February 25, 2009 4:00 PM | jeriaska
[In the latest 'Sound Current' audio interview column for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska sits down with freelance composer (and friend of GSW, actually!) Vincent Diamante to discuss his work on the deliciously ambient soundtrack for ThatGameCompany's new PSN title Flower.]
A Playstation Network downloadable title for the PS3, Flower invites players to soar through the air as an adventurous petal, alighting on flowers to cause them to bloom. It is the latest title by ThatGameCompany, a design team that traces its roots back to the University of Southern California Interactive Media Division. The controls are handled by steering the Sixaxis controller and a single button allows the player to accelerate in flight.
Important to the experience of Flower, which was sound designed by Sony Santa Monica's audio lead Steve Johnson, is the music by USC alumnus Vincent Diamante, whose subtle score is nevertheless designed to make an impact.
Previously the musician behind ThatGameCompany's PC title Cloud, Diamante has selected layers of acoustic instrument samples that rise and fall depending on the actions of the player.
In this discussion with the composer, Diamante explains how the layers of audio that make up Flower's score came together, both through his own independent decisions and by way of a dialog with artists, illustrators and level designers.
[Interview conducted by Jeriaska. This article is available in French at Squaremusic.]
GSW: How far back can you trace your collaboration with Jenova Chen, the co-founder of ThatGameCompany?
Diamante: Jenova was an artist on a USC game I had previously worked on called Dyadin. It was an action game with a multi-player network component. The game actually made it into the Independent Games Festival the year before Cloud. It was very collaborative and did not really have a strong auteur, while Cloud did.
GSW: How would you describe Jenova's creative vision for Cloud?
Diamante: Cloud and Flower are similar in that they are very personal for Jenova. He would ask people on the team to remember how it was lying down on the ground and looking up at the sky. Of course I did remember that, back when I was a kid and I thought clouds were cool. Flower has people flying through valleys and canyons, and I kind of had that feeling as a kid as well -- that dream of flying.
GSW: The sound of instruments in Flower are suggestive of natural forces, like listening to the wind blowing through chimes. What audio techniques were involved in your use of instrument samples?
Diamante: I wanted the instruments to have independence, even during Levels Three and Six, where the orchestration is a concerted effort on the part of the group. I spent a lot of time listening to the tracks alone to make sure that the individual instruments when played all by their lonesome were enjoying it. If I could not answer that question honestly in the affirmative, then I went back to the drawing board.
I spent a lot of time looking at the level design in Maya and understanding how it was organized into discrete components. Knowing how each of these individual pieces of the gameplay experience operated, I was able to build a score that fit that.
GSW: You have mentioned that your interest in video games stretches as far back as the Commodore 64. Flower consciously departs from the synthetic quality of traditional electronic videogame music to embrace an organic, acoustic style sound. Do both sounds appeal to you?
Diamante: Absolutely. I started out with mods on the Amiga and later got a PC with a Sound Blaster so I could do S3Ms. I really liked pushing the boundaries of what that format was capable of. To me the Commodore 64 is more than just a play-back device. It's an instrument, like a piano or a violin. It has its own particular sound and idioms.
GSW: When did you begin work on Cloud?
Diamante: I started writing the music at the same time the rest of the USC team was getting ready to start production. I was an Interactive Media MFA student, just like most of the rest of the team, so there was a lot of trust that I knew what the game sound should be like even before all the game details had solidified.
While the music was one of the first things to be finished, throughout the process all of us matched each other's understanding of what the game would become.
GSW: What programs did you use for the score?
Diamante: I used mostly Cakewalk Sonar and Miroslav Mini. Synful had just come out that year and I was really excited about it. Additive synth instead of a big sampled library really appealed to me from a technical standpoint. The soundtrack to Cloud is a free download.
Flower is surprisingly not that huge a departure from Cloud in terms of the tech I used. These days, I still use Sonar, a more advanced version of the Miroslav sounds, and an updated version of Synful as my base orchestra, along with other less encompassing libraries I have picked up.
GSW: Are there design elements of Flower that appeal to you as an game player?
Diamante: Everyone says Flower is an experience, not a game... but there are so many good game ideas that it has. Subtle things like using the wind to hint at objectives are so much more elegantly integrated than the typical signposting that you see in adventure games these days. Also, Flower has my favorite motion control in any video game.
GSW: From a musician's standpoint, was it influential to have the Sixaxis be such a prominent component of the gameplay on Flower?
Diamante: The Sixaxis for direction was there from the beginning. Just how you tilted the controller to fly was definitely a big influence on the music that I wrote. It's a really soft type of control. You can feel that there is a texture to the way you fly through the air. That texture definitely had a big influence on the way I wrote for my winds.
GSW: The simplest layer of the soundtrack seems to be the single instrument that sounds when you brush by a flower, causing it to bud. Was each kind of flower associated with a different instrument?
Diamante: Yes. When you are in level 3, pink flowers correspond with a choral sound and white flowers have a chime sound. The instruments are always tied to a particular color within the level and were the same sounds from my software music library that I was using for music creation.
There might be some more significant post-processing that happened before they became a flower sound in the game, but the base was always a musical instrument, just like I was using in my sequencer.
GSW: If you are traveling through the level and you take a particular path through a row of flowers, that will cause a string of instruments to sound and interact with the background music. Did you have a say in where the flowers were placed so that this interaction was harmonious?
Diamante: I did have a lot of say in that. I spent a lot of time at ThatGameCompany so I had the opportunity to talk with the artists about the arrangement of flowers: tightening up lines of flowers or stretching them out, replacing red flowers with white flowers, and so forth so that the sound would work.
GSW: Were there particular specifications for the instruments you included in the background music?
Diamante: I really enjoyed taking some of the lower instruments, like bass flute and bassoon, and pushing them up into the higher registers, as opposed to using instruments like the piccolo or violin to convey the sense of flying through the air. These are flowers that are dreaming of flight: they are used to being down low, and in this game they are finally given opportunity to fly in these different environments.
GSW: Did your specifications change during later levels of the game, for instance from daytime to nighttime stages?
Diamante: On Level One there is a guitar, a piano and string pads. It's a pretty simple instrumentation for a relatively simple environment. Then, moving from Level One to Three the complexity increases.
Level Four drops us back again to a layering similar to Level One, kind of like the beginning of a new arc. The intensity builds again and climaxes with Level Six. The two different musical arcs match the way the game's flowers are divided on the menu screen.
GSW: Was Level Six more work intensive?
Diamante: Six was pretty intense. I wanted the interactivity of the music and the building of layers to work in the same way as in previous levels, but the instrumentation was that much more complex. I had to think really hard about just what instruments would be grouped in.
It was harder to handle because I was using that much more of the orchestra. In terms of orchestra size, prior to Level Six I was using 10, 20, 35 players, tops. Then there is the length of Level Six. Like the music in the other levels, it is a loop, but the Level Six loop is about six times the length of any other loop in the game.
GSW: There is a section of the game where you are caught in a wind tunnel and rushing between canyon walls, where your progression through the level is on a track. Did the track provide more structure for the background music?
Diamante: That particular piece was written before I saw a canyon in the game. I wanted to write something that had a vibrancy and buoyancy to it. There's a faster tempo and the instruments are playing more closely together. Before I had seen that moment of the game designed, I think we only had grass hills.
GSW: When did you first start work on the score?
Diamante: As with Cloud, I started writing music for Flower during pre-production. The guys at ThatGameCompany were working on prototypes on the PC. There were still core gamplay mechanics decisions that had not been determined.
As with Cloud, they could trust me to subtly influence the level and art design with my music. In fact, they enjoyed being surprised and inspired by it.
GSW: The game operates on a non-verbal level, so was this conducive to distributing the title to other language regions?
Diamante: Yes, it was even released in Japan and Europe ahead of the U.S. Recently I have been checking out the Japanese boards and saw that guys were putting playthroughs on Nico Video with the scrolling comments.
It's great to see those guys appreciating the music, especially since those great Japanese tracks like Star Fox and Zelda are the songs that I remember from when I was a kid.
GSW: Are there any plans to make the music for Flower available online?
Diamante: Sony and I are talking about it. Flower's music definitely lends itself more to the interactive game experience than the album experience, however. There are songs and well defined loops, but so much of it is the player's interactions bringing a new layer of the instrument bed into the mix.
[Images courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment.]