Interview: DeathSpank's Soundtrack - Sailing the Seas of Sonic Justice

Gamasutra speaks to DeathSpank composer Jeff Tymoschuk on his Spaghetti Western-inspired score for the Ron Gilbert title, as the Hothead-developed game's soundtrack gets a free downloadable digital version.
[Gamasutra speaks to DeathSpank composer Jeff Tymoschuk on his Spaghetti Western-inspired score for the Ron Gilbert title, as the Hothead-developed game's soundtrack gets a free downloadable digital version.] Video game musician Jeff Tymoschuk of Vancouver, Canada previously joined local developer Hothead Games to compose the score for Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Two years ago this month we caught up with the composer and founder of GreenWire Music for a dangerous audio interview. The turn-based role-playing game founded on a Lovecraftian reimagining of the Penny Arcade characters shares a number of qualities with follow-up Deathspank, also scored by Tymoschuk. A dual-installment downloadable title (text-heavy and with an emphasis on humor), the atmosphere of DeathSpank centers on the comic vision of celebrated point-and-click adventure creator Ron Gilbert. Over the holidays, Hothead Games made available for free download the official DeathSpank Soundtrack album. Again we sat down with the composer to hear how the humorous nature of the game informed the making of the music score: Previously you had worked with sound designer Adam Gejdos on Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Was this a similar form of collaboration? Jeff Tymoschuk: Very much so. He was the one I worked closely with on the sound team through the whole process and he adapted all the stems to make them interactive. When I went into the office in Vancouver, Adam would show me several clips of the game in development to get a sense of the comedic tone. With Penny Arcade, Hothead had been talking around the office about a direction they wanted to go in. For DeathSpank, the only direction I had off the top was that Ron [Gilbert] wanted something that was totally different than Penny Arcade Adventures. Ron Gilbert is responsible for famous LucasArts adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. How would you describe your interaction with the game designer on DeathSpank? Before signing on to do the game, we met. Ron had also been involved in Penny Arcade Adventures. He told me that his approach to DeathSpank was that it was a game pitch gone horribly wrong. It’s a fantasy game… it’s a World War II game… The presentation is constantly being derailed. Did you start out wanting to ground the music score in a particular emotional tone? There was a teaser trailer created for PAX a year and a half before the game came out, featuring a silhouette of DeathSpank being attacked. The sound was “Squirrel Nut Zippers after four or five bottles of wine.” That was the genesis of the attitude that led to the Spaghetti Western element of the score. The SNZ elements actually were more of an inspiration for the trailer than the game music itself, although elements of it stayed in the score. The Spaghetti Western stuff was very much of a Morricone vibe, which sort of indirectly led to the sound of the game. The era of the great Morricone Western scores informed some of the instrument choices (baritone guitar, vintage keyboards and drums, etc.), which then gradually became the surf guitar stuff. It was sort of a musical version of "Pass the Secret", where the original seed of inspiration became something quite different by the time it was done, and it's a little tricky to trace how Spaghetti Western became rockabilly and funk. What were some of the live instruments you decided to record at your Vancouver studio? The bass and guitars were all live. I grew up playing in bands, so half the fun is playing the instruments yourself. I wanted Ron’s concept of being derailed to fit into the music, so if it were all pristine and polished samples it would have lacked that thematic sloppiness. By not over-polishing the audio, it gives it a human quality. DeathSpank is a comedy about a hero who takes himself too seriously. Are you looking to have both the gravity of the genre and the silliness that’s sending it up playing off each other on the score? The thought is, have it take itself very seriously. At the same time there are a few elements that don’t make a whole lot of sense... which seemed to kind of work with the DeathSpank character. The title screen gives you an instant sense of the mock-heroic tone to DeathSpank. Was the personality of the character informing this particular music track? I had gotten a sense of this from what I had seen early on. If this were a band playing this track, they’d think they’re the best band in the world. That kind of brash confidence in the face of all evidence to the contrary came directly from the DeathSpank character. Mike Dobson did such a great job on the voice acting. The tracks are fairly long in duration while you’re exploring the game world. Was this an opportunity to elaborate on some of the themes of the game? It was fun to write tracks that had time to branch out a bit. I received notes like fantasy, World War II, Old West… The longer ones are about five minutes. One of the ways I decided to keep the music distinct from Penny Arcade Adventures, which went with an orchestral choir sound, was to go with a vintage Mellotron sound for all the choir stuff. The way Mellotron samples are recorded, there are no transitions between notes. That makes it sound really unnatural. I used the Mellotron sounds for much of the score, some of the guitars, all the vibes, all the choir. It's got tons of character in the sound, and really added a great vintage sheen to the score. There are very brief themes that play whenever DeathSpank successfully clears a quest. It’s an important part of the game, considering how preoccupied the character is with being sent off on quests. How did you go about making these tunes memorable? It was a challenge to express something in five seconds or less, a little like the sitcom bumper. I knew they had to be short and there had to be a pile of them. Every piece had essentially the same instruments being used differently. I’ve got a Paul McCartney style hollow-bodied Hofner bass guitar, and every cue started with that. A baritone guitar can be heard on all the surf and electric stuff. There’s a lot of what sounds like retro synth percussion, which was actually a broken Ikea lamp that I had sampled. The drums were all from Fab Four, the Beatles sample library. That combination seemed to get a bunch of mileage. Now that the soundtrack is available for free download, how do you look back on your work on the score? I had a really good time on this game and in general people have enjoyed the music. I love traditional orchestral scores for fantasy games and was very glad that players have been open to something unexpected on this one. Once the sound started coming together is was one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on. [Images courtesy of Hothead Games and GreenWire Music.]

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