We invite you to read an interview with Chris Köbke, a twenty-two-year-old composer who recently became popular with the soundtrack to Crossing Souls – a game set in the spirit of the 80s, and one which musically connects back to electronic illustrative music from those years. Today, of course, we call it synthwave; it was the responsibility of a Dutch producer Timecop1983 and the giants of “symphonic adventure” – namely such composers as John Williams, Alan Silvestri and Danny Elfman. This is the part of the soundtrack created by the young and capable German. Enjoy!
In the interview he told us about the Lydian scales and the inspiration during the writing process.
gamemusic.pl: Your soundtrack is, of course, very reminiscent of John Williams’ work. How does one find their own voice in another artist’s language? What part did Williams’ legacy play in your musical upbringing?
Chris Köbke: In the same way that I hope I will be able to in this interview. Look, we are speaking English right now, but despite the fact that I can’t use any German words here, I am still not too limited by the fact I’m writing in a different language. The language of John Williams is much more restricted than the English language, of course, but it still provided me with a huge palette of melodic shapes, chords, and textures to draw inspiration from. Besides the obvious direct references (like Darth Vader in Oh Rus’ Theme, “E.T.” in Bikes! or “Close Encounters” in Simon Says) I do hope that I managed to express myself through this language in the end.
gamemusic.net: Crossing Souls is a game about cultivating traditional human values – friendship, dedication, even love. The protagonists are children. Was the age difference between you and the main characters a troublesome aspect? When writing, did you seek guidance in your own teenage memories?
Chris Köbke: The age difference wasn’t a big problem. Since I’m 22 right now and started writing the soundtrack when I turned 18, my teenage memories aren’t actually that far away. I tried to focus on all of the things that made childhood feel magical to me and combined them into a single soundtrack. Although I was born in 1995, I weirdly grew up watching more films from the 80s, so channeling that kind of nostalgia in my music came very naturally.
gamemusic.net: The soundtrack has a few character themes – Purple Skulls, Major Oh Rus, Seth… but the kids, being the main characters, actually do not have their own motif. Was it a purposeful attempt to emphasize that the game is about adventure, sacrifice and doing what is right? Or perhaps the Main Theme is their song?
Chris Köbke:Maybe it didn’t turn out as clear as I thought it would, but the main theme was meant to represent the group of friends and how they change and develop throughout the game. It’s [Main Theme – MD] based on a very simple motif incorporating very stable fourths and fifths intervals and adding a touch of Lydian color at the end. This motif appears throughout the entire soundtrack and develops in most of the scenes to adapt to the situation the group of friends is going through.
To give you an example: Let’s listen to An Ancient Cave on the soundtrack. Most of the track is based on Seth’s theme (starting at 0:36), because he was the one exposing the group to this dangerous situation. [Spoilers ahead] Heartless shot Big Joe shortly before the cave and it’s unclear if he will be able to survive, therefore most of it has a more dark and sad tone to it. I bring in the main theme at 1:37 with a much darker mood than usual (this functions as a “is friendship stronger than darkness?” question) transitioning to hopefulness at 1:52 (“yes, it can be, there is still hope”) and ending with an unexpected resolution (“but it’s not certain”) again at 1:57.
gamemusic.net: Was there any aspect of the game that you found particularly inspiring? Maybe it was the collaboration with Timecop1983? Or the general nostalgic direction of the whole thing?
Chris Köbke: The by far most inspiring thing on this project was definitely the brilliant working atmosphere that my Fourattic [developer – MD] mates established from day one. The whole team felt like a family I have known for 20 years, although we never met before. Conversations we had about story and characters often turned into discussions about life in general very rapidly and had a super warm and cozy feeling about them. I might be a bit biased here, but I think you can really feel that everyone on the team really put their heart and soul into the game.
The whole team felt like a family I have known for 20 years, although we never met before.Chris Köbke
gamemusic.net: Speaking of the collaboration – your music coexists with Timecop1983’s input really well. Synthwave-fuelled boss fights and other segments complement the main orchestral setting of the soundtrack. Were there any particularly difficult aspects in achieving that?
Chris Köbke: Thank you! Actually, except for the orchestral version of Dreams, me and Timecop didn’t have any contact at all, so I don’t really know what to say about why these two facets of the soundtrack work well together. We were both influenced by the same story, gameplay, and imagery, obviously, so maybe that’s why these work hand in hand.
gamemusic.net: Were there any other significant influences besides John Williams, or Ennio Morricone? Perhaps Alan Silvestri or Danny Elfman? On your Facebook profile, you list your own influences: Desplat, Einaudi, Soule…
Chris Köbke: Besides John Williams, I studied a lot of Joe Hisaishi (Studio Ghibli), as well as Zelda [composer: Koji Kondo – MD] Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri and Danny Elfman scores to get some inspiration for the „Crossing Souls” soundtrack.
I really should update my Facebook page more often by the way, as these composers are probably long gone from my pool of influences, as people that inspired me are almost changing by the day. I love discovering new music and I got a little bit of shiny red ball syndrome in that regard, so whatever is new to me often is by far the most interesting thing to get inspiration from.
gamemusic.net: Do you have your own favorite piece from the soundtrack?
Chris Köbke: The End Credits track for sure. I tried to tell the whole story of the game in one track and was given the chance to revisit all of the themes from the game one last time, before moving the Crossing Souls project files over to my backup hard drive. It was literally the last track I wrote and I felt super sad and relieved at the same time finishing it, as a 3-year period of my life was suddenly over.
gamemusic.net: Could you tell us a little bit about your musical background? How did you get involved in the video game industry?
Chris Köbke: It’s funny how everyone seems to answer this question with childhood piano lessons at age 4 or 5, but adding to the cliché, I started with keyboard lessons at age 5 as well. I neither thought about composing, nor knew anything about orchestral music up until the age of 15, when I recorded my first “song” by layering keyboard tracks in Audacity. From there, I quickly discovered minimal piano by listening to Ludovico Einaudi and orchestration and film music by listening to Hans Zimmer soundtracks. I bought Reason 4, composed two minimal piano albums over the course of a year and got more into electronic and jazz music as well as classical music later on. During this period, the thought of wanting to become a film composer also came on.
My first involvements in the video game industry were a couple of small point and click projects (Return Null 1 & 2), a Minecraft clone (Terasology) and some short narrative indie games. Shortly after these (I was around 18 at that time) I decided to look for projects more actively while still working full-time as a programmer at a software development company. I found a work-in-progress version of Crossing Souls on the TIGSource forums and contacted them via e-mail literally going „Hey, love your game, do you need a composer?” and sent them a link to my portfolio. A week later, I got a reply and was hired to create the soundtrack for Crossing Souls.
I think it will take a very long time until there is an AI that can actually tackle the creative process.Chris Köbke
gamemusic.net: With soundtrack-generating AIs breathing down the composers’ necks, what is your stand on the subject?
Chris Köbke: That’s a really interesting question! We are far from good-sounding soundtrack-generating AIs at the moment and I think it will take a very long time until there is an AI that can actually tackle the creative process. As long as that’s the case, AI will only make our life easier by removing the tasks from our schedule, that seem to be automatable anyway. I would love to have a tool that could mix my tracks, or extend a piano piece to full orchestra by giving it a set of styles as an input. We as composers just need to learn to embrace and implement these tools into our workflow in the future and life will only get easier from there.
As soon as there is an AI that can also tackle the creative process and composers became entirely redundant, I can’t imagine there will be any jobs left to do at all. Physical work was replaced first, followed by repetitive intellectual work, probably followed by creative intellectual work in the future. We will all live depressively in a utopia by then, where nobody needs to work and life becomes a meaningless mess. That will be a huge problem for sure, with which we as humans have to deal. Up until that point, it’s probably composers creatively embedding AI generated content and helpful tools into their work who will succeed, not AI on its own.
I tried to tell the whole story of the game in one track.Chris Köbke
gamemusic.net: If you had the opportunity to score any movie or any kind of video game, what would that be? What music would the soul of Chris Köbke play?
Chris Köbke: I would love to score a movie or video game with a super melancholic story and the need for an electronic/production-heavy/jazz soundtrack. Especially on rainy or snowy autumn/winter days here in Germany, it’s really easy to get lost in creating sad music. I also did write a lot of orchestral music during the last years and would love to have the opportunity to explore some vastly different palettes and styles far away from the orchestra.