An Integral Piece
Video games are an art form that combines other art forms. Of course, this includes the composition of music. It’s no question that video game music heightens the experience, evoking emotion and setting the tone for a specific scene. From heroic FPS games like Halo and Call of Duty to action arcade games, even some of the first games we can remember, music has been a part of them all. Importantly, the composition of video game music, like anything, is a process.
For composer Chris Christodoulou it is a process that began years ago, in front of his father’s ZX Spectrum computer. He sat, feeding it cassette tapes, learning the sounds that came out of it. This would serve as a very brief intro to the world of video game music. The crucial moments would come later when his father exchanged the ZX for a PC. During his time gaming on the PC, he would become conscious of the process of making music for video games and the composers behind it.
Of course, Christodoulou would go on to compose music for games like Risk of Rain and its sequel. He has his own ideas on the importance of composition in video games, as well as the philosophies that accompany these ideas. Of course, these concepts reflect in his work and his process as he composes music for games. This is how he began and continues his journey of translating theory into practice.
Making Music: Film to Video Games
Despite his role now as a video game composer, this isn’t the first stop on Christodoulou’s composition journey. After attending a music school in Athens, he went to Amsterdam. It was here, at the Conservatory of Amsterdam, that he studied for a masters in Composing for Film. Looking back on his time working with films there is a clear distinction between composing for a film and composing for video games.
He explains, in an audio interview, “It is a different discipline I would say. There are definitely commonalities… But I would say it is a very different methodical approach.”
Having composed for a few films, before moving to the video game realm, the differences in practice are very apparent to Christodoulou. He delves into the process differences between both mediums, and what stands out to him about composing for video games.
“The biggest difference is time. In a movie, animated project, or whatever, you have a scene that has a very, very, specific time frame. You have this second, this frame, and then it ends at this particular second or frame. So, you need to score accurately. In games you don’t really know how long, with the exception of cutscenes, you don’t know how the player will interact with the game.”
Everyone is a different type of gamer. Christodoulou explains that when composing for games, one can’t know how long the player will be interacting with a particular piece of music. A narrative-driven game will need different lengths of music than an arcade survival shooter for instance.
“When I write a piece of music for a video game, I write something that is very structured, almost like a song. But when you write for film, you may be writing something that builds up to the previous cue or has a specific emotional impact… Additionally, I should say, that maybe games is a little more collaborative as far as the creative process.”
The Sea Will Claim Everything
Christodoulou did begin composing for video games after his film endeavors. His first game was not some high-octane action-adventure. It was a point-and-click journey known as The Sea Will Claim Everything that released back in 2012. Developed and published by Jonas Kyratzes, the game invites players into a surreal adventure into the Fortunate Isles.
Of course, Christodoulou composed the music for the game. It became a very important project to him and he elaborates on his experience working on the game and alongside Kyratzes.
“It was a very important project to me for several reasons,” he says, “One of the reasons is that I’m still very good friends with Jonas, and we are still doing projects together. I love the game that we did. It still has some of my favorite pieces even if they don’t sound particularly well, because I wasn’t the best at mixing and using samples yet.”
The original soundtrack for the game captures the feeling of a high-seas adventure, sprinkled with a little mystery. Though Christodoulou speaks on the mixing unfavorably, the work he did on the game was still a special, if not informal, foray into video game composition.
“We were all very indie, we didn’t do any formal stuff. But it was interesting to me to find out the different freedoms, or limitations, I might have had in the world of film. Yet, it’s something I look at now and I’m kind of in awe of how fast we did it.”
The game has around 45 minutes of music, all composed by Christodoulou. He mentions that the work he and Kyratzes did on the game gave him a chance to practice his video game composition skills. Things like looping, cross-fades, alternate versions, and more. All of these concepts will reappear in his later work, the lauded roguelike games Risk of Rain 1 and 2.
An Unbreakable Pair: Composing Risk of Rain
Both Risk of Rain games are quite famous in the roguelike genre. The gameplay is addictive, full of interesting characters to play as, enemies to battle and lore to figure out. Yet, another extremely beloved aspect of the games is their soundtrack. It is in the discussion around Risk of Rain 1 and 2 that Christodoulou discusses his philosophies around music and video games, as well as his approach to composition and gameplay.
“For the first game, I wrote three pieces that would sort of establish the musical atmosphere,” says Christodoulou reflecting on his first work with Hopoo Games and Risk of Rain 1, “It was mostly about establishing this mysterious, sci-fi, atmosphere and I didn’t know how or when we were going to use it.”
Of course, this establishment of a musical palette in the first game would be the building blocks for Risk of Rain 2 and its DLC survivors of the Void. Yet, it was in the development of the first game’s soundtrack that the sounds of Risk of Rain were developed. The levels come alive with the music, and none of the songs were paired with any level purposely.
“Especially for the first game, there is no music that I’ve written for any particular level.” He says, explaining the only exception is the main menu theme, “Even ‘Coalescence’ which was sort of the breakout piece of Risk of Rain One was not written as any sort of finale.”
Yet, it was after Risk of Rain 1 that he began thinking of musical and visual media pairings. It was then he came to a realization. Specifically a realization about the philosophy of music composition for video games.
Christodoulou explains, “That a particular piece perfectly fits a particular vibe, this idea isn’t true… It’s not really that the music fits this thing, this level, this thing I’m watching. No, it’s that these two (the music and visual media) are an unbreakable pair. The music is there, because it is exactly where it is supposed to be.”
To Christodoulou, the music and the video game are one and the same. In his words, they are an unbreakable dialectical process. Importantly, this is the same sort of thought process that he brings to Risk of Rain 2. Players will not be able to separate the music from a specific level because it is now in constant association with that one level. At least to Christodoulou, conscious choices can be made to pair one piece of music with a particular level or scene, but once you do then it is a bond that cannot be broken.
“In the second game there are a lot more conscious choices. But I still think it is a process that happens in our brains: if this song is in this level it just makes sense.”
Going Forward: What’s Next
Part of Christodoulou’s process is forming mental notes, listening to some new albums, and finding sounds he likes. Of course, this is an essential part of any composer’s skillset. Yet, it stays important as he moves on to new projects and even as he reflects on old ones.
Currently, he is hunting something different. He has no interest in another action roguelike game. He says that he is always ready to do work with Hopoo on Risk of Rain. However, he wants to pursue new avenues. His dream is to work on the next Hitman game. Yet, he also explains that he is always ready to work on a “Lovecraftian, turn-based, strategy game.”
He has no desire to be pigeonholed into one genre. He explains that “if you’re working on the next roguelike, Risk of Rain style game, don’t bother please. You would be surprised on how many of those games I get emails about. I am really not interested. If I need to do it, I’ll do it for the next Risk of Rain.”
Now, Christodoulou is working with Kyratzes on a new audio drama in a similar vein to their earlier project called Gospels of the Flood. This new drama will be similar. Yet, where Gospels of the Flood was simply an actor and Christodoulou’s sound design this project will be larger. It will center around noir cosmic horror.