Interview: Aquaria Piano Jam - Alec Holowka's Watershed Soundtrack Release

We catch up with Aquaria co-creator Alec Holowka to discuss the soundtrack he created for the IGF-winning indie game, centering on the new deluxe double CD of the game's musical score.
[We catch up with Aquaria co-creator Alec Holowka to discuss the soundtrack he created for the IGF-winning indie game, centering on the new deluxe double CD of the game's musical score.] Having recently been nominated for a German MTV Game Award for Paper Moon, Alec Holowka has been busy shipping copies of his two-disc original soundtrack album for Aquaria. The game, created in collaboration with Derek Yu as part of Bit Blot, took the top prize at the 2007 Independent Games Festival, an event Holowka describes as a personal watershed moment, "where timelines diverge." He celebrated the album release with a streaming piano jam coinciding with the first CDs being packaged and shipped. The new album includes cover art by Katie de Sousa, an eight-page booklet, mini-poster containing composer's notes, and additional audio content not found in the game. Jenna Sharpe's work providing the voice of protagonist Naija is represented by a never before heard nine-minute track. Danny B even throws in a scintillating remix of the miniboss battle theme. This interview with Holowka touches on the thematic continuity bridging the Aquaria soundtrack with the upcoming Infinite Ammo-developed game Marian. The discussion also offers a look at how the making of the soundtrack reflects the game creator's broader perspective on design. Congratulations on the success of your original soundtrack and the piano jam release party. Can you tell us a little about how this series of live music performances got started? Alec Holowka, Infinite Ammo: It began as recording snips of video of me playing the piano. The first was for Aquaria, then I did one for Paper Moon and Verge. Then I got the idea of doing it live. The goal is to keep playing for as long as possible without getting boring. This most recent one coinciding with the soundtrack release was kind of neat because we were shipping CDs at the same time. Was Kenley Krisofferson over? Kenley showed up because he ordered a copy of the soundtrack but didn't want to wait for the shipping, since he just lives down the street. Once he was there I convinced him to do some jamming too. He was rocking out some tunes and I started playing the spoons. It was pretty cool. You've appeared on Kenley's podcast Into the Score and talked about the process of making Aquaria. Seeing as both of you are game composers and you're living in the same neighborhood, does that offer the opportunity to exchange views on the state of videogame music? He's got a different way of thinking about composition, much more formal/ theory-based. There's a group here called Music Manitoba that's looking into setting up a training course for people who want to get into game composing, and they've talked to me and Kenley. Its really cool to have talented, good-humoured people living nearby - especially ones that you can get drunk with. You're often seen wearing a FEDGE (formerly FEZ) t-shirt. Do you sense there is a feeling of camaraderie among Canadian indie developers? It's really all indie developers. I'm close with the Blurst guys, for instance. It does feel cool to be part of the Canadian scene, too. I'm working with Phil Fish on an iPhone game and I've been out to Montreal to hang out at their office. On the subject of Blurst, your collaboration Paper Moon was up for a German MTV Award. Did you see it coming--I mean did you feel like you were due for a German MTV nomination at this point? No, I didn't know that Germany had MTV. There are things like that sometimes, that just randomly pop up. I submitted the game to the Unity Awards, because Paper Moon was made with the Unity3D game engine, and it got to be a finalist. The German thing just kind of came out of nowhere. I don't know how they picked the entries. Aquaria won the IGF top prize for 2007. Do you feel this was a significant event in your career as a game developer? For me it was kind of like what Doc Brown explains in Back to the Future II, about how "timelines diverge." It was kind of one of those moments. I remember thinking before the awards were announced that either we would win, and that would be a certain timeline, or we'd lose, and that would be completely different. It really helped propel the game to succeed financially and helped provide us with a base to do other stuff. Were you considering a soundtrack album release at the time of the IGF? The game was nominated in four different categories in the IGF, including audio, but the music has changed a lot. Finishing the game involved writing music with lyrics, and there's also a story point in the game where there's a melody you hear that's in 99% of the tracks called the Verse theme. It's a twelve-note sequence transposed and played around with on different tracks, so you don't notice it unless you're looking for it. It actually ends up becoming a story point later in the game. It was something I was doing with the music for fun and only later on at the end of the game I realized that it fit to be part of the story. There was a period of a month or two where I was doing nit-picky work on the rest of the game, where I was sitting on how the game was going to end. When we got to that point, it didn't feel "done" yet. One day I recognized there was this thing and there was already an established name for it. That kind of tied the whole thing together. Yesterday when I was jamming I started merging Terra's Theme from Final Fantasy VI with the "Verse Theme" from Aquaria and the theme from Marian. I don't know if anyone noticed it, but stuff like that gets me excited. For Aquaria, you and Derek Yu actually built the game sequentially from beginning to end? Yeah, in certain respects we did, which is kind of weird. We'd go through the entire game and block things out linearly, mapping out the areas and then going back later to add a bunch of detail. It works surprisingly well to create interesting threads at the beginning and let them develop on their own, picking them up later to resolve them. It gives you room for creativity and experimentation. You see in your own process spontaneity and experimentation? Definitely. I want to be able to go on interesting tangents and see how it fits in. There are so many different ways to celebrate creativity musically. At the end of the piano jam that we did yesterday we started playing things with the packing materials, doing this weird ab lib percussion thing. It might be seen as analogous to the emergence of videogame music, having only sine waves to work with and turning that into a recognized form of music. That’s what games are about. All you have is this computer, and while they’ve become more and more malleable, what matters really is the way people are using them, how clever and creative they are in making something interesting. Naija's songs in Aquaria are performed by the player by opening the song circle menu, and these songs grant her powers to overcome obstacles encountered through her quest. Is it right that these melodies are often related to the background music? They are linked in certain respects. The Energy Form song, a descending three-note tune, is used as a jumping off point for the melody of the Energy Temple, which is where you find it. The boss theme from the same section has that running through it in a more subtle way. In the same way, in one of the first caves that you go to there's a song that you learn to open this spiral door, and that melody is playing in the background the whole time. Another thing that's a little bit interesting, some of the levels are in different keys. Certain levels are in D minor and others are in C major, and it changes which notes you can select in the song circle. How have Danny B and Brandon McCartin contributed to the original soundtrack album? Danny B did a remix of the miniboss music and he also mastered the CD for me. I know him through Adam Saltsman, the guy who created Canabalt, and we met at TIGJam this year. We were hanging out and he just offered to help me out. His track was just released on OC ReMix. Sometimes he has this flavor that reminds me of Amiga music, a computer I played games on as a kid. He did that a bit with his Aquaria remix, which I really liked. Brandon actually worked on Aquaria, doing scripting for some enemies and a little bit of level design. He's an indie game designer that has a cool approach to writing music. He did a couple arrangements of the tracks that are not what you would expect in a remix. How did you get in contact with Katie de Sousa, the artist who drew the album cover? That was through a guy that I knew in Winnipeg. She's a really talented digital artist. We're working with her on Marian, along with five other people. With Marian, you are currently composing the music? I've already written a bunch of music for it. I'm very in tune with the emotionality of the game. Usually it takes me a lot longer to write music, but I feel like I know exactly what it should sound like. The music is a huge part of the game and there's a really nice base. Whereas with Aquaria I started out with temp tracks of heroic themes from Final Fantasy and Zelda, only later realizing it needed to be more ambient. You have given a lot of thought to integrating music together with the voice acting and narrative of Aquaria. Do you feel that this is an important principle of your approach to game design? I think storytelling through games is much more effective if you can marshal all the different components to work as a whole, rather than treating them as separate entities slapped together. If you develop these things concurrently, they have a chance to grow, intertwined. If for instance the game can change to allow the music to be more interesting, the end results are way more interesting. That happens way more with indie games because you have really small teams working on them. How did you go about working with Jenna Sharpe on the voice for Naija, while you're all in different locations? Jenna's in England, I'm in Canada, and Derek was in the United States. It was kind of crazy because you don't have the same kind of contact you would have if she were local. We would give her notes on the character over Skype, talk about it a bit, then she would go to the studio. Later she would send us a big file. Fortunately for us, she understood the character - and she nailed the part. There are certain points in the game where you'll hear Naija sigh, laugh or take a sharp breath in awe, so for sound effects she did a round of takes at the studio and I picked out the ones that worked. It was a really positive experience working with her because she was really interested in the project and actually flew out to the IGF to be at the awards. She just was involved in a way that was really helpful. What direction did you decide on for the soundtrack album's new vocal track? "Fear the Dark" is sort of like a summary of the game and a personal song. It's nine minutes long and Jenna sings throughout. The track she did that's in the game "Lost to the Waves" I was impressed with, and this is kind of upping the ante. She came up with additional vocal flourishes that she could do, like taking the melody of "Lost to the Waves" and overlaying it on one part of the song, which worked out really well. Marian is actually going to touch on some of the same themes, and in that way the song is almost a bridge between the two games. I see it as a spiritual successor, almost like a commentary on it. Time will tell if that's actually how it turns out. [Aquaria Original Soundtrack can be ordered from Infinite Ammo as physical or downloadable media, and also through Images courtesy of Bit Blot and Infinite Ammo.]

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