After the premiere (first run) of “Risk of Rain” his music for this game gain great (tremendous) popularity on the Bandcamp platform, and the vinyl edition won a huge fan base. Chris Christodoulou during the discussion with me described how he was inspired by bands Dream Theater and Daft Punk, moreover he told me about some secrets related with the producing music to video games.
How the success Risk of Rain influenced on your music career?
It was quite literally a game changer! One aspect of it was that it gave me some (very slight) recognition in the industry which made it easier to find more work. Much more importantly though, it allowed me to make a living from writing music by broadening my fan base to the point where album sales and streaming provided a decent income. I would probably not be able to keep doing it, at least not full time, if it wasn’t for Risk of Rain.
Can you determine your music style?
If I had to choose one word I’d say narrative. It’s not a musical term per se, but I feel the most recognizable aspect of my compositions is form. The majority of people use the word song for every music piece but song is a form. Verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus; that’s a song. My compositions are, more often than not, structured like a film: Act I, in which you meet the characters and get some exposition; Act II, where something goes wrong, Act III, the big action set-piece; Epilogue, where we get to reminisce over past events. I have written for small ensembles, orchestral, electronic, heavy metal and the common thing is that with each piece I try to tell a story.
My compositions are, more often than not, structured like a film.
Why in the video games reviews music is mentioned so rarely?
I’ve jokingly tweeted once that 95% of game reviewers are born without ears. I wish it was true, because then they would at least have an excuse. Unfortunately game reviewers treat music and sound as something that exists out of some sort of immaculate conception. Reviews spend pages on gameplay, game mechanics, graphics, story; and they should because they are important. But they almost never include a single sentence about music and sound. That’s not an exaggeration, you can try your favorite game publication and ctrl+f “music”, “sound” or “soundtrack” on any random review. You will get zero results 9 out of 10 times. I know, I do it all the time.
Why this happens eludes me. Maybe reviewers don’t feel comfortable speaking about music because they lack the expertise and/or vocabulary. Maybe they simply turn the music off and listen to their favorite podcast. Maybe they simply take it for granted. The thing is, music and sound are part of the game, rather crucial ones, and as such they should be discussed and critiqued—not so that soundtracks get more sales but because through critical evaluation we promote improvement.
The first edition of the game Risk of Rain gained tremendous fan base, including the fans of the soundtrack. What is the recipe for success in both cases?
Well, I’d like to think the main reason behind the success is that both game and music were good. But of course that’s not always enough. I think that with Risk of Rain, Hopoo Games tapped into the zeitgeist. The roguelike/roguelite genre was on the rise and they delivered a game that combined beautiful pixel art, deep lore, great gameplay and an addictive play loop. As for the music, I tried to write the music that I thought would fit the game’s setting and tried as hard as I could to make it good. I could only hope that people would respond positively to it. Thankfully, a lot of them did.
When you look in hindsight, what would you like to change in your music for the first edition of Risk of Rain?
At the time the game was published I felt there were aspects of the music I could have done better: a better mix, a few different choices in the music… But having listened to it so many times since then, these flaws are now part of the album’s character. Most importantly, all the music, every note, every effect, every mixing decision is intentional. Might not be the best decision but it is what I wanted—and had the ability—to do at the time. In that sense it serves as a time capsule, a record of my own past, and for that reason I wouldn’t change it.
I tried to write the music that I thought would fit the game’s setting.
Could you describe differences between both parts of the Risk of Rain game?
In a nutshell, RoR1 is inspired by the 90s (and maybe early 00s) and RoR2 by the 70s. Of course both soundtracks have plenty of common influences, but where the first one has short(er) tracks and a sound made predominantly from digital synths, clean drum samples, very few guitars and an overall digital production, the second one has much longer tracks influenced by prog-rock epics, is full of analog/retro synths, features guitars galore, lots of acoustic drums (still samples but way dirtier and less artificial-sounding) and a production much more open, with minimal compression and a warmer sound.
During writing music to both parts of the Risk of Rain you clearly was inspired by the Dream Theater and Daft Punk bands. What decided that you choose those artists, and what other kind of inspiration can be heard on both soundtracks?
Both artists, as contradictory as it may sound, are huge influences of mine. Dream Theater’s early albums have been in my playlists daily during my teens and I know these albums by heart. Daft Punk’s Discovery is, to me, one of the most important electronic albums ever made and my personal #1 album of the 00s. Given the opportunity to write for a game in which music would be in a state of flux between prog-rock and electronica, these two seemed like great sources to tap into.
Of course, Pink Floyd is another huge (and obvious) influence in both albums. Again, this is music that I grew up with and I think it’s easy to see how it would be a good fit for a space-themed game. This may sound off but J.S. Bach (and baroque music in general) is also at the heart of both soundtracks, in terms of extensive use of contrapuntal melodies and particularly dense instrumentation. Finally, regarding the second game I think I would be remiss not to mention Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre as major influences.
In one of the interviews you mentioned that you are not the fun of catchy game melodies. Can you elaborate on that? What triggers (effects) such distance?
The answer is two-fold. For one, I don’t write very good melodies. I’ve made a conscious effort to up my melody game in RoR2, but still, the elements that stand out are mostly small motifs, ostinatos, riffs… all part of the backbone. Of course there are the solos but while they are definitely melodic, I don’t count them as melodies because they are free-flowing and improvised, not structured.
The second reason for my tendency to avoid melodies is this concept I call “player-as-melody”. The ultimate goal of game music is a perfect blend with gameplay. Not to actually disappear, but to be indistinguishable. I think having fewer hummable melodies and more of that suggestive backbone gives players the freedom to groove with the music in the way they want, depending on their play style or particular run. In a way, their own button pushes, keystrokes and mouse movements form a melody above the music. I’m well aware this sounds too abstract or plainly pseudo-intellectual nonsense but the feedback I get from players shows that there is something to it.
How big transformation had the second part of the Risk of Rain in comparison to the first one in the context of the soundtrack?
As mentioned above, there was a conscious shift to a more analog sound. Having a soundtrack that felt like a continuation but not a repetition was something we discussed with Hopoo at the very first music meeting. Serendipitously, the word “Vangelis” was uttered by both parties at almost the exact same time!
The biggest change in the game by far was the move to 3D. That had a huge impact on music since now we had to underscore the openness and vastness of the planet. That’s why there are many compositions that rely more on a slow build of atmosphere rather than illustrating a jump into the fray. I’m lucky to work with Hopoo Games because they never asked me to rehash music or rely on nostalgia. Their decision to go 3D was very bold (and criticized when the game was announced) and it’s to their credit that they fully allowed—requested, even—a similarly bold transition in the music.
Both soundtracks for the Risk of Rain were released on the vinyl by Black Screen Records. What kind of the future do you see for this medium?
It seems to me that physical editions have a strong future. Vinyl seems to be maintaining its momentum and even CDs are coming back. While I never fetishized any particular medium (I listen exclusively on streaming these days) I do appreciate physical releases for two very important reasons.
Firstly, there’s the physical item itself. Having a great cover is one thing, and digital releases obviously have covers, but having multiple and tangible art pieces, liner notes, lyrics, dedications; all tied together by a strong design concept into an object you can touch and look and read and store on a shelf to create a beautifully curated collection… A bunch of thumbnails on a phone app can’t compare with that.
Secondly, there’s the ritual. Listening on our phones and computers, on youtube or Spotify, etc. has had a major impact on the art of the album and the ritualistic nature of listening to music. Most people now listen to “songs”, stripped from their natural environment, the album. Putting a disc on the record player or a CD on a tray, sitting down on your favorite chair and listening to an entire album from start to finish while holding the album in your hands reading the liner notes is an experience that creates a much deeper connection with the music and the artist, one that can hardly be made via playlists of 50 tracks playing on shuffle.
I’m lucky to work with Hopoo Games because they never asked me to rehash music or rely on nostalgia.
What kind of the future you see for the composers who write music only for the indie games?
I’m not a future teller but I can tell you as much: People writing indie game music can make a living. They won’t be rich! Aspiring composers who think they will write for a couple of games and live the big life should think again. Writing music for games provides a living. A decent living if you’re lucky. If you love writing music, composing for indie games is a valid option.
The great thing about indie games is that they allow an unprecedented level of creativity to composers. There’s room for experimentation, being niche; there’s room for individuality. At the time that AAA productions are becoming musically homogenous and predictable, indie games provide a platform for musicians to write without a safety net or a corporate guiding light and that’s why in the past decade we’ve heard brilliant soundtracks, almost exclusively from the indie scene.
This has made the public actively seek out indie game soundtracks and, in turn, has drawn the attention of businesses who see the potential of investing in indie VGM. In fact we see many companies that exclusively focus on game music (especially of indie games, since bigger developers prefer to manage their soundtracks on their own—poorly). This tendency is a good thing for composers because it means it’s now easier to navigate the labyrinth that is managing their releases and royalties and focus on writing music.
You didn’t record anything for the triple-A titles. Would you like to change that? If yes, to which series of games, or to which genre you would write the soundtrack with the pleasure?
Honestly, I just want to keep writing music. Be it for indie games, high-budget games, board games, non-games or just stand-alone compositions. What I’m interested in is developing and expanding the ways I can express myself through music. If my next project happens to be a high-budget game, I would gladly do it.
A big franchise I would eagerly join is Hitman. Jesper Kyd’s soundtrack to Hitman 2 is a landmark to me, and hugely influential in my decision to pursue game music. If I could write music for any installment of the Hitman saga I would be ecstatic!
What kind of potential, for composers, have new consoles which will appear at the end of this year?
I honestly don’t know. It seems to me that composers will keep writing music as they always did. Since the jump from MIDI to recorded audio in the 90s (and later the development of versatile audio middle-ware), I don’t think there’s something particularly new that new consoles will bring to music. It seems to me the focus is on graphics and loading speeds, which is fine. Personally I think there’s room for improvement in real-time processing (like reverbs, etc.) but that impacts mostly sound effects. I’m not even sure what kind of improvements we would need, I think there’s a lot you can do right now music-wise. In any case the advancements musicians want have more to do with music software / middle-ware, and not with the consoles themselves.
Could you tell us some secrets, or tricks which you used during writing music for the Risk of Rain?
I honestly have no “tricks”. I’ve always been very open about my process and I always say to people that music is an art and a craft. I have spent most of my life studying it and don’t intend to stop anytime soon; that’s the craft part. The art part is that creativity is nourished by everything that makes up a person’s life. I read constantly and I’m very adamant when saying that books are a much bigger influence in my music than other music or music theory. In general, I try to expand my mind by feeding it constantly. From the most indulgent junk food (eg. I love watching bad movies) to the finest caviar (looking at art, visiting museums, listening to great music, etc.) and everything in between (socializing, playing games, walking around, etc.). Everything that is you goes into your art, so take care of you.
P.S. If anyone is actually reading this expecting practical advice here’s one: if you even make the mistake of writing music as dense as Risk of Rain’s use a lot of side-chain compression.
In which way the video game music headings? Would composers be replaced by programs soon?
I don’t think video game music is heading somewhere. I think—and hope—it is simply expanding in all directions, with no target in sight!
As for programs replacing composers (I’m assuming you mean so-called AI), all I can say is that I fart towards AI’s general direction. The attempts I’ve seen so far are either laughable or pathetic and have absolutely nothing to do with Music. And there’s a very specific reason for this. What is called “AI” is just learning algorithms that study a bulk amount of music pieces and spit out “compositions” based on the most common choices among these samples. Obviously, the result is a bland, predictable, boring mess that has nothing to offer in terms of creativity and originality.
There is also the type software that can provide stuff like dynamic percussion layers or synth loops. Those could arguably be useful in specific situations (fight scenes etc.) They do the job to a degree but sound horridly generic. If you want your game to have a memorable and meaningful soundtrack, AI should not be your composer of choice.
Despite access to relatively cheap orchestras, they are still more expensive than a sample mock-up.
My failures showed me the way to success. So what mistakes should not be made?
My biggest flaw is poor planning. It took me years to develop a proper work schedule, and even now I break it all the time. Unfortunately, I’m good at delivering at the very last minute, which means that I keep not learning from my mistake… If I could give a piece of advice to aspiring composers it would be this: have a good plan, stick to it, and when you want to have a cheat do administrative stuff like double-checking ISRC codes, track spelling, reply to emails; things tend to pile up fast.
Something that helps a lot, especially if you’re working in a home-studio, is having a clear separation between work and entertainment. Try to avoid using your studio PC for gaming, movies, social media (I know the latter is impossible) and other distractions. Try to associate the moment you enter your studio as a moment you leave everything behind and simply do work.
How the process of creating music for video games looks like today? How it differs from the one from few decades ago? (How it developed through last few decades?)
It is vastly different from several points of view, almost all of them having to do with technology.
Firstly, almost anyone can write music today in the comfort of their bedroom, using a laptop. This has opened up the music scene to composers from all walks of life, especially the less privileged, which is a wonderful thing. I got into music because I had a cheap PC and access to cracked software. I’m still able to write music because I have a slightly better PC and can buy software that replaces (and often improves upon) prohibitively expensive hardware synths and orchestras.
Closely related to that is the advent of the internet, which means that anyone from all over the world can join any team, anywhere, and write music for their game. While the industry is still very much US-centric, there are several people from all over the globe that work in games because we don’t need to physically be in a specific place.
Finally, there’s the very important matter of being able to live off of your music. The internet (with the recent addition of streaming services) means that a soundtrack now has a long and healthy life beyond and outside the game. Bandcamp was—and in many ways still is—revolutionary in providing a platform for musicians to manage and sell their music however they want, and reap the profits from it.
Without the above, the material conditions of music making would be very different and video game music much, much poorer.
Why it is hard to convince studios to record game music with the symphony orchestras involved in the project?
One reason is definitely the budget. Despite access to relatively cheap orchestras, they are still more expensive than a sample mock-up. Whatsmore, composers aren’t always afforded the time to create both a good mock-up and a properly orchestrated score and parts for recording, which means a separate orchestrator needs to be hired and more money spent.
The other reason, I suspect, might be versatility. Having your orchestra “in-the-box” means you can make changes on-the-fly, which is not easy to do on locked recordings. Having a very good plan involving tried & tested mock-ups so you know exactly what needs to be recorded is a good remedy but it means more time and more work which brings us back to budget.
Of course, if you do have a well-orchestrated score, having it performed by a real orchestra can make a huge difference and will breathe life into it, such that no sample library can.