Feature: Harmonic Relationships (2018)

A nice look at the harmonic choices in games like FEZ & Hyper Light Drifter that ties them to some of the larger trends in 20th/19th century music.

Postmortem: Hyper Light Drifter

How It Came to Be

Alex brought me on to score the game right before we announced the Kickstarter. Our mutual friend Roger Hicks connected us. When I saw what they were working on, and that Beau Blyth (Samurai Gunn, 0space) was leading up the gameplay design, I knew I wanted to be involved.

Emotional Impact

Hyper Light Drifter was a very emotional project to work on, and I think part of that was because of the creative approach I took with the music. I ended up trying many things that didn’t work, and so I often had to start over in the middle of an idea. The game kept shifting over my three years of involvement, and I didn’t feel like I had a grasp of the game until the very end. It's odd - the very first thing I wrote for the project ended up being a seminal representation of the spirit of the score, and yet the general experience of writing the music proved to be quite a struggle.

Being on the same project for three years is difficult for someone like me, where I feel like my taste and my interests are always changing. The level of trial and error in finding the right sounds for this game was quite high, and required a lot of energy of me to stay engaged and working at my highest potential. I often felt like I was using my emotions to figure out what was working and what wasn’t, and that ended up being taxing over time. By the end, I was reaching back into the past to try and channel how I used to feel, because I think I’d already kind of moved on from it. But I couldn’t quit. I had to finish it.


There was definitely some cross-pollenation when it came to influence. We landed pieces like 'Titan' and 'The Abyss' pretty early in development, which I think helped the team's creative process. I was absolutely inspired by the visuals, as that was the first thing I saw and reacted to in writing some of the earliest pieces. I also got really into Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga during development. That definitely helped me down the stretch.

I stumbled into an impressionistic way of approaching the music for Hyper Light Drifter. I improvised at the piano often as I was trying to hone in on some very subtle feelings and vibes for different areas of the game. There was a lot of trial and error, naturally.

In the eastern water region, the music is placid and serene, but with a tense edge that comes through at different points. I had some semi-intuitive notions of how that type of region was supposed to sound, and I tried to lock into that. I used that process with every region of the game, more or less. I had to figure out the sound of a post-apocalyptic desert where it’s raining all the time. What does that sound like? What’s the sound of a crystal forest, or the sound of ascending a mountain?

I spoke at GDC 2017 with Sound Designer Akash Thakkar about the creative process of making audio for the game.

Dev Tools

The development team created a level editor which we used extensively to design the game. It had a small but useful set of music features, many of which I requested, such as the ability to crossfade between multiple synchronized tracks, fade pieces in and out based on 2D world position (drawn using boxes), and to have sound sources attenuate based on position. We also had a logic based triggering system, so that we could piggy back music changes off of gameplay context shifts, such as the unlocking of a gate, or the clearing of a room of enemies. The intensity of music was often managed by triggering crossfade changes based on either location (ie. You enter an area with enemies where there were none before) or enemy waves (ie. You face enemies in the same place but in arena-style waves, and the music crossfades up an intensity level after each wave).

Thematic Development

It became harder to make progress late in the development, so I amassed about 100 piano ideas that I felt could fit in the game. Alex, the creative director, and I went through all of them and made notes about where we thought certain pieces might work. That helped to figure out what kind of music we need and where, and in coming up with themes. I wrote a title piece early on, and it was nice but didn't turn out to be the right fit for the game. Then Alex heard a short sequence of chords in one of the other piano sketches, and it immediately clicked with him that he had found the theme, and I agreed. I was originally thinking of using it for a deep, cavernous level, but it captures the dark, haunted, adventurous quality of the game very well. Part of what happens when I try to write themes, especially on the piano, is I tend to write these through-composed pieces with lots of sections. Then, when I try to bring it into a synth environment, it tends to sound overwrought, too complicated with too many parts. So, we went from a theme that was sixteen bars long to a theme that is three chords.

Track Descriptions

Vignette: Panacea.

For a long time, this was just one of many piano sketches I was considering using in the game. Alex Preston (creative director of Hyper Light Drifter) was very much involved in my process, and he helped keep me on track, especially towards the end of development when the project started to become more emotionally challenging for me. I think I had been using this piano sketch in the credits, and he suggested we use it in a trailer. Using music that seems unfitting has worked quite well in past game trailers, and lately, it has become quite trendy to use pop music in game trailers to tie the emotions of a fantastic world to reality. I think this approach generally seems to work, and we felt like this was accomplishing some of the same things.

Vignette: Visions.

After going through numerous attempts at writing theme music for the game, Alex once again steered me in the right direction, honing in on just three chords from one of my piano sketches that he thought could be the game's theme. We ran with the idea, and it became a crucial element of the score which we used in one of the trailers, the final boss fight, and this piece which is the game's intro.


This is one of the first pieces I wrote for Hyper Light Drifter. Alex took the game to Minecon, the Minecraft Convention.

Wisdom's Tragedy.

Originally I had intended to create four variations on this theme (the tower theme), one for each of the four cardinal directions, but it turned out this version worked fairly well no matter where you placed it, so I never elaborated on it. It does show up in the final area of the game too though (The Abyss), to try and consolidate everything together.

Seeds of the Crown.

This track was based on a piano sketch, and a bit more lively and energetic at first. I originally had a more ambient version for interiors (i.e.,. the Drifter's bedroom), but Alex felt like the more ambient style worked better, and so we agreed to move in that direction. The darker portion of this track is the variation I wrote for the 'Dregs,' the levels that connect the Central town to the 4 cardinal regions. We developed tech to have elements of the music exist at points in space, but we never really used it. The one place we did was in Central. A little guitar player fashioned with the Disasterpeace skull for a head does a little improvisation along with the underscore.

Vignette: Corruption.

The path ahead grows darker, your life is tenuous and fleeting.

This was the first time I think we were really able to create a piece that fully captured the essence of the game. This was written as an escalating, melodramatic piece with a thematic send-off, for the 2nd trailer.

The Midnight Wood.

This started as a series of variations on a piano idea that involved overlapping hand patterns and an interesting harmonic progression. I wrote more variations of this piece than any other in the game (except the Gauntlet), and I think this improves its listenability as you are wandering through the opening section of the West.

Musician Lauria Intravia hosts a great segment on the OverClocked Podcast called 'Between the Lines'. She did a great analysis of the musical style of Hyper Light Drifter, especially the track 'The Midnight Wood'. Link: The OverClocked Podcast

Gaol in the Deep.

This chord progression started as the 'underground' part of a larger piano sketch that was meant to represent the West in its entirety. I ended up not using the whole idea because it had too many changes. I kept this section because I thought it captured the vibe of a deep place that I wanted. This area of the game is a prison (as you might have guessed). As the second variation begins and adds percussion, the intent is to create a sense of confrontation. This reaches climax towards the end, to match the intensity of the final battle.

The Resonant Canyon.

This is one of the only tracks on the soundtrack with an acoustic source (a piano). It's also one of the most improvised. I laid down a basic groove and tonality and had fun putting different sounds over the top of it.

Stasis Awakening.

This piece starts with the Jackal's recurring motif, just as it does in the game. This area of the West is heavily patrolled and felt to me like a base of some kind, so I wanted to create a piece that was heavy on percussion and had a bit of a militaristic vibe. I actually ended up repurposing a sketch for an earlier section of the West as I thought it worked better hear. The piece ends in an ethereal, atmospheric way to set up an eerily quiet traversal from the base to the final battle in the West.

The Last General.

I originally wrote something else for this boss fight, but it wasn't working. Alex guided me a bit with this, showing me a boss fight from Dark Souls with a giant wolf that had a melancholy quality to it. I used that as inspiration to write something that had a bit of a 'fallen hero' quality to it.

The Winding Ridge.

This piece came together in an unusual way - the first segment of this track was actually written afterward as elements to fill in the spaces between the musical elements that come later and happen on the stronger beats. The 'call' and 'response' relationship of these two parts were written in such a way that you only hear the response at first, which creates an unsettling quality, and only later is the call revealed. The finale was written for a chaotic battle at the top of the mountain from a very early prototype. This encounter was simplified later on, and for a while, the music was hitting the intensity level desired better than the battle itself. In that way, the music actually inspired the gameplay at the top of the mountain.


This piece came together very quickly and leans heavily on the sounds themselves, which often came first. Because this piece is very sound-centric, the resulting music was written specifically for these sounds (instead of vice-versa, which was also an approach I used at times). The 'swarming' sound in this track was designed early on for a battle on top of the Northern mountain that no longer exists. It was meant to reflect the concept of the cult birds, swarming around you. I think this sort of buzzing sound worked well in creating a kind of tense, and yet ambient environment. This track also features a MIDI Script I developed called 'Tremolo-ADSR,' which allows you to replicate crescendo accelerandos like the ones heard in traditional Japanese music. I used this to kind of sell the religious/temple vibe a bit further. That and FM bells!

Cult of the Zealous.

I created two very similar versions of this piece for two areas of the North that were laid out differently. There is a dry, narrow version for a region that is full of narrow brick pathways, and a bigger, wetter version for a library that leads to the final battle in the North. I think I was fortunate in that I was able to write the boss music finale in the exact same structure as the much slower feeling sections leading up to it, by subdividing the tempo. Castlevania was a definite influence in trying to get the right harmonic vibe for a very dark, cultish environment.


In setting out to create a vibe for the East, a pale, watery place of pathways and waterfalls, long drawn out airy notes and bells were the first things that came to mind. Some of the wind instruments also do their best animal imitations, with plenty of portamento and diving pitches not unlike the sound of a mourning dove. There are also some rather large set pieces in this environment, remnants of millennia old Titans, and those were a perfect backdrop for the distorted colors in this piece. Generally, when things get quieter and wetter sonically, we are heading underground. The music is extra wet in the underground sections of the East.

The Refiner's Fire.

I had a lot of fun with the drums on this piece. While still quite ambient, it was a nice reprieve to have a much more percussive piece. I stumbled onto a tom-type sound in Alchemy (soft-synth) and leaned into that patch to make it more closely resemble the drum sound of Danny Carey of the band Tool. I loved this sort of athletic tom-heavy drumming, and this was one of the central inspirations of this track. The main pad riff features a slowly evolving delay unit that pitches the material up continuously to create what end up sounding like peculiar harmonics. I push this as far as I can, especially towards the end of the piece.


Many of the east pieces started out as placid, Satie-like piano sketches, and I had to go back and try to darken them up to match the difficulty of these levels. Many dynamic layers were added to this piece after the fact to make it more intense.

Acropolis Falls.

I originally wrote this piece for the plaza/town area of the East, but Alex and I were at odds about this piece. It was one of my favorites and one of his least favorites, so I ended up extending out 'Cascades' instead, and using this piece for the Sunken Docks. I think it ended up working well there because it's one of the largest, most open areas in the East if not the whole game, and there are very few enemies, which I think gives the music a lot of room to establish a setting. Part of this scene is a giant titan head floating in the water, which comes up in the middle of this piece. There are crackling noise sounds and deep percussion to try to give weight to the vision of this titan's head, and to imply that it goes way down below into the depths. This is capped off with a late add, a more active, percussive version of this idea to go along with a chaotic battle.

A Chorus of Tongues.

This area starts kinda small with just a few frogs, and so I complemented that feeling with some dueling melodies. As the region opens up and gets deeper, the leads give way to material that is more rhythmic, eventually emerging from the depths into a drier, more intense march type variation as you fight all sorts of enemies. As the clash subsides, the music recedes into wispy pads, representing a memory of what has just transpired.

The Hermit.

This is a piece came out of a series of piano sketches that I stitched together, followed by overdubbing additional ideas on piano. I then spent a long time splitting out the various elements into a full arrangement. I wanted this piece to feel patchworked with lots of different ideas and patterns, hoping to give it a circus quality.

The Water Shelf.

This area of the East feels a bit smaller, and not as decrepit or foreboding, and so this piece I think has a lighter, upbeat quality. The underground battles get rather intense, so I ended up having to revisit that section of the music and add more variations to it. This piece has a fun rhythmic technique towards the end, which involves shifting the ostinati's strongest accent back one note each time through the cycle.


Another piano sketch, this one came to me late in the game. The South had an unusual structure to it, and kind of came together from pre-existing material, such as 'The Gauntlet', which was originally written for a 30-minute demo we made for Kickstarter much earlier. Much of the South is constructed from the levels of that demo, and so we did the same thing with the music. 'Petrichor' was a new piece that I added later as the overworld theme. We initially used the tower motif here (Wisdom's Tragedy), but it didn't make sense to have the tower theme playing when the tower only takes up a small part of the overworld. I tried with this piece to create something that had the appropriate amount of desolation to it.

The Gauntlet.

This music is where I really hit my stride as far as figuring out the structure of the music in the game. We had a short timeline to do a vertical slice of the game for a demo presentation, so I had to get to work without hesitation and build it gradually over time. The variations were heavily influenced by constantly cross-referencing with the labyrinthine map of levels that eventually became the mass of the South. The music branches, introduces new elements, and often removes old ones, in an attempt to stay on top of the feeling of each individual level.

The Sentients.

This is essentially the ending of The Gauntlet, split out into a separate track for listening reasons. The first section of The Sentients is the first boss track I wrote for Hyper Light Drifter and ended up seeing a lot of usages. There are 5 significant battles in the South which feature this music. The post-battle music ended up being an excellent title track, as it has a sort of chill, plodding quality that we found inviting. The final sequence is meant to capture the gravity of a significant encounter with a Titan.

The Abyss.

The root of this track was the very first piece written for the game, and remained largely unchanged in its final version, except mainly for the incorporation of the tower theme. It seemed appropriate to include this motif as it is meant to represent the technology, wisdom, hubris and ultimate downfall of the four civilizations. Chimera evolved fairly naturally out of this piece.


The final boss music came together very late in the project. I didn't know what to write, and in fact felt quite intimidated because I knew it had to be climactic and surpass much of the music I had already written. Knowing this, but also knowing I did not have time to be precious and had to write because our time was almost up, I dove in and wrote very loosely, playing a lot with effects to try to create as gnarly a soundscape as I could muster.


I came up with a sequence of ideas at the piano and recorded them in a somewhat lo-fi manner, with a field recorder. The general structure and ideas were there, but the specifics were always a bit blurry, and that allowed me to tinker with the form and the details of the performance over the course of a 10 - 15-minute jam. Afterward, I edited this down into a more listenable form, a six-minute track.

This proved to be a great fit for the ending - because this was an unrelated improvisation the intentions lined up after the fact. The Debussy-ness of the piece, while still inhabiting the game's harmonic sound world seemed a perfect way to close it all out. It's possible I had been motivated by hearnig 'Claire de Lune' in the ending to Ocean's Eleven, but this worked because it was less fanciful and uplifting, and helped create more of a poignant, melancholy feeling.

The Heirloom.

This little ditty was pulled from the intro sequence and seemed like the perfect vignette for the death of the other drifter you encounter throughout the game.

Glitch Influences

It's something a bit different. I think the glitchy-ness at times was largely the result of sonic exploration. I kinda stumbled into those sounds by messing with lots of effects, and I thought it suited some of the more technologically heavy areas of the world. 'Glitch' on FEZ was more a direct response to a very glitchy level.

I usually just sit down and make stuff and after the fact I can look back and maybe comment on what inspired what ... I don't think anything in the game really sounds like it necessarily, but one track I listened to a bit that served as a point of inspiration for boss encounters was 'Sentients' by Fuck Buttons

Translating the Game's Heavy Themes

A lot of the interpretation was done intuitively - Getting to know the creative director Alx and spending personal time with him definitely helped me inhabit a mood ... there is a certain brooding nature to the game, yet it has very vibrant, dynamic qualities too.

Sound Design in the Music

There was definitely an attention to creating a lot of ambiguous sounds falling somewhere on a scale between organic and robotic. The hope was you could get a sense of where a sound fell on that scale without really knowing what it was exactly. I think there's a kind of conflicted quality to a lot of the game, and that definitely includes the musical sound design and theory. I tried to stretch out into new harmonic colors, to find tonalities that amalgamated consonance and dissonance in ways I hadn't written before ... I was definitely inspired in this way by great composers like Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky ... Scriabin's 'Prometheus Chord' even makes an appearance.

I also experimented a lot with creating really wide structures at the piano, trying to create short musical ideas that utilized as many as five octaves of the piano, and that blended major and minor tonalities. The 3-chord main theme is a good example of this ... the last chord has a minor third octave over an augmented triad.

Synths and Plugins

I used a lot of Permut8, a really wild digital delay unit that I'm not even sure I entirely understand but it's a ton of fun to mess with. It was great for filling out the texture of sounds, especially percussive ones.

Synth sounds, I spend a lot of time shaping them to try and give them movement and make them feel alive. With FEZ I kind of set off down a path of trying to make synth sounds more expressive, and in some ways this is a continuation of that. I did use Massive a bit as well as many other synths. I used a lot of noise and tape saturation on this score to give things warmth and texture. I found an Ableton effect I really liked called Erosion and recreated it in Reaktor so I could use it in my DAW of choice, Logic.

On Collaborating with Alx

Alex brought me on right before we announced the Kickstarter. Alex really helped me with music direction, especially towards the end of the project when time was tight and inspiration was at a premium. I had maybe 100 piano sketches that we kept referring to as a foundation of possible ideas. One area that was tough was coming up with a primary theme for the game. I wrote some cool stuff that we didn't end up using, but Alex found a three chord sequence in one of these sketches that ended up being a perfect theme. You can hear it in a few of the Vignettes and in the final boss music (Chimera)

On The Progressive Nature of the North's Music

I think the North always had the most clear sense of traversal and momentum, from a visual and gameplay standpoint. Just the concept of climbing a mountain I think was inspiring from a musical perspective. The East was always difficult and the level structure was constantly changing, and so that sense of momentum isn't really the same there.

On The Most Difficult Music

There is a subtlety to the West music that took a while to nail down. Same for the East. I would write something on the piano that sounded pretty watery to me but it would turn out to be too docile. This also happened a lot for underground areas. I found I had to beef things up and generally make things darker multiple times in order for the music to appropriately gel with the dungeons.

In general, I had to often take big steps back to look at and reassess the structure of large swaths of land, because I was essentially trying to write pieces of music that would evolve and reflect these journeys. The ascent up the mountain in the North is a good example of this, which definitely got written in chunks and had to be re-organized a few times.

On Visualizing New Music

Some of the boss battles in Hyper Light Drifter were things I tapped on the Subway and recorded with my phone. Sometimes it even happens when I'm on the toilet.

The Hardest Challenge

For me it was the clash of my ambition/goals with reality. i had to rejig my vision a few times, and also the pitfall of becoming 'too precious' about the work, aka being unwilling to change or scrap things. When I got over that it made things easier.

diamond elevator reward player for standing still and observing