Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Elvira Björkman, co-founder of composing duo Two Feathers, who’s behind the soundtracks of Angry Birds 2, Aragami, Hammerwatch, Apex Construct and more
What would you say are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
Personally, I wouldn’t say the difference is that huge, but the established cultural heritage is different. Just like film music, game music has a history of how it sounds and we as gamers might expect certain things or are tired of hearing certain elements already. It’s important to have that knowledge and appreciation for the form to be able to present something refreshing. I believe it must be the same thing for film! It’s about knowing the medium very well to effectively write to it.
Many would probably take the interactive part as the challenge, but I see it more as a tool rather than a challenge. In the end it just boils down to presenting something that can create some raw emotions together with the context of the game.
How has the role of the composer evolved in games over the past years in your experience?
One difference could be the technical knowledge that is expected from a composer. You can’t just compose and send a file anymore, but need to know your way around middleware, engines and I think also a bit of coding too. I can only speak from experience, but I also think we get more involved with the development as a whole.
Since I have the technical knowledge working with engines such as Unity and Unreal on top of also knowing my fair share of C# scripting, I usually ask to be the one to implement the music too. That way I can plan ahead on how the music will act interactively and exactly where it should trigger even before I write a single note. I really enjoy writing with my DAW [digital audio workstation] on one screen and the game on the other!
Composer Marco Albano (who worked with Nomada Studio on Gris), once told us the studio saw him as a designer as much as a composer as his score influenced the game’s development – does this reflect your experience?
Yes, definitely. Music and sound both have this magical power to make anything, from level design to animations, suddenly click and make sense. When Nicklas Hjertberg (my partner at Two Feathers) and I worked with [Lince Works] on Aragami they often told us that the music inspired them. Once someone even told us that “they now had to match the quality of the game with the quality of the music,” which we of course thought was one of the best compliments we can get!
In our work with The Outsiders on Project Wight, they involved us very much in the design and execution of many parts. More and more [developers] see the music as part of the game development and not a separate entity, which I think is great and something I push for. Music needs to be a part of development, both for the music to get better, but also for the game to get better.
How free are you to experiment when you take on a brief from a studio?
In Aragami we experimented with breaking expectations of what a ninja stealth game should be about and changed it to try to make it something very beautiful and fragile sounding instead of something ‘cool’ and ‘sneaky’. With Angry Birds 2 I had the pigs and birds singing in the tracks and even had some JRPG inspiration in there, even though it’s far away from being an RPG. With Apex Construct we experimented with not having the typical organic sound we usually worked with, but instead chose the opposite, something completely synthetic. From my point of view, that is very much experimental since I’ve been allowed to develop the sound of the soundtrack, but also deviate away from what I’ve done before.
“Music and sound have this magical power to make anything suddenly click and make sense.”
What was the most inspiring game world you worked on and which aspects did you most want to bring into your score?
I would say Aragami is one of my favourites. I really fell for the cell-shaded art style and that old Japanese meets magic vibe it has. There was also mystery, untold stories to tell and characters to develop. So a lot of work went into letting the music talk about things the player didn’t know yet. Who is Yamiko? Who are you? And even the untold story in the environment.
One of my favourite examples is during the third level, you can hear versions of the character’s melody – Yamiko, which you haven’t learnt to know very well yet – that foreshadows what’s going to happen next. In the end you’ll see a cutscene about Yamiko and then get a bell as a skill to use to lure enemies. After you get the bell, you hear the same track but now with bells included. We did lots of little hidden things like that.
In Apex Construct there was a lot of that too, but we played more with building silence in this abandoned world and then use mostly stingers [short clips of introductory music] rather than level tracks – which is very hard to confine yourself to as a composer since you just want to compose a lot! But it was inspiring in a way to try out a more minimalistic approach.