October 29, 2009 12:00 PM | jeriaska
[Continuing his 'Sound Current' audio interviews series for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska catches up with the musician behind much-awaited IGF-winning Eastern European independent adventure game Machinarium, discussing the creation of the soundtrack to the just-debuted game.]
The Czech musician Tomas Dvorak, who also goes by Floex, is the composer of Amanita Design's new game, Machinarium. Previously he composed for Samorost 2 and used audio from the game in the creation of an award-winning original soundtrack album.
Machinarium is an adventure story surrounding a world of robots. The environments are dusty, organic, analog. The music too mirrors the duality of the art design, composed of elements both acoustic and synthetic, like an upright piano playing as a voice synthesizer belts out the melody of an old fashioned operetta.
In this interview with the composer for the game, Floex tells about his background as a visual artist who has found his way into the world of music for films and games. The discussion offers a glimpse into the surreal and mysterious creations of Amanita Design, and more specifically, serves as a guide to the unedited six track soundtrack preview, which is freely available online.
How did you feel when embarking on Samorost 2, your first game project? The soundtrack has gone on to receive an award a lot of recognition.
Composer Tomas Dvorak: It felt good. I was making small audio loops for the first game, maybe a maximum of one minute. If you have these short loops, they have to be abstract. If they're too concrete, then it becomes boring or annoying after hearing them ten times. Out of these loops I had all this material, so I decided to make a CD soundtrack out of it.
Is the story something that provides direction for your compositions, for instance in the making of Samorost 2?
I would say not so much. The story is rather simple. For me what’s very important is the atmosphere of the scene. I am always surprised by the process of "trying to find right mood for the scene".
Sometimes my approach will feel like too much of a cliché. What I’ve found out is that before I start to do some music, I should wait a bit. I look at the scene and try to get a sense of the atmosphere. Sometimes it’s better not to look at the scene, but to think about it. It can be best not to start immediately making something.
There are many elements which in the end can be inspiring to build the proper atomsphere. It can be the the instrumentation, sound and space design, the melodies and harmonies used, rhytmical structure... and it’s good for me to think about all of these things before I actually start to compose.
Was there anything in particular that you recall contributing to the atmosphere of Samorost 2?
For me, it’s a dreamy, surreal world. In the Czech Republic, everyday there is a small story for making children go to sleep, called "Vecernicek." I think Samorost has a bit of this childlike feeling. I like very much the world of fantasy and an approach that comes from something unconscious. This is something that is very close to my view of art.
I also like crazy Japanese movies, like those of Katuhito Ishii. I don’t know if you know “Funky Forest”? It’s a kind of fantasy which as a European I’m not used to. I’m astonished and surprised. It goes over all the barriers of what is imaginable.
You observe this kind of thing at Amanita?
Yes, there also, although still more in this European sense. They are very playful with what they do. I think that as long as it does not lose this playful approach, it will work.
Amanita design team (composer pictured center)
How did you meet the game creators at Amanita Design?
There are two art schools in Prague. I’m a musician mainly, but I studied at the Academy of Visual Arts. Jakub [Dvorsky] studied at UMPRUM, which is more for graphic design.
The way we met was, I was in an art residence and a friend of mine brought me this game, the first Samorost, saying, “I didn’t know you were involved in this project. It’s really cool!” And I said, “It’s some kind of misunderstanding. I have nothing to do with this.” But there was my name on it.
The thing was, there was a second Tomas Dvorak. There’s a guy with the same name as me, and he was making the sound for Amanita at the time when Jakub was making the first Samorost in school. From that time onward, I got to know Amanita very well, especially because this story was repeated several more times with different people. In a few months, Jakub Dvorsky wrote me with an offer to join their team. It wasn't hard to convince me.
Is it a strange situation, the fact that there are now two Tomas Dvoraks at Amanita?
It makes for a lot of confusion, but it’s also kind of funny. Samorost 2 was a very small team—just four people. But there were two Tomas Dvoraks, and we are both in the same category of sound.
When you first met in person, were you afraid that maybe he would look just like you?
No, he looks different. Sometimes people think I’ve made some things that I didn’t, and that’s not fair to him. That’s the only problem.
When you are working with the other Amanita game designers, does this collaboration take place in the same location or is everything happening online?
I see them online. We’re not all from the same places: Jakub is from Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Adolph [Lachman], who is drawing, is from Pardubice. The second guy behind Amanita, [Vaclav] Blin, who makes the animations is from Prague. In this meeting three months ago, a lot of us saw each other for the first time.
A soundtrack preview has been released with six of your tracks. How did you go about choosing these songs?
I personally like to make songs that are more melancholy, full of deeper emotions. The music in the last part of the game is probably closest to this mood. It’s also more acoustical, including the piano. For that reason, I put a few songs from that part on the preview. Mostly in the soundtrack there are compositions, which are more playful. These two kinds of songs are on this preview.
“The Bottom” is situated in the narrative context of the very beginning of the game, where you are introduced to the robot. Was this the kind of plot element that you might take into consideration?
Yes. It’s important because you’re starting. It’s an introduction, before the city. The music is very abstract and ambient, including elements of found sounds. The other Tomas Dvorak was sampling sounds a lot, especially the metalic ones... so sometimes I would take stuff from there and used it as musical elements. I also borrowed a analogue synthesizer from my friend (a Roland Sh01) with a sound that’s very dirty and unstable. It doesn’t hold a tune. You can hear it on “Black Cap Brotherhood Theme” and the background of “Glasshouse with the Butterfly.”
The robot falls down to “the bottom,” so for me it could be taken as the real start. The song contains some of my basic ideas about the soundtrack. I am using steel strings, melodical gongs like those from Java. The Oriental feeling of the instruments I don’t see so much ethnically. It’s a feeling that’s not only not European, but out of this planet.
In the most general sense how would you say the process behind the music for Machinarium has differed from the previous Amanita game's score?
This time I could do more what I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about the length of the compositions, and they could be more complex. The project itself was much bigger. It made me think about a different approach to the soundtrack, one that was more musical. I was seeing how far I could go, being strong with the image, before reaching this barrier where it’s too concrete. Maybe after playing you could have more fun by listening to it independently.
The song “Game Boy” is on the soundtrack preview and it has a playful feel to it. Do you remember where it appears in Machinarium?
I was making this one for a scene in the game, but it was maybe the only one which was refused by Jakub. He said it’s too happy and doesn’t fit with the rest, which is actually true, so we put it on a radio in the game. You can tune the radio and listen to a few songs. Originally it was meant for the scene with Mr. Handagote, (this is actually a Japanese word). This is a name for a character that is repairing something in one of the scenes with a melting iron.
The new Handagote theme is also on the soundtrack preview. How did you change your approach to the song so that it would be more appropriate to the world of Machinarium?
I was trying to find out how far I could go with the melodical parts of the soundtrack. There’s always this tension between abstraction and melody. This is one that achieved a balance, so that you can listen to it independently, but also play it more times without it getting annoying. This was one of the hardest tasks on the soundtrack but in the end I think I succeed.
How would you describe "Clockwise Operetta"? Is it based on the genre of musical theater?
I don’t like operetta too much. The irony is there's a robot singing in this song. The sound is made by an old Apple speech synthesizer. Nowadays you have speech synthesizers that sound very clear, but this one is very old. I like it because it really has this robot feeling. I made up some imaginary text and gave it to the speech synthesizer to sing. The tune was then totally re-composed.
Another theme that inspired “Clockwise Operetta” is the sound of ticking clocks in the background. I don’t know if you know the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange? I wanted it to have a little of that feeling, of not being taken seriously. It’s making fun a bit of classical operetta music. Instead of a real singer, it’s a robot that sings this tune with the piano and clarinet.
Where does “Clockwise Operetta” appear in the game?
There’s a part where there are some bad guys in the central hall of a house, where there are these clocks, and the robot has to deal with them. The scene is not dramatic, on the first look, but something not very good is happening.
The theme appears in different arrangements in some parts of the game. In the room right next to the one where “Clockwise Operetta” appears, there's a remix where I put the track through a Spectral Blurring effect (originally developed by Michael Norris). It’s like you are hearing the music in a dream or from a memory.
Are there these kinds of musical variations for other tracks?
For some of them. It’s an interesting problem in this game, because there are two sorts of arrangements. One is where the music appears later in a different context. For example, it’s connected to some character or development in the game. Second, there are some themes which are connected by location.
However, it doesn’t happen so often. For each of the scenes there are different tunes. Sometimes I would try it, but then the arranged music would not work for the scene. In that case, I would prefer to make something totally different.
The last song on the soundtrack preview is “The Castle.”
It’s also one of my favorites. It’s from the last part of the game and is a little sadder, because it’s in the house of the bad guys. The idea was to make music that would have a little bit of a castle feeling, but as dirty as everything else. You hear a harpsichord, a very typical instrument for this baroque castle music. There is double bass and violoncello, but dirtified and degraded with effects. The feeling is like you would hear it from some old record.
If you would look at my arrangement in Logic, which is software I use to make music, the arrangement does not have so many tracks, maybe five or six. Yet the song has different colors. While it might sound acoustical, it’s actually made from MIDI and the change is being made by different effects applied on the tracks over time.
The song is in two parts. One is more rhythmical, with these concrete instruments (the pizzicato from the string instruments). Later, in the second part, it's collapsed into more ambient stuff, but you can still hear the melody from the original part through the granular effects. It’s derived from the original tune, like maybe if you went to sleep and heard it from a dream. They’re like different faces of the same tune.
I wanted to make music that is a little bit surreal but still fit in with the general idea of this soundtrack. Compositionally this song is minimalistic, because there is a phrase that is repeating, while also developing into different chords. It’s still abstract, because the phrases and chord development is longer, more horizontal - like if the melody would be coded into harmonical progression.
The phrase is exposed in different interpretations through the sound. I like this kind of approach.
Have you had the chance to play the finished version of Machinarium?
Only in parts, mostly to get the idea of what is happening in the game. No one had time to enjoy it, especially during these crazy last few weeks. For me, the craziness ended maybe 14 days ago when I was finishing the mastering of the soundtrack. Now I would like to find some time to have a rest and enjoy playing it.
Are you proud of the way the game has turned out?
For me, it’s very special because the game is unique and visually it’s very close to my feelings. Also, I think Adolf was really important in making the game beautiful images, putting a lot of time into each image. He is able to take his painting experience and apply it to the digital world. Not all people with a painterly eye can use the computer.
I’m very happy with the general feeling of the game because I think it’s quite original in comparison with what is happening elsewhere in this field. For me it’s a little bit different because it’s not only about the gaming experience. As with Samorost, it’s very much about the atmosphere. It’s a bit like an interactive animated movie. You are in this world and you are having emotions and feelings connected with the game. Yeah, I’m happy with the results.
[Images courtesy of Amanita Design.]