Module Q&A: Composer Jeramiah Ross on Ten Years of Shatter

Jerry on 2021-05-01
Sidhe’s Shatter for Windows and PlayStation 3 modernized old school gaming archetypes by integrating three-dimensional polygonal graphics and physics-based gameplay.

The origins of Shatter can be traced all the way back to the brick-and-bat gameplay of the earliest arcade and home console titles. The game integrates sidescrolling shoot-em-up mechanics by allowing the player to unleash focused beams of projectiles to clear bricks and face off against Xenon enemies during intense boss battles.

The player can clear obstacles by employing a "suck and blow" mechanic, allowing the protagonist to both angle the ball and sway the placement of the bricks, where otherwise the action could be bogged down and kept from progressing. Competitive players can upload their scores to global leaderboards supported by Steam and the PlayStation Network.

Shatter situates the player in a science fiction setting where the protagonist, named BAT1138, escapes from an oppressive industrial factory and smashes through glass ceilings to evade captors and claim victory. We spoke with composer Jeramiah Ross, aka Module, on his experience designing the soundtrack and, now, looking back on ten years of Shatter.


Shatter builds on a rich history of arcade and home console puzzle action games. What are some of your earliest memories growing up with videogames, and how was that encounter significant in terms of resonating with your musical training?

Jeramiah Ross: I was playing classical piano at antique fairs around New Zealand. I started playing music when I was four years old. I was tinkering on the ivories and people would come up to me and I got the odd, occasional tip—already at a young age I was exposed to this performance environment. Near the first time I'd come near a computer, I had seen Xenon 2 and Battle Chess on the Amiga 500. They had rudimentary music software, and because I had been classical piano training, it was similar to what I was learning about.

My grandad had worked in electronics and circuit design, and I had understood how hardware worked. Encountering OctaMED, that basic tracker software, was straightway a connection to the computer world. When the early form of virtual instrument music production happened with Amiga 500 computers, my brain like a lightbulb switched on. It was a virtual representation of a circuit, and I could design it however I wanted to. So began my lifelong obsession with making sound using machines and instruments.

Harkening back to the home console games of the 1980s, it’s easy to recall Arkanoid as a quintessential example of that era’s brick-breaking gameplay. Even further back, the ‘70s experienced Breakout in the arcades, which was a different context for gaming, situated outside the home and in a communal setting. What were your thoughts on entering this territory with writing the music for Shatter?

At first it was intimidating, knowing of its lineage, the prospect of being the person creating the music to represent not only the past but a possible future of where it could go.


The last time we spoke, you mentioned the development process at some point turned from focusing on the mechanical, oppressive nature of the antagonists to honing in on the BAT's desire to attain freedom. Can you recall what prompted this change in overall tone for the soundtrack?

We had designed the initial system to be triggered off MIDI data to keep our file sizes down. I designed virtual instruments to make the audio generative, instead of it being recorded and played back. If you were stuck on a level, the music would reflect that. Technically, the system was ticking all the boxes, but I realized that in order to keep the energy going, there was so much more we could do. We scrapped the first version. Seven months of work was archived.

After rebooting the audio design process, your aim was to define the personality of the BAT-1183 character. Something that is evident in listening to the music score is that you were introducing robotic vocalizations as one of the instruments, similar to what you hear in classic science fiction movies. How do you introduce what a thinking, feeling robot sounds like, when considering iconic movie characters from the past like R2D2?

The character arc of Shatter is that you’re trapped in a battery farm and being used for your energy. And then you break out into an environment you have never seen before, and are entranced by the world around you. It was an in-house joke that the BAT character was a reference to George Lucas’s short science fiction film.

As you progress through the game, his vocalizations get a little bit more audible, and he starts making more and more noise toward the end. I thought I needed to make him like a rebellious teenager. He is evolving during this period, where he is breaking out of captivity.

Where "Kinetic Harvest" helps communicate BAT's desire to escape , "Aurora" marks his first taste of freedom, having escaped the confines of the factory. In these introductory waves of the game’s progression, you were seeking to establish the motivations of the character?

It’s really expressed in "Freon World," in the middle of the soundtrack, with that epic guitar solo. It was Van Halen that we grew up with, and I remember that exact moment where I hit the middle of the album and game and I thought, “You know what you need right now? The world’s most epic lead guitar solo that’s ever happened in a videogame.”


Following the release of Shatter there was a vinyl soundtrack publication. Do you notice a difference in sound quality between listening to a vinyl record and a digital recording?

I notice a difference in the vibrations. What is happening technically on vinyl, those grooves are moving like a magnet up and down and the diamond stylus jumps up and down in the electrical current. You are listening to the sound of vibrations being converted into electricity, moving through analog circuits that store that electric signal and distribute it out at loud volumes through analog processes through a speaker designed to move air particles around. That is a very organic process.

I re-edited the soundtrack specifically for the vinyl, which was mixed at Abbey Road. It became a limited collectors edition. We also released a music video for “Amethyst Caverns,” created by the main concept artist Cory [Geerders]. We had already established a strong working relationship, and he was the guy I talked to when I wanted to know what kind of surfaces the machines were made out of. That was another cross-medium experiment that people hadn’t done before.

How were you interacting with other members of the the design team?

Antony [Blackett], the coder on the project integrating the gameplay mechanics, and I wanted it to sound like you were underwater at times. We used FMOD to slow down the wavefile and add a chorus filter modulation based on the gameplay, like the filters the DJs use for transitions when you’re at a gig and as the intensity builds up, you’re waiting for the drop. We wanted to have moments like that within the game where you have those types of transitions. That came from my experience in the live environment.

You have mentioned that Wellington has this scenic environment with rolling hills, bountiful landscape and clear skies. In your music do you seek to translate this appreciation into musical terms?

I love it. I’m fascinated by science and space. When I’m not writing music, like the way the main character in Shatter is in wonder of the environment surrounding him, I feel the same in the place I live. The beautiful beaches, the skies at nighttime. You can wander into nature here very easily and find yourself completely alone in the universe. New Zealand landscapes are a paradise. It is a magical place.


Working with Jos Ruffel, the music producer from Sidhe, you had developed a strategy to connect with the intended audience for Shatter. How would you describe that collaboration?

I think Sidhe approached me directly, because they saw what I was doing in the live environment, operating as a DJ but with keyboards, drum machines and live instruments. I was a one-man band, essentially, running everything off virtual instruments in the early 2000s. [Jos] had experience in the videogame industry and essentially came on as a producer, reminding me what our fanbase would connect with.

Once I understood that what we wanted to create was this epic feeling of nostalgia. It was the equivalent of making an arcade machine with a complete surround sound system, that you could put anywhere in the world, wherever you wanted, using this connected global network.

Part of that nostalgia is BAT's bravado being translated into 1980’s glam rock. Beginning with Pong, you this bat-and-ball gameplay operating as a kind of primordial soup that the entire industry sprang out of. Just this week Elon Musk demonstrated a prototype of his Neuralink technology, where the company demonstrated how a monkey with a neural implant can play Pong just by thinking about which direction to move the paddle.

I see your angle and I agree with you. In the core mechanics of the game, it’s teaching you about physics.

What I think is significant about the demonstration is that it exemplifies how this brick-and-bat gameplay is so primal that it transcends even the neurological boundaries defining the human species. And with Shatter, not to take the metaphor too far, you were breaking out of the confines of retail production and distribution methods to empower smaller developers with an unfamiliar signature style.

That followed suit with Limbo and Flower, not long after us. Within that context of downloadable games with low file size, you could have really engaging interactive experiences with good sound and gameplay design. You did not need triple-A titles and gigabytes of data to express these ideas in the best way possible.

Limbo is another example of reinventing classic gameplay. You have traditional 2D platforming reinterpreted as a black-and-white horror story.

You could take those genres we grew up with and re-contextualize them in our current world. I do feel strongly that what’s happening at the moment is the technological revolution we are going through now is verging on virtual reality. I’m hoping that I will get an opportunity to create a really exciting and engaging virtual reality experience with a good musical soundtrack and sound design to go along with it. But, then again, we want to be able to step out of the virtual world. We’re smart enough to realize that’s not beneficial for us.

We don’t want to be trapped in the Matrix. That is the danger of an artificial environment. As with Plato’s caves, you get to the point where you are unable to recognize that the shadows projected on the wall are not a direct representation of the world around you. You are engaging with an illusion, so there are hazards inherent in losing sight of that.

“Okay, computer. Stop the program. I want out.” Like the journey of this BAT character that grew up in the battery farm, until he breaks out he would not have known life to be anything different.

Images courtesy of Sidhe. The Shatter digital soundtrack by Module is available for purchase through Bandcamp and Steam, and streaming on Spotify.