GameSetInterview: The Dangerous Audio of Penny Arcade Adventures' On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness
January 25, 2009 4:00 PM | jeriaska
[Continuing a set of interviews with neat folks who make video game audio, Jeriaska sits down with Canadian musician Jeff Tymoschuk to discuss the soundtrack to Hothead's episodic Penny Arcade Adventures game series.]
Fusing elements of the macabre horror of H.P. Lovecraft with the irreverent humor of the titular webcomic, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness maintains a precarious balance between the grim and hysterical.
The soundtrack for the episodic RPG (available for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, XBLA and PSN) is the latest game project by the Vancouver-based musician, who maintains GreenWire Music and Audio.
Having contributed to dozens of films and interactive media, his previous game projects include co-composing James Bond: Nightfire for Electronic Arts, and more recently Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice for BigBig Games/ Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.
In this discussion, the musician offers his perspectives on the debut of Gabe and Tycho as proprietors of the Startling Developments Detective Agency. The conversation offers a unique perspective on scoring video game narratives, and a closer look at the making of Penny Arcade Adventures:
GSW: Thank you for joining us for this discussion of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Now that the first two episodes of the series are available, game players have acquired a strong sense of the bizarre circumstances that govern this game world. Part of the fun of exploring New Arcadia is in hearing how the music adapts itself to fit the perilous locales. For instance, the carnival-esque menace of Pelican Bay in Episode One suits the fearsome mimes your party encounters there.
Tymoschuk: We wanted to give the different locations somewhat of a different feel, either with a different instrument palette or a different musical style. For Pelican Bay and the mimes, it seemed like a logical place to take it, somehow being attacked by waves of mimes implied polkas and Django Reinhardt. The slums were pretty much inspired by Bernard Herrmann and Tom Waits, and then with the asylum I let things get weird.
GSW: Speaking of Episode Two now, it sounds like a harpsichord can be heard upon entering the exclusive Riverbrook Estates.
Tymoschuk: Oh yeah, that's one of the first instrument choices for that level. Too much Addams Family as a kid, I guess...
GSW: We had the chance to hear from Adam Gejdos (audio director for Hothead Games) at the the Penny Arcade Expo, and he mentioned that his wife owns an antique store, which allowed him the chance to record a variety of old-fashioned machinery ticking and whirring for the game's sound effects. How did the two of you set about conjuring up the sounds of this dreamlike 1920's landscape at the beginning of this project?
Tymoschuk: There was a fair bit of conversation early on figuring out what the music was going to sound like. Adam had put together a CD for me of a bunch of possible reference material, that had some Tom Waits, some Bernard Herrmann, and a bunch of other stuff. Initially when I demoed for the gig, I did two pieces that were much more in the 1920s vaudeville vein, which really sounds nothing like the rest of the game.
When I started work on the game, the first three weeks or so were spent with me trying everything that I could think of to get the style right (with Adam emailing words of encouragement) and not really coming up with anything that we were happy with. And then somehow it clicked with some of the slums music, and from then on in, it was a remarkably easy process, and it seemed like the music came together very quickly.
GSW: The makers of the webcomic have made a point of mentioning Lovecraft as a literary influence and steampunk as a prevailing visual idiom for the game. Were you interested in having gothic horror or steampunk specifically represented on the soundtrack?
Tymoschuk: Yes, but really in more of a bastardized way. As far as the steampunk end of things, there's some odd percussion and metallic clangs, but that's about it. The horror elements came from a lot of listening to Bernard Herrmann, and I tried to go for a classic horror movie feel, which was expanded on in Episode Two. In general though, the music's all a little bit off-kilter, which was intentional...mostly, anyways.
GSW: Have you found that looping music tracks for videogames is a challenge for a composer whose background is in film?
Tymoschuk: I haven't really found it to be a problem, although there have been times that I've needed to write a two-minute piece and been at 1:50 and realized that I had no idea how I was going to get back to where I started. It can be a challenge to make it as transparent a loop as possible, but it's kind of fun to try and figure it out.
GSW: Was it useful reading through the archives of Penny Arcade webcomics when developing the soundtrack for the title?
Tymoschuk: It didn't really affect what I was writing, although it was cool to go through some of the archives and see what the strip was all about. I wasn't familiar with the strip before getting the gig, but I've been a pretty frequent reader ever since. And because there wasn't an established sound for the strip and I was given free reign, it was really exciting and freeing, at least it was after getting the initial style nailed down. I was able to just let the music go where it wanted, without having to keep within the lines of what had come before, and Adam was great about allowing me to have that freedom.
GSW: Were you interested at any point in taking musical elements that you had developed for your other games and embellishing them, stretching them, or otherwise distorting them to fit the outrageous game setting?
Tymoschuk: It really never came up. The plan was always to score the game fairly deadpan (albeit with a skewed sensibility), and especially in the more intense musical sections to keep the stakes high for the characters, but the worlds of the different games are pretty vastly different, and as a result there wasn't much cross pollination.
GSW: There are also a number of brief flash animation cut-scenes throughout the game, for instance upon gaining access to the Cloying Odor Sanitarium. Was it a challenge putting together a brief melody that succinctly captures these moments?
Tymoschuk: Actually, no. I've done a fair bit of scoring for animation over the years, and with there being no dialogue, I scored it like a traditional animation and let the actions dictate the music much more specifically. The musical ideas themselves are mostly fragmented, but you can often say quite a bit with just a fragment.
GSW: How would you describe the process of partnering with Hothead on this ambitious multi-staged project thus far?
Tymoschuk: Working with Hothead has been fantastic. I've been given an awful lot of creative freedom and support while working on these games, and it's been an extremely enjoyable collaboration. There's talk about some more projects with them, but nothing that I can really say just yet, other than I'm really happy to keep the collaboration going!
GSW: Keeping in mind that the series is still in progress, are there any plans at this time for a soundtrack album, either on disc or downloadable?
Tymoschuk: We have been talking about getting the music out there sometime soon in some form, but nothing's been definitively settled just yet. It's been great to hear the response to the music, and that people actually are digging it, so hopefully we'll have sorted out what we're doing with it in the next few months.
Fructus Dominus (Click for soundtrack sample)
Composer commentary: "Well, this tune had to be big, both because it's the halfway point of the series... and because you're fighting a gigantic robot. I took this as a chance to revisit a couple of themes previously introduced and send them off with a bang. I guess the only problem is that, as giant as this tune is, the franchise hasn't reached its conclusion yet, but I guess I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it!"
GSW: There is a long list of movie credits on the GreenWire website. Would you say there is there a favorite movie that you have composed for thus far?
Tymoschuk: I've worked on quite a number of projects, and most of them have been satisfying for one reason or the other. One that does stand out is a short film called Latchkey's Lament, which was a really cool eighteen minute fantasy short, directed by Troy Nixey, that had no dialogue and was music pretty much from top to bottom. It was probably the most traditional score I've done to date, and I'm really happy with how it turned out. The film ended up getting a fair bit of attention, and Guillermo del Toro is producing a re-release that's going to be happening sometime this year.
GSW: Overall, is there a particular musician or group of musicians that have stood out as a significant inspiration to your work?
Tymoschuk: As far as inspirations go, it's a pretty wide range. The scores that made me want to be a composer were John Williams' Star Wars and Danny Elfman's Batman, and that sort of started the whole thing. I still listen to lots of film scores, both as recreational listening and as inspiration, and some of the composers that I dig are John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, James Newton Howard, David Arnold, Michael Giacchino, Sean Callery, Jon Brion, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith, Christopher Lennertz, Troels Folmann, David Schwartz, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, & Danny Elfman.
GSW: How did you come to meet Dave Stephens, your collaborator at GreenWire?
Tymoschuk: Dave and I went to recording school together about 16 years ago. We initially started hanging out because we liked some of the same bands, and that led to me working on a Christmas album that he was recording with a friend (and doing Christmas albums of our own for the next few years). He was working as a sound designer/dialogue editor/foley guy at a local post-production studio, and I was an in-house composer at an internet company, and we were both taking on any available side jobs. In 2000, he'd left the studio he was at, and my job ended, so we decided to start GreenWire as sort of an umbrella for the projects we were working on.
We've been really fortunate in that many of our friends are filmmakers, and as we've been trying to expand our respective careers, our friends careers have also been taking off, and we've hitched our wagons to a lot of talented people. It also helps that Dave's a really talented musician and I've got some sound design background, while we tend to stick to our main specialties, we have an idea of how the other half lives. We're able to communicate in the other guy's language, and on a couple of occasions, help each other out with the work.
GSW: Did you set about achieving a certain aim with GreenWire, with its base of operations in Vancouver, Canada?
Tymoschuk: Film in Canada (and Vancouver specifically) is kind of an interesting kettle of fish. There's a lot of extremely talented people working in the industry, but especially compared to the US, there isn't the same kind of money in it. Getting funding for projects can be difficult, and as a result a lot of the projects that are being made are dialogue driven character pieces as opposed to car chases and explosions. The good thing about this is that filmmakers are often forced to be more resourceful and find alternate solutions to problems (and learning to write strong characters and dialogue is never a bad thing!).
GSW: What advice would you have for young musicians who want to enter the videogame industry? Are there certain areas of study that you feel are undervalued by music schools and universities today?
Tymoschuk: The way things are these days, you really have to master several disciplines. In addition to being the best composer you can, you often have to be a producer, music editor, recording engineer, technician, equipment manual interpreter, marketing director, and psychologist. It's a lot of things to learn, and while I'm sure that there's some great schools out there that cover a lot of the things that you need, it's probably too much to ask any one program to cover everything, never mind the fact that with most of these things the learning is never really finished. Read as much as you can, learn as much as you can, you really can never know enough.
The other thing is to be good to work with. Especially as your career progresses, and the budgets (and therefore the stakes) start getting higher, it can be a fair bit of pressure on the people involved. If you are seen as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem (in addition to making great music, of course!) then people are going to want to work with you again. Maybe moreso than any other industry, the entertainment industry is one of relationships, and if you do good work and are good to work with, then you should be fine.
Make sure that you keep playing with music, trying new things, figuring out different ways to tackle the same problems, and keep it fresh for yourself. The hours can get really long, and if you're not having fun doing it, it starts to suck in a hurry. Music's supposed to be fun, y'know!
[Interview by Jeriaska. Images courtesy of Hothead Games and GreenWire Music and Audio.]