Think of your favorite in-game shop in a video game. Is it Cuphead’s ‘Porkgrind’s Emporium’ with its sly looking, mustachioed merchant? Perhaps it’s Secret of Mana’s feline shopkeeper sporting a huge sack of goodies slung over his back, turning up through the game like some sort of Lynchian merchant in Resident Evil 4 (with the serene, yet unforgettable theme that makes it a joy to bump into him at the strangest and deadliest of times)? Whatever is your pick, after playing Pixpil’s debut pixel art adventure Eastward — that might change. This sprawling 16-bit journey might nudge you to revisit some of your favorite virtual shopkeeps. At least, that was the effect Joel Corelitz’ marvelous 72-track soundtrack had on me.
Joel Corelitz who always dreamed of going back to the roots and giving 16-bit music a twist of his own.
And if that sounds like we’re underplaying Joel’s musical achievement here, who has been secretly cooking it up since Death Stranding’s announcement in 2016 — Kojima’s latest opus which Corelitz also helped to score — you clearly haven’t paid ‘Johnny’s Emporium’ a visit. Who knew good deals won’t be the only reason to return to Johnny’s.
To figure out what makes Eastward sound so compelling — to the point where you pretend to look around the grocery shop to get a few more minutes of that funky funky beat before NPC vendor might start eyeing you as a potential shoplifter (because, let’s be honest, game’s pan-wielding protagonist Joel does look a bit rough around the edges) — we spoke with soundtrack’s sole composer Joel Corelitz who always dreamed of going back to the roots and giving 16-bit music a twist of his own. Oh, and what a lovely, retro-melancholic twist it is.
gamemusic.net: It’s not every day that we get 72-track soundtracks made by a single composer. How long did it take you to finish Eastward’s score through and through?
Joel Corelitz: The short answer is five years. Which is a pretty long time considering that sometimes you only get a couple of months for a project. When I became involved with Eastward in 2016, the plan was to have an hour of music which is around 30 tracks. And well, by the time I was done with that in 2018, the game also got bigger and better. Because of that — of course COVID, too — development took a bit longer than expected, which gave us extra time to live with the music and see how it felt.
gamemusic.net: What was the biggest realization you had during this hiatus?
Joel Corelitz: One of the things we figured out was that we needed more chip tunes. More pieces to evoke that nostalgic component of Eastward. I think at the beginning we wanted to establish Eastward’s tone in such way that didn‘t feel too nostalgic. Make it feel and sound like a completely unique thing. Although, this is a pixel art game, after all — one that does owe a lot to games of the past. Once we had our first hour of music ready and agreed that Eastward finally has its own character, its own sensibilities and flavor, I was then able to figure out where chip tunes might fit into all that.
gamemusic.net: Does that involve tracks you made for ‘Earth Born’, the Dragon Quest-like mini-game within the game?
Joel Corelitz: Not many will know this but I actually had nothing to do with ‘Earth Born’. It was all Yu Fang, one of the Eastward’s animators. And he did such an amazing job with it, considering it was his first time making music for a game.
gamemusic.net: Can you tell us about “Eastward”, the track you made for entirely different project which ended up being used for Eastward’s launch trailer?
Joel Corelitz: It’s one of those interesting ways when you put something out there and you think it has reached its dead end. But sometimes these things have a funny way of getting you somewhere you didn’t think you’ll end up.
In this case it was Eastward: after hearing a piece of music I made for a trailer of a game that unfortunately wasn’t released, Pixpil approached me about doing the score for Eastward. Years later, when it was finally time to release it, they needed a piece of music for the launch trailer, so I suggested that track because if it’s not for it — who knows if we’d be having this conversation right now, you know? I rarely use material from other projects, but I really couldn’t think of a better fit for this trailer.
gamemusic.net: Was there any particular track you had a hard time getting it perfect?
Joel Corelitz: Funny you mentioned it, because the most revisions we did was for “Eastward”, the main theme. It was written for the animation that plays when you start the game. What’s tricky about it was that it was written years before Eastward even had a cinematic trailer, somewhere around 2017. And it was really difficult to write a main theme for a game before you even had a chance to really dive in and find out what the rules are.
gamemusic.net: What about your personal favorite track?
Joel Corelitz: It’s really tough to pick one. But there’s just something about shop music that makes it such an iconic staple of this genre. There are shops, for example, where the music sort of tells you that the shopkeeper is trying to swindle you. In that sense, “Johny’s” comes to mind — easily one of my favorites. It has a vibe on its own and captures what we were aiming for Eastward’s general mood.
gamemusic.net: You mentioned before that you tried to go for the authentic 16-bit feeling. Did you had to set yourself any technical limitations to achieve that?
Joel Corelitz: No limitations in that sense. I think for me it was about the sort of general idea that anyone could imagine any piece from the soundtrack being played in classic video games from the 80s and 90s. Of course, there is always the temptation to impose some technical limitations. To challenge yourself. But I think most of the time those limitations just end up restricting the flow of creativity.
Although, one of the general rules I followed was sticking to the original SNES limitations. All it had was two pulse waves, a triangle wave, noise generator and a sample playback, which I think actually was on the cartridge, not the actual system. So, I didn’t go past these limitations. But for some tracks, like “Monkollywood” or “Johny’s”, I used some modern effects that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to get in those days. For others, like “Strange Quest”, I used the actual MIDI-controlled NES.
gamemusic.net: What classic titles were your biggest inspiration for Eastward?
Joel Corelitz: It’s so hard to pick favorites. I would say definitely the original Metroid (1986), which still is one of my favorite soundtracks of all times. I think it tried to pull off things that were really hard to achieve at the time and that makes it so great.
What fascinates me about this soundtrack is composer’s (Hirokazu Tanaka) ambition: you’ve got this attempt to make ambient music on the NES which sounds impossible, but they really went for it and it ended up being really effective. Title screen alone sounds really dark and minimal — didn’t sound like anything else at the time.
Then, you have these beautiful haunting melodies and themes, like “Kraid’s Lair” and even the little pieces that play when you find an upgrade. I still remember getting chills whenever I’d hear those themes when I played it as a kid. Of course, there’s also Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. To me, probably to many others too, these are some of the best formative gaming experiences you could have as 90s kid.
gamemusic.net: We heard that the only communication you had with Eastward’s developers was through email. Is that correct?
Joel Corelitz: You’re right — we never spoke verbally. Just hundreds and hundreds of emails. But I don’t think it was a barrier at all. For the most part, I think it depends on the project and its medium. In our case, exchanging emails was actually kind of ideal given time difference between LA and Shanghai.
You know, we only had about a gap of two or three hours where we’re both awake. So, they’d be waking up by the time I was going to sleep or vice versa. And a lot of times I would get feedback the first thing in the morning, which works pretty well. Then, I would send my stuff by the end of the day, they would listen to it overnight and tell me what can be improved.
gamemusic.net: In that case, what was the most challenging aspect of making this soundtrack?
Joel Corelitz: I think it’s taking a soundtrack that’s clearly inspired by the games of the past and giving it new life. How to make it more than just a sum of nostalgia? One of the things that helped to achieve that was time given by the delay. We were able to live with these pieces for long enough to tell which ones were working and which ones did not.
With new IPs there’s always a challenge of finding out how game’s universe should sound. Remember that once Halo or Metroid didn’t had an established sound that everyone recognized. Composer’s job is making that happen. And until you live with it long enough, day after day, it’s hard to tell if you managed to succeed or not.
gamemusic.net: Do you have more fun establishing these sounds or building on top of what’s already an established music palette?
Joel Corelitz: For me — doing both, as cliché as that might sound. If the established feel is already there, you’re mostly creating new content. Whereas, if you’re creating music for a totally new IP, then a huge part of what you’re doing is consulting about that IP should sound like and then creating content for it.
Eastward was so great because I got a chance to return to the origins of what got me interested in video game music. – Joel Corelitz
What I really love about what I do is that I get to do both. But in the recent years I’m starting to get more excited about the idea of figuring out what a world should sound like.
gamemusic.net: Finally: would you rather choose to make a score for the sequel of Death Stranding or work on another chiptune soundtrack?
Joel Corelitz: Chiptune, definitely. Eastward was so great because I got a chance to return to the origins of what got me interested in video game music in the first place. I love these sounds. And getting to play with them, to define them anew, is a joy.