“It’s like a big jam session of a psychedelic prog-rock band,” is how Tim Schafer, the brains behind Psychonauts franchise once described sequel’s level design process. If that’s the case, would you dare to guess how Peter McConnell, a veteran video game composer (Hearthstone, Plants vs. Zombies, Sims, Broken Age) whose music raised entire generations of gamers, describes the process that gave birth to his 3-hour long chef-d’œuvre of a soundtrack that layers every inch of Psychonauts 2 adventure? Even if Peter had an answer, you would probably have to get into his head, fight your way through the mind ‘jungle’ where he stores all his ideas for possible compositions and see if you can find it.
The vast majority of the Psychonauts 2 score is entirely new. – Peter McConnell
Luckily, we didn’t have to use ‘Clairvoyance’, ‘PSI Blast’ or any other mind-bending trick from Raz’s playbook to find out about the lengths Peter and his team of musical wizards had to go to make the score for Xbox’s Game of The Year (Golden Joystick Awards, and yes – it is Psychonauts 2! ). We heard it from the man himself, no astral projection needed. But before we head there: do you remember the moment we first got to lay our eyes on the 16-year-old title with the big, bright number 2 standing next to it? It was 2015, the celebrated Game Awards show, where Psychonauts 2 is currently nominated for Game of The Year award. The man himself Geoff Keighley says something exciting, smiles to the audience and then we see Milla, Sasha, Lili and finally Razputin entering the screen, one by one, in that ‘Powerpuff Girls’ way, everything topped by ‘Merit Badge‘ acquisition theme we haven’t heard since our last visit in Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. One massive applause later, everyone inside and outside the room knew we’re in for a doozy.
After all, it’s not every day that we get a sequel of a beloved franchise from Double Fine studio which, if the legend is true, got its name after Tim Schafer got a double-whammy of a fine – one for speeding and and another for doing so on the sun-drenched Golden Gate bridge. Far away from the Full Throttle looking garage-turned-into-office in a post-industrial neighborhood of San Francisco where company’s debut Psychonauts was formed.
Telling Tim and Peter, then recording the entire score for Psychonauts in his tiny apartment in Berkeley, California (“neighbours weren’t too happy about that…”), that the entire Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a cast of Hollywood’s most exuberant faces, including Double Fine’s regular Jack Black, will be in their service for game’s long-awaited sequel many years later – that thought alone deserves a purple nurple.
And yet, although not without its own set of financial and artistic pitfalls, Psychonauts 2 couldn’t come out in a better time. Not because we finally have hi-fi equipment powerful enough to channel entire 100-piece orchestras into our rooms. It’s because we’re coming to grips with whatever we are (hopefully) recovering from after the pandemic first messed with our heads. Just like the sequel’s cast of colourful and troubled characters, from Bob Zanotto to Dr. Loboto, we are all wrestling some form inner demons. And so, to tackle them together with Raz and the gang, Peter’s orchestral arrangements hitting all the right notes at all the right times? Well, that sounds like our kind of therapy.
gamemusic.net: It’s been 16 years since the first game. Tell us, was it difficult to go back to the same universe after such a long time? Did you have to set yourself some kind of limitations to match the tone of the original soundtrack?
Peter McConnell: Honestly, it never really left my head. So, it wasn’t really a question of, you know, reacquainting myself. Or trying to figure out how to come up with melodies that makes you feel like you haven’t heard in a game before. It was more like going back to the original ‘delivery set’ for Psychonauts, mapping out little details that I didn’t want to neglect or forget, and then bringing those into new context with more instruments and brand new characters.
You see, what I learned throughout the years is that to easily be able to put music together, one that’s going to fit in — you want to use high-quality recordings. And how do you make it all fit together? Well, if you have a couple sampled instruments, like lot vibes and piano, you can glue things together and present them a little differently. In a way that’s still exciting and fits in like a missing puzzle piece. In short, going back to Psychonauts universe was a blessing. Not only I didn’t have to make any compromises this time around. But I got to revisit things and be like: ‘I’m going to do everything this way now.’
gamemusic.net: Did the pandemic affect your work in any way?
Peter McConnell: The only real problem caused by Covid was: where do you record an orchestra? This was and still is a massive complication for most composers. When the pandemic first hit in 2020 there were very few places in the world where you could get more than 20 people in a room. In the States there were certainly almost none… Skywalker Ranch was down to 5 people in a room, which under the normal circumstances can hold a 100-piece orchestras. So, social distancing really messed it up for us. By the time Psychonauts 2 came along, I had worked and had good relationship with the guys in Melbourne Symphony in Australia — together we worked on the score for Broken Age and Grim Fandango Remastered. And knowing that Andrew Pogson, the assistant director of the symphony, is a big fan of Double Fine games and jazz, it naturally made sense to allocate a good chunk of music to live orchestra, particularly Andrew’s crew.
Long story short, Melbourne symphony has a really big hall and they also had a very aggressive social distancing program in Australia. So, we came up with this plan to record the orchestra in three sections: 20 people each. Eventually the rules got relaxed enough so that we were able to do it in two sections. We did the strings first, then every part with brass and percussion separately. There is obviously a lot of benefit from getting a bunch of people in a room and having that energy. But it has its own limitations, too. What it allowed us to do was have these really great brass takes, and then all the really great string takes and put those together separately. Which means you have more control in the post-production. Want to boost the energy of a scene? Just bring in the brass and percussion up. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention, right?
gamemusic.net: You chose to revisit some tunes from the previous game. Can you explain why?
Peter McConnell: I didn’t do much. The vast majority of the Psychonauts 2 score is entirely new. But yeah, there were a couple of tracks: ‘Relaxing Within the Campground Lodge’ is one, and then ‘The Meat Circus’ (now ‘Flea Circus’) was another I went back to because it sounded too circusy for the first game and had too many samples. However, the reason to do these specific tracks was simple – they were both thematic. It wasn’t that I always had in mind bringing these tunes back to the new score. In my opinion, the original tracks aged really well (except some of the synth sounds), so it just made sense to do it that way.
For example, there was this guy named Damian Masterson who’s an incredible harmonica player. I might have been able to put in a couple solos that didn’t make it into the first game. And it was great the first time around, so why do that all over again?
gamemusic.net: What did you enjoy the most during the production of Psychonauts 2 score?
Peter McConnell: I’m always trying to be better on the technical side of composition. There’s a section in Cassie O’Pia’s level which has an Asian leitmotivs in that Hollywood sense of sound. And I was able to get a live recording of an instrument called erhu from a good friend of mine all the way from Beijing. I don’t want to sound too geeky, but I love this kind of stuff as a composer. Then there were other things like the rock & roll levels (PSI-King’s Sensorium chapter) which was a joy to record. It was kind of a reunion with the LucasArts sound department: we had Michael Land on bass, Clint Bajakian on guitar and me on electric violin. Both of my former colleagues, veteran composers with whom I worked on Sam and Max Hit the Road and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.
So, we all met to record in the Skywalker Ranch. And even though we had to wear masks the whole time and stand far apart — boy, that’s like the best place in the world to record rock&roll. It’s a giant room, size of a large gymnasium, and the drums there sound like a God! So, yeah, jamming with my friends in one of the most brilliant recording studios in the world – I enjoyed that a lot.
So, you start out musically by portraying this kind of humorous over weaning sense of self-importance that Raz has. – Peter McConnell
gamemusic.net: Having in mind that most fans of the original game are now probably adults with a bigger musical baggage, and that Psychonauts 2 tackles mental health problems a bit more seriously — did that change how you approached its score?
Peter McConnell: Absolutely. I mean, it’s still the same old whimsical and delightful Tim Schafer game, right? But it does deal with some serious subjects. And part of the fun about doing Psychonauts is that Raz has this got massively sort of overblown sense of himself and of seriousness about what’s going on in the world. Turns out, he’s actually kind of right — there’s more going on than meets the eye. So, you start out musically by portraying this kind of humorous over weaning sense of self-importance that Raz has. But as things go on, you need to make it clear that actually not only is the situation serious, it’s beyond the level of seriousness that Raz could have ever imagined. That’s partly the reason for doing so much orchestral music. To me, that’s the only real way to put depth to things. If you want to evoke real feelings throughout your music, you have to have pretty big sounds.
gamemusic.net: We know you get asked that a lot. Still: what is it like working with Tim?
Peter McConnell: Tim and I, we are sort of like brothers. Except we’re rarely in the same room. But to answer the question, Tim leads more by inspiration rather than dictating things. For example, for the original Psychonauts, he sent me a CD of traditional Roma music from Transylvania and Moldavia. And guess what? It actually turned out to be quite an inspiration for things ‘The Meat Circus’ theme! Other than that, there were no musical references given. I would usually just send him recordings of me humming a theme and playing it on the piano. This is the way we did it for Grim Fandango, too. Then I would hear back from him, whether he liked it or not. Once that had passed that test, I would then do a mock-up version.
gamemusic.net: What was it like working with Jack Black? This wasn’t your first collaboration, right?
Peter McConnell: That’s correct, we both worked on Brütal Legend. And well, Jack has the most phenomenal instrument: not only he’s a great singer but an incredible musician, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work with Jack in-person. We had a session in Los Angeles that Tim went to with the voice director, Chris Brown. You could say I was co-directing Black’s performance along with Chris from my home-studio, all the way from here. And let me tell you what: Jack was very gracious in terms of listening to the demo that I prepared. He listened to it and said, ‘I’m just going to do it exactly the way you wrote it.’ Usually in Hollywood, these things never happen (which might explain why Jack Black is such a good fit for Double Fine games).
gamemusic.net: For fans of your music it won’t be a surprise that you’re nearing your 30th anniversary as a game composer. How do you feel about the current state of video game music? What would you say has been the biggest change since you started out?
Peter McConnell: To answer the first question — I think it’s in great shape. Yes, there are a lot of violent games and most of them sound the same. But that goes for every entertainment medium, right? What I love about this industry and its current state is there are a lot of indies out there who push the envelope. In a lot of ways, it may be the most creative audio-visual entertainment out there. Don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been feeling like movies have gotten into a rut.
Video games have stopped imitating movies — movies imitate games now. – Peter McConnell
Games, on the other hand, while you do have some things that are kind of predictable, you have other things that are like, ‘Oh my goodness! What is it that?’ Who would ever have thought of making a game about forever growing flowers? Video games have stopped imitating movies — movies imitate games now. The obvious change obviously must be the production levels. I mean, nobody was really doing 100-piece orchestras back when I started out in 1991. Back then, games were this geeky little thing. And audio was bleeps and bloops coming out of PC’s speaker which had only two commands — in and out. That’s how you wrote music those days. Luckily, I never had to do it myself.