Behind The Scenes: The Music of To-Tum

Posted on in Development Post

In this, our second blog post, I’m going to be talking about the music I’ve composed for To-Tum. I’ll be covering my musical influences, my first steps when writing a track and how we’re using reactive music techniques to build a better player experience.

Normally as a composer, when starting work on a new video game project, much of the game will already have been completed and you’ll have a wealth of content to creatively inform your music; in some cases this might just be screenshots or concept art, but in others, a playable version of the game.

In To-Tum’s case however, when I started composing we didn’t have all that much content for me to go by: a few concept art pieces by our very talented Shaun Slade, that the game would be themed around North American Indian totem poles and that it would be a rotational world puzzle game. By and large this meant I was left to my own devices to create whatever music I wanted!

Shauns Initial Concept
(Shaun’s initial concept piece and largely what i had to base my music on!)

Now while some might argue that musical themes are losing their place in video games, I would argue that they are only necessary in certain games; for instance in the case of a highly story driven game, a main theme or melody can be an invaluable tool for a composer to show character progression. Yet from the outset To-Tum has never leant towards having a storyline, in cases such as this I find it much easier to define the music through the use of a set instrument palette.

Knowing that our main theme is totem poles I set about looking for inspiration within the music of the indigenous peoples of North America. Whilst most of what I found was brilliant music in it’s own right, the chilled out nature didn’t suit the pacing of our game.

Now, I can’t remember where I read it, but one day I stumbled across an interview with a composer in which he explained that nothing sounds more like the American frontier than an acoustic guitar. This I might have dreamt, as to this day I can’t seem to find trace of this interview! But that simple fact remained in my mind when I was creating my instrument palette.

It was also around this time that I was introduced to the works of Darren Korb (composer for SuperGiant Games’ ‘Bastion’ and ‘Transistor’) and I instantly knew that having acoustic guitar as my core instrument was a step in the right direction.

From the start I’ve wanted as many of the instruments to be as live as was possible, I really liked the idea of imagining a group of busking musicians performing whilst people were playing the game. Yet to this end, none of the percussion sample libraries I owned really suited this aesthetic, I was really after a sound similar to that of a cajón! Given that I’d chosen acoustic guitar to be my core instrument, I thought ‘well, why not have that as the sound of the percussion as well?’; I’d remembered watching videos of guitarist Andy McKee in which he would tap the body of the guitar to create different percussive sounds. So I set about recording and sampling the sounds of my acoustic guitar using Kontakt 5!

Custom Guitar Percussion in Kont

(Screenshot of my custom guitar percussion sampled in Kontakt 5)

Whilst composing for To-Tum I’ve also felt inspired by the works of Austin Wintory (notably his music for Thatgamecompany’s ‘Journey’) and Jason Hayes and Peter McConnell’s work on Blizzard Entertainment’s ‘HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft’.

Now whenever I compose a piece I will often start writing initial ideas with whatever my chosen core instrument is. In some cases this has been a piano, in others the stringed elements of an orchestra, but for the first time this was an acoustic guitar. Having played guitar in and out of bands for many years, writing ideas on a guitar came incredibly naturally and as such, each piece of music I’ve composed for To-Tum thus far has started off as a simple rhythm guitar part. From this I’ve then written guitar lead lines, added percussion, filled out with strings and then composed counter melodies with other instruments including flute, piano, kora and electric guitar.

Rather than just having the music as a sort of playlist in the background of the game, we really wanted the music to support the player’s progression through the game. Each track is written to be seamlessly loopable so as not to break a player’s state of immersion when a new track might be introduced. But more than this, each track has been split into a number of stems that we might introduce new musical layers based on a player’s interactions, many amongst you may have heard of this technique, often referred to at Vertical Re-orchestration.

To Tum Vertical Re Orchestration(Screenshot of Pro Tools, the lines across the waveforms showing how volume automation can be used with vertical re-orchestration/layering)

At the moment we have 3 layers or stems in the game: a base layer of guitar and percussion, a layer of counter melodies and a final ‘intensity’ layer featuring staccato string passages and guitar harmonies. Currently the introduction of new layers is based upon how far a player has got in the puzzle, for instance the 3rd stem will signal that a player is getting towards the end of a level. We felt that this would give players (besides the objective of collecting coins) a ‘reward’ for progressing and would spur them onwards, towards the finish line!

Have a listen to my most recent track for To-Tum below!

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little behind the scenes look at the music of To-Tum. To keep up to date with all my musical going’s on be sure to follow me on Twitter: @DougWatersMusic and take a moment to look us up on Twitter (@Team_ii) – we’d love to hear from you!

– Doug

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