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Developing to 120 beats-per-minute: A Highland Song Q&A

Inkle Studios co-founders discuss their approach to music, failure, and precision in their upcoming rhythm-action game.

Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

May 9, 2022

26 Min Read

It’s always so refreshing and inspiring to talk to someone who is clearly passionate about their work. But then, if I got to make a game with the music of my favorite artist, I would probably be pretty excited too.

Recently, I sat down with Inkle Studios founders Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey to discuss their upcoming game A Highland Song, which was announced back in February. In a genre dominated primarily by the Bit.Trip Runner series, this rhythm platformer has both a unique look and sound, set in the Scottish Highlands and to the music of Talisk, a Scottish folkband helmed by the famed concertinist Mohsen Amini.

Since it’s not often you see a game of its kind accompanied by anything but pop music or chiptunes, I reached out for some insight as to why they chose this particular sound and setting. The conversation was an insightful look not only at the design philosophies of the studio but also at how their shared passion for one particular band coalesced into a vision for the game and the challenges of programming to a whopping 120 beats-per-minute. We also had a chat about designing for consequence, the difference between failure and aberration in narrative development, and the concept of “failing forwards”.

Happening upon the perfect score

Game Developer: A Highland Song is very interesting to me because I don’t often see a 2D side-scrolling rhythm game. And I've never seen a rhythm game that uses Scottish folk music. I looked into the band Talisk after reading one of your recent Steam page updates; it sounds as though you are beyond excited to work with the band whose music inspired the game, as well as bandleader Mohsen Amini’s side project Fourth Moon. This is uncharted territory in terms of genre, but the beats per minute are there. Could you walk me through the decision to pursue such a unique sound?

Joseph Humfrey: I think unlike a lot of game developers, a lot of projects that we make kind of start with either a feeling or a scenario. So for example, like [Inkle’s 2014 game] 80 Days, we started with [Jules Verne's] book, but we also started with the scenario of, “what would it feel like to be on this journey?"; We didn't start with like a game mechanic. And it's kind of the same here. I grew up in Scotland--I don't have a Scottish accent, but I grew up in Scotland--and I always wanted to make a game that was set in Scotland.

I wasn't very serious at the time about the game [while doing initial research], I was just kind of looking around at various Scottish influences and listening to Scottish folk music. And having grown up in Scotland, I had a very clear sense of what I thought Scottish folk music was like, because in school [as] part of the sports lessons, we had to do Scottish country dancing, which is a bit like kind of line dancing, I guess, in the U.S. It has a very different feel to this high-beats-per-minute, Scottish fiddle music that we started to listen to for this project.

We genuinely fell in love with the style of the music. John and I are really, really keen on jazz, and it has these complex rhythms that we kind of recognize a little bit from jazz. It’s a totally different genre, but these kinds of skipped beats and surprising drum rhythms are really fantastic. We got really excited about the potential for having that kind of music in the game.

Jon Ingold: Well, one thing that happens on a lot of our projects as well is that, like you said, it's a side-scrolling rhythm platformer, right? We're bringing together lots of different things into [a] package. We quite often end up doing that; we don't really have one idea and explore it, but rather, three or four ideas collide and coalesce at just the right time. So, Joe was off building a prototype of what would become the high-level game kind of on his own time, and I didn't see very much of it because we work remotely these days.  At about the same time, I went to see a band called Ímar here in Cambridge with my family just randomly, and we absolutely fell in love with it. We got really excited about it, we bought their album and used to listen to it in the car, and that's the third band of [Mohsen Amini] this guy who runs Talisk.

He’s got so many!

Ingold: He's just unstoppable. He's an absolute force of nature and just keeps finding different people to work with. So when Joe presented this game and said, “I'm thinking of using Scottish music for this rhythm section,” I was like, “You should totally get into Ímar.” He was like, “Oh, I know Ímar”. We'd all found a way to this same musical source by completely different routes. It culminated in this nice way; when we finally managed to sign the contract with Mohsen Amini to get the music, the first people I told were my kids, and I was like, “Oh, we've got the Ímar guy.” And they were like, “Oh, brilliant!” So it can be quite hard to tell the narrative of how these things came together in the end.

"We don't really have one idea and explore it, but rather, three or four ideas collide and coalesce at just the right time"

Humfrey: Like you said, everything just came together from different sources and just bubbled out. I think we were inspired by some of this music, but it wasn't necessarily going to be rhythm-action, because rhythm-action is notoriously difficult, technically speaking--which, as we've discovered, it is! I think at one point, we were going to have that style of music, but it would be more in the background, and maybe it would be slightly rhythmic, but not like a full-on rhythm-action mechanic. But I'm so glad we just went forward with that.

It's so cool, getting into the middle of the game. You're sort of running along, after having done a narrative section and then you just hit this point where it engages, and you get into this flow of being in tune to the music, which just feels so in keeping to kind of this feeling of freedom, of running over the highlands. It just gels really nicely.

Ingold: I really like it, because I'm very much a narrative guy and I'm really not very good at platformers at all. But I'm quite good at Highland Song because I can do music. Having that kind of element to it really works.

Balancing rhythm with technical precision

Game Developer: I imagine precision is part of the formula. If none of you are musicians yourself, and you're programming to keep up with 120 beats per minute, there must be some challenges there?

Humfrey: You're absolutely right there. The thing that I found the most difficult on the technical side is that the precision has to be right at every single level. There's so many places where imprecision can creep in. On top of it being a rhythm-action platformer, it's semi procedurally generated. It looks at what the next few bars of the music are going to be, it's marked up in the game data so that it knows where all the obstacles are for each bar of the music, and then chooses the correct kind of puzzle piece of terrain to insert. It kind of has stretch and squash it to fit the broad shape of the landscape. The jumps have to be in exactly the right place. So getting the precision of fitting all of that together absolutely perfectly is extremely difficult.

In terms of accuracy, there's so many different places that it can go wrong. If you don't author it in exactly the right place, you could get stuck a couple of milliseconds off, which, you know, the human ear is very tuned to precision on that scale. 30 frames per second is a rough baseline of what you need. But actually, the ear can hear much more precise differences than the eye can see in the frame rate. If your frame rate goes down too low, then the game doesn't have enough time to get the accuracy right. I could sit down and list maybe 20 things I had to write just to get the basics to work at all.

Gameplay from A Highland Song shows the protagonist hitting nodes along the scenic landscape in time with music.

It's funny how very few games actually need that famed 60 frames-per-second. Usually fighting games are the only ones, along with rhythm games.

Humfrey: The other thing that we wanted to do--although precision is important--we also wanted to make it so that you don't have to be 100 percent precise. We didn't want this to be a hard-as-nails, Bit Trip Runner type game where you absolutely have to get it perfectly precise. We want you to be in the flow and we want to allow a slight amount of sloppiness for the players so that they feel like they're playing well, even if they're not.

Ingold: The weird thing about that is the game has to be even more precise so that we can allow the player a bit of flexibility over how they play. If the game's slightly out and the player's slightly out, then that's a huge amount of error and it's really, really obvious. The more generous we make the timing and the more playable we make it, the more the framerate needs to be rock solid the whole time.

Were there any technical considerations you had to make in order to make sure you’re hitting that 60 frames-per-second?

Humfrey: The main challenge there is that it's a 2D game. Well, it's sort of two-and-a-half-D: layered, 2D shapes that are textured. So fundamentally, it ought not to be too difficult to hit 60 FPS. Except that the art style that we're going for is a richly textured approach that looks really painterly. We're building up lots of different textured shapes that [are] kind of splattered over 2D cutouts. It's an art style that we love, but it's not necessarily the cheapest thing to render, even though it looks like it ought to be because it's 2D.

Ingold: You see quite a lot of those 2D, flat textured parallax layer games at the moment, and [A Highland Song] is kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from that. It's like a heavily textured 2D game.

Humphrey: One of the things we're aiming for is a really big sense of scale. We want to have mountains where you can go all the way to the top and for the camera to zoom in and still see texture in the grass, but then zoom out and see this really beautiful mountain that's unique compared with all of the mountains around it. So yeah, there's definitely a bit of optimization to do there.

Four examples of the terrain pieces used to procedurally assemble during the rhythmic sections of the game. Each represents a single bar of music.

Just for clarification, when you say procedural generation, is that the terrain points or just the landscape, or are they both being procedurally generated?

Humfrey: So broadly, the world is authored, but [...] in certain areas, we define an overall broad shape for that valley. And then within that, it can procedurally place small sections of terrain to fit the rhythm that you need to jump over.

Ingold: [We] actually pushed that quite far. When we originally had that concept, it was kind of a “broad slope with little rocks on the beach,” which is kind of what you might be imagining. But actually, it works really well with quite large sections. So we have sort of rope bridges and waterfalls and gullies and enormous rock climbs, but they're designed to fit exactly into the musical rhythm. So it kind of it really uses the authored poly as a very broad stroke for where you were and where you need to get to. And then the terrain in between it is actually composited on quite a high level of detail, to manage the gameplay and also be quite visually varied and interesting.

The conflict of survival and serenity

Game Developer: I imagine the variance of the setting is really important for somewhere as beautiful as the Scottish Highlands. You said you grew up there, right?

Humfrey: Yeah, I grew up in quite a lowland area, but when I was at school, there was an amazing teacher who used to take us camping up in the Highlands. So, three hours in a minibus to get somewhere that was miles away from the nearest hospital, which he used to be at pains to explain to us. We'd be camping basically out in the middle of nowhere. And it was really amazing because he would allow us a certain amount of freedom, that you don't really see very much nowadays. We were allowed to go up and go off in groups of three or four, and explore. And he made sure that we wouldn't go completely out of sight from somewhere where he couldn't see with a pair of binoculars, basically.

It’s funny how the worst-case scenario of that seems to be almost inspired the conflict at the heart of this game. Circling back around to that I was reading some game materials, and one of them had referred to this game using the word survival, that there was a survival aspect to it. Is that accurate? I couldn't necessarily read that from the trailer.

Humfrey: Yeah, no, absolutely. That's definitely something that we want to portray-- this kind of duality, of the contrast between both the beauty of the Highlands, and that feeling of rhythm and flow, but then also, the danger. Because the Scottish Highlands in reality, if you're not careful, can be extremely dangerous. It’s quite a vast open space, maybe not compared with, you know, various national parks in the U.S., but you can definitely find the areas where you get completely cut off and not see anyone for days. It can be extremely dangerous if you go off the beaten track. Sometimes the landscape can look, from a certain vantage point, you think you know your way, and you go down a certain ridge, and you end up somewhere that's completely not where you expected and you can find yourself lost extremely easily. As has actually happened to me in the past. And so that's definitely a side that we want to convey.

Ingold: I think the survival label is a tricky one, because it comes with a lot of baggage now, because it's such a well-established genre. You aren't crafting anything in this game, you aren't making fires, you aren't collecting resources, particularly from the landscape, you aren't killing any bears or wolves. So it's kind of survival in a much more simplistic sense, in that you're within this environment, and the environment does not care about you, and will not look after you, and like it's not been set up by a level designer to give you a health pack when you need one.

"...We want to portray this kind of duality, of the contrast between both the beauty of the Highlands, and that feeling of rhythm and flow, but then also, the danger."

Survival is the word that we kind of settled on but it's perhaps a bit closer to the sort of strategic management that we were doing in games like 80 Days. No one would describe that as a survival game ever. But you do have a resource, in that you have this money you have to offer, and you have this guy who you have to keep healthy and make sure he's okay. And you have to pay attention to the routes that you're taking and what impact they're having on those factors.

Highland is much more moment to moment than that, it's not really played on a strategic layer. There's no overview at any point. We keep stripping numbers out of the game. But [it keeps] that basic element that you're in this world, which can be beautiful, but can be extremely severe. And if you're not wise to that and you don't react to that then you're in trouble. That's kind of the constant source of threat in the game; there are no bears. There are no wolves there are no psychopaths. There's no zombies to kill, but when it rains, that's a serious problem. Kind of drawing that out to make that a really [meaningful] mechanic has been quite a lot of fun, actually, because it's quite an unusual mechanic again, to go with our rather unusual mechanics.

Humfrey: Yeah, the main broad game loop is we have a diet day-night cycle and so the thing you're trying to do is find shelter at all times. So the first thing you'll want to do is climb up a hill to be able to see the view, which is sort of like our map mechanic--it's this sort of like a map that you're only able to view if you get to a certain position or vantage point. From there, you kind of see "oh, there's, there's somewhere I could go and stay in shelter from rain". Then you descend, you find your way there, and then you've kind of progressed forwards. And maybe it's the next day, and then you can go up another hill. But the main danger is that you'll be caught out at night in bad weather, and then that could cause you serious trouble, basically.

Using 'failure' to feed narrative divergence

Game Developer: You mentioned that you don't want the game to be hard to the point that it's alienating, that you have a margin of error as players are doing the music portions. So with that in mind, what kind of design elements are in place for the player to actually experience consequences within that survival element while not turning them off completely? Is it as simple oh, you missed this three times, now you start back at the beginning of the level? What kind of gravity do those consequences carry?

Ingold: So, we have kind of strategy that we've been evolving over all of our games, which we call "failing forwards". The idea is that it's okay for the player to take actions that are unsuccessful, and for things to go wrong and make mistakes, but the longer that you can sustain the time in which those consequences are meaningful, and part of the gameplay, the better.

Take a music run, for example; if you trip in a music run and you miss a beat, we could just stop you and reset you to the beginning of that music run and demand that you keep bloody doing it until you get it right. But that's cutting down the consequence loop as much as possible. That's making it really very short.

It's much more interesting to say, okay, well while you're running, if you trip, okay, maybe you injure yourself and that's going to have a health consequence, which is going to last for the rest of the day. And if you trip too much, then you lose the flow which is helping you to run across this valley, which means you're going to have to walk. But if you walk, you're going to go a lot slower, you're going to use a lot more time, and you're not going to get to where you want to be because [the protagonist is] much faster when she's in flow. So then if you can pick up your flow again, and you can be successful with it, you can get to places more quickly and you can cover more ground, get into shelter before it's dark, and things like that. 

So a lot of the consequence, at the bottom end of the design, is really about time and how long it takes you to get where you're going. If a player is very injured, they're going to be climbing very slowly, they're going to find it difficult to get to places when they're on a peak [since] it's cold on top of a peak, right? So if you're off on top of a peak, you can't stay there very long if you're already suffering because you will run out of health. At that point you go down so you don't get much vantage point of the world, so you don't necessarily know where you're going, so you're even more lost.

I always think of it slightly like, when this kind of system is working--and we did a lot of this on 80 Days, we did a lot of this on Overboard--it feels like a farce. Like, one thing's going wrong, which leads another thing to go wrong, because and you're constantly going if I can just--

I was gonna say, it sounds really cumulative.

Ingold: Yeah, absolutely. It's all about just trying to create that sense of narrative momentum from the gameplay--like when you're reading a book and a character twists their ankle, that causes the next part of the plot, which causes the next part. It's not like "I had an encounter with this boss, I've just about survived it, then basically it's completely forgotten about, and I go over here and I do that." That's not how stories work.

In the story, you should be able to chain the events together and make sense of it. What we try to do is design loops and gameplay systems where that just happens. When we're testing the game at the moment, I'll be a bit too slow here because I'm paying too much attention to the environment and I'm enjoying what I'm doing and then that causes me to be on the peak too late when the thunderstorm breaks out. So then I end up sheltering in this little cave, which isn't at all where I meant to sleep, but then some other narrative encounter happens. And before I know I'm doing something completely different that I meant to do. And that feels great, because that's a whole unique threat that kind of wound itself out of the game.

Humfrey: What would be the worst case scenario is if you didn't feel like there were consequences to failure, and so you just stumbled through and you didn't feel like you care about the game or you don't really believe that it has consequences. What a lot of games do to get around that is immediately demonstrating "if you fail here you die and you have to reset." And so it is abundantly clear to the player that the failure has consequence.

But what we would love to do is move beyond that and rely more on the anticipation of failure. Games like Elden Ring, which I've been playing and loving right now, are fantastic. But one of the things that I've noticed is that although I get jittery when I'm about to beat a boss or something, because I know the consequence of failure. [But] at the same time, it feels like a kind of trivial kind of failure that when you die, you know it's going to be okay. You might lose a few runes, but you know it's part of the game's flow. Whereas if you have more of a dramatic sense of consequence, that you don't quite know what might happen when you when you fail, but you believe if you trust the game, that failure is significant, then maybe you don't ever have to actually die but always feel like you're just on the edge of your seat all the time.

Ingold: It really bothers me from a narrative point of view, because failure is...when you actually kill a player, you're kind of snipping off something off dead and setting it again. So like the final playthrough of Elden Ring, presumably, is just this complete ninja guy who goes around destroying everybody without any consequences at all. Because all the multiverses where he died, they get thrown away. And that seems to me like a very extreme kind of storytelling, when I think we can probably do something a little bit more subtle, if we just stop bloody killing people the whole time. And maybe I don't know, lightly wound them instead (laughs). That narrative could be more interesting.

"I think we can probably do something a little bit more subtle [with storytelling], if we just stop bloody killing people the whole time."

I find the Elden Ring comparison interesting in the sense that when I play a game like Elden Ring when I approach a boss battle, I'm like, I'm just gonna die anyway, I might as well try some stuff out first, see how he moves, test out some of my spells. Whereas compare this to my favorite survival game, The Long Dark, it's like, if I exit the door, and I go out into the snowy world and I get attacked by a wolf, I'm more likely to see how that plays out and if I can overcome that, rather than reload from my save file.

The game is very unforgiving with its survival elements but you really benefit more from seeing how challenges play out--for example, if I cross this next mountain ridge, I might find the rosehip leaves that I need to make the tea that I need to recover from infection I sustained after a fall. You're more incentivized to put yourself out there and possibly make more mistakes but you get more of a journey out of it. Your survival, your survival story, becomes an actual story, in the process.

Ingold: One of the games I found quite inspiring for this bizarrely, is Outer Wilds, which obviously is a time loop game, right? So it inherently is resetting you the whole time. But you tend to set off into space, aim for a moon, completely mess up the navigation of your pod, crash land somewhere else, and then end up discovering something. But the one thing I never did in that game was go, "oh, I was trying to go here, I didn't manage it, I'll reset and try again." I always played every loop to its conclusion, because that felt worth doing. And I love that, in the sense that the fact that I was rubbish at piloting my ship was a core part of my player's narrative. So you know, even this word 'failure' comes with this huge connotations. It's not really failure. If you're finding something interesting, it's just divergence, right? It's branching.

Humfrey: I always loved the idea of experimenting with making a game where failure rewards you more than success. Under the assumption that I think when you play exactly like you said, John, when you play you, you have this instinct to succeed. And like, you're never going to get around that. And so if you don't fail, or if you succeed, you'll win something and it'll be nice, you'll get a good feeling. But if you fail, it'll kind of move the game forward and do something else really interesting.

Ingold: We totally did that with 80 Days, because [with] 80 Days, if you play it well, you'd have the most boring adventure possible. The whole thing in that game is that as soon as you stop trying to get around the world in 80 Days, you have a much more interesting time.

As we're wrapping up here, is there anything you can share about recruiting the band, maybe how you guys approached them and secured their participation?

Ingold: I mean, we did it in the obvious way, really, in that we send them an email, and then we talked to them a lot (laughs). But you know, the one thing that I often say at the kind of the end of these interviews is that I'm so excited about being able to bring this music to a different audience. Like, I'm pretty sure there's a chunk of players--because they really are world famous bands, actually--and there will be a chunk of players, we've already seen this, who are like, oh, yeah, Talisk, I love Talisk. They're amazing. I think that their YouTube video has a million [views], whatever. But there's going to be a whole chunk of people who like computer games but have never stopped to listen to Scottish folk music, or even stopped to think about the existence of Scottish folk music.

And this stuff, the stuff that we've got, is extraordinary music [...] like it's not there because it's culturally important or interesting. While it is those things, it's just bloody good. It sounds like nothing else at all. And it's such a joy and a delight, to be in any kind of position to be able to bring that to a whole group of new people.

If that's your goal, it is working. I'd never heard this band before. My son and I just watched the videos and got chills. Did Talisk write new tracks for the game? And was that a collaborative process or do you just say, just give us whatever you got, I'll take it?

Humfrey: The latter (all laugh). Yeah, we sort of talked about collaborating a bit. But they just had so much great stuff. They sent over all of the whole back catalogue. And actually, because there's this one, prolific musician, he started these three bands. He introduced us to his third band that we'd never heard and it was like, what! this is better than the other two!

I understand how you feel about that though, like, as an aspiring game designer, if I ever got to make a game that was about Andrew Bird's music, I would die. So I can only imagine how much fun you guys are having right now with this.

Humfrey: I think commissioning--whether it's art or music, whether it's licensing to music--has got to be one of the most joyful parts of game development. Because there are things that are kind of difficult and rewarding, but it just doesn't stop giving that kind of... you know, when you when you go out and look for something or you ask an artist for something and they come back and produce amazing work, and you know that no matter what, you're going to have an amazing soundtrack no matter how bad the game is (laughs). That was the sense that we had while making Heaven's Vault when we got the music back from Lawrence [Chapman, the game's composer]. And we just thought, well, you know, if the game comes out, and it just disappears without a trace, we know it's got an excellent soundtrack. And that's just a fantastic feeling.

About the Author(s)

Holly Green

Community Editorial Coordinator, GameDeveloper.com

Holly Green has been in games media for fifteen years, having previously worked as a reporter and critic at a variety of outlets. As community editorial coordinator, she handles written materials submitted by our audience of game developers and is responsible for overseeing the growth of iconic columns and features that have been educating industry professionals under the Game Developer brand for decades. When she isn't playing about or writing video games, she can be found cooking, gardening and brewing beer with her husband in Seattle, WA.

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