Plant Pixels and Watch Sprites Grow – soundtrack

“I am not a musician”, I’d tell myself and anybody else within e-vicinity. Embarrassed to think that I had, instead of outsourcing to someone better-deserving of the label, I had produced music for my own game. That game was DOWN.LOAD and I had knocked together over an afternoon, a driving tune designed to loop – mainly because falling and shooting lacked a little something in terms of pace, and a fast electronic beat plus some synths helped that out a bit. But, people seemed to enjoy my non-musician output, my non-music.

Almost double-figures of games later, and I still write the music for my games and people still tell me they like it. I guess I’ll have to stop calling myself “not a musician” and accept it as one of the various ‘hats’ one wears as a solo game developer: I have produced the soundtrack for my upcoming N.E.O – Near Earth Objects (all it lacks is a title screen theme) and look to be writing the soundtracks to a fair few games yet.

I have to confess though, a little something. I kinda am a musician. Track back in time to myself aged 14, and the UK’s standard end-of-mandatory-education qualifications loom. As a youngster I always (well, since the age of 5 or 6) wanted to make games and I thought qualifications to that end may aid me in later life; I was told that I had an affinity for drama and acting and for my one creative arts GCSE slot, this seemed to be completely pointless. The obvious choice was art GCSE, as I had a knack for drawing. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no musical ability, so to me it seemed the obvious choice was to go for the weak link in my to-be-gamedev armour and do that. I passed with a C.

Later on, I would take another music course but drop out; a National Diploma in Popular Music. When I had the meeting with my tutor Iain to fill in the paperwork of my leaving the course due to external life pressures, he told me; again in very certain terms; that I could probably follow the subject to a full degree and do well. I had come on in leaps and bounds, understood a fair bit of musical theory and showed a knack for composition. I almost forget Iain’s kind words – they were after all dark times (hence the dropping out).

I have of late, released an album. Comprising tunes from my recent games, here it is:

Plant Pixels and Watch Sprites Grow
Plant Pixels and Watch Sprites Grow

(available here on Bandcamp)

I want to talk a little about each track:

1 – V
The title screen tune from V, my low-resolution demake of Terry Cavanagh’s awesome VVVVVV. This was a simple one to compose, being a stripped down version of the main theme (which I describe below), centering on the climb up and down the D Minor scale; with some ambience of bird activity as a background sound later. I felt this very worthy of an intro track, especially since motifs here will be present later on in the aforementioned main theme to V.

2 – [love.self.hate]
Actually an older track, from 2008. This was used in some of the development diary videos I made for SLaVE, and then as the main theme to Press Space. This slightly-beefed-up version was to be part of the soundtrack for N.E.O – Near Earth Objects, but I decided against recycling it in the end. I mention that the track was from 2008, in my spare time whilst studying Animation at university I flirted with the idea of recording a solo EBM/industrial EP; this track once had lyrics! The name comes from those lyrics, which centred around the divided attitudes to oneself whilst suffering the mania/depression of a bipolar cycle.

3 – Strange Descent
This tune, from DOWN.LOAD, sticks in my mind as the leap-of-faith moment when I make some of my music available (albeit in a game) to a larger public audience; who reacted better than I’d have ever imagined. Given the cyberpunk theme of the jam DOWN.LOAD was an entry for, I bought to mind the film Hackers and its soundtrack, notably The Prodigy. This is my riff on their sounds, being part Voodoo People, part No Good (start the dance) with a little of my own style thrown in there.

4 – I accidentally a Music
The track title (used to be ‘heart-shaped lie’) is a joke at my own claiming to not be a musician. This was for the rebooted All The Balls (which I shall maybe write about soon) to suit the newer and more colourful aesthetic — a quirky 6/8 ditty which skips around having fun. I had the idea for the tune (as I do many of my tunes) from the bassline of another; a track which I can’t bring to mind right now, but plays in the credits roll of X-Men: First Class. You may know the one.

5 – Plant Pixels and Watch Sprites Grow
The original All The Balls theme was the longest track I’ve ever written, weighing in at over 8 minutes. It was influenced by minimal and slightly-repetitive soundtracks like that of Pixel Junk: Eden — such tunes manage to be kind of hypnotic with their repetition and playing the game happens in an almost trance-like state which doesn’t actually detract from the experience at all. Drew inspirations from Nine Inch Nails, two tracks to be precise; Copy of A, and the remix of Me, I’m Not by Olof Dreijer that features on Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D.

6 – Man Up
Man Up was a strange, experimental title for me. Not least experimental was the ‘soundtrack’, four bars of drum beats played in two different kits; overlayed so that they could ‘switch’ volumes depending on the player’s actions, seamlessly seguing from one to the other and back. For completeness, I wanted its inclusion on this album, interspersed with some sounds from the game to break up and complement the beats a little. This track’s placement is to give the listener some relaxation time between the marathon that was the previous track and the intensity of the next…

7 – In this house, alone, I feel my mind plotting against me
One of the most fun pieces of sound design I’ve done so far was the soundtrack to Z. Making zombie noises into a mic, clicking my boots together and this… thing. I played around with stretching a very short 8-second guitar riff to two minutes, and overlaying my vocals (stretched) plus some library sounds of baby noises; some backward-masked. Ambient sound for zombie-blasting that got its name from the countless nights I spend in the house making games alone whilst my partner is at his job.

8 – Enjoy the Ride
Another track, like [love.self.hate], was intended to be for an industrial/EBM EP that I made in my spare time. This one dates back to 2007, the oldest track on here. Included because of its presence on one of the SLaVE developer diary videos, this is a menacing stomp through some nasty synth sounds that once accompanied some scratch vocals about the occasional need to be shallow and enjoy oneself. Well, I was at college when I wrote it…

9 – The Bubble is About to Burst
Named after the five or six similarly-titled ‘shock’ articles about the independent gaming scene that I’d read the day I completed this track; this is me riffing on Magnus Pålsson’s excellent work for VVVVVV, notably my favourite tune, Potential for Anything. I was aiming less for an all-out soundalike, but something that conveyed the energy of its inspiration as I experience it. In that, I failed, but it ended up being a nice enough tune anyway. Where Pålsson riffed on Guile and Ryu’s themes from Street Fighter II, I made subtle homage to Balrog/Vega/Claw’s theme in the same game – notably with the timing of the lead melody. This was actually my second attempt at a main theme for V.

10 – It Stays With You
Inspired by the bassline of a Miku Hatsune track my partner was listening to at the time, this was a reaction to their challenge to “write something slow for once”. This was originally supposed to be V’s main theme, but it simply did not fit. I realised this halfway through, but worked on it nonetheless as I liked where the track was going: reminding me very much of the slivers of happiness one can occasionally feel whilst depressed, and how valuable and beautiful they are. Given the mixture of harsh and happy tunes on this album as a whole, I’d say that’s the whole theme of it – and with the name, the suggestion that from these small moments of happiness, larger and more significant ones can grow

As an album, I think this works very well. A good progression of tracks, lulling like an intermission in the middle before picking the intensity back up at the end. There are things I could do better; such as the levels and volumes being a bit scattered (this is mainly due to the tracks being composed sometimes years apart, my musical knowledge differing greatly from one to the next in some cases) but as a first effort and a compilation of sorts, I’m actually proud of it.

This album is £1, which is an absolute steal for half an hour of music. All proceeds will go to ensuring my continued game development efforts, every purchase means a lot to me. Get it here on Bandcamp.

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