Kingdom Eighties is a sidescrolling strategy game, but instead of featuring the kings and queens from past entries in the series, the player guides camp counselors on bikes as they try to save their '80s towns. It brings the same strategic play the games are known for but steeps it in an era of synthesizers and skateboards.
Game Developer spoke with Andreas Hald, the game's composer, to discuss the process of how they feel out what a game should sound like, how they worked with '80s-era equipment to capture the right sound and feel for the game, and how the limitations of that equipment helped inspire the composer to create wild new sounds for the project.
Kingdom Eighties is a base-building game involving kids, bikes, and forts, all set against the backdrop of the 1980s. What appealed to you about this project?
The eighties! I’m an '80s baby, and I have a big love for '80s music and the era in general. I’m also really into synthesizers and own a huge collection of vintage synths. I’ve always been dreaming of a project like this coming along where I could use all my analogue equipment and go full-out on synths.
I played Kingdom Two Crowns and loved it, and the fact that they were about to shake it all up and take a hard turn sounded challenging and fun. I knew very little about the project when I first got a hint of it, but as I got to know more, the story-driven aspect of it really appealed to me and talked to my work as a composer for film and media, as well as the way I see myself as a “musical dramatist” (translating thoughts into musical sounds) and storyteller. The first visuals I got looked stunning and instantly made me hear and feel the vibe, and the fact that it looked gorgeous really inspired me.
Before I joined the project, I’d also heard great things about the Raw Fury team through friends and colleagues, and the chance to work with them was something I wasn’t going to let slip away.
What things define an '80s sound to you?
This comes as no surprise—but mainly synthesizers, arpeggiated sequences, FM (frequency modulation), gated reverbs, sequencers, drum machines, tape echoes, cassette recorders, and heroic rock guitar (played in harmony). Also, the limitations that you had back then compared to now. Back then, you were maybe limited by a drum machine that only had mediocre samples and small memory, as well as a somewhat basic sequencer with 8-16 steps, or a sequencer/synth that was hard to program (DX7, not naming any names…).
Those limitations showed in the music. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it shaped the sound. A lot happened music-wise in the '80s as well, and there was this shift in technology, opening new sonic environments, which also shows in the sonic character of the '80s. I wanted the score to be unique and tactile and welcome noise from the analogue realm.
As a composer, can you tell us about your process when creating a soundtrack for a game? How do you immerse yourself in the place and characters, then feel out what it should sound like?
I spend a lot of time at the beginning where I fool around and play with my instruments and gear. I explore sounds and start creating the palette, which I will then (amongst other things) use to compose the music. I sample a lot, and crafting those sounds early in the process is super important.
Besides, you have to get your imagination going as well as your abstraction ability. It's something which I’ve trained and worked with for a long time, so at this stage, it comes naturally for me—being able to sense emotions and feel music through words, conversations, and visuals.
To elaborate, before you have actual game footage or mechanics you can work with, you only have a storyline, conversations with developers and creators, and early visual mockups. As a composer for games, film, and media, it’s very important that one can register one's own feelings when seeing images, hearing stories, reading a script, and having conversations. Based on these registered feelings, one must suspect the audience will feel the same. Later, when you have the game—even in the early stages—you play, play and play, and try out different stuff in the editor. Experience tells you whether something works or not.
Something else I do, which is much more down to earth, is that I build an environment in which I can create because it sets me in a mood. I darken my studio—no daylight enters—and then it’s only lit up by the lights from my gear and some soft lamps (I admit I turn on lava lamps, which is really '90s, but I still love them). It helps me get in the mood. I find it really hard to compose suspenseful or emotion-heavy music while it’s hammering in with sunlight. So, I need to create a creative environment that works for me. I need to get in the zone.
What sounds came to mind when you thought about this setting and time in Kingdom Eighties? How did the game's music start to take shape for you as you looked through the concepts/themes?
I instantly thought of synths from the '80s; the distinctive sound they have is just something that instantly takes me to the '80s. It was important that we brought the gamer back to that era, no matter what tools we ended up using in taking them there, and I had to trust my gut feeling.
In the beginning, it was kind of hard. I had the '80s down, but how should Kingdom sound in an '80s setting? We had a lot of discussions about that. The '80s sound one way to me, but it may sound completely different to you. You have the '80s, but at the same time, it’s a Kingdom game—how do you balance that? In the beginning, it was (more) important that the music was in the Kingdom vibe, but after I made a few tracks and implemented them, it kind of turned out too Kingdom-like, and we agreed that we basically needed to go with the flow and reference the era more clearly.
I tried a lot of different styles, and then we collectively decided which way to go. Kingdom Eighties is a different-paced game than previous Kingdom games, which is cool, but it’s different and one needs to embrace that and go with it. I believe that we’ve gone all the way to create an '80s game in all aspects of the game, not just the music—and that’s exactly how it should be. No half-measures. I get inspired a lot by early visuals and storylines and, to me, those things scream to sound in a certain way, so I just go with it. It hasn’t always been like that for me, but I think that’s just something that comes with experience and practice.
Also, in the end, I need to trust my instinct and create music that comes naturally to me, and not try to imitate something else that might not flow naturally from me—especially knowing that you need to compose a lot of minutes of music for a game, you need to be able to deliver that.
What sorts of audio tools did you use to create the sound of Kingdom Eighties? Did you use any particular equipment or instruments to capture the music of the era, or was it all done with modern tools? Why did you work with the tools/methods that you chose?
All music is created outside the computer with vintage, analogue synthesizers, drum machines, tape echoes, spring reverbs, effects and gear—and much is also recorded onto cassette tapes to give it character. Some favorites include the Juno 60, Oberheim, Prophet, CS-60, MS-20, Omnichord, D50, DX7, JX-3P, JX-8P, TR8, TR-55—and yeah, I could go on! I know I have a problem! But I have nine tape echoes and 16 analogue echoes and a Studer professional cassette recorder to record certain things directly onto cassette tape and then into the computer.
Very early on, I decided that I wanted to record everything outside the computer through hardware synths and equipment and keep it as analogue, organic, and human (by playing everything myself) for as long as possible.
My not-so-secret weapons are delays and echoes. There are delays on pretty much everything. Delay adds warmth, movement, and depth. You can take the most basic and boring synth sound—but when you run it through a great sounding delay—you instantly have magic.
If I were to pick something a bit special, then I have this Oberheim synth, which (amongst other things) is known for its voice panning. This means it alternates between the speakers from each note, spreading the synth across the stereo spectrum. It’s kind of weird, but I really like it! It’s what makes people go, “Oh, it’s an Oberheim.” I’ve used that extensively throughout—one of my absolute favorites. The track “Tangerine Fantasy” from the soundtrack is made entirely on the Oberheim.
There are times in the score, where it’s a bit more modern sounding, where I’ve added my spaceship of a modular synthesizer in order to create the darker side of the score, such as in the “Blood Moon” cue. All the more textural stuff that I couldn’t create on a limited classic '80s synth has been created on a more modern modular synthesizer.
Kingdom Eighties relies heavily on memories and references of the 1980s Americana, so I needed to reference the era very clearly. I wanted to make it cool, interesting, and evolving within the boundaries of the core of Kingdom.
The game is grounded in a reality of the time, but one that involves a supernatural slant. How did that affect the design of the game's music?
Good question. The music is customized to the narrative while referencing the era. To me, the narrative and “referencing a reality in time” (here, meaning the '80s) go hand in hand. I haven’t had the need to choose one over the other—they go well together. Some have told me that I brought in a bit more “horror” or “dread” to the story, which might be right. I wanted to go with the narrative and make it immersive, trying to get those dreaded feelings in there.
Days are great—nights are/can be—full of terror. I did however tone it down a bit to make sure it still fit with the rest of the story and mechanics while staying in line with my overall vision for the music. But as I mentioned in a previous question, the supernatural slant forced me to break the dogma by only using era-correct equipment and head for something more modern to create exciting and otherworldly textures.
Can you walk us through the creation of a personal favorite track from the game? Take us from inspiration to conception to completion?
It might be fun to talk about the “Blood Moon” track. It was one of the first tracks that I did, due to its importance in the game. I always start with the hardest, most complex parts of a project—get those things done, then you're golden. Based on the experience of the Blood Moon sequence in previous Kingdom games, I had a pretty good understanding of how the structure, build-up, dynamics, pacing, and duration of the Blood Moon track should be. So, I actually started with that.
I created markers and notes in my session to have a dynamic template for the music, like a three-act structure, which you often see in screenwriting; setup, confrontation, and resolution. At this stage, I had made approximately 12 '80s tracks in order to land the gig, so I did have an idea of the sonic landscape and which weapons to reach out for. Then, I started pushing my synths to their darkest areas and created sounds that sounded Blood Moon-ish to me, making use of lots of tapes and drum echoes. I needed lots of noise (good noise) and experimented with creating tape loops from cassette tapes. That worked out great, and I basically just trashed the sounds a lot to give it texture.
In my search to manipulate sounds even more, I routed many of them through my modular synthesizer, where I played around with them. I never know where I’m heading at this stage, so I just press record and explore for maybe an hour. Then I listen back and find snippets that sound good. The deep kicks that you hear—the ones that almost break up completely—are made with this wild electronic-acoustic hybrid instrument from Folktek. It has built-in contact microphones, and I made a sound on it where I hit it hard with a fist, which then created that deep, breaking-up/heart-beat-like kick. After creating a sonic arsenal for the track, I started putting it together with help from my pre-made dynamic template.
I ended up doing a few different versions of it, all with increasing intensity. Magnus, the sound designer of Kingdom Eighties, kept asking me if I could make it even more intense and dreadful, so he pushed me, and it was really fun. I like how it turned out.
I spent a lot of time tweaking how to implement the Blood Moon track so that my structure (setup, confrontation, resolution) worked as intended in-game. That part was actually harder than I thought, as many things can happen in the game, and you need the music to fit a variety of situations.
Do you feel that anything interesting came out of working within the constraints of the sounds of the '80s? Did it inspire creativity, and how so?
Yes! Those constraints really made me work hard, and I ended up creating many new cool sounds from scratch.
It also helped me in some ways. One of the hardest parts when starting out on a new project is how to limit yourself in all the choices and develop a strong concept. When you start out, you have all the opportunities in the world, which is overwhelming. That’s why I spend a long time in the beginning exploring and trying stuff out on my instruments, which leads to sampling material for me to use—all part of me narrowing down the choices and ending up with a concept. In this project, parts of the concept were given to me due to the title of the game.
It inspired me. The '80s had so much to choose from, so it never really held me down.
What feelings do you go through when you explore certain eras and sounds in the music you create?
It’s extremely inspiring, educative, daunting and fun. I always end up feeling that I’ve missed out on something, as I find and hear things that never crossed my path.
Even though some projects require me to explore certain eras and sounds, I always strive to be myself and add something else to the music. I want to create, not copy others, but I'm still standing on the shoulders of giants nevertheless.
Also, I get inspired by playing, touching, and hearing instruments, so I buy lots of instruments from certain eras in order to explore further. So, I always go through the feeling; should I buy this?