2012 Global Game Jam Post-Mortem # 2: "A Short Tail"

 

As promised, here is the second of five post-mortem posts related to the 2012 Global Game Jam.  If you did not read the first entry in this series, I highly recommend that you do so to get some basic information about the 2012 GGJ and a rundown of the games and topics in this series.  The next four posts will delve into the music composition process for each game I worked on over the GGJ weekend.  The posts will be released in the general chronological order of project completion, though there was some overlap as I worked to complete each composition.  When describing musical elements, I will attempt to be as clear as possible without getting overly technical.  I will also try to provide links to further information when using some potentially unfamiliar musical vocabulary rather than attempting to clarify definitions in the body of the article.  

"A Short Tail" Overview

This project was kind of funny because it was the first and last project I worked on over the course of the jam.  My work on this piece can be divided into two distinctly different segments:

  1. composition and arrangement of instrumental audio samples  
  2. live recording of vocals

The instrumental portion was completed on Friday evening (Jan. 27th) within the first couple of hours.  The vocals were recorded right down to the wire in the last hours of jamming on Sunday (Jan. 29th). 

I used the digital audio program Renoise to input all of the instrumental music and effects.  In this program I can pull up a number of different MIDI and audio files to input into music tracks.  While Renoise is an inexpensive,  versatile and reliable program for digital audio recording, editing, and composing, it does not readily come with a good package of acoustic instrument samples, which was what I needed for this work.  However, there are resources out there for finding high quality samples to create orchestral sounds.  After some digging on various electronic music forums, I was able to find this link to the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra, a free, creative commons- licensed library of symphonic sounds.  I will be posting more blog entries in the near future about my experiences utilizing this library in my work.  

The first step in this process was to discuss the various proposed elements of the game with the other members of the group - the writers, programmer, and illustrator.  The other members of this group, Justin, Phil and Heather, work with eachother on a regular basis and had established a theme, setting and gameplay scheme early on in the process.  On a side note, you can visit their website and view their other indie game work, blog, and various other fine examples of geek culture at hashtagnerd.com.

After our discussion I took away the following points to use as the basis for my composition:

  • The game takes place in and around a farmhouse.  I imagined this environment as set in mid/late 19th century rural America.
  • The protagonist is both isolated and held captive in an environment she does not fully understand.
  • She has only distant vague memories of her past life and loved ones.
  • There is an undercurrent of uncertainty or fear expressed by the main character and a sense of mystery evoked through the game's environments.

More simply put, I created a piece using the concepts of isolation, uncertainty, and mystery, set against an early rural American backdrop as inspiration for this work.  The title of this composition is "Back to Where I've Gone".  I did not spend a lot of time working on a title, and it was something I came up with off the top of my head.  It seemed to carry both a feeling of simplicity and persistence, perhaps in the main character's search for identity, and connected to both the cyclical nature of the games environments, and the ouroborus theme of the Jam.   

Inspiration from Film Scores

Working with an aesthetically and geographically limited game environment was helpful in selecting appropriate instrumentation for the piece.  The only instrumental sounds in this piece are strings, piano, and some light percussion.  While the game does not explicitly reference a particular time period, the visuals suggest late 19th/early 20th century rural America. In addition to my conversations with the rest of the development team and the initial illustrations, I was inspired by three specific scores for films set between the 1860s and the 1930s.

The first piece of music that immediately came to mind was "Pittsburgh 1901", which is the main theme from the 1984 drama, Mrs. Soffel.  Another body of work that came to mind, perhaps because of the film's setting and time period, was the original scoring for the film Cold Mountain.  Though the Cold Mountain soundtrack features many interesting interpretations of early American folk and religious music, I was primarily inspired by the original work by composer Gabriel Yared, particularly the tracks "Ada Plays" and "Ada and Inman".  Yared uses rich string sections and piano passages to great emotional effect in these and other tracks in the film.  The third film score from which I drew heavy inspiration was Thomas Newman's work for Road to Perdition, specifically the tracks "Rock Island, 1931" and "The Farm".  

While I did not attempt to draw comparisons between these films during my work at the Game Jam, these films and scores share some common characteristics.  All three films center around one main character's attempt to defy institutions of power and authority (law enforcement, the military, organized crime respectively) at great personal risk for the sake of protecting or reuniting with a loved one.  While "A Short Tail" does not specifically establish an antagonist, the game does evoke a similar sense of desperation and relentlessness in the main character's journey of self discovery.  

Isolation and Exploration

One of the central themes of this game is the main character's attempt to piece together her past, and in doing so, regain an understanding of her own identity.  She undertakes this task completely alone in a world that seems simultaneously vast and insular.  One of my main priorities with this work was to immediately set and maintain both a sense of loneliness and a desperate longing to grasp something just out of reach.  

This is the opening section of the piece, which sets the overall atmosphere and builds to the initial entrance of the main melody, played here by a solo violin.    

The instrumentation is very sparse throughout the piece, and both melody and accompanying harmony utilize long sustained tones, a slow tempo and a limited chord progression to create a very simple and consistent soundscape.  I also added a reverb effect to the instruments and vocals throughout the piece.  One great thing about Renoise is that you can customize a wide variety of acoustic effects to layer on top of your tracks.  The cavernous echo of the solo vocal line reinforces a sense of solitude in an enormous space.  To me, the pace and simplicity of the chord changes seem to suggest a landscape that stretches endlessly.  Within that landscape, the lone vocal melody represents the protagonist of the game.  So... on to the vocals!

Before you go listening to the vocal part of this piece, I feel that I should preface it with the following:

  1. This is me singing on the track.  I am a classically trained vocalist and vocal music is my area of expertise.
  2. I recorded this in the last hours of the last day of the Game Jam, so I was both sleep deprived and probably a bit dehydrated when I recorded this.  From my perspective there are some glaring technique issues with the singing, particularly in terms of breath control, but it was the best I could do at the time. 
  3. There is some intermittent static in this recording, which was due to the fact that I was recording it at close range into the built-in microphone on my MacBook.  I tried to keep my vocal projection in check, but it came off a bit too loud here and there as I descended from falsetto into a lower register.  If you'd asked me about it at the time, I might have told you that yeah, that was a totally intentional distortion, which represents the protagonists...uh...sense of... look over there!  

This is the isolated vocal track prior to layering the instrumental accompaniment.  

When I listen to this, I can imagine singing it in some sort of vast chamber, but in reality I was sitting at a desk in a conference room, adjacent to two fellow jammers who very politely and patiently refrained from talking whenever I waved my arms around for silence.  Since I was juggling 2-3 other projects at the time I recorded this, and we were in the middle of crunch time, I'm sure I did not use the most efficient recording process, but I recorded the vocals separately in Audacity while listening to the instrumental tracks from Renoise on headphones.  Given more time I would've done careful research to find or create the perfect lyrics for the vocal line, but since I didn't want to rely on "oohs" and "ahs", I quickly settled on using the text of "Kyrie", a Greek prayer adopted into the Catholic mass as the first of a set of texts that create the Ordinary of the Mass.  The phrase I'm singing is "Kyrie eleison", which translates to "Lord, have mercy".  The reverb effect I added with Renoise significantly changes the feel of this performance.  For some perspective, here is the track without reverb:  

This is what happens when you change the reverb settings from "Cathedral" to "Office Space".  

Mysterious Journey

And without further ado, here is the complete composition.

 

The instrumentation and interplay of vocal melody and instrumental harmony are intended to create a pleasing, but somewhat unsettling sound, and even when the chord progression resolves, there is an undercurrent of tension, sadness, and mysteries yet unexplained.   One of my personal challenges as a composer is a tendency to create overly dense harmonic textures that can unintentionally mask certain melodic components.  I tried to keep things light and sparse with this piece.  The strings create a smooth undercurrent but do not overwhelm the main melody.  Within this undercurrent, I attempted to strike an aesthetic balance between light and darkness.  The chords that make up the string section are more tightly contained and focused, and stay in a mid to low register.  By contrast, the piano leaps between lower and higher octaves, and features much broader chords and tone clusters.  It is my hope that these musical peaks and valleys suggest the image of a broad, diverse landscape and reinforce the artwork within the game.  

Compositional Challenges

 By now I'm sure you have a very clear idea of both my inspiration and my intent in the creation of this short piece.  Compared to the other soundtracks I worked on at the GGJ, this was probably the fastest and had the most smoothly flowing creative process.  Being inspired primarily by orchestral music, the biggest challenge was to recreate acoustic instrumental sounds with audio samples.  The Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra library was absolutely essential to this process, and part of its usefulness is that each sample is a recording of a real, live acoustic instrument, and not a MIDI facsimile.  I have some fantastic MIDI samples in my compositional toolbox as well, but there is no comparison to a recording of a live instrument.  Even though the sound quality of the instrument samples is pretty good , it is not easy to mimic the flexibility of a live performer with a static music sample that will always start and end the same way.  The trick is to create flow from one pitch or chord to the next that maintains a consistent dynamic progression.  This is of particular importance with the main melody, as it is the centerpiece of the work.  

In the opening section, where the violin carries the melody, I tried to manipulate each pitch so the attack and release of each note sounds natural, reducing as much as possible the natural halting effect created by the consecutive repetitions of static samples.  The difficulty of this task is dependent largely on the sample collection used, the tempo, and the specific rhythmic patterns you are intending to write.  Since pitch and chord changes in this piece are relatively slow and the rhythmic pattern was very simple, it was not as much of a challenge as with some other more complex pieces I've worked on.  I could go into greater detail on the challenges of composing with MIDI and acoustic audio samples, but I will be writing about this in a separate post in the near future.  

Moving Forward

I greatly enjoyed composing this piece as well as working with the Hashtag Nerd team.  As with the Global Game Jam, my life as of late consists of juggling multiple projects.  As soon as I am able to spend some quality time with it, I plan to revisit this piece to polish and expand it further.  I am also planning a companion work, which will capture the same spirit through a combination of folk and orchestral instruments, but will also have a faster tempo and a more frantic emotional quality.  I highly recommend that you go and check out the game at the Hashtag Nerd site.  It is very creative and impressive, especially considering the 48 hour time constraint.  So Phil, Heather, Justin, if you are reading this and you have plans to revisit and expand this game at any point, I am totally on board for developing a full fledged soundtrack.  You guys totally should do this.  

Next Time

The next post-mortem will look at the music for Spectrum.  This soundtrack is a huge departure from A Short Tail in terms of aesthetics, genre, compositional process, and team interaction.  This post will also feature a ring tone based on the game soundtrack for your downloading pleasure.  Stay tuned... 

 

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