive was generally unquestionable. In only 7 months, we made something we could be proud of.
What went wrong:
1) Time crunch at end. As mentioned, this was stressful but fairly unavoidable with our aggressive schedule. Simply the nature of doing audio for games as well.
2) Not enough Chinese flavor. Since this half of the novel takes place exclusively in China, it would have been nice to have at least a couple other heavily Chinese influenced pieces in the soundtrack. I think there is enough as is, but it would have been fun to do a little more.
3) Wasted tracks. A couple of pieces I composed had to be cut out of the game. Due to beta/focus testing, we decided to alter some of the gameplay and remove a cutscene. This ended up definitely making a better game, but it was sad to see that music go to waste. At least now the soundtrack had a couple of "bonus" pieces, so it's not all bad.
4) Budget. As a start-up, the necessities funded by loving family, we didn't have a lot of extra money to use for some of the things we'd like, like a few more live instrumentalists or equipment upgrades. I should mention here that live musicians are very important, especially evident in the Main Theme where the flute and alto flute were played by amazing Seattle musician Dane Andersen.
BIGFOOT: Thank you very much for sharing your time with us. Good luck to you and PassionFruit. I've played through the game and had a wonderful time.
FRANKENSTEIN: Bye bye!
ALIEN: You have represented your planet well. You will be spared in the coming invasion.
MATT: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on the show!
FRANKENSTEIN: Bye bye!
ALIEN: Now leave us. On next week's podcast, we will discuss the recent rise in chocolate chip mint quality and what it means for French vanilla. Good night.
FRANKENSTEIN: Bye bye!
(You can reach Matt Sayre... ranked by fellow team members #1 nerd of PassionFruit Games... at [email protected] )
(Frankenstein's monster, Bigfoot, and the alien are probably not real. Nor is their podcast.)