“It was evident to me, years ago, that for an unconventional and ambitious project like Jett to properly resonate, it could use a banger of a first half hour,” explains Jett: The Far Shore’s co-director and one of the Superbrothers, Craig D. Adams.
Adams sure wasn’t lying: as the player slowly climbs down a flight of steps leading to the umbilical tower glaring in the distance like the mysterious mountain in Journey, you hear your people chant what might be Mei’s, our human explorer’s last earthly melody on this very doomed soil. It’s Sacred Harp singing, as we later find out during our conversation with Jett’s musical duo Andrew ‘scntfc’ Rohrmann and Priscilla Snow (a.k.a. ‘ghoulnoise’). But as Mei descents into darkness, both physically and metaphorically, knowing our prophesied spiritual mission, soon the sweet, farewell melody of our ancestors is replaced by hums of the engine of the spacecraft and our protagonist’s hushed breathing before the long awaited lift-off.
You might think it is gravity adding all this weight. While in reality, it’s the deep-rooted, intimate human connection what we feel during Jett’s breath-taking prologue.
If you think that’s Superbrothers’ definition of a ‘banger’ or an ‘epic opening’ — you couldn’t be more wrong. Our camera, pulled back to offer a thrilling widescreen, is now locked on the same space shuttle ready to embark. Behind the (musical) helm: video game’s very own Hans Zimmer, Jim Guthrie with his sole contribution to Jett’s soundtrack. A 6-minute track called “Out of Our Hands.” And boy, if it doesn’t feel like watching Neil Armstrong take to space (for the first time, at least) while Guthrie’s epic synths take our breath away.
With this 30 minute opening “coupled with enough cinematic bombast that could impress” even the self-loving King of All Cosmos (Katamari Damacy), as Adams surely would agree, Superbrothers team managed to bring to video games what previously was only available to movie magic. Never before in the interactive realm we felt so emotional for all the brothers and sisters, moms and dads left on terra firma. You might think it is gravity adding all this weight. While in reality, it’s the deep-rooted, intimate human connection what we feel during Jett’s breath-taking prologue.
Best part? It’s only the beginning. Act 0 (titled ‘Embark’) out of 4 acts, of which most of them the player spends traversing the mysterious planet in a form of a tiny, multi-functional space capsule akin to a futuristic Swiss Army Knife with an ion thruster. And sure, the planet’s all encompassing watery front can sometimes remind of that single water-based planet from Nolan’s very own space epic “Interstellar”. But there’s also mysterious interstellar radio signals that brought us to this far-away land; wild dreams, shadow figures and wonderfully strange sequences one would expect from “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the people who made Sword & Sworcery.
After all, we’re taking about Superbrothers’ second game. One that’s been germinating since 2007 — before team’s debut game (Sword & Sworcery, 2011) changed how we think about music-based games; years before Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky (2016) cluttered the space with its “18 quintillion planets.”
Now, after almost 14 years and after many readjustment, as required for any successful space mission, Superbrothers’ team has managed to stick the landing in what can be considered as a yet unexplored terrain. But for a game that has crafted its own language and mixed one of the oldest forms of traditional singing with otherworldly synths and off-kilter oddities from what could easily fit in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” universe — that only seems fitting.
Below, we chat with Andrew Rohrmann, a Seattle-based composer which many will be familiar with from his contribution to both Oxenfree titles and who’s 28-track symphonic soundtrack for Jett propelled Superbrothers’ game into becoming one of the best audio-visual experiences in recent years; and Priscilla Snow on her incredible journey from a first time game composer to a full-time linguist of a fictional in-game language ‘volega’ — one that is 2000 words strong.
gamemusic.net: First of all — congratulations to both of you for making what’s possibly the video game soundtrack of the year. How are you both feeling right now?
Andy: It’s overwhelming because up until now almost no one has heard how the game sounds and there are some tracks that’s been set in place for like 10 years. So, it’s pretty amazing that it’s finally reaching everyone’s ears. At the same time — it breezes past me because I’ve lived with most of this music for so long that there was almost too much anticipation of it’s release. To the point where I’m like, ‘Oh, that happened.’
Priscilla: Honestly, it’s been really wild being a part of it. I feel like JETT was very surreal experience for me because this game was germinating for around 10 years. Literally, since I graduated from high school! So, it’s wild to think that this cool project has been happening in the background and somehow our paths have crossed.
gamemusic.net: Did you take any additional steps to make sure the soundtrack of JETT stands out from the rest of ‘space operas’ (both in films and games)?
Andy: What I’d like to do was dig as deep as I can with my references. So, if it was, let’s say “Interstellar”. Well, what influenced the sound of “Interstellar”? Or what influenced “Solaris” — both the book and the film? A big influence on my approach to making music for JETT was “Prometheus”, the soundtrack of one of the Alien films, which Craig, one of the Superbrothers, also really liked.
I went a step or two back trying to unearth what influenced the score of “Prometheus”. That, then, dovetailed well with the Eastern Europe and Western Asian mythology and history that we were working with for JETT. I did a deep dive into 19th century Russian composers that had their whole autonomous movement separate from Western composers of Germany and Italy. I found that very interesting because they have turned to different folk influences and ‘woven’ it into their own music.
And so, I followed the thread that ends at “Prometheus” and goes all the way back to original folk music that spawned its own genre. In turn, following this pattern really helped to come up with our own kind of original voice and sound for JETT.
gamemusic.net: Is it true that if not for an accidental tweet none of the Sacred Harp singing would be in the game?
Andy: That’s right! I believe the origin of how Priscilla came on board for JETT starts with the brief for the opening scene of the game. We needed a song that would feel like the natives have been singing for a thousand years — the sort of thing that’s never been written down. Something that feels ancient and sacred to these people.
The closest thing we could find was parts of the score from Terrence Malick’s “Thin Red Line”. I tracked back historic threads back to American and European Sacred Harp singing, made some really crappy demos using sample libraries and that was that for a while. And, you know, we were pretty conservative with our budget as a small production team. So, when I was asked what things we should improve, the first thing I suggested was replacing the placeholder with a real choir. Real Sacred Harp singing.
I think, that is when I saw Priscilla tweet about her great-grandfather who literally wrote the song book that all Sacred Harp singers use in North America. Finding someone who knows what Sacred Harp singing is is extremely rare on its own. Not to mention people who practice it. Naturally that sparked the whole conversation. Another coincidence we later found out was that Priscilla lived four blocks from me. Literally same neighbourhood! So, we were able to meet in person a couple of times before starting to work together. (And before Covid stopped all that from happening any time soon).
gamemusic.net: How then the fictional language of ‘volega’ was born?
Priscilla: The short answer is: I came up with ‘vo, le, ga’, instead of ‘do, re, mi’, and that was the beginning of it. So, the scale in Jett’s world is ‘vo, le, ga, ni, ha, xi, me, vo’.
It began with me listening to the Sacred Harp music on repeat and coming up with the melody line in my 300 square foot micro studio in Seattle. At some point I started improvising words — I sang one and it felt really natural. It made sense, even though it was like complete gibberish. So, I transcribed it, then started to look for meaning in it.
If you play the game now and walk around that scene, every single voice is coming from a different character. – Andrew ‘scntfc’ Rohrmann
Andy: But that’s only one half of the story, right? We had previously prototyped some vague concepts of how the language would work —not what the language was per se, but how it would function technically in game’s world. What we did to prototype it was we took languages that would be less familiar for English speakers, like Inuktitut and Arabic, and had a couple people act for us some lines with this mesh-up of a language. Initially we envisioned chopping those samples into linguistic fragments that we could be later restructure in the game later on.
And that kind of got us half-way. But I didn’t really like it. We were going through some concepts of how could we improve it and this was right at the time when Priscilla started work with us. She had great ideas what we could do with it. And along with Superbrother folks and people at A Shell In The Pitt studio with technical knowledge of how we could get there — not only the language, but also how we could assemble it in the game.
gamemusic.net: Since this is a game where you don’t see your character that much compared to Sword & Sworcery in which you constantly see your avatar. Did this change how you approached making music for JETT?
Andy: Totally. Craig as a creative director is always focused on music and sound as a primary component of what they’re making from the very beginning. So, I know that music will play an important role in setting the scene. But also being an important part of the narrative and flow of JETT. A good kind of anecdotal example of what I mean is a track called ‘Jett To Shores’. It is a 10 minute piece and it shows up in the game as a 10 minute composition. I wrote it to showcase a single piece of music with a range of different components that could work with a few different scenes.
So, I demoed something that kind of rambles a bit because I wanted to show all those different (flexible) parts. Usually, we go through it and cut out parts that we don’t need. ‘Trim the fat’ as we call it. But that time Craig came back to me and said, ‘Nope, that’s done. This is whole thing is going in the game.’ He then (almost) extended the scene because of it! Normally, you fit the track into the scene as a piece of puzzle, right? For JETT it was the opposite because Craig sees that back-and-forth relationship between music and gameplay as being really important to the overall experience. So much that it’s worth making changes to the game. And that’s rather a heavy responsibility to carry but, at the same time — I was ready for it.
gamemusic.net: Having in mind that JETT was also made and released for Playstation 5, did that allow for some cool technical tricks?
Andy: One of the ways we got to exploit this powerful new system was its 3D audio capabilities. We envisioned the very first piece that Priscilla created as this moment when you step outside from the tent, and it’s surrounded by people. So, with the tools we had at our disposal and the fact that we did end up having to record every vocalist separately (because of the pandemic) — we realized we can have every single voice separately. Not as a single .wav file.
If you play the game now and walk around that scene, every single voice is coming from a different character. Which previously wasn’t entirely possible without technical tricks. In the older days you had to fit everything into 50 or 100 megabytes and that was that. Now there’s still a ton of technical know- how needed to get things to function properly, but in terms of what’s possible today — it’s simply ground-breaking. Not only it doesn’t need to be a 32 second loop how it used to be for game composers but you can fit as many tracks and sounds in the game as you want. In the same intro scene in Jett, the entire choir of individual voices was ‘wrapped’ around that scene. I know ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ has done something like that. But there’s maybe 10 or 15 singers only in ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’. I don’t know what’s the total count of voices within that scene in JETT, but I can tell you that it’s BIG.
gamemusic.net: You had a different approach for music of the travelers and music of more otherworldly scenes. Can you elaborate on this?
Andy: It actually goes back to “Solaris” as an inspiration for me. Very brief summary of the book: it’s about human visitors in an alien planet. But that planet is basically one big giant alien. And “Solaris” is about their research observing this alien. But the alien is also observing them. So, it’s about this back- and-forth interplay between humans and this alien-planet, and how it’s looking at them.
So, what I thought of as the music of our explorers were instruments that we know and are familiar with. It’s more orchestral and Earth-based. But as we (players) interact with the planet and are more enveloped by that world, we’re hearing more of what the planet ‘sings.’ And the sounds that you hear are intentionally not the sounds we’re fully familiar with.
I will just try to do my best and see where that will take me. – Andrew ‘scntfc’ Rohrmann
When you first drop on the planet and that first piece of music you hear is absolutely as abstract as I could make it. Ambient and organic sounds morphing into one; noises and textures that tonally make sense to us. And this is how the so-called ‘Hymnwave’, voice of the alien planet, was born.
The way I approached making the sounds of Hymnwave was inspired by “Solaris”: this is what the planet-entity is getting from listening to our human explorers. It heard the same songs you heard before in the game in their minds. It is communicating with us with our own ‘voice’. And the way I did that was literally taking some of Priscilla’s early recordings and sampling them; adding echo, delay, reverb and warping those into what eventually became the ‘Hymnwave’.
Priscilla: I think ‘Hymnwave’ adds another layer to JETT. It just plays so well with the idea of game’s mythology. They’ve been getting these otherworldly transmissions but when did the transmissions start? What started them? How long has this planet been listening to these people? It adds another layer of mystique to everything, I think.
gamemusic.net: Did you feel any extra pressure knowing that you are working for the second game of Superbrothers who, you can say, revolutionized music-based video games?
Andy: For sure. At first it was proposed to me not as a trial run, but in a way of, ‘Hey, let’s see how you do these kinds of things.’ And so, the first six months working with Superbrothers was like this. Just trying to do what we do best without any external pressure. I thought of it as a temporary thing. I will just try to do my best and see where that will take me. Given the popularity of Sword & Sworcery and the amount of talent that was poured into the game by Jim Guthrie who is a super talented musician, you can say I had pretty massive shoes to fill in.
gamemusic.net: Is there a connection between Oxenfree’s radio tuning and JETT’s ‘Resonator’ tool?
Andy: There is, indeed. There were radio-frequency and tuning elements in JETT early on in the prototypes. Back then they were actually a lot more similar to Oxenfree’s radio-frequency gameplay than one might think. It was basically a way of pointing the jet in a direction of the sound. No visuals or wavelength. Like tuning a radio by turning and rotating a small spaceship. And to later turn it into a fully-fledged component with visuals was amazing. ‘Oh, I can tune with colour and sounds?’ I love that.