Feature Q&A: Sound of Echochrome

Jerry on 2008-06-12
With digital distribution making it possible for a greater variety of unconventional titles to reach the market, imaginative new forms of puzzle gameplay are emerging. Echochrome for the Playstation 3 and PSP, whose art direction mirrors the logic-defying line drawings of M.C. Escher, is one such example. The physical laws of the in-game environment are determined by the way the player manipulates the perspective, making illusions of perception the literal truth.

For the music accompanying the game, Hideki Sakamoto has created a collection of classical music tracks, recently released in a soundtrack album by Team Entertainment. For this discussion on the sound of Echochrome, the composer joins Siliconera for a deeper look at the design underlying the innovative puzzle game and its original soundtrack.

Sakamoto-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion on the subject of Echochrome's music.

Hideki Sakamoto: Thank you for the opportunity.

At what point in the development of the title did you begin writing the score to the game?

Hideki Sakamoto: Generally speaking, implementing design, scenario and graphics will precede work on musical compositions. However, in the case of Echochrome development on the score began at an early stage. I believe that at that time all there was to observe of the game were sketches and the general gameplay concept.

How did you come to decide on classical music as the style to complement the art direction, as opposed to the more common choice in videogames of including electronic music?

Hideki Sakamoto: Yes, how to have the music match the simple, yet stylized visual effect… at first I really struggled with that problem. Considering that the visual aspect of the game is strikingly simple, I had it in mind not to let the music overpower the overall design. I wanted to avoid distracting the player by using unusual sound effects or unfamiliar instruments. Classical music seemed to me the best choice because it is universal. Siliconera: Why focus on this particular quartet of two violins, a viola and a cello? Hideki Sakamoto: This relates to the previous question. I can say that the decision resulted from the desire to attain simplicity along the lines of the visual content. My initial feeling was that the ensemble of two violins, viola and cello might match the environment of Echochrome. However, it meant that I could not rely on varying the timbre or adding effects to differentiate each track. For that reason, it was a significant composition and arrangement challenge. As the project moved forward, this hurdle actually gave me a very hard time, but my first thought was simply, "Man, wouldn't it be something to have a string quartet in there?" echi3.jpg Siliconera: When was it decided to name the game's songs after prime numbers? Hideki Sakamoto: I tend to feel that song titles are not all that necessary, unless they relate to a strong message conveyed by the lyrics. Titles are meant to identify an individual piece of music, but in many cases they also influence the impressions of the listener. When deciding on the titles for the songs found in Echochrome, I really put a lot of thought into it. I had been toying with the idea of naming each song after a philosophical concept, but suddenly the idea of numerals, in particular the prime numbers, flashed into my mind. By focusing on numbers instead of words, I felt I could avoid the situation where the listener's impressions are biased by the title. Siliconera: The depth of emotion in the Echochrome soundtrack is striking, especially when one considers the abstract quality of the game environment. What gave you confidence when you were setting out to make the music that emotionally weighty songs would not seem out of place within the context of a puzzle game? Hideki Sakamoto: You know, I only became certain that the songs would feel appropriate when I saw them added to the game. This experience really marks the first time I have ever composed for such a title. There are no protagonists battling monsters or saving princesses, no dire tragedies, love affairs, or maniacally laughing villains. Even halfway through the process of composing I felt I was in unfamiliar territory. I often find myself thinking about this subject of the role of music in videogames. The last thing I want to do is create something mechanically, entirely according to convention. While the music for this game was in the classical style, I did not want to imitate moments in the history of classical music. Adding emotional variety to the soundtrack then was an added challenge. It always makes me glad to hear from people that in the end the music managed to suit the game well. My feeling is that the instrumental performances were significant in providing that result. echi4.jpg Siliconera: What quality were you looking for in including the striking operatic vocal performance by Rumiko Kitazono on "Prime#3"? Hideki Sakamoto: "Prime #3" is the opening theme to the PSP edition of the game, but Ms. Kitazono's voice appears in two other songs. The first is "Prime #2," which appears at the opening of the Playstation 3 version. If you listen closely, the PSP version sounds subtly different. The other song, "prime #9973," is a recording that appears only on the soundtrack. The matter was decided after several discussions with producer [Tatsuya] Suzuki at Sony Computer Entertainment. We felt we needed something different to define the opening theme, and chose opera to be that quality. I feel that the persuasiveness of voice is more powerful than other instruments, so it was thought that players would notice were the song to appear each time a new game began. Siliconera: It might be surprising to some players to discover that there is no looping on the soundtrack, maintaining a clear beginning and ending to each track. Did you experiment with looping before choosing this approach? Hideki Sakamoto: This approach was decided midway through development. As it turned out, we never tested the game with looping. Suzuki-san was strongly inclined to believe that the songs should be played in random order. Since players are going to feel differently about each puzzle, we decided that it would be better for there not to be set associations between songs and puzzles. When looking at games in general, the force of the music can make the player conscious of feelings of grief, happiness, or sadness, and that is most often in order to serve the storyline. In Echochrome, the important thing was for the player to have such feelings, just for their own sake. There was no sense of striving to manipulate the player's emotions, and that was something of a realization for me as a musician. echi5.jpg Siliconera: Can you tell us a little about Noisycroak? For a music production studio focused on videogames, what distinct requirements are there that might not apply to other forms of media, such as films or television programs? Hideki Sakamoto: Game sound is like no other media. For instance, you have songs undergoing this process of regeneration through the convention of looping. There is the concern you must have while composing music for not exceeding the capacity of the data size on your songs. There is also the possibility of the player's being able to manipulate the sound to their liking. So, there are all these unique aspects. Just as those who play chess without knowing the rules cannot get far, composers who do not grasp these special qualities of videogame music cannot hope to strike a chord with players. Noisycroak specializes in videogame music, which requires a lot of thorough investigation, due to the breadth of the subject. All of us are at study everyday, and there is this feeling that little by little we are storing up all these skills related to sound design in games. That kind of experience and the usefulness of the information that comes out of it is very valuable to one's development as a musician. I believe that when game composers imbue their music with passion, it enhances interest in games as a fine art. Composers like me working in this industry often exert ourselves as if videogame music were a kind of professional sport. The staff members affiliated with Noisycroak are not strictly performers, as most of them are composers as well. Each of them is proficient at composition and in the area of sound effects, making them capable of all aspect of sound design. They're a great bunch. echi6.jpg Siliconera: In what ways do you see today's videogames pushing the envelope as far as integrating new forms of musical expression is concerned? Hideki Sakamoto: I think coming up with innovations is definitely a wonderful thing. As sound designers for videogames, there is still a lot left to discover. Our minds are kept busy coming up with new techniques all the time. However, it is important not to treat music like just another trend. As a composer it is good to keep in mind that making music commercially in style does not necessarily make it more accessible. The important thing is having the good judgment to determine whether your new forms of expression are of value. Siliconera: It's difficult to imagine Echochrome running on previous generations of videogame hardware. Looking into the future, are there improvements in the technology that you feel might make some previously unseen game music projects possible? Hideki Sakamoto: I agree that it would have been too difficult to implement Echochrome on previous systems. While it is great that progress in game hardware continues all the time, I think it would be a shame if the focus on demonstrating the power of game hardware were to overshadow the emphasis on the game designers' creative passion. In the era of 8-bit sound cards, you could only dream of hearing vocal performances or full orchestral recordings on a videogame soundtrack. Today, it is a reality. We are compelled to think not just about overcoming the technical barriers to generating better quality sound, but also keep in mind what is necessary to retain the original qualities that make videogame music special. The success of a project from an artistic perspective, and not necessarily from a marketing perspective, is determined by having a firm grasp on the unique qualities of videogame sound design and refining those techniques to the utmost. You often hear it said of videogame scores, "This is just as good as what you hear in movies." But my objective is to help foster a different situation, one where it is often said about other media, "This is just as good as what you hear in videogames." Siliconera: Sakamoto-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion on the subject of your music for Echochrome. Hideki Sakamoto: My pleasure.

Translation by Ryojiro Sato. Read it in Japanese with additional photos. Excerpts from the soundtrack are streaming on the Team Entertainment website. Images courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment.