In many ways we have entered the age of indie games. In an industry that is seeing some dissent to the usual big budget, high price point standard of AAA titles, the attractiveness of more price conscious games made on shorter cycles with smaller teams cannot be denied. Players get a chance to experience a wider variety of games, while publishers have to pump less money into studios (if the indie devs go through a publisher at all). As a result, indie games have carved out quite a place for themselves, and it isn’t going away any time soon.
Innovative gameplay and concepts at lower prices are what enamor players to indie games, and typically those players can handle other aspects of the game being rough around the edges. One such area is the soundtrack. A slightly generic music selection is tolerable, especially if the core gameplay is outstanding. And there are certainly indie games with great soundtracks, but even in those cases where more time is spent on the music, the production is usually outsourced. Most studios just don’t have the personnel to have a music department, especially when 3 or 4 people are pulling multiple duties on the rest of the game.
There is always room for an exception though, and Frozen Synapse was just that. Not only was it an excellent game, it also featured an amazing soundtrack that was done totally in-house by Paul Taylor, the co-owner of Mode 7 Games. Paul, who goes by nervous_testpilot when performing electronic music (and _ensnare_ for chiptune side projects), was kind enough to answer some interview questions for us:
What’s in a name? (Specifically your two performance alter-egos)
nervous_testpilot is a name I’ve been using for electronic music since I was 16! It’s definitely stuck – sometimes people shout it at me in the street (not very often) so it would be foolish to abandon it now.
I wanted a NEW name under which I might release some chiptune, so _ensnare_ was born. Most of the _ensnare_ tracks are somehow related to Starcraft (yes, I really am that nerdy) and there is a fairly well-known Korean Terran player called Ensnare. In the true spirit of stealing cool ID’s, I thought I would steal his! Hope you don’t mind, Mr Ensnare.
I originally thought of naming that project N-Snare, but there is a kind of urinary tract dysfunction aid called that, so I didn’t think that association would work particularly well.
(Follow-up question) Will your alter-egos ever fight in a sweet electronic battle that becomes a tale for a new game made by Mode 7?
This question implies a frivolity which I feel does not befit subject matter of this weight and portent.
Where did you start the creation process for the soundtrack? What was some of your inspiration during the course of the process?
I really started doing concept music for this project in around 2007, which…probably took place in my parents’ house where I was still living at the time! Thanks Parents! Now I am a real human being and live in Leamington Spa…so a lot of this music was written in Leamington Spa. I’m sure that’s the kind of information your readers will salivate over.
Inspiration: I really like late-90’s / early-2000’s electronica such as Plaid and Boards of Canada. I also listen to a lot of trance and other dance music. Finally, I’m influenced a little by other game soundtracks and the work of more innovative composers like Jesper Kyd.
Basically, I have always wanted to create a kind of weird hybrid electronic sound that’s a bit genre-defying and I think Frozen Synapse is probably the start of that.
Were there any situations where you found yourself finishing a piece of music prior to its appropriate level/situation/etc was complete? Did the music ever influence the direction of the game instead of vice versa?
Oh yes, definitely, a lot of stuff was finished before the game was done. We did originally think about doing dynamic music for this game, and I even prototyped a system for it, but actually dynamic music kind of sucks for the listener and the composer, so I thought I’d avoid it! Some people, like Jason Graves, are really amazingly good at dynamic music and I’m …not because I tend to go for a more track-based approach. I want to make proper pieces of music with a start, middle and end, and big melodic themes. There’s this conventional wisdom that you’re not allowed to do that in a soundtrack but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that’s not the case.
I actually started working with Ian, my business partner at Mode 7, because of music, so I think the games always influence the music and vice versa. We work on a lot of stuff together and the music is a very important part of driving the atmosphere of our games.
How often do you perform your music live?
Very infrequently these days – I used to do it a lot more when I was younger.
I do have kind of a problem with electronic music live from a performer’s perspective, because a gig usually involves a lot of faffing around with cables and broken computers, and rickety tables on dark stages: it’s quite far removed from a nice environment where you can be genuinely creative. If you talk to top live electronic music performers like Deadmau5, they will constantly complain about gigging because it’s such a huge time consuming mess.
However, when you have a setup that works, and some material all prepared, and you’re doing the right kind of gig, it can be an amazing experience, so in the future I’d like to look into doing it again in a more controlled way. Certainly, I’d like to get _ensnare_ out on the road at some point – I think chiptune gigs at game festivals / events are the way forward!
If you could reimagine (redo/create a homage to) a preexisting soundtrack, what would it be?
Well, in a massively predictable cliche, I’d probably say that Bladerunner is the most amazing soundtrack I’ve ever heard, so I wouldn’t mind a stab at that! Although, that’s kind of in the “untouchable” category.
Erm…games. I’d like to have a go at re-doing the Protoss music for Starcraft 2, and I wouldn’t mind a shot at Wing Commander: Privateer from back in the day. Honestly.
What’s next for Mode 7 Games after the fantastic reception of Frozen Synapse?
Well, I’m working on some new music literally right now – I have Ableton open in another window, it’s so exciting – for the first bit of Frozen Synapse DLC, which should be out in a couple of months. We’re doing a few things for that which should be good fun.
We’ve also started pre-production on our next game, which is very exciting. We’ve partnered with an amazing artist for this one and I think it’s going to take what we’re doing to the proverbial next level.
Oh, and the second _ensnare_ album should be out later this year as well! Larks!
Thanks for taking the time out to answer these questions. Good luck with the music and the game developing!
No worries – thank you very much for the interview.
You can check out some of the soundtrack I’ve been raving about below. You can also purchase the soundtrack from Steam for only $5.99, or get two copies of the game (one for you and a friend!) and the soundtrack included for $29.99. Either way you can’t go wrong.
[audio:http://www.mediafire.com/file/8gpx68iuughk9op/nervous_testpilot%20-%20Frozen%20Synapse%20Original%20Soundtrack%20-%2001%20Welcome%20to%20Markov%20Geist.mp3|titles=Frozen Synapse OST - Welcome to Markov Geist]
[audio:http://www.mediafire.com/file/pymhpg3fdvf99ds/nervous_testpilot%20-%20Frozen%20Synapse%20Original%20Soundtrack%20-%2002%20Focus.mp3|titles=Frozen Synapse OST - Focus]
[audio:http://www.mediafire.com/file/ab7wbqssca8aa7u/nervous_testpilot%20-%20Frozen%20Synapse%20Original%20Soundtrack%20-%2008%20Triumph.mp3|titles=Frozen Synapse OST - Triumph]
And always remember, a boombox is not a toy, and neither is a cataclysmic electronic battle between two musical identities fragmented from the same psyche. This has been your cautionary tale for the week.