“Why is the Princess in a Magic Forest?!” PART 1

It has been my dream to compose music for video games for a long time. Last summer (the year 2013), I was particularly motivated to somehow land a job writing for a game. I didn’t care what it was. I had been writing music for too long to have it just sit, unheard, on my computer hard drive. So I sent out a message on Facebook asking if anyone knew someone who was making a video game and needed a composer. A friend of mine who I studied with at Kyushu University a few years before was classmates with a guy named Michael who was currently hard at work making a game. Turns out he was doing everything from programming, to level design, to art design entirely by himself. Luckily for me he was in need of a composer. My friend put us in touch and we started communicating via Facebook.

Michael was working on a kind of puzzle game that he called “Why is the Princess in a Magic Forest?!”, or “Magic Forest” for short. When I first got in contact with him he had the basic gameplay mechanics in place, and some very rough-looking sample videos showing character movement, bad guy interaction, and general play mechanics. The actual visuals at that point were pretty much just stock models and bare grids. But I got a good idea of how the game was supposed to play.

He explained a little of the story and setting to me and asked if I’d like to write the soundtrack for the game. Of course, I gladly accepted.

I believe that it was that very night that I started work on the very first composition I would write for “Magic Forest”. I was picturing a dark, eerie forest that the main character would be making his way through. I wrote a melodic, yet somewhat dark and somber theme. I spent quite a few nights on it and was very anxious for Michael to hear it. I sent him the file and he gave it a listen.

His response: “I have to admit, I really like this piece. But it’s doesn’t exactly fit the world I have envisioned for the game.”

It turns out that, yes, the game is going to be set in a magic forest, but the overall feel of the game is less foreboding, and more whimsical and comical.

So that’s what I get for being too anxious and starting on the music before even seeing any concept art for what the game will look like visually.

It was a very good lesson that I learned right away. A game’s visuals are a key component in determining how to structure your music. You can’t rely on your own conception of what you feel a magic forest would look like. It may be the case that your image is entirely different from that of the game’s creator. Ultimately, it’s the creator’s vision that trumps and you must work very closely with them in order to settle upon a tone that works with his or her vision for their game.

I had been writing music just for the sake of writing music for so long that, while slightly disappointed that the piece I wrote wouldn’t make it into the game (though I should mention that I am planning on putting the track up on my Youtube and Soundcloud page so you all can hear it at least), I wasn’t really fazed. Michael described a little more to me about the game’s visual style and showed me some sketches and concept art he’d done. He asked for a more expressive instrumentation and a more whimsical feel, especially for the opening levels. He intends to divide the stages into sets of ten levels: the first ten being more the outskirts of the forest, the next ten actually inside the forest, then gradually getting deeper and deeper inside.

I got to writing a new theme, looking at the concept art for reference and inspiration. I utilized expressive strings and woodwinds, tuned percussion and harps. This would become the music that is played during stages 11 through 20.

In my current job I’m lucky enough to be able to take off about six weeks in a row during summer, so I continued writing almost every day throughout that summer vacation. I wrote the theme for the first ten stages, which Michael wanted to be even more whimsical than the previous theme I had completed. I then moved on to the main menu music, followed by some a dark, brass and percussion heavy “boss” theme for a special type of stage in the game. The last piece I wrote was the music for stages 21 through 30. The difficulty of the puzzles gets higher and higher as you progress, so the amount of time the player will spend increases the further in the game you get. Knowing this, I wanted to make a relatively lengthy piece for these final stages. I spent the most time on this last piece, and it’s definitely the most ambitious one I wrote for “Magic Forest”.

I finished composing all five tracks over that summer, getting a lot of very helpful feedback from fellow composer Chris Muggli-Miller along the way (Chris and I run a composing blog together called Compose and Contrast). But, as is often the case, the first time you think you’re done with a piece, your rarely are.

In the next post I will talk about how my “finished” compositions went through more changes over the following months.

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