My gamedev/musician college BARCHboi recently finished his game, Deidia. It had one of the better soundtracks of any 2D game to come out in 2016 (or ever, really), and so I wanted to jot down a few notes about why I found that to be the case. BARCHboi is part of an interesting (small) trend of solo game designers who also have a large background music production, and thus, their solo musical work and musical work for games often overlaps.
You can watch some footage below:
The game starts with a shareware-like intro, reminiscent of the 90s, even featuring what sounds like general MIDI instruments (or synths and samples close to or complementing that aesthetic). Intros are an important thing within games – not necessarily from a narrative standpoint, but they do preview and and help prepare the player for playing the game, sort of like dimming the lights in a theatre before the movie – asking you to focus on the game.
In Part 1, around 1:30 the game fakes a loading screen, adding a lovely pad sound before the game action starts, reminding me a bit of short melodic line at the beginning of this character creation song from PSO 1/2.
The sound effect is important – it mimics the process of logging into early web services like AOL or even login noises for desktop computers, giving us some hints as to how to interpret the game ahead. In that vein, so far the sounds of Deidia have given a similar feel to ‘viewing the future’ from the perspective of the booming internet in the 1990s, though I would like to distinguish this from the sounds of vaporwave or 80s pop and the like.
And then… silence!
In the game
Mostly silence, at least. Silence can be as effective as music in games. It draws your attention to what you’re doing rather than as a background to what you’re doing. Eventually, though, you can forget about it (or it can be very awkward depending on the situation). Wind, a buzzing noise sound, water drops in a cave, the human grunt of the character jumping, and soon, the clicking of your deitycoin miners.
Deidia has what is called ‘dynamic game music’ – its music shifts and changes at a finer grain than that of normal games that only use single loops. Around 3:35 of Part 2, as I approach the cave, a pad synth fades in, as well as louder rain noises. Later around 4:45, up to three layers of rain (each with progressively more low end content) fades in, to simulate walking into a rainstorm. These techniques can emphasize the contrasts between different areas within games by changing their sounds. This idea, emphasizing contrasts, is fundamental to making game music, and traditional single-loop music can do it too (like if the interior and exterior of a building have different sounds). However when making a game with dynamic music it can be easier to do this on a finer-grained level.
Sound of deitycoin
The deitycoin miners – things I can buy through an in-game menu in order to gain more money – are an interesting design choice. Deitycoins are essentially useless outside of opening a few doors in the game, in that sense they seem like an underdeveloped game system. But their signature clicking, which fades in whenever you open the game menu, I would argue serves as reminding us that this game is intended as some sort of strange post-apocalypse – a game taking place in the decaying remains of some sort of online space. That is the sound effect signals back to the player that there’s some kind of strange programmed, internet architecture at play in the game’s world. The user interface of the game does this, as well – allowing you to glitch things – resizing the player, moving around collidable objects, changing colors.
But it’s this idea of a post-apocalypse that is interesting: Deidia’s post-apocalypse is not after the end of our physical Earth, but an abstraction of what would remain after the end of some kind of common internet social space, perhaps what an MMORPG looks and sounds like when everything has crashed and become corrupted, or a social network when everyone’s left. Endless, rainy, cloudy mountains, vast seas and networks of caves, little direction and forlorn music. While playing Deidia, we’re treated to what this may sound like.
Deidia does contain “normal” music. 6:20 features signature sounds of BARCHboi – some synth from the 80s (which I always ask about and forget the name of), using a brassy swelling pad. To me these often sound like music “leftover” in the world of Deidia – coincidentally appearing at places. As if, the coding scripts gluing together the world have been falling apart slowly.
There’s even a strange musical moment at 6:40 when I’m warped into some cloudy ambience zone – inexplicable movements through space which further reinforce the game’s aesthetic.
Another sound I like -appearing around 7:20 – is the fake animal noise. These synth squeals simulate some kind of lifeform, but we only ever see birds in the game and it’s not clear the birds are making the noise. It gives the sense that the world of Deidia is slowly repopulating with animals, alien life.
The sequence around 9:20 is one of the more brilliant points of the game, utilizing interesting camera work, sound design, visual aesthetics of a crashing shore, and the assumption of players to just run to the right in platforming games.
The drama of Deidia jumps all over the place. Music will cut out at random times, fade in suddenly. For minutes at a stretch you might be stuck hearing bird and rain noises, to be treated to a traditionally composed track by BARCHboi. I like this aspect of personality and depth to Deidia, and it’s been inspiring to me for learning to compose dynamic game music, much like some of the work of David Kanaga (like on Oikospiel – highly recommended).
Regular looping music has its place – and so does dynamic – and so why not explore both as a composer? Perhaps game composers can bring these ideas into the world of standalone music. Experimental and game composers have a lot of common ground to learn from each other, in writing for the spaces of clubs, homes, commutes, writing about systems of power and oppression, writing for the digital spaces of games, websites, videos, and so on.
Buy here: https://barch.itch.io/deiosiideidia