Ben Prunty is the composer whose music you've heard accompanying the death of your crew in FTL: Faster Than Light. His column for PC Gamer covers the role of music in games.
I recently finished the soundtrack for Into the Breach, Subset Games' follow up to FTL: Faster Than Light. Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy game about giant mechs, the apocalypse, and time travel. You can read more about it here. Making the soundtrack was a huge challenge, as the style was pretty far outside my comfort zone. Because of this, I thought it would be interesting to share some key parts of the creative process. Here are some of the decisions involved in making a game soundtrack.
Discarding the obvious
Let's compare it to FTL as an example. Like FTL, we decided that the soundtrack for Into the Breach should be something different than is expected for the genre.
Thanks to Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, media that takes place in space is often associated with music from a large, bombastic orchestra. We decided early on to simply not have any orchestral elements in FTL. After all, how could we even compete with the likes of The Empire Strikes Back or the Star Trek films? FTL's music featured smooth, melodic synths, lots of reverb, and a general sense of melancholy. This was apparently so unexpected that some early reviewers were put off by the style and recommended listening to orchestral music instead while playing. These days FTL's music has a pretty great reputation, so I'd say we made the right choice.
When the time came to decide what Into the Breach would sound like, we approached it with the same mindset. Into the Breach has thoughtful, turn-based battles, giant monsters destroying cities, and apocalyptic themes. 'Desperation' was a word we used as a guide for many creative decisions. So what does this sound like?
Sometime in the last decade or so, Hollywood decided somber folk music was the official soundtrack of the apocalypse. I'm not entirely sure what kicked that off, but since it's the expected music for that kind of setting, we discarded it from our potential concepts. Of course, deciding what something isn't only gets you part of the way. You still need to figure out what it is.
This turned out to be difficult. First I tried a lo-fi electronic ambient sound, with synth drones, white noise, and almost no melodies. This actually made it sound a bit like a horror game. It did kind of fit the feel we were going for, but none of us liked it very much. I then made a few quiet, somber ambient tracks, more melodic, with some cello thrown in for a more human feel. I was operating under the assumption that music for turn-based strategy games should be quiet and unassuming. But none of the team, including me, really liked the new tracks either.
Finally Justin, Subset Games' artist and co-designer, shared this video with me, and suggested I use it as inspiration.
These two cellists take Hans Zimmer's Inception score and put their own spin on it. The result has an incredible energy. It was essentially the antithesis of everything I had made so far. So I took that concept and ran with it, making a track that would eventually end up as music for Into the Breach's very first trailer:
As a group we decided to throw out the idea that strategy game music should be quiet, and for each new track I just kept iterating and refining the concept I built with the trailer music. I kept it more energetic, and stopped relying on synthesizers. We finally had a style for Into the Breach.
The style I had put together worked well enough, but I still felt like it was lacking something. Lately I've been teaching myself to play guitar. I have a Fender Stratocaster HSS and I love it. While I still consider myself a beginner guitarist, I found that muted rhythm guitar was something I was decent at, and I loved the sound. For one of the tracks, I tried playing a little muted rhythm part over what I had written. Suddenly the whole piece came together in a way I wasn't expecting. The riff I wrote for that one song became the defining sound of the entire soundtrack. It shows up everywhere.
I've isolated the guitar part from one of the tracks so you can hear what I'm talking about. There are three different guitar parts playing at once, with some delay effects added on top. Once you know what to look for, you'll hear it all over.
The art of implementation
One important thing I learned while transitioning from 'game music fan' to 'game music professional' is the importance of implementation. It's not enough to make good music, you also need to know exactly how to present the music. Where the music is placed, how it starts, how it stops, how long the silence is between tracks—it all has an impact. Even the best music can be placed wrong. For a perfect example of wonderful music that's poorly implemented, go punch a mudcrab in Morrowind.
In the beginning, we just had music playing pretty much constantly. Menu music would fade to battle music when the battle started, and would fade back immediately when the battle was over. This seems intuitive, but in practice it doesn't sound very good. Constant music can fatigue the player.
Here's one subtle but important change we made. In the game, the player chooses a mission from the map screen, clicks Start Mission, and then the mission starts. Simple, right? In the original implementation, the battle music would start the moment the player clicked that Start Mission button. Again, this seems to make sense, but I didn't like it. I felt that some of the drama and excitement of starting a mission was missing. So I came up with a new way for the music to start.
There's a moment in the beginning of every mission where you're placing your mechs in their starting positions. With the updated implementation, the menu music fades out when you click on Start Mission, but no other music replaces it at first. While you're placing your mechs, you hear only the ambient sounds of the environment. There's a tension now; the mission has started but there's no music yet.
Once you've decided your unit placement, there's an animation of your mechs dropping from the sky and slamming on the ground, and the music starts at the exact moment the last mech lands. It's a strong, dramatic start to the fight. The tension built by the silence is released. This all makes the previous implementation feel lifeless by comparison. And that's just by changing when the music starts!
Making the music for Into the Breach was a long and difficult process, but in the end we got something that I think is pretty unique and personal. I learned a lot from it. I’m excited to finally share it with the world. I hope you enjoy what we've put together! Let me know what you think of the game and its music on Twitter.