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Matthew Burns, Blogger

September 21, 2015

14 Min Read

Music for Thoughtful Activity

Infinifactory is an open-ended puzzle game from Zachtronics Industries, the makers of SpaceChem and Infiniminer, where players design systems in a 3D space to create “factories” that assemble (and destroy) products. Infinifactory is more than just a series of puzzles to solve – it’s also an open-ended construction set, allowing people to create impressively complex and clever machines of their own design. 

Most of what happens in Infinifactory is what I’d call “thoughtful activity.” There isn’t any imminent danger or a time limit in the game (with one notable exception). Players are free to explore various approaches to solve each level, testing theories and revising iteratively. To underscore this kind of semi-exploratory, semi-directed problem-solving, I tried to aim the soundtrack towards a balance between active and ambient approaches, writing looping music that would be interesting enough to speak to the world and the story of the game, while not growing into something that would become overbearing or distracting to players deep in thought.

As you can see below, the tracks mostly fell somewhere between 70-90 BPM, which I felt was a nicely chill, but not sleep-inducing, range of tempos.

You can listen to all of these tracks with the player below, or at the Bandcamp page for the game’s soundtrack. The notes on individual tracks will contain some generalized spoilers for the story of Infinifactory!

Proving Grounds (67 BPM): The first main level theme of the game, Proving Grounds is meant to underscore the situation players find themselves in when they begin the story: captured by mysterious aliens and sent to build factories in a snowy wasteland. After starting out lonely and distant, the music builds to highlight the player finding their feet as they gain competence with the game’s systems. I also included a couple tributes to the wonderful SpaceChem soundtrack, which was composed by Evan le Ny.

Skydock 19 (74 BPM): After the unhappy circumstance of being kidnapped by aliens and forced to create factories for them, the skydock area music is a little more positive. You may be stranded who knows how far away from home, but at least you’re getting to see some wondrous things! This piece contains an element of hope and aspiration to it to go along with the dramatic skies of the area.

Hydrocarbon Pools (83 BPM): In contrast to the skydock, the hydrocarbon pools are a dark and lonely place, so its music is one of the more inward and meditative ones. This is also one of the earliest pieces I prototyped for the whole soundtrack, and reflects my first attempts at ideas I continued to develop later on in the music – including the occasional piano phrases that break over the surface, then recede back into the mix. 

Industrial Zone (78 BPM): This area is set on one of the alien civilization’s inhabited planets, so its music is a little more built-up and rhythmic, reflecting the densely urban atmosphere outside. I also use the military snare, which ended up being a recurring motif for the overlords after it became a large part of the overlord theme (see below). 

Asteroids (84 BPM): The asteroids area contains floating islands fashioned out of asteroid rock, including what seem to be ancient alien structures. I interpreted these structures as temples, which led me to use a synthetic vocal as the main pad in this piece. It’s slightly mysterious without straying too far into mysticism – whatever structures these were, their meaning is long gone now.

The Harvest (77 BPM): The setting for these levels is a planet of great natural beauty that’s being systematically strip-mined for resources by you, the player, at the bidding of your overloads. This track easily could have gone overboard into ironically playing up the cuteness of the creatures you must process, and therefore in some way laughing at their plight, but that wasn’t the point of the level at all. So I ended up with a somewhat sad chiming sound punctuated by buzzsaw-like synths.

Those Who Take (98 BPM): This theme for the alien overlord ship was the most difficult track in terms of figuring out how I’d approach it. At first, I experimented with creating actually “alien” music – something that would use a totally different harmonic system and instrumentation from Earth music. This only succeeded in sounding annoying, however. After a lot of experimentation and back and forth, we finally decided that human music that gets across the attitude and feeling of the alien race was better than trying to convey both alienness and meaning. We ended up with this more typically “evil” theme prominently featuring military snares, a sound that we agreed the aliens would choose for themselves to let everyone know what they’re all about.

Human Ingenuity (78 BPM):  The rebel music is a celebration of human creativity in the face of those who take advantage of it. Thinking about the happiness of being somewhat at home (not back on Earth yet, but at least not captive), I went for warm and fuzzy Boards of Canada style synths. This is the most positive-feeling track of them all and probably my favorite if I had to pick one.

Back to Work (77 BPM): It turns out escaping isn’t the end of the story. After all, the aliens are still out there, kidnapping people from all over the galaxy and forcing them to design machines for them. After the excitement of the breakout and joining the band of resistance fighters, the player quickly finds themselves back to the task of designing new machines. again. Engineer life! This track is meant to reflect the post-elation feeling of putting one’s nose to grindstone once again.

The Heist (75 BPM): This track is for a sequence of puzzles built around stealing an alien engine. As such, it’s somewhat more active feeling, even though there is no actual danger in the game. I wanted to try to get at something that might be used for a stealth sequence while still fitting in the Infinifactory music framework, which is how I ended up with the tense repeating one-note bass and the sneaky electric piano chords.

Forge World (83 BPM): The forge world is an older alien facility that’s now abandoned. It’s portrayed with a certain doomed majesty, with once-great factories now sitting idle and giant statues presiding over nothing. I went with a pipe organ-sounding lead that comes off something like an elegy for a dead planet. We wouldn’t want things to be too sad, of course – it was a planet of the overlords, after all. Besides, you have (more) work to do. The purposeful piano, coming in to contrast with the organ, is meant to remind players of this.

Research and Development (76 BPM): The player gets to play with some interesting and powerful new blocks in this section, and I was told the area would have something of a research-oriented, skunkworks vibe. I tried a Portal-esque “science!” tack for a while, but ultimately that was too silly and called too much attention to itself. Despite some humorous aspects, the story and art ultimately point to something a little more subdued and serious. The player is working with technology that will allow the rebels to turn the tide in battle against your former overlords. It’s glitchy experimentation but bounded with a purpose in mind.

Attacked (88 BPM): This is Infinifactory at its most urgent, as it’s the one section of the game where it is possible to lose. It heavily features the snare drum for the aliens, and there’s more of an emphasis on orchestral percussion to bring out a feeling of being in some kind of battle. This is also the only cue that uses non-electronic sampled strings, to add a little bit of symphonic traditional soundtrack weight to the proceedings.

Final Build (88 BPM): Players are now put to work constructing machines for the upcoming battle against the overlords. Final Build is closely related to Attacked in a musical sense, but this one is focused more on a sense of purpose as the path to defeating the enemy becomes clear. The rolling percussion and big stabs point forward to the conflict, but not in an anxious or fearful way. Instead, it’s meant to evoke the feeling of clear, directed knowledge of what must be done to finish the job.

Closing Notes

One of the things I love best about games is how they incorporate a wide variety of creative disciplines into a coherent whole, and how being a game developer can be an impressively wide-ranging journey. In my case, the Infinifactory soundtrack represents a significant step along that road, since for my first fifteen years in games I worked mostly as a producer, not a composer. I’d contributed tracks for personal projects and mods before, but I’d never created the soundtrack for an entire game. Working on the soundtrack for this game was a nearly year-long effort in making a large body of music appropriate to the specific themes and areas of the game and it was a challenging yet rewarding experience – much like Infinifactory itself. Thanks for reading and listening!

Matthew S. Burns

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