Creating a Truly "Offworld" Experience Through Sound
“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
When creating a game, there are several pieces that need to fall into place in order to make it a complete package. Obviously, the core concept and gameplay elements need to be there. Then there’s the writing, the overall design, the marketing...and, of course, the score. Mohawk Studios was lucky enough to have Grammy Award winning composer Christopher Tin (Baba Yetu, Civilization IV) on board to compose the music for Offworld Trading Company.
I corresponded with Christopher Tin through an email interview and gleaned some insight into his creative process, his involvement with Offworld, and his feelings on possibly moving to Mars (Spoiler Alert: it’s an idea he’s not too keen on!).
“I’m so thrilled to be doing Offworld!” Tin said. “While I love that I’m known as the guy who does international music that combines cultures in peace and harmony, I also want to be known as the guy who can write music for craven capitalistic financial dominance.” This statement was followed by a devious “>: )”, of course, which only served to further endear me to the musician. We proceeded to get into the meat of it all with a really awesome Q&A session:
Q: Let’s start with an easy one! How did you get involved with Offworld Trading Company?
Christopher Tin: Soren (lead designer, President of Mohawk Games) and I actually have a long history. We went to Stanford together, and we were roommates when we both did an Oxford overseas studies program. Our first collaboration was on Civilization IV, for which I wrote the song ‘Baba Yetu’, which is probably best known to gamers as the first video game song to win a Grammy award. Then when Soren co-founded Mohawk Games, he reached out to me to see if I wanted to be involved in their first game. The answer was an enthusiastic yes, obviously.
Q: How has this project differed from others you’ve worked on? How much liberty did you have in what your compositions were?
CT: I think this project was different in that the game was highly playable from the get go, and a good part of me figuring out how to score the game also involved learning how to master playing the game itself. So I would alternate composing, and then listening to the music I had just written while playing the game. That way I could test how the rhythms of my music felt, so to speak, against the rhythms of the gameplay.
Q: When you begin a composition, what are deciding factors for you in determining the overall “feel” of a piece? Where exactly do you like to start?
CT: In the case of a game like Offworld, where there isn’t a central story or protagonist in the traditional sense, you have a bit more freedom to get creative with your inspiration. So in this case, it was the title of the game itself that got my imagination going: “Offworld Trading Company” evoked in my mind the Golden Age of Exploration… think back to the British East India Company or one of those other huge shipping corporations from the Spice Wars of the 16th-century.
The game itself, though, is thoroughly futuristic. So I decided that the right approach would be a blend of these two concepts—both the historical, and the futuristic—and call it a retro-futuristic score. And so the score is almost like a sonic equivalent of a Jules Verne novel. You have historical elements like the orchestra, but blended with elements that are futuristic, like synthesizers… but not too futuristic! More like the analog synth sounds that you heard in the 70s, that nowadays evoke a bit of nostalgia for what we used to think the future was going to be. Again, I wanted to be retro-futurist, not full-on futurist.
Q: How did you discern the tone and overall musical elements for Offworld?
CT: So now that I had this bigger picture concept of retro-futurism, the specific musical elements have to both achieve this idea, but also serve the mechanics of the game. And one of the defining aspects of the game is the stock-prices on the left hand side of the screen; they’re sort of the digital equivalent of one of those turn-of-the-century stock tickers that you hear chattering away in old movies.
Early on, Soren and I agreed that the right type of music for this basic motion is something that was repetitive and pulse based—in my mind it sounded like numbers moving up and down, in a cold and robotic manner. And so that became the defining musical characteristic—a sense of pulse—to evoke capitalism, industry, and exploration.
Q: How long does it take you to compose a single piece?
CT: It varies. In some cases I can write very quickly, but in situations where the music is particularly high profile, I like to revise and revise up until the last minute. Case in point, the main menu title piece 'Red Planet Nocturne' took over thirty attempts before I was able to come up with a melody that I was happy with. However, that's not to say the actual writing itself took that long—I just really wanted to get it right. But Soren had a lot to do with that as well; he's a great director of creative talent, and he knows how to push me to write to the best of my ability. After all, our last collaboration, 'Baba Yetu' from Civilization IV, turned out pretty well!
Q: Are there certain core instrumental sounds that you always start off with and then build out from there?
CT: When you sit at a specific instrument and write, the natural tendency is for your hands to fall into familiar patterns. When sitting at a piano I reach for certain chord progressions, when at a guitar I reach for others, etc. So whenever possible I like to mix it up, to keep the creative process fresh.
Offworld, with its heavy reliance on synthesizers, gave me the opportunity to write in a manner that was totally new to me: by programming the music with computer-based arpeggiators and step-sequencers.
Essentially what that means is I set up a small plugin on my computer to take what I play on the keyboard—a simple chord, for example--and translate it into a user-generated rhythmic and melodic pattern. It's a small thing, but adding that extra little interface adds a little bit of authenticity to the way I'm using my synthesizers (historically speaking, before the advent of computers, electronic music was programmed in this manner), and also keeps me aligned with my retro-futurist concept. I like to think of it as writing music with the help of my own little robotic assistant.
Q: In a lot of your other work, you utilize vocals. Is there a particular reason you opted to stick with pure instrumentals with Offworld?
CT: I love working with vocalists, but in some cases something purely instrumental is more appropriate. In the case of the main menu theme, at one point I considered reaching out to various singers to collaborate on a song, but Soren wanted a feeling of claustrophobia and loneliness on the opening menu, and a fragile piano piece wound up capturing that perfectly. Having a vocalist on the main menu might have injected a bit too much warmth and humanity in the score, when what we really wanted was a sense of coldness. And so the idea of a piano nocturne was born.
Q: Offworld has a really unique tone that really does make it sound otherworldly. Can you talk a bit about the specific sounds and instruments you used to create that?
CT: Soren and I were both on the same page when we decided we wanted something unique sounding for the score, and while there’s nothing inherently strange about the instruments—orchestra, piano, and synthesizers—I took great pains to treat them in unusual manners. The orchestra is actually an unconventional ensemble of 11 brass players and 8 violins, and their parts were deliberately written to be a little bit robotic sounding. I also wasn’t shy about adding pitch-dives and other electronic treatments to them as well. The piano sound itself underwent a lot of processing; there are a lot of reversed notes, for example, and late in the process we added the sound of piano hammer thumps to make it sound like your head was inside the piano itself.
The synth sounds are mostly generated from my modest collection of hardware synthesizers: for all those gear heads out there, I used a Moog Voyager, Moog Minitaur, Prophet 6, Prophet 08, and Access Virus. The final touch was to bring in my friend Jason Schweitzer to mix the score. Jason is a Grammy-winning engineer, probably mostly known for his work with hip hop artists like Eminem and Dr. Dre. He was completely new to the video game world, which was perfect, because he had no preconceived notions on what a game score should or should not be. I gave him a lot of free reign and told him to be as creative as he wanted, and he crafted a lush, swirly, thoroughly Martian soundscape. I think the results are thrilling.
Q: So, I’ve got to ask: if you had a chance to live on Mars, would you take it? What would you hope to see there?
CT: Honestly… it seems very uncomfortable. Very dusty. Hard to breathe. I think I’ll pass.
Q: Are there any other specific details of the score that you want to mention?
CT: There’s one final musical detail that I’m sort of pleased with. I managed to sneak in a quotation of the Largo (slow) movement of Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ in the game. After all, it’s a game about colonizing Mars… so how could I not?
To hear Christopher Tin’s beautiful score, check out Offworld Trading Company today at www.offworldgame.com.
This interview was originally conducted (hah, pun! See what I did there?) in April of 2016.