High Scores: How Laura Shigihara Created “Rakuen” and its Soundtrack

Rakuen
Two central characters from the video game Rakuen.
High Scores is a monthly column in which Bandcamp profiles a video game soundtrack composer. In the first installment, Casey Jarman talks to Laura Shigihara about her latest game soundtrack, “Rakuen.”

Laura Shigihara is a classic overachiever. She’s both a musician and game developer whose music has appeared on a far-flung range of soundtracks—from the addictive mobile-turned-platform mega-hit Plants Vs. Zombies to the generation-defining World of Warcraft and the notoriously tear-jerking indie To The Moon.

Perhaps more impressively, Shigihara is a D.I.Y. wiz: she’s a talented multi-instrumentalist who usually self-produces her music, and she’s a bona fide YouTube star with over 100,000 followers and millions of views to her name. The culmination of her talents can be seen in the forthcoming indie adventure game Rakuen, where Shigihara is both the primary force behind the game’s story and development, as well as the artist who created its soundtrack, out this month. We talked over the internet about Mega Man and growing up between Japan and the United States.

 

Did you grow up playing games?

Yes, definitely. My favorite game of all time is Chrono Trigger, but some other favorites are Starcraft, Mega Man 5, Yoshi’s Island, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana. I was pretty crazy about Mega Man when I was a kid: I used to design my own levels on paper, I learned the music on piano—I even dressed up as Mega Man for Halloween in elementary school.

Half of your family is based in Japan, and it sounds like you’ve spent considerable time there. What effect do you think that has had on your musical and gaming taste?

When I was really little in the U.S., boys and girls seemed to be equally interested in Nintendo games. However, beyond a certain age, all but one of my female friends stopped playing, and video games were suddenly considered more of a boy’s activity at my school. In Japan, on the other hand, it was totally different. Everyone played games well into high school, regardless of whether they were a girl or boy. They had a much more diverse selection of games, as well: more story-based games, games about non-traditional things. I think as a result, my taste in games is pretty widespread; I am especially drawn to games with unusual stories or game mechanics.

With music, I’ve noticed that a lot of notable Japanese producers will integrate all sorts of different genres into the same album—or even within the same song. I remember hearing a song that featured traditional Japanese Enka vocals with a backing track that consisted of electric guitar, bossa nova-influenced percussion, and electronic synths. It was such an eclectic mix, and so creatively arranged! Perhaps because I was exposed to this type of music, I’m fond of many genres (as well as the mixing of many types of music within a single song).

What are a few game soundtracks that you really appreciate, that have maybe taught you something about composing music for games?

I feel like I’ve learned a lot about composing game music from the Chrono Cross and Secret of Mana soundtracks, as well as NES Capcom games (the original Mega Man series, some of the old licensed Disney titles, like Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers and DuckTales). I’ve always been impressed by how composers of the NES era were able to create tracks that had a simple and catchy melody, yet a really complex arrangement beneath it. They did so much with so little, in terms of technology, and I think that’s why people are still listening to—and remixing—those soundtracks. Gravity Man’s music from Mega Man 5 does some crazy complex stuff!

Rakuen Skylands
Above, Screenshot of Skyland from Rakuen.
How does it feel to record music for a high-profile project like Plants Vs. Zombies, and know that many of the people playing it will love the music, but never really investigate you or your other work? People might be superfans, in a way, but they might also not know your name!

I guess I’m usually just happy about the idea that I get to play a big part in really cool project. I knew from the beginning that Plants Vs. Zombies was gonna be such a fun and crazy game, and I was super excited for the chance to create music in my own style. So often with these things, you have producers dictating not only the style, but which instruments to use, and which tracks you should emulate. I felt like I could be creative and have fun with it, and to me that’s what mattered. But when someone does go out of their way to look up who composed the music, it makes me feel good!

You worked on both development and music on your new game, Rakuen. Can you tell us a little about the game, and explain what working on multiple elements of the game-making process was like?

Rakuen is a story-based adventure game about a little boy who lives in the hospital. One day, he asks his mother if she will escort him to the fantasy world from his favorite story book, so that he can ask for one wish from the Forest Guardian. In order to receive a wish, the boy must complete challenges that revolve around helping his neighbors in the hospital with their unfinished business. Ultimately, he must interact with their alter-egos in the fantasy world. So there are puzzles, dungeons, and exploration—but there’s also a pretty big emphasis placed on building relationships with other patients in the hospital. Even the “dungeons” are built around each patient’s story. As you solve puzzles and figure out how to escape from rooms, you’re also uncovering mysteries about each patient’s life and empathizing with their struggles. You figure out how to help them in sort of unconventional ways.

I really enjoyed having to wear so many hats on this project. If I experienced a creative block in one area, I could switch to something else until it passed. Often I would be stuck figuring out how to resolve part of the story, so I’d switch to programming. If my eyes got tired looking at code, I’d sit at the piano and compose a theme song for a character. I might switch back and forth between pixel art and designing a puzzle. I think doing so many things helped keep the development process fresh. I feel really lucky to be working with my friend Emmy Toyonaga, who is brilliant and well-rounded. Even though she’s mainly doing character art, she has a great design sense and has given me a lot of great ideas for the story and game mechanics, and we often brainstorm together.

You’re pretty unique in game composition in that you also contribute vocals to some of the music you make. How do you decide when that’s appropriate, and who are some of your influences vocally?

I guess it all depends… Most of the time when I write a lyrical song for a game, it’s for a special event within the game (a cutscene, the ending credits, accomplishing something that yields downtime in gameplay, etc.). Since lyrics capture a certain amount of the player’s attention, I try to be careful to only use lyrical music when it’s complementing the gameplay, and not taking away from it. Sometimes if I want to use lyrical music, but I don’t want it to clash with dialogue that appears on the screen, I’ll write the lyrics in a fake language and make sure the vocals aren’t mixed directly to the front of the track.

I listened to a lot of Johnny Mathis growing up, and I went to one of his concerts with my mom. I was amazed that even at 70-odd years old he had such great pitch-control—he sounded exactly as he did on his recordings. I’m a big fan of vocalists who have good pitch, while also maintaining a sweet sound with a lot of emotion. I’ve always liked Ella Fitzgerald, Amerie, Karen Carpenter, and Crystal Kay. And I really like the use of creative harmonies. One track in particular, “Mysterious Forest” from the Suikoden Celtic Collection remix album, comes to mind: the harmonies are so beautiful! Yoko Kanno also puts together some amazing vocal arrangements.

I wonder how much the games you work on drives the type of music you write. For example: Are the lyrics in Rakuen’s vocal songs directly connected to the gameplay? Did the songs help write the game, or did the game perhaps help write the songs?

The lyrics in Rakuen’s vocal songs are directly connected to the gameplay and story. The whole game was actually inspired by a song I wrote for the Play for Japan album, back in 2011, called “Jump.” Originally, Emmy and I were going to do a simple animated music video for this song. But after seeing some of the concept art she did, I decided it would be really fun to create something bigger and more involved.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, the main character is tasked with helping his neighbors in the hospital. The player ends up helping each neighbor with their unfinished business by interacting with their alter-egos in the fantasy world. So at the end of each segment of gameplay, the player learns a special song with lyrics based around each neighbor’s particular story—and at the very end of the game, all five songs’ individual vocal melodies merge to form a harmony that must be performed in order for the boy to receive his wish. So everything is kind of intertwined.

Rakuen
Morizora’s Grove from video game Rakuen.

So, you were the voice of the Singing Sunflower; you did the Plants vs. Zombies soundtrack, and that game features sunflowers prominently; there’s a sunflower character in Rakuen. What’s with you and sunflowers?!

Haha. Well, when I was really little, my mom used to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to me to help me fall asleep…

There’s one question that you like to ask in your excellent “Girls in the Video Game Industry” series on your own blog: What are your thoughts on being a woman in the gaming industry?

The video game industry is demographically very different from when I was growing up. When I was little, there weren’t as many women playing games, but now there are a ton. I’m always amazed to see what new games my mom has on her phone, or what random questions she’ll call me up about when she’s playing World of Warcraft. (Out of context, her WoW-related voicemails are very amusing: “Laura, I became an herbalist today! I can make you a potion that lets you breathe underwater!”)

In terms of female representation, I still notice a pretty big disparity in fields like programming and sound engineering. However, I think that as women become more interested in playing games, more will become interested in all the various aspects of making them. For the most part, people I’ve encountered in the industry have treated me fairly and have been supportive of what I do. There have been times when I felt like it took a really long time for folks to take me seriously, especially in regards to the technical side of music production. Often, with my songs, people don’t realize that I do the composition, the arrangement, and the production and mastering—not just the singing.

On a lighter note, professional gaming events like GDC are amongst the only places where the line for the men’s room is longer than the line for the women’s! No qualms about that!

Rakuen
Leeble weight lifter from video game Rakuen.

I wonder, do you see game music as a stepping stone towards having a more traditional music career, or do you feel like this arena gives you enough room to grow and develop as an artist without going the more traditional route of releasing full, original albums?

I don’t look at game music as a stepping stone. The game industry is my home and I’ve aspired to be a game composer ever since I was really young. Though, once Rakuen is finished, I do look forward to working exclusively on music for a while. I’d like to release an album of songs I wrote in my spare time. It’ll be refreshing to work on something that doesn’t take me 4 years to finish.

I actually started off with a more traditional music career. In college, music was a hobby of mine, but not something I ever seriously considered. I was studying international relations, business, and computer science. At that time, a friend of mine in Japan submitted songs I made to several record companies over there—without telling me—and I wound up being offered record contracts as a singer at a few major labels there. I turned them down for personal reasons, but after returning to the States, I realized that I wanted to continue with a music-related career. So I decided to try my best to pursue my dream, which was to make music for games.

What are some things you haven’t done yet, artistically and creatively, that you’d like to tackle in the future?

A far-fetched dream is that I’d love to create a song for a Studio Ghibli film. I have an idea for a very ridiculous and silly game about a Renaissance Faire bard who is pushed too far and snaps, going on a rampage with fellow Ren Faire workers. I’d like to learn how to make really good strawberry cream cakes (or those neat looking multi-layer rainbow ones). I used to draw a lot when I was younger—especially comics about inside jokes my friends and I had—so it’d be fun to learn more about art and animation. I’d like to get better at playing the drums. Oh, and do some fun “edutainment” songs about math! I loved Square One when I was a kid!

What’s the least-fun thing about writing and recording game music for a living?

Software going obsolete long before it needs to, which makes upgrading my computer a huge hassle. It takes a while to know your Digital Audio Workstation inside and out, and I would much rather spend my time making music than remapping all my hotkeys, learning about superfluous new features, and finding alternatives to programs that no longer work with updated versions of software.

What advice would you have for young musicians who’d like to write music for games?

Find and develop your style by writing as much music as you can. If you put your heart into everything you do, you’ll always learn something from each project you work on. If there are styles you like, a great exercise is to try and recreate a piece of music you love from scratch… In doing so you’ll learn so much about composition, arranging, effects, etc.

Do what I like to call “the MIDI test.” Try to compose a piece of music using nothing but bare bones samples (like the 128 MIDI soundbank that can be found in your software before plugging in high end VSTs/DXIs). If you can make it sound good using only those things, then you know you’ve done a good job with the composition itself. Of course you don’t have to create everything like this because sometimes you want to start with samples you know you’ll be using… but it’s a nice exercise early on when you’re learning about chord progression and melodic structure, since you aren’t just relying on fancy samples to compensate for generic core compositions.

Pick a game you like, and try to compose alternative themes for that game. Play the game with the sound off in order to test whether or not the music matches the gameplay. Ask yourself questions like, “Does this composition become irritating over time?” “Does it match the flow of gameplay, or distract the player from what they’re doing?” “Is this something I’d like to listen to over and over again?”

Build your portfolio by working on as many projects as you can in order to show that you are experienced, easy to work with, and reliable. I would say the majority of game composition jobs come via word of mouth, because developers really don’t want to work with composers who are flakey or difficult to work with. Many companies opt to use licensed and/or royalty free music, because as long as the music matches and isn’t invasive, they’d rather not deal with potential development bottlenecks. Basically, be a nice person and be responsible. I can’t stress this enough.

Look for projects to work on with developers at game development communities (either online or in person). There are a lot more people nowadays making indie games with smaller teams, and therefore a lot more opportunities for new musicians to work on games (as compared to 15 years ago when everything was going through big companies). There are a lot of great online communities based around indie games, game development software, things like that. If you go there, try not to just advertise yourself, try to become a part of the community—get to know the developers and leave them genuine feedback on their projects, and collaborate when you can.

—Casey Jarman

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