Underground Sounds: Indie Games’ Musical Revolution

The thought process and production details on some amazing soundtracks that should be considered albums in their own right.

Where the water tastes like wine

If you’re reading this, then you probably like video games as more than just a couple of hours of entertainment or a multiplayer shooter-battle royale. Indie gaming is not for everyone because it reflects what a small team of independent developers, illustrators, composers and even salesmen can accomplish with just their know-how and without big corporations funding their projects.

Indie gaming shows what a team is lacking, but also what it’s best at. An independent team may be able to create breathtaking, hand-drawn art to their projects, but may not have the tools to choose the graphics engine or other software they dreamed about. What indie devs tend to do is focus on their strengths.

Thomas Brush, creator of Pinstripe and Once Upon a Coma under the studio Atmos Games, had always been a great illustrator. He was known through his youngster ages as “the kid who could draw really well”. So when he decided he had a story to tell, he chose to develop Pinstripe by himself because gaming allowed him to do that while taking advantage of both his abilities as an illustrator, a music composer and a storyteller, providing a cheap medium that he could create through his computer, alone in his room.

Film making, for instance, requires a much bigger budget, time, team and publishing methods. Even when talking about an independent short-film, it’s practically impossible for a single person to do everything: acting, directing, writing, video editing, sound editing, and all those etceteras.

So what am I saying here? For a long time now videogames have been positioning themselves as the newest medium of storytelling. Indie game developers are the equivalent of underground writers and film directors trying to tell a story through their limited resources. Gameplay and graphics are still core and essential parts of video games, but lately they’ve been sharing the spotlight and sometimes playing the role of sidekicks to some truly groundbreaking creations in music composing.

Pyre soundtrack

Ryan Ike, composer for Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, described this in his own words during an interview with The Indie Game Website:

“You could take music out of a product and it would still be a game. You could take the audio part and it would still be a game, it would still have mechanics and choices. But is it as good? No. That’s like saying that if you take the music out of Star Wars, it’s still Star Wars. Yeah, but you’re taking this pivotal deep massive emotional context out of it. And I think that’s what music in games can provide.”

An audiovisual story will not accomplish the same results without good photography or tailored soundtracks. More so, the videogame medium allows for responsive soundtracks to create a unique flow of gameplay, narrative and immersion. More sophisticated tools allow composers to see their work mutate and take different shapes as each unique player creates his/her own playthrough experience.

If we’re talking about music in indie gaming then we cannot, and should not, avoid mentioning the work that’s being made by Supergiant Games since the release of the San Francisco based studio’s first game, Bastion, in 2011. Amir Rao, co-founder of Supergiant Games, had a story to tell and a talented team behind him to develop it, but wanted to add some music that made it enveloping for players and gave their first product a special touch.

He called his childhood buddy, gamer and music composer Darren Korb to the scene and let him spread his wings. Since then, Korb’s been the Audio Director for Supergiant Games and has created highly praised, responsive, modern and mesmerizing original soundtracks for the studio’s three games so far: Bastion, Transistor and Pyre.

About his music’s role in those three games, and the immensely positive feedback by the players, Korb had this to say during an interview with The Indie Game Website:

“I think a lot of it is the sort of holistic approach we take to the games development that includes music as an integral component and looks at the audio of the game as being equally important to, say, the art, the design or the story, and not being something that you just wedge in after everything else is done”.

Anyone who has played any of those three games knows what we’re talking about. Transistor’s turn mode reflected a special tonality that exploded as soon as player’s carried out their planned actions. Red’s humming version of each song in the soundtrack created a unique feeling of empathy and truth to her story. Bastion’s emotion, grief and angst were transmitted through narration and a carefully tailored ambiance music. Finally, Pyre’s highly emotional moments stressed in their urgency and epicness through reactive music brought to players by a fantasy duo of bards that face themselves in a showdown while players compete for liberation.

The kind of masterful results seen in Supergiants’ productions involves a special composing method that obviously varies for each developer. Korb had the following to say about his particular modus operandi:

“Usually I’ll start with a tonal goal, how I want the music to feel, and what the vibe is gonna be, and I’ll look at music that I like that’s not related to games that have those characteristics and those feelings. Inevitably they kind of get blended up and twisted around with my own spin on that stuff. I try to take components from a lot of different places and mash them up against each other and have that contrast between different elements create some tension.”

Earlier this year, Spanish Deconstructeam released The Red Strings Club, a cyberpunk narrative driven story about a world where a mega corporation is developing a massive neural system that threatens to kill “negative” human emotions and raises the question if that’s a good or bad thing. The game features no voice actors, and players will engage in a whole lot of reading as this title is all about discussions and arguments back and forth. This resulted in a perfect example of how important an original soundtrack can ultimately be.

Composed by Spanish artist Fingerspit (also creator of the original score for Gods Will be Watching), the synth wave-chillout OST for The Red Strings Club works as the game’s special glue that puts every piece of this puzzle together by striking a specific tonality to match the emotion and ambience Deconstructeam wanted to transmit in each moment.

Music in The Red Strings Club was clearly meant to be under the spotlight. This was evidenced right at the beginning of the story, when players had the option of switching songs being played on the radio while engaging in a mini game. Each of those songs are part of the game’s OST and are available to purchase on iTunes, Amazon and Fingerspit’s Bandcamp webpage. In this case, players interact directly with the soundtrack, and while it’s not a reactive one that mutates through different stems coming up or down, it certainly provides a center role for Fingerspit’s art.

More recently, Dim Bulb Games released their North American folk centered game Where The Water Tastes Like Wine which, to be honest, had me captivated as soon as I watched its trailer. The original music composed by Ryan Ike is exactly on par with the culture, environment and era the game’s set in. Ike had this to say:

“As you move through different regions you’ll hear the song appearing with different iterations. In the Southwest it’s going to be more a Mexican inspired track and in Spanish. In the Midwest it’s going to be kind of scandinavian themed and in the South is a folksy-guitared version. I love the idea that as the music travels, and it’s shared with other musicians, it changes and takes a life of its own. It’s a lot of what this game is about. “

Each score in Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is carefully designed to reflect each location in the game and the versatility shown by Ike to adjust his composition is not only impressive but it also shows how much work and passion he put into its production.

These productions are not just soundtracks, they are authentic scores. We’re not listening just to ambiance music or an endless loop of orchestral pieces. Don’t get me wrong, those are also usually incredible. But the focus of this article is to the latest trend, particularly in indie gaming, of featuring music scores: complete records of 15 to 20 songs composed especially for the purpose of being incorporated in the design of a video game, but that also exceed that role and become units of their own being listened to in Youtube or bought on different platforms.

These could easily be called gaming albums. Singers, musicians and producers dedicated for months in a record studio putting up these creations piece by piece, often resulting in products that not only drive sales to these titles, but that also provide new audiences for these professional artists.

“There’s people interested in listening to the video game music live: fans. With a rock band is so hard to create a following and get people to care about what you’re doing”

Korb reflected when talking about the many live presentations he’s done over the last few years performing songs from Bastion, Transistor and Pyre.

But Darren Korb first, and Ryan Ike later, took this to a next level when both of them decided to upload the original soundtracks for game’s they participated in for free on Youtube.

“I really want people to hear this soundtrack. I’m very proud of it and my musicians. We definitely appreciate people who do support us and purchase the album. But if money is a barrier, I still want you to hear the hard work that went into this. I just believe that if someone wants to support a composer, or an artist of some kind, even if they can get it for free, they’ll do it”, considered Ike.

After releasing both Transistor’s and Pyre’s soundtracks on social media, Korb had this to say on that decision:

“We started doing it with Transistor to make sure that it’s a high quality, official version of the thing. We decided not to run ads on our music because we see it like an extension of the game and if people become excited about the game by listening to the music then that’s achieved its goal. We started doing it ourselves afterwards to attract people to our channel. Get people engaged with us directly.”

So it’s not an overstatement to hold these indie gaming music scores up as a new strong access point that links this striving industry to bigger and wider audiences that include music enthusiasts, amateur and professional musicians and random people who come across these scores by accident and decide to have a deeper look at their creators and the products that featured them.

Some scores worth listening to right now are, aside from the ones mentioned in this article, the ones from Cuphead, Celeste, Undertale, FTL: Faster Than Light, Sword and Sworcery (which asked players to experience the game wearing headphones to appreciate its music in a more profound way) and Hotline Miami, to write just a few.

Every game has a story to tell, and those stories wouldn’t have the same feeling and emotion if not for the artists behind their development pouring their talent into them. Indie gaming has the big advantage of being able to try new and exciting ways of telling those tales, moving away from common places and AAA industry’s templates. Giving composers the freedom to experiment and getting them involved in the creation of new games from the get go clearly gives us, the players, some unforgettable results.

We look forward to hearing any new tracks that you wish to add in the comment section or share with us on social media.