Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as lessons learned from ten years of development with Ingress engineering director Michael Romero, how legendary Dwarf Fortress programmer Tarn Adams updated the game for its official Steam release, and how architect and solo developer Jack Strait made an entire horror game in PowerPoint.
In this edition, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine composer Ryan Ike delves into the score of Wizard With a Gun and how he worked through the disparate and conflicting sounds of two genres: cowboys and wizards.
Howdy! I’m Ryan Ike, the composer for Wizard With A Gun, a cooperative survival game about venturing into the wilds of a magical post-apocalypse. Players navigate what’s left of a world ravaged by the primordial forces of Chaos, all while fighting monsters, crafting spells, and then, ideally, shoving those spells into bullets and using them to blast Chaos in the face.
Aesthetically, the game heavily blends two different themes: Wizard Stuff and Western Stuff. You’ve got ideas like the untamed frontier, the sound of guitar chords across a campfire, and cowboy hats hanging out side by side with fireballs, bubbling cauldrons, and taller, pointier hats. The two aesthetics pair well together, and I wanted the soundtrack to reflect both genres in a unique, cohesive blend I have been calling “Arcane Western” (mainly because “Cowboy Castin’” and “WizardWave” weren’t catching on).
In this article, I’ll break down how I went about creating the arcane Western score for Wizard With a Gun, from defining the soundtrack’s overall aesthetic and designing instruments to match it, to creating diegetic songs that the characters in this world use to share their history and implementing it all in a way that encourages the player to wander and explore.
Elements and Elementals
Because Wizard With A Gun has a lot of Western elements, I wanted to make sure the soundtrack had the things you’d expect. Lonely guitar, heavy metallic percussion, choral shouts: stuff that makes you want to hot glue some spurs to the backs of your Crocs and head out to “see a man about a horse.” Even if you don’t know who that man is exactly. Or who the horse is, for that matter.
From the start, Wizard With A Gun was about jamming two cool thematic ideas into one game. The story, the core gameplay, and even the game’s title revolved around how fun it was to play with these two sets of iconography and see where they paired and pushed against one another—like a peanut butter cup with gunpowder and mugwort in it. (Metaphors are hard, but just imagine if that tasted good.)
As a composer, I’m always eager to experiment with new genres. It’s an excellent way to ensure my soundtracks for each game I’ve worked on have a distinct feel and personality. Two of my previous scores, West of Loathing and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, were also Westerns or Western-adjacent, and I was starting to get a bit of a reputation as the “cowboy music store.” And hey, I love writing Western music! There are way worse things to be known for. I could be the guy people come to for novelty rap songs that retell the plots of bodice-rippers I bought at the airport. (Actually? That sounds kind of awesome. Please reach out about that.)
When I started my work on Wizard With A Gun, it was obvious that I’d be including a lot of those Western elements in the score. But because I wanted this game’s soundtrack to stand out from my past projects, I knew I needed to approach the game’s magical elements in a way that set them apart. My main challenge: I had the Western part down, but what does wizard music sound like?
If you had to pick an instrument, one that painted the picture of a spell-slinging magic user as readily as an acoustic guitar summons up images of lassos and revolvers, what would you choose? If you said, “a triple-necked Stratocaster played by three sets of spectral hands plugged into an amp powered by draconic blood,” dang, reader. That’s impressive. I probably would’ve just said, like, “lute” or something.
In fact, I did say “lute.” Out loud, to no one, as I launched my music software in the early days of working on this soundtrack. My first experiments nailing down the “arcane” half of this musical equation turned out very medieval. In an attempt to conjure visions of dark, secluded castles and magical towers crackling with ominous energy, I took the folksy, finger-picked guitar sketches I’d written and juxtaposed them against 12th-century percussion, courtly flutes, and a host of instruments with extremely cool and serious names like the “sackbut” and the “bladder pipe.”
I even took a shot at making a brass sample that sounded like one of those long skinny horns they’d play when the king showed up. The ones with the flirty banner hanging from the middle?
The results would probably have caused my grandma to say something like, “Oh, well, isn’t that fun?” Which is Minnesotan for “What the hell did you do.” Everything sounded way too similar, and given that a lute is kind of just a scrunched-up guitar played by someone with bubonic plague, I guess it made sense. The horns and flutes got buried under the steel guitar. The strings and percussion congealed into a paste, and anywhere things didn’t sound bland, they sounded bad. This was less like that peanut butter cup I was after and more like ordering a milkshake and dumping a bunch of scrambled eggs and crab rangoon into it—great flavors on their own, but awful together, and everyone is allergic to at least some part of it.
The Van is the Plan
I tried a few other stand-ins for the “wizard” element in those early days, like an ethereal string section and East Asian percussion elements. Some things worked better than others, but nothing was really clicking the way I wanted. It was a feeling artists of all kinds deal with constantly: “I know these two puzzle pieces would go great together, but I can’t tell how they fit.”
A question I sometimes get is “What project are you most excited to do, but haven’t gotten the opportunity to yet?” The answer changes over time, but it’s always some variant on one idea: I want to write a soundtrack you could paint on the side of a van. Imagine driving down the highway and seeing a Chevy Astro fly by, an over-the-top fantasy scene airbrushed onto nearly every surface. A wizard screaming into a crystal ball, dragons swooping through a multicolored thunderstorm, a barbarian woman flinging herself ax-first into a horde of skeletons. I wanted to make the musical version of that.
Thinking about that van was what caused me to realize I was approaching this soundtrack the wrong way. I kept trying to use musical elements that sounded like they were from a time when mages felt real; they were too tried-and-true. But just like taking a huge, boxy 8-seater from the ‘70s and painting an ancient-looking mural on the side of it, I think it’s always interesting to take story elements that seem like they’re from wildly different time periods and see how they interact.
Cowboys are cool. Wizards are cool. You know what else is cool? Anachronism.
Guitars and timpanis immediately transport a listener back to the wild frontier of the 1800s, or, at least, our romanticized idea of it. But for the magic half of our theme, it turned out that what I needed wasn’t something that evoked an ancient or musical age. The key to landing Wizard With A Gun’s musical identity was pairing the cosmic, weird, and seldom-heard with acoustic strumming and whip cracks
Wave Meets West
As soon as I started mashing ‘80s-era synth sounds with Western elements, I was thrilled. Trying to combine physical instruments from two eras hadn’t worked because the parts all fought with each other over the same couple of roles, like people arguing over who would play which slots in a team-based shooter or MMO. There were only so many open slots for Tanks or Damage Dealers, and I had too many players fighting over the same positions.
Swapping in electronic sounds for the magical part of our aesthetic solved the problem almost instantly. Now the two halves of our theme couldn’t fight with each other; they were too different to conflict. Referring back to the MMO analogy, it felt like adding a bunch of new roles for my players, like Spy or Support classes. The instruments no longer got in each others’ way because there were more varied positions to fill.
I decided the guitar would serve as a core for most of the soundtrack, with synths providing color and flavor. Keeping acoustic guitar as a constant presence throughout the score served as a familiar anchor for the listener, meaning I had the freedom to remove a lot of the other traditional elements they’d expect to hear in a Western and replace them with alien-sounding electronic variants instead. Because I wanted a saturated, analog feel for the score’s synth elements, I built a lot of custom sounds in Alchemy, a synthesizer that has a great “weird cosmic” flavor. It also has a lot of versatility in designing synths that mimic organic instruments. This was perfect for creating digital sounds that approximated the dramatic vocals, jingling spurs, and blaring horns of a typical Western score but in a more mysterious, ethereal package.
You can get some insight into my synth design process in the video below:
Guitars from the Stars
As the soundtrack came together, I wanted to build on the idea of our wizard and cowboy themes having a symmetrical relationship. In the same way I was creating synthesizer patches that sounded like lonesome whistling or harmonica, I wanted the guitar to embody some magical strangeness of its own.
Typically, guitar parts for Western soundtracks are recorded in a small, intimate space. Often it’s a tiny soundstage or a cramped wooden booth, which lets engineers really isolate the instrument so it can easily be mixed to stand out, front and center. To give Wizard With A Gun’s guitars an arcane feel, I wanted them to sound less like instruments being played in a cozy recording space and more like ancient, heavenly objects echoing through a solar system.
I used a reverb plug-in called Supermassive, which lives up to its name by making an instrument sound absolutely huge. Adding subtle warping effects like flangers, phasers, and delays helped give the guitar parts a touch of “Color Out of Space” energy. I walk through some of the steps in this video:
A Versatile Spellbook
This approach to representing both of Wizard With A Gun’s major themes turned out to be highly adaptable. Having two sets of varied and distinct instruments meant that we had a lot of musical vocabulary that we could articulate in diverse ways.
Because the acoustic Western sounds and the saturated synth sounds were so different, I treated them like a dial I could turn in either direction. For example, Wizard With A Gun has a day/night cycle, and during the day, the guitar and other Western aspects of the score are brighter, louder, and more obviously present, while the synths take a backseat. At night, when enemies behave more erratically, and the environment is generally darker and more ominous, a second version of each location’s music plays that brings the synth elements to the forefront.
Because these two musical ideas work as a team, the player notices when one is absent. Turning the imaginary dial towards “Western” or “arcane,” enabled us to quickly cue the player to a change in their surroundings. For example, note how the music in the Tower–the player’s expansive home base, located in a magical dimension outside normal space–lacks almost any Western elements whatsoever, signifying you’re in a magician’s stronghold where the forces of the wild frontier outside are held at bay:
In the Barren Sea, we take the opposite approach. This area was once a thriving oceanic environment, but the apocalypse has turned it into a blasted wasteland. It’s the closest biome we have to a classic cowboy setting, and so here, the guitar, bass, and western percussion make up most of the music, communicating to the player that you’re in our game’s version of the Wild West.
The Western instruments have a largely fixed sound palette throughout the game. Their grounded, rustic presence keeps the player in mind of the game’s untamed, survival vibe, no matter where they are. By changing the mood and tone of the synth instruments I was using, I was able to color the Western elements without trampling on what makes them what they are. Note the chilly digital bells used in our arctic region, the Frozen Wastes–
–and contrast that with the murky, aquatic synths used in the swamps of The Fell.
A lot of Wizard With A Gun is about exploration and thoughtfully probing into an unknown and often dangerous environment; most of the score lands on the slower, more atmospheric side to match. Boss battles, meanwhile, were my chance to crank the intensity all the way up, and I was thrilled to learn that my electronic/acoustic combo worked just as well here. Synths and acoustic guitars both have what I would call the “Sigourney Weaver range”: they’re just as comfortable making you cry as they are at kicking ass. Opposing musical ideas that blend well in one context will often work well in others, and in a high-tempo, action-heavy track, the Wizard Stuff and the Cowboy Stuff gave me exactly the “O.K. Corral but with fireballs” feel I wanted. My peanut butter cup tasted just as good whether I was eating it in bed next to an incense burner or as a treat after robbing a Jamba Juice and burning down a strip mall.
Wizard With a Gun is a game whose core identity is based on merging two different but highly recognizable themes. In trying to apply that same idea to the soundtrack, I started off too literally, and things suffered as a result. “Make music that sounds like cowboys, and music that sounds like wizards, and smash them together.” By stepping back and focusing not on the actual genre tropes being used, but on how heavily they contrasted while still complimenting each other, we were able to write a soundtrack made from equally distinct pieces that still worked in harmony. Acknowledging not just what the game’s themes were, but how they interacted with each other, allowed us to create a score capable of supporting and showcasing those diverse ideas without getting in its own way.