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Balancing playfulness and sincerity in "chill beats" for Toem's audio backing

Road to the IGF: The minds behind Toem share their process for creating the game's music, sound effects, and overall audio landscape.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Toem takes players to whimsical place of cheerful, quirky neighbors and lovely photo shoots. Using your camera skills, you'll be able to capture the silly events and happy lives of the people here, all while offering a bit of help when they're in need. A task made undeniably more appealing by the game's delightful soundtrack and audio design.

Game Developer had a chat with Something We Made, creators of the IGF Excellence in Audio-nominated experience, to talk about finding the rights balance between whimsy and beauty for the music, the importance of capturing the feeling of a seaside town in Sweden through the sound, and how music can speak to us in ways that you really can't put into words.

Game Developer: Who are you, and what was your role in developing Toem

First of all, we’ve included everyone’s own answer so for you to understand and be familiar with the names, let’s introduce the team behind Toem!

Lucas Gullbo: My name is Lucas Gullbo, co-founder at Something We Made! I did the art for Toem, gameplay elements, and level building! 

Niklas Mikkelsen: Hello hello, I’m Niklas Mikkelsen, the other co-founder of Something We Made. I mostly programmed and did the business side of game development! 

Viktor Eidhagen: Hey I’m Viktor, the Audio Designer of Toem! I’ve been in charge of making sound effects for Toem as well as implementing them in FMOD. 

Joost Kraaijenbrink: My name is Joost! I write, produce, and perform under the name Launchable Socks, and I made roughly half of the music for Toem—the other half having been made by the great Jamal Green (with some additional music from the boys from the audio team Rumsklang as well as Anes Sabanovic, who made the Ratskullz theme). 

Jamal Green: I’m Jamal Green and I was one of the composers on Toem

What's your background in making games? 

Gullbo: I grew up playing on my dad's SNES, which lead me into a Game Boy (and like anything Nintendo related). and eventually a PC. At one point I Googled “hOw To MaKe GaMe??” when I was like 12-13 (2008) and found Game Maker 7. Used that for an extensive period of time, tinkering with game ideas and just posting things on Twitter. Once I started University, I got into Unity, and here we are! 

Mikkelsen: I’ve always played games, like most people nowadays have. My gamedev journey didn’t start until high school where I studied 3D graphics. My main project was to recreated the entire high school inside L4D2 (Spoiler: I was successful!). After high school, I worked “regular” jobs, and after 2 years I decided to give gamedev a try again and applied for a university and got in. Learned programming there and stuff. 

Eidhagen: I met the Something We Made devs while studying sound design in Karlshamn. I met Niklas quite early on and we hit it off. I loved their game dev style and they seemed to like my sounds! I made some sounds for a “submarine-simulator” in VR that Niklas and his friends developed, which was my first venture into making sounds for games. 

Kraaijenbrink: My main “claim to fame” in games (such as it is) is that I did music and sound effects for the student game Qbeh and its prequel Qbeh-1: The Atlas Cube, which I moved to Finland for in 2013 to work closely with the dev team. 

This not only meant that I could work together with the team’s coder to implement the audio the way I wanted (I had basically no experience in games at the time), but also that I could take my field recorder into Finland’s vast unspoiled nature and capture the incredible absence of human activity that you’d be very hard pressed to find in the crowded Netherlands where I’m from. All the audio in the game, including the music, ended up consisting of things I recorded, be it my guitar, things out in nature, in cities, around the office, or in stores where they sold toy instruments or other little things that made noise. 

Between Qbeh-1 and Toem, I’ve worked on what feels like countless projects that never saw the light of day, for which I’ve created soundtracks that range from synthwave/'80s rock, to neo noir jazz electronica, to dark ambient—all of which are still burning a hole in my hard drive. 

Green: I’ve been writing music for games for around 10 years. I started with mobile games whilst I was at upperschool/high school and found my way to bigger games, meeting so many amazing and talented people along the way. I saw Toem on Twitter in a very early state and was blown away by it’s aesthetic. I started the track that became “Life Through a Lens” soon after. 

How did you come up with the concept for Toem

Gullbo: Toem has been a long and iterative process. We’ve actually scrapped the game four times before coming up with the photo mechanic that is present today. The initial concept was born when Niklas and I finished some really hard and also stupid courses at university, and we didn't know if game development was for us. During that long talk, a sketch of quirky characters and islands was born. This sketch would serve to be the catalyst, as there was something in it that we simply couldn't get out of our heads. It had a vibe to it! Long story short, it took a lot of trail and error, frustrations, and of course time to figure out what Toem was supposed to be. A more detailed rundown can be found here.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Gullbo: Unity was used as the game engine, sketches were created on an iPad, and all visual assets inside Paint.NET. 

Eidhagen: DAW’s for producing sound effects and mixing/editing of sounds; Pro Tools, Ableton. Hardware Synthesizers: Elektron Digitone <3. A whole lot of junk found at home to hit and record. A bunch of sounds from Soundly. FMOD for implementing sfx to Unity. A couple of mics and a field recorder. 

Green: I write and record music on Logic Pro X, but the best development tools are the really old ones like guitars, pianos, and kazoos.

Kraaijenbrink: I mainly used Ableton Live, along with a little bit of Audacity, and like Jamal said, some good ol' fashioned tools like my acoustic guitar, electric guitar, ukulele and guitalele. I also found a couple of toy keyboards in a thrift stores and sampled and used those! 

Much of the experience of taking pictures throughout Toem is backed up by "chill beats." What thoughts went into deciding on the musical style for the game? Into finding a musical mood that fit the work? 

Kraaijenbrink: From my perspective, the musical style was influenced mainly by two things: the game itself and the interplay between myself and Jamal. Firstly, an important part of the idea behind the game was to capture the peace and tranquility you can find in small towns and nature in Sweden. Something We Made are based in Karlshamn, a small seaside town in southern Sweden, and if you’re ever lucky enough to visit, you can clearly see how this has informed the atmosphere of the game. 

Jamal and I had not been able to visit before the release of the game, but having lived in a small town close to the sea in Finland, I was at least able to tap into that experience of Nordic tranquility to get into the right frame of mind. To me, this meant things like spacious, yet warm tones—like the reverb-drenched acoustic guitar in Pine Needles. 

At the same time, it was clear from the start that these guys had an incredible sense of humor. The game is filled with cute characters, funny interactions, and little critters to hang out with/photograph. Plenty of stuff made me laugh out loud while I was playing, despite (or perhaps thanks to?) the understated humor. We definitely wanted to have these qualities reflected in the music, but at the same time we didn’t want the soundtrack to be too “whimsical” or “funny” so as not to undermine the sense of beauty and relaxation in the game. 

This was definitely a tricky balance to strike, and Jamal and I had a lot of conversations trying to work out how we were going to go about that. I remember at some point we said something like “90 percent pretty, 10 percent cute”. For me, that meant letting a little bit of my usual Launchable Socks cutesy electronica sound in, which I think created some interesting contrasts. In "Squirrel Photography", for example, I combined that same sort of spacious acoustic sound with a small, clicky beat and a sort of soft, conversational sine wave, like a small bird singing a soft song that carries through the forest. 10 percent cute bird, 90 percent beautiful forest. 

And, of course, working together with another composer meant trying to make sure our respective tracks wouldn’t clash. If you ask me, this actually turned out not to be much of a problem. We both make pretty chill music, but I think the combination of Jamal's more orchestral/organic style, with my more electronic, cutesy style only served to reinforce that juxtaposition we were going for, and the unique atmosphere of the game. 

Like a sort of acrobatic composer, Jamal seems to be able to effortlessly move from whimsical, cozy sections, through sweeping orchestral grandeur, to intimate, ambient soundscapes all in the span of one track that still somehow makes complete sense. We had a lot of fun working together, and I’m still especially proud of the two tracks we wrote collaboratively, “The Smiling Huntsman” and “The Big City”. 

Green: Joost (Launchable Socks) and I had countless chats about finding the balance between playfulness and sincerity in the music. Toem doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s also a heartwarming adventure that’s about helping people and being inclusive of everybody, so the music needed to reflect that, too. Because the game also allows players to select music they’d like to hear at any given moment using the Hikelady, we also made sure to not make music that’s too tied to certain events or regions, so the music tries to avoid certain tropes that only make sense when played at a certain place or time. 

What goes into a musical piece to give it that "chill" mood? How does striving for this kind of feeling affect the work of composing a track? 

Kraaijenbrink: I guess making “chill” music comes kind of naturally to me; I’ve always been drawn to dreamy, relaxed, playful, and cute sounds, and most of the solo material I put out as Launchable Socks is pretty laid back. That said, I’ve also made plenty of not-so-laid back music in my day, but to me, the process is not all that different. 

When I write music, I usually try to convey a little story, or create a tiny world. I think music has a uniquely direct pathway to our consciousness, which allows you, as a musician, to say things that you can’t necessarily say with words. This could be some state of mind, like a specific juxtaposition of excitement and peace you experienced playing outside as a kid, or it could be a direct association, like how screaming vocals, distorted guitars, and minor third intervals can immediately invoke “aggression” or “anger”. It’s the composer’s job to quiet the mind and try to channel those feelings and associations into the music. I think that process is similar, if not the same, for all kinds of music, be it chill or not. 

Green: Minimalism is the key to creating that “chill” mood in music, I think. It’s great working on this kind of music, and sometimes its an exercise in restraint—making sure you don’t add too much when the track already says everything it needs to say. Often taking something out of a track can add so much. 

Can you tell us about the creation of one of the game's tracks? The process of finding the right tones and sounds to bring a song together? 

Kraaijenbrink: Sometimes you spend a lot of time and attention trying to find the right tones and sounds to bring a song together, and other times songs just seem to fall right into your lap. For example, for the track "Tall & Shy", which plays during a snowstorm where you meet Tally, a really tall and really shy monster, I spent a good bit of time trying to create something that sounded cold, but not too dramatic or negative. I ended up with an ambient track full of airy pads, punctuated with some guitar harmonics to evoke a sense of twinkling ice or snowflakes, but that I felt lacked something playful to represent one of the cutest characters in the game. 

It took me a while to come up with the idea to create a sort of ‘conversation’ between the player character and Tally by recording myself saying “bop” in a low voice and “beep” in a high voice, which I think added just that little bit of playful warmth to cut through the iciness of the track. 

Then there are tracks like "Fisherman’s Tune". We were talking about the idea of a quest for the harbor region where you take the melody of a fisherman humming a tune to another character playing an instrument to assemble a song, and one day, when I was hanging up some lights in the house with my girlfriend, this simple whistled melody just *appeared* in my mind. I left that poor woman standing there clutching those lights, grabbed my guitar, and about an hour later this almost entirely fully formed track had materialized. 

Green: The process of finding the right tones and sounds to bring a song together? My sister bought me a Kalimba for Christmas in 2020 and I knew as soon as I unwrapped it that I’d like to make a track for Toem with it. I set up my mic and started plucking away at it. I drenched the recording in reverb and I was happy with, it but it was missing something. 

I didn’t know what it was missing until Viktor, one of our sound designers and mastering engineer on the soundtrack album, realized that the Kalimba part I recorded was coincidentally in the same key as an ambient music/sound design idea he had for the same area in the game. My Kalimba part plays over his ambient backdrop in the game, and the two meld perfectly to form a track I love. Viktor put the two parts together officially for the soundtrack album and the result is a track called “The Petting of a Sacred Deer.” 

Did some of the tracks developed not make it into the final work? If so, can you tell us why you cut them? What made them feel like they fit less, or didn't fit quite as well, as the other tracks you included? 

Kraaijenbrink: There’s always material that falls by the wayside, but it’s not so much a conscious decision to cut this or that track from the final product. It’s more the result of trying out different things, and then pursuing the ones with the most promise over those that don’t seem to come together quite right, or that just don’t feel like they’re as good a fit. 

Green: What made them feel like they fit less, or didn't fit quite as well, as the other tracks you included? I have a very early idea for a track lying around which I think might be the only track I wrote that I decided not to finish and therefore didn’t get included. We, as a team, decided early on that we wanted space between tracks to let the ambient sound effects take focus and allow the player to “breathe”. I was conscious of this as we approached the end of development, and whilst I still had lots of ideas, I didn’t want to shoehorn in tracks for the sake of filling in space. I think we struck a good balance! The audio effects are equally important in putting the player in a certain mood for the game. 

What thoughts went into the various sound effects in the game? In making them feel like they suited the mood of the game? 

Eidhagen: Since the game is about a journey, exploring new sites and creatures and enjoying the little things along the way, I wanted to have a really strong focus on ambiences, recording cozy and relaxing nature sounds found around where I live around in Sweden. A lot of time went into making sure the game sounded as cute and quirky as it looks, but still calm and soothing to not take up too much attention. I wanted to have small, subtle changes in ambiences and give even the smallest critters a sound to make the soundscape lively, vibrant, and “colorful” to give the player the feeling of exploration and immersion in this monochromatic world. 

Another big focus was to give the characters of the world unique personalities to feel like you met a variety of new friends on your journey. We wanted to have it feel like they talked Swedish without having recognizable words. I voice acted a lot of the characters, but we also have voices from friends, family, and even some of the devs' voices. 

To make so many different voices and animal sounds to belong in the same world, I made a granular patch in Arturia Pigments to chop up the samples, randomizing pitch, playback speed, direction, and position, and fed them through the same effects chain. I then chose the best and funniest parts, retaining the Swedish talking melody without having recognizable words. Effects are also vital to making actions satisfying and interactions memorable. 

What thoughts go into making an effect for an interaction - something like pressing the buttons on the camera - add even more appeal to that simple action? 

EidhagenThe UI sounds were actually the first we worked on getting right, and it took a lot of effort and iteration to make them feel satisfying and non-intrusive. It took quite a while until we found the right camera sounds. It’s a mix of recorded samples from my digital camera to samples from an old Polaroid. We wanted to have that analog, nostalgic feel to it. It’s really a combination of finding nice mechanical sounds and making them sit tight with the animation. Then, some light randomizing on amplitude and pitch to make it sound more natural and organic. 

In general, we wanted the UI and player sounds to feel snappy, fun, and organic. The navigation sound is a bunch of recorded samples from a small African hand drum I found at a thrift shop, almost like you're playing small rhythms while navigating menus. Many of the sounds came from me banging on random items with a wooden spoon, trying to make old-school cartoon sound effects. Like the emote-sound, which is a combination of a squeaky, wet, rubber glove and some stretching of tape. 

Overall I think the process of making sounds for Toem was to have fun with it and add some unexpected (and expected) comedic elements, like having a bunch of different horns, animals, and shouts randomized when you honk; it adds an element of surprise every time you interact with it. The devs really gave me freedom to try anything, and if the team started laughing once I implemented a sound, I knew it was a home run.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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