A behind-the-scenes look at my creative process for scoring the Ludum Dare videogame “Elevator Pitch”. The entire game was made in just under 72 hours (programming, art, design, assets, music, audio, etc).
*Ludum Dare is one of the world’s largest and longest running Game Jam events. Every 6 months, creators are challenged to make a game from scratch in a weekend.
Your Life is Currency
When the Ludum Dare 44 theme was first announced (“your life is currency“), my initial thoughts were for us to create a game that took place in a futuristic or dystopian setting. Maybe something to do with lifetime limits (due to overpopulation or genetic engineering), or people’s memories being uploaded and sold on the black market for currency (Yikes!). Either that or maybe I just secretly wanted an excuse to compose some cyberpunk/Blade-Runner type music, who knows. Since the jam started I’ve seen a lot of games like this so far, some of them executed better than others.
Another idea the game developer had was to do something involving robots and battery life, which I’ve seen a lot of as well (My favorite so far is Coin-Op Kid, which features a coin operated robot…even better!). Anyway, after some thought we decided to take a more humorous approach. I suggested we do an “Officespace” type scenario where a disgruntled employee (who spends his whole life working in exchange for currency) starts relieving some built-up stress by breaking everything in sight…desks, chairs, computers, printers etc.
After smashing up the place, eventually our character takes an elevator to the top floor to defeat the “Boss”. The original concept was to have multiple “levels” and “bosses” (referencing both videogames and office environments) that the player would have to reach and defeat via elevator. Hence the title “Elevator Pitch”. Unfortunately we only had time to create one level/boss, but I’m hoping we can expand on it further and apply some of the great feedback we’ve gotten from the game community thus far.
I’m Mad As Hell
Another key inspiration was Howard Beale’s infamous speech in the 1976 film “The Network”: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” We even quoted it in the game during the opening cutscene.
For the game’s background lore, I had an idea to make the main character an employee at a large AAA game studio (conveniently called “Viral Videogames Inc.”). I thought this was a good opportunity to provide some commentary on the videogame industry and the “crunch” culture that many AAA game companies cultivate to make their employees stay late/work overtime without extra pay. (For more insight on this topic, check out Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier.)
Related Article: Crunch: The Video Game Industry’s Notorious Labor Problem
While composing the soundtrack for “Elevator Pitch”, I wanted to create a quirky, retro aesthetic while also applying some of the techniques I’ve been reading about in the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips (composer for Assassins Creed, God of War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims, etc).
One of the things Phillips talks about in her book is the importance of theme. A well written theme can not only enhance the storytelling of a game but also become a unique part of it’s core identity. With “Elevator Pitch”, I attempted to achieve this by establishing a musical theme (or melody) that reappears in many shapes and forms throughout the game.
The first track I created was the “menu music”. In many video games, the menu music also serves as “main theme” of the game/franchise. It’s usually something very triumphant sounding (to get players excited/amped up) or something very peaceful (to induce a state of calmness). For this game however, I chose not to subscribe to either of those conventions. Instead, I wanted to create a sense of anxiety, waiting, frustration, etc. After all, that’s what the whole game is about, is it not?
With this in mind, I decided the first thing I would use would be the sound of a clock ticking (which would also establish the overall rhythm/BPM). After experimenting with several different tempos, I finally settled on one that’s around 80 beats per minute. After that, I added a simple bassline that was almost meant to imitate the ticking sound that a clock makes. The bassline alternates between three notes, back and forth, creating a clock-like rhythm and the sense of boredom and repetition one might feel at an office-like environment.
Next, I added the main melody. I was trying to create something that was simple yet complex enough to function as an effective theme, and could be utilized in various time signatures, keys, tempos, etc. At the same time I was just trying to go with the flow and play the notes that felt right at the time. My process is usually a balancing act between these two states…having a specific goal in mind and still being open to new ideas. The instrument sound chosen for this melody is also meant to allude to a bell or chime sound a modern elevator makes when it arrives.
Another Day At The Office
During the initial development stages, I had originally envisioned the “main level” music to be something a little more “angry”. I imagined the player destroying the office, flipping tables, breaking computers etc., and I felt the soundtrack should evoke that same type of energy (I was thinking hard rock, electronic beats or some combination of both). However, once I got the first build and saw the gameplay, I immediately began to notice the visual rhythm of the game.
Once I played it , the game felt a lot more “bouncy” and fun than it did “angry”. Then I started thinking about how the player’s character might be feeling at this point, casually breaking office supplies as if it were a relaxing sport (instead of a psychotic rage). I thought to myself “maybe now that the character has broken free from his capitalistic hamster wheel he can finally relax!”, which is what inspired the jazzy groove I eventually ended up with.
I was also thinking about the “Grand Theft Auto” series, and how it usually involves the player causing some kind of mayhem while a funky pop tune or classical music blares out from the car radio. I wanted to create that same sort of effect of irony within the game. For this track however, I went for something a little more jazzy, and I was inspired by older games like Earthbound, Donkey Kong, Paperboy, etc. Retro games that either take place in a modern setting or have an inherently silly vibe to them.
After this newfound epiphany, I started getting to work. First I programmed a jazzy brush loop (or a downsampled SNES/SPC sounding version of it). Then I created the walking upright bassline that does exactly what it’s title implies. After that I added some funky organ stabs and a MIDI horn riff to act as a “call and response” counterpoint melody. Last but not least I threw in some oldschool orchestra hits and some DJ scratch FX for the extra hip-hop flavor.
- I feel like a lot of game soundtracks in the 90’s were often referencing hip-hop in some kind of way (as the genre was just taking off at the time), and as a hip-hop producer the influence tends to make it’s way into everything that I do. That’s why I also included the bonus beats and scratch FX on the soundtrack, something commonly found on 12-inch vinyl singles and breakbeat LPs.
If you hadn’t noticed by now, every aspect of the game is intentionally designed to frustrate the player (just as the character is frustrated in the game). It is designed that way in order to build up the anxiety and rage needed to defeat the final boss. The intro cutscene and the elevator sequence (which is basically just an extended “loading screen”) are no exceptions. For the “elevator music” I went with a typical bossa groove one might hear in an elevator (except using videogame sounds instead of real instruments).
I originally started out with a live bossa nova percussion loop just to get the rhythm down, but quickly exchanged it for an 808 driven loop instead. This gave it a much more synthetic sound that I was looking for. After that I added a latin upright bassline, staccato piano stabs (which were originally guitar plucks, but that’s another story) and a synth lead to carry the melody. The lead is a squarewave synth, meant to emulate the sound of an old NES console. The entire song was also partly inspired “Costa del Sol”, the theme music for a small beach town in one of my favorite games, Final Fantasy VII.
For the “boss battle” music, I decided to incorporate elements from the main menu aka the “main theme”. I used the same clock ticking sound to establish the rhythm, but sped it up to a much faster tempo. I played the same bassline but replaced it with a more aggressive sounding instrument.
I also added some organ to build tension and some arpeggiated synths to give it that “videogame” vibe. Last but not least I added the same melody from the beginning music, played by another synth lead. Once again I was also inspired by FFVII, particularly Jenova’s Theme, one of the final bosses encountered in the game.
- As you can probably tell, Nobuo Uematsu (composer for Final Fantasy series) has been a huge inspiration for me and is one of the reasons I got into music production (along with artists like J Dilla, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, etc). I used to spend hours trying to recreate his compositions on the MTV Music Generator game for PS1, long before I had a proper DAW setup or knew how to record/mix.
Related Article: How a PlayStation Music-Making Game Inspired a Generation of Producers (DJ Booth)
The last track I created was the “victory music”, aka the music that plays when you defeat the Boss at the end of the game. Again, I incorporated elements of the main theme in order to highlight the completion of the player’s journey. Originally, I wanted this to be faster tempo, but I eventually slowed it down to half-time to give it more of a marching band feel. I also knew that I wanted to use major chords this time, and I was listening to a lot of the winning music on games like Sonic and Super Smash Bros. for inspiration.
After laying the chord structure down and adding some faux MIDI horns, I played the main melody (the main theme) once again in the form of a synth lead. This is another retro lead reminiscent of NES games like Mario, Megaman etc. Most of these NES style lead synths have been from the Super Audio Cart sample pack, a highly recommended purchase for videogame composers and music producers alike. The other sounds are mostly just Reason Factory Soundbank and various soundfonts I’ve collected over the years.
In addition to music, I created over 60+ original sound effect assets for “Elevator Pitch”. Some of the other sounds you hear in the game came from royalty free sample packs that I tweaked and edited to serve our game’s specific audio needs.
One of the sounds I had a lot of fun creating from scratch was the coin SFX (for when the Boss explodes into a big pile of coins at the end, spoiler alert). I recorded samples of coins from several different countries including US, Croatia, Brazil, and Turkey, which gave each take a unique flavor. I also recorded a lot of sounds with my mouth, including throwing SFX and grunts for when the player or Boss gets hurt.
Another section I enjoyed working on was the beginning cutscene, where the character begins to have his breakdown. For this scene I wanted to emphasize the anxiety our character is feeling in his office prison. I started with a looped recording of typing noise as a foundation and kept adding to it until I had created a “symphony” of office noises (printers, fax machines, air conditioning, phones ringing etc). Just for extra measure, I purposely spaced the phone ringing apart further and further so that just when you think it’s stopped completely, it starts ringing again.
The last thing I did was record myself saying phrases like “Viral Videogames, can you hold please? Just a moment..” and then pitched it up to sound like a receptionist at our fictional game studio. Combined together all this creates the overall ambience and tension needed to move on to the next part of the game: breaking stuff!
Tools of the Trade
- My current weapon of choice: Novation Launchkey 25. Also the Arturia Minilab (smaller and more portable).
- Recommended VST: Super Audio Cart. Also the Koji VST plugin, which is a little more affordable for beginners.
This is the first game soundtrack I have ever produced, and I still have a lot to learn. If I could go back, I would probably embellish the songs more, creating longer and less repetitive loops. That said, I think it went quite well considering we only had 72 hours to create the whole game. The amount feedback we have gotten so far on both the game itself and the audio portion has been overwhelmingly helpful/positive, so for that I’m thankful. I’m also hoping we can update it at some point, adding more levels, bosses, security, etc. In the meantime, I look forward to learning more about the world of game audio and collaborating on more game soundtracks in the future.
- Play game online: https://hugimugi7.itch.io/elevator-pitch
- Download OST: https://amerigo.bandcamp.com/album/elevator-pitch-original-game-soundtrack
Update: the Ludum Dare results are in…out of the 2,538 games that were submitted, we ranked at 98th place for Audio (top 100!). Not too shabby for my first jam, thanks to all those who played!
P.S. I’m still looking to build my game audio portfolio so if you would like to collaborate or need music/SFX for your game feel free to get in touch. You can reach me directly via email at [email protected] or on Discord (@AmerigoGazaway #4558).
*A fellow composer just pointed my attention to this French pop song with a melody that is eerily similar to “You’re Fired” (aka the main theme of our game). I had never heard this song before until now, but I suppose it’s just proof that great minds think alike!