2012 Global Game Jam Post-Mortem # 3: "Spectrum"

This week's post will discuss the creative process for the second game soundtrack I created as a participant in the 2012 Global Game Jam through the Cleveland Game Developers organization.  This project was a complete departure from my work on "A Short Tail" and was, in many ways, the most challenging of the four works I completed for the Jam.  In this post-mortem I will describe the basic concept of the game, my experience as a collaborator with the development team, and the technical and artistic challenges of creating this soundtrack.


Spectrum was, by far, the most aesthetically abstract project I contributed to, but at the same time, the mechanics of the game were simple, well implemented, and provided increasing layers of challenge as the game progressed.  Rather than attempt to describe the gameplay of Spectrum myself, I will quote the description from the project page at the game jam website:

"A large white bar fills the screen, with a color of the spectrum taking up a small part of the bar. Ambient sound with light piano-like tones scattered around plays in the background. As colors scroll in from the right of the screen, the player must match with the color on the bar at the exact moment they hit each other. Each time the player matches correctly, the bar shrinks and fills with another color. Once the bar turns very small, if the player matches correctly, an explosion of sound and color will fill the screen. The colors will all then converge back into a bar and everything begins again."

From a composition standpoint, this game posed two diametrically opposed, yet equally critical challenges:

  1. Create a minimalist soundscape for the playable portion of the game with only vague ambient noises and drones.
  2. Do the exact opposite for when the winning conditions are met by the player.


I used Logic Pro 9 for the entirety of this project.  Logic Pro is a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) from Apple that presents a streamlined, user-friendly interface for composing, recording, mixing, and editing audio projects.  I acquired Logic Pro in December of 2011 and aside from completing some tutorial lessons in an accompanying manual, I had very little experience using this software at the time of the Game Jam. In addition to the challenge of composing original music, I also had to basically learn how to use the software. While I had several more months of experience using Renoise, I decided to delve into Logic simply because of the sheer number of high quality loops, preset effects, and MIDI instruments with this program.   

Gameplay Music - Less is More

The leader of team "Bronana", Mike Geig, was very hands-on with the audio development of this game and had a very clear vision of the music and sound effects from the beginning.  My task was to create a sound that very closely matched the simplicity of the visual presentation, which was nothing but a single horizontal white line that would gradually fill up with colors.  The rest of the screen is black and empty.  While starting a piece of music like this seems fairly simple, I found the process of developing and ending the piece extremely daunting.  I don't mean to say it wasn't enjoyable, and it was definitely a good learning experience both technically and artisitically, but the process of writing this music took me way outside my comfort zone.

My first "draft" was really more of a rough sketch that conveyed some elements of what I was supposed to write.  In addition to having an empty ambient feel with a perpetual drone, Mike had mentioned that he was a fan of dub step and would like to have a heavily electronic sound in the music.  The video below contains this initial draft:

So I felt that the initial drone was appropriate, but while I enjoyed the harmonic changes, the overall sound was too tonal, too organized for the abstratct nature of the game.  The beat pattern that enters several bars into the track was also too overbearing and persistent.  I needed to move away from my tendency for order and clear tonality and move into a realm of greater disonance.  I can say that draft 2 does not achieve this goal, but it does add greater complexity and more of a retro gaming feel through greater use of "chip" sounds. 

Both the first and second draft were composed using Renoise during the first night of the Jam.  While Renoise allows for a great deal of control over audio effects, I didn't really have time within the constraints of the Game Jam to experiment with settings and I needed a wider library of sounds than Renoise provided.  For the final draft, I turned to Logic Pro because of its wide library of loops and as well as "kits" of musical sounds in various genres.  I found a "Dub Step Kit" which presented different electronic effects depending on which key I pressed on my virtual keyboard.  The end result was a much sparser track than the previous two.  While certain effects enter at somewhat regular intervals, they are brief atmospheric changes over a constant warm drone.  The drone itself is also periodically altered by layering an additional drone two semi-tones higher.  The result is a sort of oscillating effect that serves to break up monotony in the piece.  Another contrasting element, which is also the most steady recurring sound, is a higher pitched "blip" that echoes above the drone.  The blip serves to create some balance between high and low pitch as well as to give a sense of subtle, unobtrusive forward motion.

But what happens when you win?

As a game designer it is important to know, based on the type of game you are making, how to reward the players for their efforts and how often.  In Spectrum, the player can easily ascertian their progress throughout the play experience sine the entire graphic interface of the game is essentially a progress bar.  Once the white bar fills from left to right wtih colors, the rewards kick in.  What are the rewards for completing a level of Spectrum?  The screen explodes with colors and the music suddenly morphs from what you heard earlier into...something else entirely.  

Mike described his vision for the end-game music as "a wall of sound..just...just a wall of sound." This piece took me in a completely different direction from the drone.  The gameplay music was all about subtraction and distance, about careful measurement of each element to create a very delicate sound environment.  The "Sound Wall" involved just throwing every concievable cool sounding electronic or metal loop on top of one another.  I'm sure if there had been a "kitchen sink" loop, I would've thrown it in.  This is not to say that I was sloppy about it, but it was refreshing to let loose after so much work on the previous track.  I took some time to create a build and a recession of sound effects at either end of the track and in the middle I staggered the entrances of different voices to create a constantly shifting, yet intense sound.   The track used in the game was sped up from my original version and the beginning and end of the track were shortened to keep the game moving along.  


Final Thoughts

I think I spent more time working on music for this project than any of the others.  It was an extremely challenging yet highly valuable experience.  Mike Geig was much more hands-on with the music than any other team leader, but I enjoyed interacting closely with the developers and the development process to craft the best possible sound for the game given our time constraints. One of my favorite aspects of this game is how the visual and auditory elements have relatively equal importance in the overall presentation.  The juxtaposition of emptiness and extravagance in this game is greatly enhanced by the close connection between sight and sound throughout the entire experience of playing this game.  

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