This week we go to the indie game scene to talk with one of the most renowned composers of today. He’s Yann van der Cruyssen, a french composer and designer also known by the monikers Morusque and Nurykabe.

His name is linked to some of the best indie projects in recent years, such as Knytt Stories, Blocks that matter, Sarcia, Saira, NightSky, or the legendary Cave Story for which he made the new remixes ​​on WiiWare version.

In addition to composing for video games, he also composes for movies (like the recent 8bits), sound design, makes video games … His web gives a good idea of his magnitude and versatility as an artist.

Salut, Yann! it’s a pleasure talk with you. As a musician, what is your main influences and inspirations?

Except for a few indie games, I don’t play that much nowadays and most of the game soundtracks I consider to be influences are at least ten years old now.

I still enjoy how old machines sound, like the GB/NES systems or the SID chip. I’m also currently very fond of the OPL chips ; retro tunes in general is something pretty common in today’s indie games but I’m sure there could be more interesting use of those kind of FM sounds in particular.

I came to work with game music by the time I discovered Japanese rpg soundtracks (I let you guess what my references were here). Now if I had to pick one, I’d say I especially like their approach of Earthbound : using heavily detuned instruments, leitmotivs that only consisted in series of portamenti, samples from Monty Python movies… There were so many audio oddities that could have been risky to use and they’re still in the perfect tone for this kind of game in my opinion.

I’ve always appreciated when the limit bewteen diegetic sounds and music is somewhat blurred ; on that aspect, a few things that influenced me at some point are : Mark Morgan’s soundtracks, Johannes Buenemann’s work on the “99 rooms” flash thing, or more recently Limbo.
When it comes to indie stuff, Tomáš Dvořák and of course my friend Nicklas are still great inspirations.

What music do you use to listen in your free time?

Most of the time now I like to just let last.fm play random things including stuff that I wouldn’t decide to listen to by myself. I sticked to game soundtracks while answering to the previous question but of course I try to keep a fairly wide range of interests.

You make games, levels or maps for other games, game music, remix music for games… How do you became a game artist? What was your first project?

I think my very first projects were text-based games written in basic ; the music was only a monophonic pulse coming out of an internal speaker but I still had fun programming it (I usually made it abusively interactive with every single action). I recently played a game called “L’abbaye des morts”, it feels like a ZX Spectrum game and the music reminded me a lot of what I was doing back then.

I’ve been equally interested in every aspect of “interactive art”, but audio is just the one I feel the most comfortable with. I tried to figure out what got me interested in video games in the first place, and came to the conclusion was not really the gaming aspect but it had more to do with the interaction (with a game logic / other humain being / network in general).

It might be just an impression but I have the feeling most games today don’t really dig their interactive potential : they either bring you a challenge to be solved as a riddle book would or a toy to play with as a Lego box would, but it’s quite rare for me to feel that a game is responding to the player’s behaviour in a continuous way.

On that note I have to take into account that when discovering games as a child, I used to believe artificial intelligence was something complex. Once I realized most of the things I considered to be a huge and organic process were in fact either scripted or fully random then the game lost a lot of what used to make it look “alive”.

As long as you are an indie artist, can you live exclusively of it?

I can live off making soundtracks, but I probably wouldn’t survive working on indie productions only. I’m also part of a company named “Game audio factory” with whom I occasionally work on various kind of games (big ones, small casual ones, serious games).

What equipment do you use yo compose music?

I own a few instruments and cheap synths but I never had much good hardware equipment so far. I mainly use softwares : Ableton, Renoise, Pure data, Audition…

I like experimenting with sound “toys” (both physical and digital) and occasionally make some of my own. I also often carry a small microphone with me and like to record interesting noises.

Each time I get a new sound material, I try to locate what could be interesting to me and make several small loops out of it (usually about eight seconds long each). I now have a collection of thousands of loops created that way and like to randomly use some of them when making music.

How is your usual process of composing game music? For examples, in games that you do or you are involved, do you make first the music, the artwork or all emerge at once?

It really depends on the project and I try as much as possible to take a different approach each time. I’m usually able to play a prototype or to read enough documents to know what the game is about.

I noticed once a composer can understand and agree with the tone of a game or film, he usually doesn’t need more than a few adjectives to be directed with. In my experience, when being obliged to follow a timeline with precise requirements about the styles, instruments and everything, you usually end up executing a “recipe” that leaves few space for self-distance and new ideas.

At some point while working for a game, not necessarily at the very beginning, I like to define a few points I’ll be sticking to throughout the soundtrack:

  • What kind of sound I’ll be using (instruments, synths, work pipelines). For instance in “Blocks that matter” I used a lot of recordings from various rotating engines (washing machine, juicer, electric meter). I noticed a given sample tends to maintain some audible properties no matter how much you’re going to “reshape” it, so in order to keep a sense of consistency I’m often trying to reuse a single one to get several different sounds out of it (by pitching it, applying envelopes, filters, effects, running it through granular synthesis, using it as an impulse response, etc).
  • Am I going to focus on the composition (melody, harmony) or the sound textures. For some reason it seems aiming for both at the same time can be tricky or lead to weird results in the context of video games, this also relies on how the sounds is integrated within the game.
  • Is the nature of the sounds going to be obvious or will I try to hide revealing artifacts.

These days, game music usually is a generic hanszimmer-like one with a orchestra and all that. And its great, but people like you still make traditional game music, and I think it fits better in most games. Do you think that way of make game music, made and performed by one person in his computer, it will be relegated to indie games?

I’m not sure how much of today’s production use a full orchestra, but I guess only some really expensive games. It is true they are often associated with settings where you expect “everything to be huge” and that’s probably not what most indie games are about.

I have nothing against orchestral soundtracks themselves ; actually I was primarily a “classical” musician, learnt to write for acoustic instruments before I started to toy around with computers. I spent some time studying film scores such as Bernard Herrmann’s and tried to use some techniques I learned from these when working on heavily narrative stuff ; but the thing is when working for small games, you probably don’t have an orchestra at home and you’re obliged to rely on sample-based synthesizers.

And that makes a really big difference in my opinion, not only about how it sounds but also because you tend to compose in a certain way for it to sound good. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining nowadays video game music is not as “melodic and easy to remember” as SMB’s was ; this way of arranging scores for synths may be one of the reasons.

For that matter one day I decided to uninstall any “too realistic” plug-in on my computer and set myself a rule that when I had to use a certain sound, I would either be lucky enough to own the instrument/tool and be able to record it, or I would use basic synthesis (I mean oscillator-based for instance, any technique where you can have a lot of control on the sound’s parameters) and not try to make it sound real. That’s not an easy rule, I eventually had to go back to “rich” synths for some specific works that required these.

Recently I’ve been listening a lot to Ben Houge’s Arcanum OST ; while I’m not always convinced by the game/audio relationship I still think it’s a great soundtrack. They decided to have the same string quartet play almost all tracks, and not to care if it wouldn’t provide the hanszimmerness rpg developers are usually looking for. Four instruments probably wasn’t that difficult to put together and record (as opposed to a full symphonic orchestra) and it still bears nice arrangements and all the subtleties strings can bring.

It’s great when developers are open to such choices. I’ve had the chance to work for short movies a few times, usually writing sheet music first and then recording it with a few acoustic instruments. That process seems to be a bit less common in game development, but I would like to try that once I get the chance to.

Also, you have done the soundtrack for the 8-bit film. Its game boy tracks, a obvious choice. I love how people still like chiptune music, made with a Game Boy. Even there are many awesome chiptune artist out there. What do you think is so successful that kind of music? Nostalgia of the NES and GB era of something else?

I’ve met several chiptune artists these last few years and it seems the reason why they’re into it differs a lot from one musician to another. Some like it because of the nostalgia or the “demoscene” feel, some like to experiment with circuit bending, weird electronics, consoles that were not meant to be used as instruments, and some just found a practical way to use sharp sounds that were already present in most electro/danceable music.

I like to take Tristan Perich as an example : he has done several musical objects and pieces using Atmel chips digital outputs, so in some way the raw pulse it produces are similar to what an old console would sound like ; but the way he uses them or mix them with other instruments evokes something quite far from video games.

And few friends and me actually created a chipmusic label a few years ago, Dataglitch.

The last one, are you working currently on anything related to video games?

I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to tell regarding NDAs, but here is at least one project I can tell about : it’s a platformer game called Exodus and you can have a preview of it here.

Also, Michael Lavoie started to develop a new game based on his Sarcia universe and I’ll be working on the sound as well. Some pictures and the upcoming episodes of it will be published here.