Tribute Games Q&A

Jerry on 2020-10-26
Tribute Games Q&A: Patrice Bourgeault on Panzer Paladin

Tribute Games' latest sprite-based adventure game is Panzer Paladin, a science fiction platformer for Windows and Nintendo Switch, starring mech-piloting service android Flame. Music for the game is by Mercenary Kings and Flinthook composer Patrice Bourgeault of Montreal, Canada.

When extraterrestrial invaders from another dimension beam down from space, Flame is tasked by high-tech peacekeeping organization Gauntlet to pilot her mechanized bipedal robot Grit across ten geographical locations targeted by the enemy's haunted meteorites. Along the way, Flame is challenged by a mysterious armored centaur called Horseman, who wields rare weapons and offers cryptic warnings of the perils that await her.

Flame's Paladin armor can swipe a variety of swords, spears and hammers from opponents. These uncanny weapons can be broken through use, embedded in specially marked stones to serve as checkpoints, or snapped in half to release special attack or health bonuses. When the mech's energy bar runs down, Flame can escape the malfunctioning armored suit and equip a laser whip to do battle and latch onto ring hoops to swing across chasms.

We had the chance to hear from the game’s music composer to learn more about the making of the soundtrack.

In Panzer Paladin there are two genres of music in play that are complementary, which might be describe as guitar rock and chiptune. These styles are juxtaposed and interwoven in a complementary fashion. In your recording process, are these styles requiring separate methods.

Composer Patrice Bourgeault: I started experimenting with blending these two genres together when I was working on Mercenary Kings' soundtrack. It has the same type of flavor, in the sense that these two genres are blended together. It's kind of the same recipe for this soundtrack. There is a reason behind this, as it is an artistic choice to go well with the game.

You're right, when you talk about these two genres of music blended together. In the end it is very important to me that they blend together really well, even if when we look at them they might look very different. When talking about the guitar rock genre in the case of the Panzer Paladin soundtrack, sometimes I would go to record analog music from a real guitar or sometimes the bass is a synth bass. It depends on what is needed. If I go with synth instruments, that might be faster, or it might be more flexible in the end. It needs to blend together really well in the end.

Was the same methodology employed as on Mercenary Kings, in terms of the technical process of composing and recording the music?

The recording process is a bit more refined on Panzer Paladin, but it is similar. If I remember correctly, when doing Mercenary Kings it was all synth instruments, as opposed to there being some real guitars in there.

Do you have a studio set up for the live instruments?

You could say that. I have a small studio setup in my basement. Since all these instruments are going straight into the computer, it's doable without all that much acoustic equipment.

What software are you using for the chiptune aspect of the score?

For Panzer Paladin, I used "chipsounds" software from a company called Plogue. I think it gives a very authentic feeling in the end because they have worked so hard to get these sounds to feel like the real thing. It helped me a lot to achieve this part of the process.

On the subject of this hybrid music style, I would like to look at how it is employed on some specific music tracks. While playing the game, I noticed that stage themes make reference to territorial music conventions.  The one instance of this technique that I latched onto first was on the intro to the Russia stage, which appeared to me to be channeling Russian folksongs.

That's an appropriate question when you are talking about music conventions tied to the geographical location. When I started working on the soundtrack, I wanted to do more of this, so that you could have even more of the sense of the country when you played the level. But, as I was playing with this concept, I realized that sometimes I was not using appropriate melodies for these instruments. These were the kinds of comments I received from the Tribute guys, and I think they were right. Because I [make no pretensions to have] mastered all these folkloric instruments, I colored with just a little spice here and there to give a feel for the location. It is not so much in the forefront as it was in the beginning. I think it was a good call.

That had been my impression. There seemed to be a certain danger in there not being a thematic consistency to the game soundtrack unless you could find a way back to the stylistic foundation that you had set in the introduction to the game. If the stage themes are branching off into too much genre specificity, the downside might be a disjointed impression for the overall soundtrack. With the Russia theme, the intro is going with the specificity of the territorial music convention, and the bridge is what brings it back to the thematic basis for the soundtrack. Is that an appropriate view of how the music track is operating?

Yes, as I said before, it was very important for the genres of guitar rock and chiptune to blend together well. It's also very important for all the songs on the soundtrack to blend together, as well. That is the number one concern. Each songs has to feel like it's from the same soundtrack. Going too far with, say, doing a Russian folktune, it would not have fit as well within the soundtrack.

Having concern for the overall stylistic integrity of the soundtrack makes sense as a strategy. The reason I latched onto this track was because it made me think of "Korobeiniki," the Tetris music. Was that consciously a reference you thought people might be reminded of while playing this stage?

It's not a direct reference. But at the same time, there's a reason why the Tetris theme sounds Russian, in the sense that [this kind of] minor melodic scale and the use of percussion for the rhythmic section sounds [distinctly] Russian.

There's some tricks you can pull from music theory to make the melody sound [appropriate]. That's as far [as it goes] in getting close to "Korobeiniki." This would be the starting point. Then, when I start composing, I don't really think about [those conventions] that much. [I think,] "Let's create a good structure, and let's create a melody that is easy to recall." By combining these little ingredients, with the use of the melody and the percussion, that in the end you hope it sounds a little bit Russian, just to get a flavor that it belongs to this country. Again, the main goal is to get all these songs to work well together.

It sounds as if early on in the process there was some deliberation regarding how much invoking of territorial genres was necessary to establish the various locales?

It was specific to one song. If I remember correctly, either "China" or "Japan." I got the comment that the melody sounded weird. That rang a bell for me, because if I got that wrong I knew I had to get the sound, the melodic parts, the rhythmic parts, everything right. That's when I decided to push it back a little bit and just give a glimpse here and there.

When you are sending test tracks to Tribute Games, are you speaking with one member of the design team in particular?

I'm working with Jonathan [Lavigne], one of the founding members of Tribute. It is good to work with them because from the beginning they know what they want. They know where they are going and what they are doing. The direction of the game is already defined by the time they ask for the music.

Another location where this strategy appears to be operating is in the Mexico stage. The jungle scenery is complemented by an organic feel to the percussion that gives a sense of the terrain.

This was done as part of the same idea as the other songs. Here, it was done mainly with the percussion, so that made it maybe easier to get right.

How did you find an appropriate instrument for this stage?

At first I tried to see what I had from my DAW [Digital Audio Workstation]. I try going through Logic patches to see what's in there. It may have been some congas, or something like that. Even if the sound is not perfect, it can sound all right when it's blended into the whole mix.

Do you have drafts of these compositions? Are you starting with a melody that you think could work for these stages?

Usually, I like to start with small sketches. If I have time, I like to writes several sketches as tryouts for one melody. If I am lucky, I can get it good from the first attempt. Sometimes I have to play around.

For these stage themes, what kind of assets are you receiving to inform your composing the music? Are they giving you a text description, like "This stage takes place in Mexico and there is going to be some jungle scenery?" Do you have pixel art or concept art to work off of at the stage where you are composing?

The game is far from finished when they ask me for music for the level. Usually what I see is a sketch of the level to see what it looks like. Here, the themes are related to countries, so I already have something to expect from a stage called "Mexico" or "Russia." I could get started even if I hadn't seen too much.

I should think that it would be preferable that you be kept in the loop early on in the design process, just so that there's enough time for you to compose. If you are receiving the request later on in the process, could that not lead to deadline issues?

Yes, I highly prefer to have some time on my side. Just having some primary sketches is fine with me. If I go wrong on my side with artistic choices, then we still have some time to change it.

For the Japan stage, I had been reminded of the influential Yamaha portable keyboards that game composers like Yuzo Koshiro and many others used in the lead-up to writing synth soundtracks for 16-bit era game scores. Does this comparison sound accurate?

There were some ideas on this stage that I wanted to go with. I wanted to have this kind of melodic plucking sound that would be percussive at the same time, and also a bit of [taiko drumming]. It's interesting, because when you talk about Yamaha keyboards, FM synth and the 16-bit era game scores, this is something that I grew up with.

The first consoles I had were the Sega Master System, followed by the Sega Genesis. I still remember so many of these soundtracks, and it has probably been an influence. On Streets of Rage, he's composing like it is for rock music. Instead of going with classical music as an influence, which is what you might be used to, there is the use of the drums and a lot of the blue scale, which is close to the pentatonic scale. I grew up with these soundtracks and memories of that just won't go away.

Are there particular tracks from that era that come to mind in this context?

In Revenge of Shinobi, there is a track that takes place on the docks. When I wrote the "USA" track for Panzer Paladin, I wanted to have this kind of upbeat street vibe. I don't want to copy it, but I think it would be cool if I could capture this type of vibe.

The Revenge of Shinobi soundtrack was recently published as an analog record, so there's a weird kind of synchronicity to these kinds of older storage mediums and game soundtracks coming back around. Your music has been pressed to vinyl by Yetee Records. What has been your experience with those releases?

I am so happy about this. When I started writing music a few years ago, I never thought I would have it published on vinyl.

On several tracks, certain characteristics of the music appear to be matched to the unique characteristics of that environment.  The Switzerland stage theme takes place on a train, and there is an uneven tempo to the music, like a chugging engine. There is also a waning of the instruments, like the Doppler effect of a passing train.  Was this the effect these musical choices were meant to serve?

This was done on purpose. They told me a little bit about the level—that it was happening on a train. I had some basic visuals to work with. Having these two or three specifications, I wanted it to have the feel of a train, but I did not want it to be too obvious. It needed to sound like part of the melody, not sound effects.

The way I understand it, these techniques are not to be tacked on as a kind of superficial flourish; rather you are integrating them into the marrow of the music track itself. One such example which comes to mind is the floating city theme, where the music appears to give the sense of elevation.  Was the use of rising scales in the melody intended for this purpose?

I think it is worth bringing up the point you made earlier about how the reliance on geographical cues if relied upon too heavily could wind up as a kind of a crutch.  It might be easy to rely on Arabic instruments for the Egypt theme, but would you not then into trouble when you get to Switzerland or the fictional floating fortress?

Focusing on this too much on every track could easily have become a burden.

Returning to the "Canada" stage theme, which serves as the introductory stage, is the use of the Plogue chipsounds as a foreground instrument was intended to lay the groundwork for the soundtrack as a whole and reflect the tutorial nature of the gameplay? 

The process behind "Canada" was quite interesting. When I started working on it, I was so conscious of it being the first level where the player will learn the gameplay, and I produced a track that was a lot calmer than what you hear in the game. As a tutorial, I thought you would want to take it slow and learn the controls. But then I got the feedback from Tribute, letting me know that we have to feel the urgency of the base being attacked. That is when I brought the chip instruments up front. I brought in some guitar riffs, which would serve as a musical foundation for the soundtrack. The chiptunes flow over it and be carried by the rest of the mix.

The tutorial is serving to introduce the drama of the storyline, and is providing the player with a vertical slice, to use game designer terminology. You're providing a rudimentary taste of all the gameplay and storytelling conventions that will be reintroduced with greater sophistication later on. In that sense, it should not be treated as tangential in terms of urgency to the overall music score?

The stage has to carry the same amount of energy, because it is every bit as much of a level as the other levels. It covers many of the functions of the game. If it were too mellow, it would not fit as well.

The idea of live instruments like guitar and bass backing up a pre-recorded instrument like chiptunes seems to me to have an ironic or unexpected feeling to it. Thematically, this kind of inversion I feel like works well for a story where the android Flame and her mechanized robot Grit are at the forefront of the action and the human operatives of the Gauntlet organization are providing instruction and serving as support.

Even in the genre of chip music, the vintage game hardware will often serve as backup to a live guitar or vocal performance.

It's an interesting analogy, in terms of who is performing in front and who is in back. In my case, you have a more conservative formulation for music where you have drums, bass and guitar. Because it is instrumental and is serving as background music, vocals might not be appropriate here. As a result, chiptunes are carrying the melody and are playing the role of the singer in a rock band.*

In Japan, they have a character named Hatsune Miku. She's a virtual idol who is generated by computer graphics and sings through a vocoder. But she appears live on stage like a human singer. This is something I was reminded of early on in the game.

Tribute staff members worked on the development of Scott Pilgrim ten years ago. In my observation, the approach by Anamanaguchi to live performance involves the reverse of what we are hearing on the "Canada" stage theme. They are using the Famicom console equipment as backup, but where your attention goes is to the live instruments performed in the foreground. Whereas, on this track in particular I am noticing the garage rock sound is backing up the Plogue chiptunes as a lead instrument.

It definitely was an influence for me to see just what could be done with bringing these two genres together. There is so much energy. You hear the chiptunes, you hear the live instruments like rock music.

This is the first stage where we are introduced to the Horseman character, who serves a significant purpose in the narrative structure of the game. Are you discussing with the game designers how the introduction and the battle track will serve the game's storyline?

I think this is an interesting way of making the soundtrack whole. Taking parts of one song and then bringing them back in different ways into another song allows you to feel that you are always in the same environment. This was done in the "Horseman" theme and in the different epilogues. The Ravenous music shows up in cutscenes, whenever the character appears, in the form of a guitar riff. The idea is to contaminate different songs with some of the same parts to help bring the whole soundtrack together.

There will be a scene where Flame is communicating with the Gauntlet headquarters. And then Ravenous hacks into her heads-up display. That's when the guitar riff comes in?

Yes, the badass guitar riff is cued to the moment where he appears.

The cinematic cutscenes are reminiscent of gaming cutscenes in ’80s platformers like Ninja Gaiden or Golgo 13. In a sense, you are composing both a game score and for film?

It's closer to what we would do in film. The concept for the cutscenes were close to finished. They do not have a music loop and one or two specific cues, here and there. Here, the player needs a break from the intensity of the music, so it breathes a little more.

You need that kind of emotional reprieve, especially if you have just beaten a boss on the third try. Giving the player a moment to wind down was a conscious decision for the stage select theme as well?

I would not say that the stage select is the smoothest track. I tried to have there be a sense of anxiety. You are having to choose where you want to go. It didn't need to be too laid back, I think. For example, when you go to the shop or during the cutscenes, then you can go with something more relaxed.

There is that dramatic tension to the stage select screen, and then when you enter the laboratory it allows for some alleviation of that anxiety. This variation allows you to dial back the tension and offer different modalities as you progress. Was there a strategy that you had in mind for the laboratory theme?

It's a little bit more abstract. There you could put in a little more reverb, electronic sounds, some sounds of a computer.

Did the designers at Tribute overtly say that they wanted a jingle to introduce the "Horseman" theme? I was reminded of Protoman’s theme in the Mega Man series, which plays before the character appears onscreen and then is also integrated into a full-length music track in the epilogue.

I was told that the character would come back throughout the game. But then they said it would be cool, when the Horseman appears, if he could have something a little bit like Protoman. I knew it, but took another look to remember what exactly he meant. The idea was to have a calming melody to announce something was coming. That was how I understood it. The introduction is useful because you need a small break between the level and fighting the boss. You need a buffer between those two. That's why it's there

It's something of a creative challenge, is it not? To need a calming melody and a battle track and they need to be combined stylistically so that people can associate them with one another. How would you go about grasping the solution to such a problem?

Usually I try to get these melodies on the keyboards. Whenever I come up with something interesting, I keep it and build the track around it.

It is useful in your creative process when you are looking for ideas for music, a blueprint will emerge through the trial and error of sitting down at the piano and plucking out some melodies?

This is always how I start. For the drum parts, I'll do some finger drumming using the piano and the keyboards.

For the theme for the Floating City, I had noticed the rising scales give a sense of elevation. Was that a conscious intention of the track's design?

Yes, it was. Another example is when working on a cave level, you can have scales that go down to reflect the fact that it is underground. It's the same trick there.

In mentioning the sounds of a vintage computer booting up, I would liken these effects to cues from ‘80s robot anime programs such as Patlabor or Gundam. For a game starring an android and a mechanized bipedal robot. Were you thinking of this kind of audio effect early in development to help further characterize the genre of Panzer Paladin?

We talked about how globally we had to respect the themes of the game. When you get to the tower levels, this is where the music gets a little bit metal. You have more double bass drums to heighten the intensity. It was so much fun.

I noticed that at the beginning of the game, Flame is more emotionally reserved. After completing the tutorial, she takes a casual approach to convincing the Gauntlet operatives to allow her to embark on this mission. She concedes that as a rescue android she is not built for this purpose, but that she is up for the task. We see her mature from a plucky, high-spirited protagonist to someone who engages Ravenous directly and picks a fight. I saw that mounting emotional engagement as paired with this intensity of the metal instruments.

In the "Spirit Forge," this track has the most metal flavor to it, in its changing time signatures and the use of bass drum and percussive instruments.

How did you feel about the Powerglove cover? Could the inclusion of this arrangement by artists other than yourself be interpreted as an invitation for musicians to record their own Panzer Paladin soundtrack covers, in the same way that the game designers invite the player to design custom weapons in the blacksmith mode?

I was so happy when I heard this. I don't know whether people would be interested in doing this, but it's very pleasing to hear.

If I'm not mistaken, Tribute Games says that they produce retro games with a modern twist.

This influences me on the music production side because I am allowed to experiment with mixing two genres of rock music and chiptunes to merge two different eras.*

The Panzer Paladin digital soundtrack available for purchase through Bandcamp and Steam. The 32-track music score is streaming on Spotify and Amazon Music. Excerpts from the album are streaming on SoundCloud.