In "The Process", I'll be sharing my approach, thoughts, and resources related to writing game music. This is a new series that I'll be publishing at least once a month!
Today, I'd like to give the spotlight to a very cool upcoming indie game that I've recently had the pleasure of writing some music for. This game is Lawmage Academy - a magic school adventure JRPG, and to be perfectly honest, I've been waiting for a game like this to be developed since forever! I'm so excited for it! You can keep up with development of the game on Twitter or Instagram.
Today I'm going to share some of my insights on composing the "Game Over" track (Ironic considering this is the first entry in "The Process" right?). JRPGs and anime have a very peculiar way of communicating the grief of a "game over" screen - let's dive into it!
Step By Step
From the get go, I have a general idea of what I'm going for in terms of arrangement: A small but lush orchestration with a piano supporting the melody. For these kinds of tracks, I like to start off with some simple piano chords and an outline of a melody. The sparse glockenspiel notes retain some of the "magic" feeling since this is a magic school game, after all!
At around 7 seconds in, we have a chord that I like to call the "wistful chord". Without delving too deep into theory, it's a chord that seems to pop up a lot in Japanese games/anime to convey a feeling of bittersweet impermanence (more on this later!). Perhaps it's because this chord often only functions as a transition between two other chords.
With the piano laid down as the basis for the track, I add in the strings, starting with the violins taking the lead. The strings are extremely important in the ending part of the track - ending on a gentle high note (and a shift to major key) to signify that death is not necessarily the end.
Finally, I add in the woodwinds and brass instruments. I initially expected the winds to play more of a background part, but I couldn't resist using the flute and piccolo to really carry that "magic" feeling. The brass instruments are very subdued here - I wanted to grab just a little bit of a brass funeral music feeling, but keep the focus on the woodwinds and strings.
Sadness vs. 切ない
Rather than play it straight and go for a full-on gloomy/depressing feeling, I wanted to tap into the essence of bittersweet - placing the focus less on the death of the player character, and more on the feeling of perhaps failing to achieve your important goals/dreams.
Since this is a magic school game, this theme works out - and while I can't think of an eloquent way to phrase this concept in English, I think that a roughly close approximation would be the Japanese word "切ない" - a sort of wistful, heart-wrenching sense of impermanence and lost brightness. This blog by Nina Coomes is a pretty insightful deliberation on the concept.
The brevity of game over themes are what make them both easy and hard to write - you have to tell a story and evoke strong feelings in a short amount of time. In this case, knowing the game's target audience (JRPG/anime fans) and understanding what feelings come with a "game over" in this kind of game definitely helped keep my ideas together!
About The Author
Darrell “Dibur” Reconose is a professional composer and sound designer with a fascination for engaging storytelling. He has composed music for award-winning indie games, and is passionate about sharing his love and knowledge of both audio and storytelling with the game development community. Feel free to get in touch for work inquiries or general game audio questions!