Gravity Ghost
16Mar/120

On Games, Music, and Inspiration

Today's post is brought to you by the awesome Ben Prunty, our music guy from practically day one. I recommend listening to track one on his website, especially the very first part. Note: I considered calling this post "Benjammin'", or "Space Jams" but then decided way against it.

Hey there,

My name is Ben Prunty. A while back I bugged Erin to let me make music for Gravity Ghost. Eventually she relented, so now I get to play with pretty colors and make sounds to match them. I've written a lot of music and sound for the production already, but unfortunately you can't hear it just yet. So let's listen to some other stuff instead!

Erin sent me several pieces of music, in the form of YouTube links, to give me an idea of what she was imagining for the soundtrack. It was a mix of folksy stuff and very eccentric post-post-post-pop. Or something. Have a listen:

Or how about this?

Okay, let's try something more conventional:

This stuff is awesome, and it's only a portion of the music Erin sent me. But how do I translate this into a whimsical/melancholy cartoony game about a ghost girl hurtling through space? When Erin envisioned her world, this was the music that accompanied that vision. And I'm tasked with extracting the essence not necessarily from the music itself, but from the feel of the music. Then taking that essence and cramming it into something original and new that fits the world and the game of Gravity Ghost. Did I manage to get my music to sound like the samples she sent me?

Spoiler Alert: my music doesn't sound like any of those. Or maybe it sounds like all of them. I don't know. I'm a bit of a Buddhist, so I say confusing things like that sometimes.

Let's look at some of my own inspirations, and then perhaps when you finally hear the soundtrack, you'll see bits and pieces of both Erin's inspirations and my own all woven expertly into the music. Or it'll sound like I just threw a bunch of stuff in a blender and hit 'liquefy' without the cover on. I'll take either one, really.

Have you ever heard the soundtrack to the old Super NES game Secret of Evermore? Jeremy Soule wrote it when he was 18. Eighteen! You know what I was doing at 18? Writing terrible, terrible music. In 1994-ish, at age eight-freaking-teen, Jeremy was busy writing what would become one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time. No game, before or since, has had a more distinct, emotive and unique thumbprint of a score.

In Secret of Evermore, a boy travels to a fantasy world. However, instead of being a fantastical fairy-land full of rainbow cakes and bunnies, the setting is a dangerous, dying world that knows it shouldn't exist. It's a very sad place, even though it's full of dinosaurs and pyramids and steampunk flying machines. How much of this information is conveyed by the story and how much is conveyed by the music? I don't really remember, but it's fascinating to me that I even have to ask that question. Enough of my talk, listen for yourself.

Wonder and sadness, seamlessly merged into one grand, haunting soundtrack.

You know what other game has a great soundtrack? EarthBound. EarthBound is the reigning king of all cult games. EarthBound is Einstein in a purple-and-orange pinstripe suit: brilliant, eccentric and bizarrely stylish. Also like our besuited Einstein: never seen. Which is too bad, because the soundtrack is all over the place and awesome. It's an absolutely insane mix of hip-hop, electronic, 1950's rock n' roll, ambient, jazz, overt Beatles references, and some creepy-as-hell sampling. Also, monkey sounds.

There's a part in the game when you travel inside a man who turned himself into a dungeon (his life aspiration; technically he's a Dungeon Man now). Once you work your way through his body, he congratulates you, spits you out and decides to join you.

So this massive 5-story man-dungeon-thing joins your party, and you actually see his huge body stomping along behind all the other characters as you go, taking up most of the screen. Within five seconds he gets stuck in some trees and can't go any further and decides that maybe staying put is better after all. Then you leave him there. Forever.

I wish I could be making that up.

The developers saw that five second bit of the game and said "Screw it, let's make some music for that part, because what the hell?" And here it is:

If you crank that, it'll seriously thump your speakers. It's some badass stuff. Keiichi Suzuki did not mess around. He ran that SNES sound chip like Henry Ford ran his employees. And like Ford, he got results.

In another section of the game, we shift perspective from main characters Ness and Paula to another hero, Jeff, in a boarding school in the snowy north (because Ness and Paula crashed their UFO into a crypt and are trapped there, naturally). Jeff wanders the halls of his cozy little school, stealing cookies from his friends and preparing for his journey to rescue the other heroes, eventually sneaking out of the building, to which he never returns.

For this 20-minute sequence, a lesser developer would've just slapped the same generic 'town' music they had lying around and called it a day. Not Nintendo. Not Keiichi. He wrote an entire separate piece just for that area, and you only hear it once. And you know what? It's brilliant:

It's catchy, evokes a snowy setting while still being cozy and inviting, and reiterates to the player that this is a new and different area of the game. EarthBound is full of brilliant touches like this. There are something like 120 tracks of music in that game. It's ludicrous.

If this all sounds like I'm rambling, it's because I am. But more importantly, I'm also showing you what I want to do for Gravity Ghost's soundtrack. I want GG to be musically deep. This will add context, texture and emotion to each area and hopefully, if we're really lucky, make Gravity Ghost a slightly more meaningful experience for the player.

I'm pointing to these games and telling you "this is the kind of detail, feeling and craziness I'm trying to bring to Gravity Ghost". It's more dramatic if you picture me standing on a cliff as I say that. And I guess the games I'm pointing to are giant, majestic cartridges floating in space.

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