James Lester is a computer game design student and future star of the industry. After meeting him at an open mic night, I was keen to offer my services for any of his wildly inventive projects. Luckily he’s so prolific he had something for me to get to work on immediately!
I was pleased that he offered me the chance to make some music for his game ‘The Decline’ (working title) because out of all his projects that we talked about over beers, this is the one that piqued my curiosity the most.
It’s a psychological VR thriller set in a 1960s seaside town. The aesthetic is heavily influenced by BioShock and the whole thing seems drenched in moody atmosphere.
To start, James wanted me to focus on the game’s opening pub scene. Your character is a drunk, happily playing a game of darts. All very innocent, except when he starts hearing evil voices compelling him to kill!
From a technical point of view, it was explained to me that the character does not move and the scene serves as a device to receive the story. This meant that while the piece would still be composed of loops, the overall effect should be quite linear. This allowed me to focus purely on using music to drive the narrative.
First things first though, I needed to write pub music. For me, it had to be man at a piano belting out a good ole honky-tonk, ragtime jangler! I initially wrote a piano piece pretty quickly, but found it had more in common with Super Mario music than something lifted from a pub in the past. To solve this, I listened to more ragtime music for inspiration, and found that I was being a bit too rigid with my melody choices. I moved to a more loose style with lots of movement which instantly created something a bit more convincing.
Then came the fun bit! After consulting with James, I was keen to know how far he wanted us to take this. Did he want the voices to bring a subtle and psychological kind of horror, or did he want to go all out and make it sound terrifying?
Luckily for me James opted for the latter as his project appears to developing in a very sinister and dark way. Look at this screenshot!
I decided to bring in some ominous bass and choral sounds. I also isolated the main melody of the piano and faded out the supporting chords. This allowed me to create a sense of the pub still being present but becoming more distant and warped as the voices arrived. To heighten this effect I randomly moved notes from the melody around, as well as adding extra notes to create dissonance. I added layers of distortion on these lines, then I looped the final two clashing piano chords.
I wanted an almost Metroid/Norfair style moving part sitting underneath the piano to create a melodic sense of hellish dread. When I work, I like to find a sound first and find a melody second. In this particular example I was delighted that the random notes I hit to test the sound actually fit perfectly and created the exact kind of drama I was looking for! As a composer, I love it when a solution falls in my lap like this.
Finally I added some vinyl crackle and pub chatter to create atmosphere. Nothing says BioShock more than vinyl crackle! There’s even some campfire sounds mixed in to heighten the crackly effect, and this provided another hellish note to amplify during the final mix. I also made the piece modular, allowing James to loop certain sections as he sees fit.
I’m pleased with how it all came together and I hope to work with James again in the future. You can find more about him at www.jameslester.me.
If you’re a student that needs your project or assignment elevated to the next level, don’t forget you can take advantage of our student discount. James did!