[Continuing our GameSetWatch-exclusive series of interviews with notable figures in game audio, Jeriaska sits down with Chris Schlarb, the musician behind the soundtrack for acclaimed IGF finalist and upcoming WiiWare title Night Game.]

Night Game for WiiWare was named a main competition entrant for the 11th Independent Games Festival. Designed by Nicklas "Nifflas" Nygren of Knytt Stories and published by Nicalis, the game situates the player in the role of a ball, steering its way through a two-dimensional nighttime setting, characterized by puzzle gameplay and an absence of enemies.

The soundtrack is by Chris Schlarb, a musician based in Long Beach, California, whose previous projects include the album Twilight and Ghost Stories. Released on the Asthmatic Kitty label, the album includes the participation of a virtual orchestra of dozens of musicians. A gamer himself, Schlarb attests to having had no shortage of ideas to bring to the table for his first game score.

This discussion with the composer, taking place after his East Coast I Heart Lung tour, delves into the process behind arriving at a structure for the Night Game soundtrack. The musician describes how recognizing which approach would best serve the game environment was an even greater challenge than composing the pieces themselves.


Nicklas Nygren and Chris Schlarb at GDC's Independent Games Festival

Night Game is your first videogame soundtrack, and perhaps some time coming, considering how much experience you have with games. When did you first begin working on the score?

Chris Schlarb: I began working on the music for Night Game at the end of 2007. My friend John Beeler, who works at Asthmatic Kitty--the label that I'm on--is a gamer, too. He sent Nicklas a copy of Twilight and Ghost Stories. At that point, I was not familiar with his work and it was rare for me to rap with people who are in both the independent music world and the independent game world.

What was it about Knytt Stories that led you to believe that a collaboration with the game designer could work?

I'm drawn to clean design and intuitive user interfaces. I love ambient music and experimental, abstract art. There are so few things in the videogame world that are sympathetic to those kinds of aesthetic decisions. When I played Knytt Stories, it had that atmosphere. It was so efficient -- like a 5 megabyte download -- crazy small.

What has been the reaction among fans of Knytt Stories to your working on the score in place of the game designer?

Nicklas has a rabid fanbase of people who are wondering everyday what he's up to. He maintains forums on his website, and one day he sent me a link, saying that they had some research on me. There were twenty people talking about me, like, "Here's Chris Schlarb's website!" "Here's what he did on this album!" And then some people were saying, "I like Nicklas's music better."

I am really not the person to call if you want music to sound like like a specific genre or idiom. If you like what I do, I'm glad you called me, because I can do that all day long. I have ideas about how music and sound can interact in a game. The blessing with Night Game was that I had total freedom. Nicklas knew my material, so he wasn't going to ask me to make something that was like something else.

Do you get the sense that Nicklas has a particular design philosophy?

Definitely. As I was playing the betas, I would see puzzles getting harder, little details to the landscape coming together. He has a very refined approach, which involves as much whittling down and cutting out of ideas as putting them in.

Some aspects of the game appear to be reminiscent of previous console eras, particularly the 2D gameplay. Did you feel nostalgic working on Night Game?

You know, I didn't, because I felt that the visual design of the game was so sophisticated.

It seems to me there are two schools of composing for videogames today. You either have the old school, retro style sound or you have the giant orchestral score to make a game seem like a Hollywood Blockbuster movie.

Which school are you working in?

Neither. Essentially, I'm working in a chamber ensemble mode of composing. I'm writing for around four instruments, but also incorporating electronics, found sounds and sound effects within the compositions, and I'm using live recordings of musicians on everything.

Are these recordings sampled? Are you using loops?

No. Once we understood that it was going to be on a platform, there were restrictions on time, four minutes per world. I started thinking that what I don't want... [hums the Mario Brothers theme]. That's genius, but I wanted something that was not repetitive. If you write one four-minute song for each world, it is going to be too predictable. At the same time, the game doesn't call for the music to change depending on the emotion of the situation.

What I decided was that I would utilize silence together with the sound designs by Nicklas, the sounds of the ball and the wind in the background, so that essentially, instead of writing a four-minute piece of music, I would write four to six thirty-second to one-minute pieces of music. Then what we would do is create an engine that would randomly choose from among the tracks for each specific world.

Is it really random?

It's totally random. In between each piece that is randomly picked, there would be an arbitrarily long interval of silence, anywhere from fifteen seconds to a minute. You're randomizing the pieces, and you're randomizing the silence in between the pieces. Once I had those parameters, I had a much clearer idea of how I was going to go about composing. I was in the home stretch.

How much time went by up until that point?

It was six months. Initially we had the pieces cross-fading, but it was too much having music playing constantly. I wanted to give the player some space, because you're thinking all the time in the game about how to work with this great physics engine.

Ultimately the music should be helping you play the game, not distracting from it. In general, I have this feeling that there is too much music in games and in movies as it is--that we are constantly bombarded by it.

Were you concerned at all that in allowing for these spans of silence that the soundtrack would feel too spare as a consequence?

I really was not, because it was a compositional decision to write these pieces to ebb and flow. When a piece comes in, the emotion is heightened momentarily. You might not even realize it consciously.

In terms of the gameplay, there is nothing resembling a boss battle that would require a special theme to focus your attention on that particular passage?

There are no enemies in the game. You have no nemesis, there is no adversary. Not to get all zen or anything, but it's essentially you versus you, and you're just a ball maneuvering through these obstacles.

Are there any games that you were reminded of during the making of Night Game?

What immediately came to mind was Marble Madness. I thought the music in that game was fantastic, and I actually did two arrangements of Marble Madness songs on marimba for fun during the early days of recording for Night Game.

Where did the recordings take place?

Initial recordings were done in Austin, Texas with my friend Nick Hennies on drums. When I returned home to Long Beach, California I recruited Anthony Shadduck on upright bass, Danny Levin on euphonium and valve trombone, and Andrew Pompey on marimba, mandolin and drums. The thing that I love about making music is that it's a deeply collaborative process.

What instruments did you play on the soundtrack?

Electric guitar, twelve-string acoustic guitar, piano and keyboards, marimba and percussion instruments, tabla, kalimba, I think there's some mandolin on there, weird things like a transistor radio. Each world has its own theme, but one of the tricky things was having the entire game be cohesive. All these had to work together on a macro level, world to world, and then on a micro level, in which the six pieces within each world work together. That was definitely tricky.

Will the soundtrack be made available online?

In the future, we may release all the music for free as a download after the game has been released. The strange thing is that it is not made to be listened to with no spaces in between. My hope is that people who are fans of my music and fans of the game already will appreciate it.

Night Game advanced trailer

[Images courtesy of Nicalis and Asthmatic Kitty. Photos by Jeriaska and Nari Mann. Find out more about the music of Chris Schlarb by visiting his official website.]