High Scores: Disasterpeace’s Horror Soundtracks and Chiptune Masterworks

A still from the game "Hyper Light Drifter"

A still from the game “Hyper Light Drifter.”

High Scores is a monthly column in which Bandcamp profiles a video game soundtrack composer. In the second installment, Casey Jarman talks to Rich Vreeland about his expansive career as Disasterpeace.

Rich Vreeland, who composes and releases music under the moniker Disasterpeace, may just be the most beloved game music composer of his generation. He’s also one of the most prolific: the sheer breadth of game projects that Vreeland has worked on is astounding—everything from small, self-contained mobile games to some of the most ambitious projects of the last decade, Fez and Hyper Light Drifter. He’s perhaps best known, outside of gaming circles, for his intense and inventive soundtrack to the 2014 indie horror hit It Follows.

A still from It Follows

We spoke to Vreeland via telephone about his work in games and beyond. He was in his car—in the midst of moving from the Bay Area to Los Angeles for a new project with Heart Machine, the developers of Hyper Light Drifter—and I was sitting in the San Francisco airport. Listening back, the interview tape is loaded with indefinable ambient noises from both ends of the conversation. It seems fitting.

Did you grow up having rock star dreams?

Not really. I was going to school for graphic design—that was probably my first passion. I spent most of my teenage years doing design stuff. I grew up in a musical family, but I got into music late. I didn’t really start playing a musical instrument until high school, when I picked up a guitar. Over the next couple of years I got pretty heavy into rock stuff: prog rock, metal—listening to a lot of Tool and Rage Against the Machine. I wanted to get my ideas out quickly, so I was using guitar tablature software just to get stuff down. I struggled a lot with recording, struggled with getting a good sound out of my guitar and getting a good band-type sound.

Around the same time I was also discovering that there were people doing video game remixes. That was interesting to me. And through those online communities, I stumbled into people who were making original 8-bit music. A lot of them were using the original hardware to do it. That just blew my mind when I discovered it, probably about 10 years ago.

I started fucking around with those sounds. Not with the hardware, but with simple sounds. I was using GarageBand. I found a sound that I liked, and I realized that these were tools where I could get my ideas down really quickly, and then move on to a new idea. Because I grew up in a musical household and didn’t start really making music until I was older, I had a creative backlog of ideas. So when I finally started writing stuff, I had a ton of ideas that I was trying to get out.

Were you just using one or two tools at that point?

Yeah, in the early days, I was using guitar tablature software editor called TablEdit, so I could import MIDI files into GarageBand. And then there was a synth that came with GarageBand, I think it was called Simple Synth or something. It was really simple—a very basic synthesizer where you could pick a square-wave or a sawtooth, and there was one filter and a pretty basic envelope, and that was it. I used it a lot. I’d combine it with an acoustic drum sample, and that was three or four albums worth of music. The Chronicles of Jammage the Jam Mage, Atebite and the Warring Nations, Neutralite and Level, those are pretty much just one or two synths in GarageBand and acoustic drum samples.

And that was enough to get you noticed and make you an active member of that community?

Yea. There were a few different communities, I’d say. There were people who frequented web forums like The Shizz, which is run by this band Minibosses—a lot of really talented musicians hung out there, some of whom I went on to work with in the future, and some of whom still work in games and are doing really good work. I met my friend Eirik Suhrke, who goes by Phlogiston, there. We went on to start a net label called Pause, and we ran that for maybe six years. Eirik went on to score a bunch of games, like Spelunky, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, and Downwell, which has done really well.

So these musicians who were inspired by games and game music eventually moved the forefront of composing and recording game music. That’s similar to what happened with New Wave Cinema in France in the ’60s, when critics became auteurs. How did that transition happen in the game music community? How did it happen for you?

My understanding of it was that there were these segmented communities getting into independent game development at around the same time. Indie game development has been a thing for as long as games have been a thing, but at that point—nine or 10 years ago—some of the indie developers became more well-established. The same thing was happening with the chip music community, which was something that I sort of stumbled into. I wasn’t really a part of it, per se, I just knew some people who did that kind of music, and in my quest to learn more about it, I started going to shows. I learned that there was a pretty substantial community in New York. There were only a couple of websites at that point that hosted these music communities—there was a site called 8Bitcollective, where people would upload their music and get feedback. I met a lot of people through that site.

Rich Vreeland

Rich Vreeland. Photograph by Marylene Mey.

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled into the independent game community. I got a couple of gigs doing music for mobile game projects, before smartphones. They didn’t lead to any more work, but they did inspire me to want to work on games. When I first went to Berklee College of Music we had a club called the Video Game Music Club, and we would meet up once a week and talk about music and games, and about events happening in Boston, which is where I lived. I found about the Game Developer’s Conference, which I went to while I was in college, and I think that’s where I found out about TIGSource, which was a really important independent game website. A lot of the people who made really important games were frequenters of that community: the people behind Minecraft, Fez, Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, etcetera.

So those two communities—indie game makers and chip musicians—just collided at some point.

Yeah, they just had so much in common. A lot of people who were just interested in chip music as an art form—a lot of those people wound up working on games. It’s a really good marriage. It just makes sense. I enjoyed working on games, so I sought it out. But at some point, they started to seek me out. I was doing live chip shows, and game developers would come to shows, and they’d find me that way.

It sounds like Fez was a pretty epic undertaking, both for the developers and for you.

It was definitely the turning point of my career. It wasn’t particularly difficult for me, actually. It was the perfect project at the perfect time. A lot of times, when you work for hire, you’re trying to mold yourself to fit the needs of someone else’s project. But for Fez, I didn’t have to do that at all. I haven’t had to look for work since then, and that was like five years ago.

Were you playing different builds of the project as it was coming along?

Yeah, I like to be involved with the implementation. For a lot of projects, they’ll use some software called version control, where a lot of people can work on the project at the same time—check out files, change files, and commit them to a central server, basically. On Fez, I was a part of that. I could edit levels, edit how the music worked. A programmer made a music tool for me that helped me to do certain things, like design a bit of music that had certain behaviors: It would change with the weather, or change with your altitude—things like that.

Did you have a feel for how special a game that was, and what kind of life it was going to take on once it was out?

I definitely try to work on projects that I think have a lot of value and are interesting, and I think will be successful to some extent. With Fez, I was excited for it because I knew about it before I even worked on it. It was a really easy decision for me. So it’s hard to say: the more I work on something, the more I get a feel for how well-received it’s going to be. But by the same token, the landscape is always changing. When we made Fez, there was less competition in indie games. Now, there are a lot of games coming out all the time. So it can be hard to predict.

A still from "It Follows"

Can you tell me a little about the difference between soundtracking a game and soundtracking something like It Follows?

Games are different because you have a much larger possibility for how the music behaves, and how the music is tied to the game. The form is broader. You can do a lot of stuff with a film, but at the end of the day, you record one thing, and it’s pretty much linear. With games, you can do all kinds of stuff: You can write a score that’s completely non-linear, that branches depending on the context. You can make the entire score procedurally generated. You can tie the score to different in-game objects. There’s just a lot of variety there. In a certain way, there’s an intellectual challenge to it that’s unique. Film provides you with an intellectual challenge, but it’s a little more straightforward.

Is that challenge daunting, after you’ve worked on both games and film? Is it appealing to do something more linear?

Every project is so different. I’m like a leaf on the wind. I feel different every single day—not just emotionally, but what I’m interested in is always changing. It’s nice to mix it up, and that’s what I try to do. After I released Hyper Light Drifter, which is a project I worked on for a long time, and was an emotionally taxing project to work on, I basically haven’t written any music. I’ve just been focusing on other things. I have two projects in the works right now, but I’ve been more of a facilitator—doing coding and implementation. So I don’t think I could quantify it in a concrete or permanent way.

A still from "Hyper Light Drifter"

What was emotionally taxing about Hyper Light Drifter?

It was certainly a lot of work, but the game was always changing for three years. I didn’t really feel like I had a grasp of the game until the end. It was just a really long journey. Being on the same project for three years is difficult for someone like me, where I feel like my taste and my interests are always changing. By the end, I was reaching back into the past to try and channel how I used to feel, because I think I’d already kind of moved on from it. But I couldn’t quit. I had to finish it.

You talked about all the different possibilities of making music for games. Does that make the final soundtrack project kind of a lie, in a way? You’re winnowing all those possibilities to make this one document?

It’s an interesting process. Depending on the game, it can be really simple or really complicated. For example, I composed a game called Mini Metro last year, and that soundtrack is almost entirely procedurally generated. So it’s the farthest thing from straightforward to make that into a soundtrack. There are no recordings to pull from. It’s all samples—it’s all individual notes. So we talked about, ‘Should we make a listening app that runs the music system under the hood,’ or ‘Should we record gameplay?’ A part of me doesn’t want a game like that to be translated into a static item, it’s just so diametrically opposed to what the music is. That’s why we haven’t released a Mini Metro soundtrack, because we have to figure out how to do that.

With a game like Hyper Light Drifter, it’s a little more straightforward—it’s all loops. The loops are layered, and different things happen contextually as you move through the game-world. So on some level, I had to stitch those together. Things don’t happen once or twice or whatever—it’s however long you stay in an area. The music is tied to your interaction. That has a certain flow to it when you’re playing, and I tried to capture that by roughly mimicking the length of things. If you play through the final boss battle, and you win, how long would that take? Building the soundtrack was kind of like trying to recreate that experience for the player, even though they’re listening to it passively. You have to build out some song structure and find a track order, and then you have to get it all mastered.

disasterpeace-hyperlight-600-3

In working on something like Fez, did you spend much time thinking about the idea that this would be an album someday, and that people would enjoy it as an album?

No, not at all. My focus was on the game. When people tell me, ‘Oh, the music is the best part of the game,’ or ‘I play the game for the soundtrack,’ I know that they’re trying to pay me a compliment, but I actually find it a little insulting, because they’re complimenting my work but criticizing my taste at the same time.

Do you have an idea of who your fanbase is, because you’ve worked on so many kinds of projects?

It’s a little all over the place. Some of my audience is definitely gamers. A lot of creatives, actually. A lot of people in creative field—artists, people who work in film and games. That’s been a really great thing for me, because those are people who might offer me work in the future, or people I might collaborate with. And then there are horror enthusiasts, because of It Follows. I think I might be going to some kind of Horror convention this year. And it’s funny, because I’ve never been into horror before. It’s fun interacting with people on that wavelength—they ask me these really sort of nerdy horror questions, and I don’t know anything about horror, really. I just went with my gut.

People project a whole lot onto music, and they project a whole lot onto what I do. There are a lot of people who call It Follows a chiptune soundtrack, which I think is just hilarious. It’s strange to me that they would think that. But maybe there’s a thread in my work that harkens back to working with a really small set of limitations—that’s one of the defining characteristics of chip music, that it’s limited to a certain number of channels. I’ve kept that a little bit, but when I sat down to do the It Follows soundtrack, chiptune was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m not picking up on that at all. Some people thought it was so ’80s, and I don’t hear that at all. So everyone  hears things in their own way, and everyone likes to categorize music and figure out how it relates to them. And that’s fine—it’s just a funny experience to have people constantly telling you what your music is. To be fair, it doesn’t really belong to me anymore. Once I make it, it’s just out there and all those critiques are fair. To the old guy at NPR, It Follows is cheesy organ music, and to someone else it’s a John Carpenter ’80s thing. What are you gonna do?

I’ve asked everyone this, with this column, so I’ll end with it: Is there a classic game that you’d like to go back and rework the soundtrack to?

It’d be fun to try to create a dynamic music system for an old sports game, something like NHL ’94 for Sega Genesis or something. It’d be fun to try to come up with a system that reads into the various contexts of a game of hockey (ahead a goal, behind a goal, penalties, time running down, etc.) and try to create a musical narrative for it.

Casey Jarman

5 Comments

  1. Posted October 26, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Ever since way back when Rich released a few albums on the “Pause Music” netlabel, his work always stood out to me as a cut above the rest (which says a lot). My favorite album of his is still “Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar.”

  2. Posted October 27, 2016 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    I love these works… Disasterpeace is awesome in many ways!

  3. Posted October 27, 2016 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar definitely is the best album

  4. Kevin S.
    Posted October 27, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    “When people tell me, ‘Oh, the music is the best part of the game,’ or ‘I play the game for the soundtrack,’ I know that they’re trying to pay me a compliment, but I actually find it a little insulting, because they’re complimenting my work but criticizing my taste at the same time.”

    …I bought Fez because of the game and discovered Disasterpeace. I bought Hyper Light Drifter because of Disasterpeace, knowing that the game would be quality to match. And it was. It’s not so much that ‘the music is the best part of the game’ as that it’s an inseparable piece of the whole game experience. Still, the music stands alone, especially in the case of Fez.

  5. Trace Reddell
    Posted October 28, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Fez is amazing. Hyper Light Drifter is incredible. Buy my fave is still Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar! Space/prog/chip rock! AWESOME!

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