The game smartly relies on incredibly well-made underscore because players must constantly converse with one another, and must use their ears during gameplay. However, the team realized there was no melodic theme that signified the game world, that welcomed players back, and that could be used in marketing materials.
That’s when my phone rang.
The project’s lead sound designer, Patrick Balthrop, had heard my 2018 album The Right Side of Mystery, and found that my handmade-instrument aesthetic not only matched the game’s texture and mood, but evoked the massive musical instrument underneath the game’s setting, which seems to control adult minds when they sleep. A few phone calls and an in-person kickoff, and we were off.
The Question Games team was fantastic in letting me express myself, while always having lots of great feedback that focused on emotion, subtext, theme, and mood. The game itself, with its incredibly deep lore, loomed as a silent stakeholder, with Question’s team acting as its agents.
As sketches evolved, some initial instrument choices weren’t quite sitting right, thematically and relative to the game fiction. We stripped things back and started working with piano sketches to nail some melodies. In the final arrangement, I decided to use an upright piano, evoking an instrument that might be inside one of the suburban homes in the game world, mixed with the sounds of bowed and struck springs, custom-made single string “guitars,” bowed cymbals, and other textures.
The main motif was built on five notes, followed by three, based on the fact that a fifth player can exist as a turncoat or spy, and that all the daemons in the game world have three-word names. The theme is written in the key of B flat minor, which has some nice half-step increments that could help give a sense of dread.
Finally, the song’s crescendo featured several layers of modular synthesizer, to kick things into a different sonic sphere that was less grounded and earthly, in keeping with the increasingly cosmic happenings in the game. Springs, junk, and metal objects from my own recordings were mixed with taiko drums for percussion. Most of the quivering strings were recorded on my homemade instruments, amplified with either cigar box guitar humbuckers or contact microphones through carefully impedance-matched preamps.
A friend jokingly referred to the final piece as “an Erik Satie song covered by Einstürzende Neubauten.” I’m pretty happy to live with that comparison.
You can hear this piece in-game and on the official trailer, shown above. Many thanks to Question Games for the opportunity!