Feature Q&A: Carlo Castellano on the sound of The Swapper

Jerry on 2014-08-04
Carlo Castellano composed the music score for The Swapper, the atmospheric cloning puzzler by Facepalm Games, based in Helsinki, Finland.

Set in a dilapidated space station where the player must create and manipulate multiple clones in order to escape, the puzzle platformer debuted on Steam for PC, Mac and Linux. In collaboration with publisher Curve Digital, console ports came to the Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, and PlayStation 3, 4 and Vita.

In this music Q&A, the composer details his approach to finding a unique sound for the independent game title.

How was it that you first came in contact with Facepalm Games?

Carlo Castellano: About five years ago I wrote an ambient soundtrack for a small game and Olli, the Facepalm Games programmer, played it and liked it. He asked me to compose something for The Swapper more than two years prior to the release, and after a year I trashed almost all of the first tracks and started over from scratch.

Seeing as the development team had never released a game before, you must not have expected that your efforts would result in an award-winning indie game?

I knew already from playing an early beta that it was going to be good. What made it an experiment for me was that I had never joined such a big project before.

In imagining a full soundscape for the player to experience, what aspects of the audio design were you tasked with creating?

Basically the sound in The Swapper is composed of four elements: ambience, soundtrack, sound effects and voiceover. I did everything but the voiceovers.

Each room in The Swapper has its own ambient track, playing alongside the soundtrack. The game engine manages these audio tracks procedurally, depending on your actions.

You've uploaded videos of yourself playing themes from various games, using a range of musical instruments. Was this an exercise in combining your interests in sound design and game composition?

I've always enjoyed playing music from classic games like Super Mario and Final Fantasy VII on the piano. Uploading these videos was something I began doing just for fun. You know, a lot of people started asking me to compose soundtracks after watching my videos, which is rather amazing, if you think about it.

Apart from the main theme, are there other pieces from The Swapper that you felt would lend themselves to live performance?

I've gotten like millions of messages about "Recreation," which is a song that was entirely improvised. I tried recording a video of it, but it’s really hard. When you improvise something, then study it and try to record it again, it's not quite the same.

What impressed you most about the contributions that Facepalm brought to the development process on The Swapper?

The gameplay mechanic of cloning and swapping I've not seen before. Time slows down when you're swapping, which affect voices, piano notes and strings. That was a very nice touch.

Coming up with puzzles is not the kind of thing that anyone can do, but the level designer was really very clever with the concept. Some of the later puzzles are maddeningly difficult. This is impressive because there are so many indie games now that are competing for new ways to be different.

Are there other independent games that that stand out in your memory as having inspired your creativity?

Machinarium. I played that game and was shocked by the art and the sounds. In producing audio for The Swapper, I tried to match that level of quality.

From the standpoint of sound design, how did you feel the effects you created would best suit the tone of the game?

Because the artwork has a handmade quality, I thought the audio should be reflective of this style as well. For example, I got the sound of the space ship by sticking a microphone inside my freezer. For footsteps on alien fauna, I crumpled tape from an old VHS cassette.

A kind of synthetic sci-fi sound might be expected. You decided the organic feel of foley recordings might be a better fit?

Yes, and because I’m both a composer and a sound designer, I love every strange new way of capturing sound that you can think of, blending together soundtrack and sound effects.

Would you recommend to other independent developers the practice of delving into foley on occasion in place of using libraries?

Yes, because if you use only libraries it can sound good but the tradeoff is, it's not your own. When over time I look for a sound and finally find it, it feels amazing. It's yours.