The Making Of A Video Game Soundtrack: Music From ‘The Gardens Between’
Tim Shiel had a challenge. Make music about childhood memories and friendship to play in a non-linear, interactive medium – a video game – that also happened to feature time-manipulation.
To do this, he’d throw out the traditional, expected video game sound, and collaborate with twenty or so friends, including Wally de Backer, AKA Gotye, playing the Ondioline, an experimental synthesiser dating back to 1941. He’d work on the soundtrack on-and-off for four years, practically an eternity when other soundtracks are written in a matter of months at best.
Oh, and he’d choose to release his music as a separate entity from the game, with many of his collaborators’ performances featured prominently as a kind of parallel, standalone listening experience.
The game is The Gardens Between by Melbourne’s The Voxel Agents – a surreal, puzzle-based memorial to childhood that just last week won the 2018 Australian Game Developer Awards game of the year. The music is Glowing Pains: Music From The Gardens Between, available now. We sat down with Shiel to talk about this unconventional marriage of music and video games.
How did you become involved in The Gardens Between?
Well, the first time I met Henrik [Pettersson, the game’s director] we actually didn’t talk about the game. It was at the Australian Game Developer Awards in 2014, and I was there with [Shiel’s previous video game music project] Duet, so I was there with Kumobius.
We were nominated for a couple of awards, and at one point an adorable, excited Scandinavian man came over to Tom [Greenaway] from Kumobius with an iPad and asked him if he had a moment to play an early build of the game.
That was really fun to me. It’d be like going to a music awards night and people were just wandering around with their iPhones or something and going, “Can you listen to a new a mix?”
I watched Henrik demo the very first build of The Gardens Between to Tom, and just that simple mechanic of moving time backwards and forwards really captured me. A couple of months later Henrik reached out and said that he’d like to work together.
Why was he interested in bringing on a composer so early do you think?
Many game development studios would just wait till the end.
Like special sauce on top of a meal.
Yeah. For some games that works fine. But I think right from the start Henrik had an awareness that the music and the sound was going to be a very important part of the emotional storytelling.
Can you describe the sound of the game?
The game is about — without giving too much away — childhood friendship. It’s about a time in your life when you have these really close, deep and important friendships. They’re friendships that are innocent but really deep, and nine times out of ten they don’t transition into adulthood. I think a lot of the game, at least for me, is about that bittersweet feeling, that memory.
“I’ve got to create a piece of music that doesn’t necessarily have a start, middle and an end.”
Trying to nail that as a core thing in the music was really important. Beyond that, generally trying to get a balance of the surreal and the real in the music was important because the game it is about those real friendships and memories. You’re meant to think about your own childhood when you play it.
How does the music work in the game? Is it looped?
Yeah. A lot of the music is designed to play for hours if necessary. If a player flies through a level they might only get thirty seconds of it. Or they might be sitting listening to it for ten or twenty minutes. That’s fun having to compose with that in mind.
I do love the challenge of having to write music for a non-linear experience. I’ve got to create a piece of music that doesn’t necessarily have a start, middle and an end. That is a really interesting challenge for me.
We experimented with doing more dynamic things, sort of having instruments come in and out as people move through the levels. Because of that core time mechanic where you can move time forward or backward, one of the first things that I did was experiment with that about what’s it going to feel like if the music starts playing backwards when you move backwards.
That was the most obvious thing to try. In the end, we didn’t do that because it felt too gimmicky, it just didn’t feel appropriate to the tone of the game which is really meditative. It’s meant to feel calming. When you’re solving these puzzles quite often you’re having to move forward and back a lot. I didn’t want the game to be going [Shiel makes a sound with his mouth that sounds like music playing backwards] every time you do that, it just didn’t feel right. It felt like a trick rather than a mood.
It seems to me like you can do those really intricate systems, but a lot of the time the end result is no better or worse. People make those audiovisual links even if they’re not actually there.
I remember when Duet came out and a lot of people were saying how cool they thought it was that the puzzles had been designed to line up perfectly with the tempo of the music that was in the game. In fact, it was none of that had been planned and people were forming their own experience of that synchronicity.
“I would love for this record to be evaluated as an album rather than as a soundtrack.”
How did you go about asking, ten, twenty mates to work with you on a soundtrack?
I asked about thirty. I got nearly twenty of them.
How does that work?
I basically had three pieces from the game that I sent off to all of those twenty people, and I gave them some background on the game. I encouraged people to send back improvised parts of it. Some people sent through things that had been a bit more prepared. The final track on the record is by an Adelaide artist called Lonelyspeck — they sent back essentially a prototype of the song which, almost in its entirety, just ended up in the record.
Other people, like Wally de Backer, sent through a bunch of improvised parts on the Ondioline [an early and rare synthesiser].
How do you say that?
I’ve seen it written down many times but never actually heard it spoken.
Yeah well, he basically just fired the Ondioline up, put the music on and just improvised. He sent me these long recordings over each of the three bits that I’d given him. That’s the whole record.
What do your many collaborators bring to the soundtrack?
Most of the collaborators on the album are not actually in the game itself. It felt like the album was an opportunity to extend the music in the game.
That’s reassuring because I was listening to the soundtrack release and I was like “Trumpet? I don’t remember trumpet in the game!”
There’s some overlap between the game and the album but I was very keen to not just grab all of the *.wav files that were embedded in the game and plonk it on a digital release. That’s fine in some situations but it just didn’t feel right for this. I felt like there was an opportunity for me to do something a bit deeper than that.
In the film music world, film music purists get real mad that not every second of score in the movie is released on the album, or maybe in a different order than it is in the film.
It upsets them.
I think with games because every player’s musical experience can be different, you’ve just got to bite that bullet and create the listening experience that reflects the game.
I thought about this a lot. I would love for this record to be evaluated as an album rather than as a soundtrack. Soundtracks can be siphoned off into their own category, and I wanted to at least open the door for that to not happen with this record.
I also want the album to be a thing that can be experienced without the context of the game. It’s just an interesting world, an interesting collection of moods and emotions that hopefully carries through even if you’ve never played the game. I’m proud that the record is its own beast.
Dan Golding is a videogame composer, co-host of ABC iView’s What Is Music, and a lecturer at Swinburne University.