Treasure Adventure Music: An interview with Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis Interview ThumbnailA bit of a change this week. I discussed Treasure Adventure Game a little while back in the last part of my game music history series, and this week the soundtrack gets a well-deserved post all to itself. But more importantly Robert Ellis, the composer, kindly agreed to an interview about Treasure Adventure Game, the upcoming Treasure Adventure World and video game music in general.

Let’s start with a little background.  You list your employment as “Freelance Music Composition and Sound Design” – how did you get into that?

Going way back, I first started writing music around the age of fourteen. I had always loved music, and I had been playing guitar for about a year or two, and I just loved plunking out melodies and seeing where they would lead. It was also around that time that I started getting really interested in recording, recording technology, and digital audio.

Although my musical interests have always gravitated towards metal and hard rock, I really loved every style of music that I took the time to study, and I never wanted to be pigeonholed into any one style. Having grown up as an avid gamer and movie fan, I always found that writing music for soundtracks (all of which, at that time, were soundtracks to imaginary movies or games in my head) was a wonderful way to maintain stylistic independence. It would be my half-baked movie or game idea that would dictate the genre of the song.

After high school, I went to college at Wake Forest University where I studied music theory, classical guitar, and played viola da gamba in some Renaissance music quartets. I actually minored in music and majored in religion, in part because, although I love classical music, it’s not where my heart was, and if you want to successfully major in classical music performance, classical music really needs to be your first love.

Writing music for soundtracks was a wonderful way to maintain stylistic independence

After graduating from Wake, I worked as a consultant, developing a music therapy program for Peninsula Cancer Institute in Williamburg, VA. On the side, I started looking for any game projects that needed music or sound effects. I found a couple of really neat projects that I got to be a part of, but most of the games were abandoned by the developers and never finished. These projects were still valuable to me, because they allowed me to get some real experience writing for games that weren’t just in my head.

Around this time I started taking online courses with Berklee College of Music. Over the course of a couple years, I earned my Master’s Certification in music production and technology. Berklee is a phenomenal institution, and it was really amazing to have the opportunity to learn from professionals in fields like sound design, composition, and music production.

You’ve said that the NES – and Super Mario Bros in particular – were big influences in your childhood, and that certainly comes across in your work.  Did you imagine back then that you’d end up writing video game music?

It’s funny — I really did fall in love with game music as soon as I heard the melodies coming from the NES. At that age, I didn’t know much about music, but I loved the way it made me feel. The music from level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. has a playfulness that envelopes you from those first seven notes. But, back then my aspirations were really just to, one day, be David Bowie in Labyrinth. My realization that there was somebody behind the sounds coming out of the NES wouldn’t come until a few years later.

Have you done other game soundtracks before, or was Treasure Adventure Game your debut?

Treasure Adventure Game was actually the fifth game that I’d worked on, though for all the previous games, I had generally just done a song or two, either because there were multiple composers on the project, or because the project was just discontinued. I had never had the opportunity to do the entire soundtrack for a game before TAG, and since the majority of the other games never saw the light of day, I really do consider TAG my game music debut.

Since TAG, Robert has done soundtracks and sound effects for games like Game Closure’s “Mecha Mecha Panic” and “Kiwi Run”

How did you get involved with Robit Studios and come to write the music for TAG?

Stephen and I actually met at a Christmas party that was being held by a mutual friend of ours. We both just happened to be heading toward the food at same time (it’s always the food), when our friend said “Stephen, you want to make a game, and Robert, you want to make game music. You guys should talk.” And that was literally, word-for-word, how we met.

We had a great conversation about the types of games we liked and the types of games we wanted to be a part of, so we exchanged contact info and then went our separate ways. The next day Stephen sent me an email with an early demo of what would become TAG, and I loved it.

I started writing music for the main area in the demo (Cargale Island), and a few days later, once it was finished, I sent it to Stephen. That first track is actually a bonus track on the OST (Born For Adventure Idea 1). Stephen really dug the track, and we started getting together every week or two to talk about all things TAG. He would show me the latest developments, we’d bounce around ideas for the game, and we’d pick the next area that needed music.

Stephen, you want to make a game, and Robert, you want to make game music. You guys should talk.

It’s funny how different that first version of Born For Adventure is in comparison to the final version that’s in the game. The primary themes and structure were there, but it’s way too fast for that area. It wasn’t until a month or so later that I decided to try out a chippie version of it, and then we slowed it down. Doing that actually changed how both of us looked at the entire soundtrack. We realized it needed to have more chip-tune elements to it, while occasionally moving into higher quality synths and samples, culminating with a few leaps into the world of physical instruments and voice.

You stated it perfectly in your Personal History Of Game Music when you said “It isn’t what games were like, it’s what we remember them being like.” That’s exactly what we were going for.

Treasure Adventure Game

“I’m very inspired by visuals, and I use them a lot when searching for the right tone or atmosphere for an area.”

What approach did you take to writing the music?  Was it a case of putting the music to the game, or did music and game evolve and influence each other?

It was really an amazing collaborative process

The music and game definitely influenced each other. It was a fortunate situation, in which I was brought onto the game while it was still in its early stages. Generally, I would play the latest area available, then take a screen-shot of a part of it that seemed to represent the area as a whole, and then set that as my desktop background. I’m very inspired by visuals, and I use them a lot when searching for the right tone or atmosphere for an area.

However, Stephen and I would often just talk about areas that we’d like to make, and I would get really excited and want to start writing immediately. Then, I would send the song to Stephen, and he’d get excited and want to expand the area just because he really liked the tune (if I remember correctly, that’s how the mushroom cave got so big).

There were other times when I would write something that Stephen felt wasn’t quite what he wanted for a given area, but he really liked the song, and would design a new part of the game for it. It was really an amazing collaborative process, where we would just feed off of each other’s excitement and inspiration.

More specifically, could you describe the creation process?  From influences and design, to the hardware and software you used.

The creation process is always a difficult one to describe. I think part of that comes from the fact that it rarely follows a coherent linear structure, like moving from idea, to execution, to completion. For me, it generally starts with a lot of improvisation and playfulness in order to establish the right mood for the scene or area. During the entire writing process, however, there’s a lot of interpreting and refining that goes on.

In order for any finished creative work to have an organic flow, I find it really needs an organic production process

For example, in the track City Living, I was playing around with a sax part, and came up with a melody that I really liked. But, I was having trouble coming up with melodies for the verses. So, I just kept working with the bass line, and then after listening to that on a loop for a bit, I started thinking, does it really need a melody for the verse parts of the song? After all, the city is something of a sad area with so many people caught-up in the rat race. It only has an under-current of soul and life in areas like the nightclub. Maybe it would be neat if the only real melody in the song was this out-of-place sax, and the rest was glittery, but ultimately vacuous. Then I decided to go back and add coin-like sounds, and other retro sound effects, to make the verses and intro have that distracting, disorienting, life-is-everywhere-but-there’s-not-a-soul-in-sight feel that big cities can have when you first visit them.

This process is something that really underlies just about everything in TAG, and TAW for that matter. There’s a misleading conception that stories, songs, and artwork spring from a well-laid master plan, but I find that’s rarely the case. In order for any finished creative work to have an organic flow, I find it really needs an organic production process, in which simple ideas are explored, then viewed through various interpretive lenses, and then re-crafted with that interpretation (or multiple interpretations) in mind, resulting in a more complex, often self referential work.

Symphony of the Night OST CoverMy biggest influences, as they relate to TAG are definitely the early Super Mario Bros. games and the Castlevania series, particularly Symphony Of The Night. I’m an avowed Castlevania fanboy, and I just love how the music in that series has continued to build upon its roots and expand. I honestly play through SOTN (inverted castle and all) multiple times a year, just to hear the music in context.

Regarding hardware and software, the primary software I used for TAG was Propellerheads’ Reason (I think it was version 4 back then). It’s a fantastic program for anyone interested in digital audio, composition, or sound design. I would generally load up a few instances of various synths, initialize them, and start playing with some basic geometric waveforms to get started. In addition to Reason, I also used Pro Tools for audio editing and recording physical instruments like the guitar on Duct Work Electrified, and the vocals on Two Weeks Notice. For hardware I used an MBox as my audio interface, with a Korg Triton keyboard, or Akai LPK25 (depending on where I was), all running into a Macbook Pro.

What is your favourite track from TAG?

If I had to choose a favorite, it would probably be Two Weeks Notice. It was just so funny how it all came together. I knew I was going out on a limb by having a vocal line in it, but it was supposed to be something of an Easter egg track that most people would never really find. Stephen really liked it though, and we just found so many neat opportunities to have it in the game, whether it was the Jukebox on Tenerife, the street band, or the end credits (which was an awesome surprise for me).

If you could write music for any game – past, present or future – what would it be?

That’s a tough one. A part of me wants to say I’d love to write the music for a future Castlevania title, but then I think about it, and realize I’d really rather hear more of Michiru Yamane’s work on a future Castelvania title. I’d love to go back and play around with the soundtrack to the first Doom. It’s already been redone at least once, for the PS1 edition of Doom, and, for me, that was a moment when I realized how much of an effect music can have on the atmosphere of a game. I’m a huge metal fan, and the original MIDI metal was great, but the PS1 version was truly creepy, and immersive. I love that version. I think there are a lot of directions you can take that game and I’d love to do something that merges those atmospheres with the occasional metal tune or two.

Treasure Adventure World, a crowd-funded re-imagining of Treasure Adventure Game, is currently in development, and you’re writing the soundtrack for that too.  What’s that been like, compared to TAG?

I’ve been really inspired by Christine’s artwork, and it keeps pushing me to come up with new ideas

Working on the soundtrack for Treasure Adventure World has been a blast. It’s crowd funded in the sense that the more pre-orders we get, the closer we come to the dream of being able to work on it full-time. However, it’s getting finished regardless of how the pre-orders go. Back when we were finishing TAG, Stephen and I decided to release it for free as a sign of faith in the gaming community. As young developers, it was our way of giving fellow gamers a reason to believe in us as we got started on what we still hope to be our full-time careers. With the TAW pre-order, we’re hoping that people will remember TAG, or give it a try for the first time, and if they like it, show some faith in us as developers, and think about pre-ordering TAW.

Regarding the soundtrack for TAW, it’s going to be a full-length OST consisting of remixes of the songs from TAG, as well as some all new songs for the new areas and features in the game. The player will have the option to play with the original soundtrack or the remixed versions.

It’s been a really interesting challenge to reimagine these tracks so that they mesh with the awesome new art style. I’ve been really inspired by Christine’s artwork, and it keeps pushing me to come up with new ideas and interpretations of the songs.

The biggest challenge with the remixes is finding an alternate way to elevate the music, while maintaining its in-game functionality. For example a club-type remix may sound neat on its own, but it could get really annoying when you’re trying to just take it easy and enjoy exploring a puzzle. So functionality and mood, or tone, always need to be what drives these remixes.

Treasure Adventure World

“It’s been a really interesting challenge to reimagine these tracks so that they mesh with the awesome new art style.”

What do you see yourself doing next?  Will we be hearing your work in more games?

I like to think you’ll be hearing more of my work in games, and over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to work on quite a few titles—whereas TAG was the fifth game I’d worked on, TAW will be the fourteenth game I’ve worked on. Although this by no means makes me a veteran of the games industry, I have found through the course of my work that a studio’s approach to game development can really have an enormous effect on whether or not I’m going to find the work fulfilling and worthwhile.

It serves me well to remember that my game heroes are a couple of plumbers who had some great adventures on the side

When I’m working with people, like Stephen, who value my particular perspective on games, and who allow me to make a personal connection with my work, then I can be at my best, and I love it. That’s been the entirety of my experience with Robit Studios, working on TAG and TAW, and with indie games in general.

Stephen has always valued and trusted my instincts and abilities in relation to music and sound, and that’s not because I’m some rare gem of composition and game audio — honestly, there are so many great composers and sound designers out there whose talents I feel I don’t even begin to approach — but, for whatever reasons, I’m the guy working on his game, and he wants to hear my take on it, so he gives me his trust, and lets me add my vision to the game. That’s not to say we don’t occasionally disagree, but it’s that underlying foundation of mutual trust that lets us be at our best together and love what we’re doing.

Unfortunately, it’s also been my experience that a developer trusting in their creative team is not the norm in many areas of the games industry. It’s often quite the opposite, in which a developer places a bottom-line where the game’s soul should be, resulting in a desire for something so generic that they don’t want to hear anything like individual style or perspective peaking through. For me, this erasure of artistic perspective and individuality takes all the joy out of writing music, or any creative pursuit for that matter. It removes the entire reason to be a creative person in the first place.

The reason I write music is because it matters to me. It means something to me on a deeply personal level. I’ll always be writing music, and I’ll always be looking for opportunities to work on games and projects that excite me, and that would value my perspective regardless of the part of the industry from which they come. If that means that I need to work a day job in order to allow myself to choose projects that genuinely excite me, then I’m at peace with that. Taking that route ensures that I’ll always be able to produce work that I’m proud of, like my work on TAG and TAW. At the same time, I’m always holding out hope that I may be able to really make a living working on such games. However, it serves me well to remember that my game heroes are a couple of plumbers who had some great adventures on the side.

So, to get back to the original question, you’ll still be hearing me in games, and though you may not hear me all that often, when you do, my hope is that it’ll be something worth listening to.

Looking forward to it! Robert, thank you for your time. It’s been fascinating.

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