I gave a microtalk at GDC 2017 as part of a session called 'Composer Confessions'.
I often find the beginning of a project to be the most exciting period. There's a sense that anything is possible, which has often propelled me down many avenues in search of the 'thing'. Along the way, Murphy's Law that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" kicks in, and I rarely end up where I intended. Sometimes projects turn out worse, but often in my experience, they turn out different, or better. During the course of my work on a thing, there tends to be a psychological transition, from an exciting beginning of boundless possibility, to a starker, more responsible reality. You bring an idea out of the ether, and give it life. It gradually frames itself and the edges come into view, and increasingly, the ‘thing’, as I’ve so lovingly called it, solidifies. This process is a necessary part of the work, and it's a part of life too, right? We have little choice but to persist through the unending number of curveballs thrown our way, starting with being born! … And so we do our best to adapt.
The curveballs often take us down paths we would never take... or could have never imagined. They open doors for us that would otherwise remain closed, and they lead us to new conclusions. They change us. In my opinion this malleable process is often necessary to complete a work, regardless of whether we see or believe in it at the time. I find that only in the days that follow, can I truly begin to comprehend its meaning.
When starting work on a new project, I often set off in the first direction that sparks my curiosity. I try to keep the utilitarian needs of a video game in mind, but if I’m staring down a new idea, I seize it as an exciting challenge.
This tendency of mine perpetuates a myth I can’t help but tell myself time and time again... THIS WILL WORK! ...right? Before I know it, I might be neck deep in an esoteric cobweb of systems, or sinking large units of time into something wonderful! … and wonderfully inappropriate. I’m guilty of occasionally forgetting that when working on a project with real-world restraints, my ideas have to be grounded in that same reality.
I spent a few years creating music and sound for a game called ‘Hyper Light Drifter’. During this time I had a dream that I would write long, artfully composed pieces of music. They would move effortlessly from idea to idea, all while evoking the perfect expression every step of the way. I wanted to write these songs at the piano, and notate them completely before even thinking about the electronic production or how they would even be implemented in a video game.
Here I had created a set of goals for myself, which is something I often do during a project ... but this time, they ended up not suiting me or the project at all. First off, I hated using software notation, and I wasted lots of time inefficiently grumbling my way through it. Second, the piano pieces I had written, with all their shifts in tempo, energy and tone, were very hard to translate to an electronic sound.
I underestimated the difficulty of recreating the essence of a performance in a completely different context. I’ve transferred pieces to new instruments before, and thinking this was no different, I took it for granted. Lastly, the compositional style was not nearly agile enough to keep up with contextual changes during gameplay. For example: The player would move into a new area, and start doing a new thing, and the music would be off somewhere else, expressing some other idea.
It seems obvious looking back, but at the time, I thought I could pull it off. The path I had chosen proved to be a long, brambly one with a big dead end sign. It was emotionally tough to put so much time and effort into an unsuccessful direction, and it took a while to pick myself up and set out again.
I only stumbled into the right solution when I was thrown a curveball.
The developer decided to create a demo, and I suddenly needed to write music for a very large vertical slice of the game in a very short period of time. Granted, it was a curveball I was aware of, but due to poor planning, it crept up on me in a way that I think still serves the purpose of this talk. Feeling urgency, I had to forego my agenda and just write something ... Anything! And put it in the game.
This simple process yielded the best results, and changed the trajectory of the project for me. I learned a valuable lesson …
Sometimes I am too precious about my work. I tend to inflate the importance of ideas I've devised before they've proven themselves to work. And sometimes it's hard for me to let go of those expectations and move forward.
Towards the end of Hyper Light Drifter, as the pressure really started to mount and I was struggling creatively, I picked up a mantra ...
Painting with broad strokes has often been counter-intuitive for me. The rabbit hole is my favorite pitfall ... (pun intended). But by prototyping my work in practice, not in a vacuum, and saving detail-oriented decisions for later, I've started to save lots of time.
The curveballs are frequent now. But they are more useful than ever.
The full session also features Austin Wintory (Journey), Mick Gordon (DOOM), Wilbert Roget III (Star Wars), Jason Graves (Dead Space) and Grant Kirkhope (Banjo-Kazooie).