High Scores: Alec Holowka on “Night in the Woods”

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods is one of the most affecting, mature, and enthralling indie games in recent years—and it’s not often you can say that about a game loaded with adorable cartoon animals. But the animals that populate the fictional town of Possum Springs are restless, punk rock critters, caught in the liminal space between teenage rebellion and adulthood. They smoke cigarettes and play in bands and fight with their parents and hate authority, but they also contemplate sexuality, life, and death.

The music that accompanies their adventures—penned by Canadian composer and musician Alec Holowka, who also co-created the game—is perfectly moody and wide-eyed. It ranges from groovy David Lynchian elevator jazz to sparkling ambience and intense baroque electronica, and it’s completely indispensable in setting the mood for a game that feels very much like a magical universe unto itself. The three-volume soundtrack isn’t Holowka’s only impressive work (see TowerFall: Ascension, another brilliant collection from an equally brilliant game), and one gets the distinct feeling that the young artist is only in the early stages of a very impressive career as both a musician and a game designer. We spoke to him via email.

Night in the Woods

Where are you from originally?

I’m from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It’s in the dead center of the continent, horizontally speaking. It’s a small town that thinks it’s a big city.

What were some of your first favorite games and favorite musicians and artists?

My first and greatest video game love will always be Final Fantasy VI. I rented it—as Final Fantasy III—from the local video store when I was a kid, without really having any idea what it was about. The U.S. box art didn’t explain or show off the game very well. But once I experienced that intro sequence, with the three Magitek walking through the snow to Nobuo Uematsu’s music, I was hooked.

Music-wise, I grew up with Sondheim, The Talking Heads, Loreena McKennitt, and of course a lot of SNES game music.

I’ve always thought making music and programming seemed like jobs that were sort of at odds with each other. Do you see more similarities or differences between them, and how do you balance the two? Do they complement each other?

I think there’s a bit of a link mathematically, but they’re maybe more different than they are similar. I like doing both because of the differences. Music is just way more immediately expressive, at least with today’s technology. Like, I can just play something on this MIDI keyboard, and very quickly I can evoke some kind of emotion. But doing that with code or gameplay takes a lot longer. There are a lot more steps involved in building systems and getting content into the game, before you can really express an emotion.

However, the process of building a game is becoming a bit easier and more immediate with tools like Unity. So who knows what it’ll be like five or 10 years from now. It might be a bit more like playing an instrument.

Night in the Woods

Was, or is, performing live music a part of your life at any point?

In junior high and high school, band class was a big deal for me. My band teacher, Jeff Kula, was a huge influence on me—mainly on my work ethic because he’d do a great job of whipping everyone into shape and getting everyone on board with the crazy pieces we’d be performing. He had us premiering band versions of modern compositions that were very experimental, some not even using traditional music notation, etc. And I was playing second tuba, which is a totally boring role. But somehow, he inspired me to stay invested for six years.

I also wrote musicals with my family as part of a yearly local amateur dinner theatre thing in Winnipeg. My dad would write the scripts, my mom would direct, I’d write the music and play piano accompaniment. My brother and sister would act in them, along with a bunch of other people. It became like a weird family dynamic with the whole group, which happened to be very diverse age-wise—in some cases from age nine to 90.

I’ve always wanted to be in a small indie band or something. Maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to perform some of my game music live with a couple of other musicians, that’d be a dream come true for me!

TowerFall is one of my all-time favorite games. Can you talk a little about the evolution of that game and of your involvement with it? How did you first get on board?

I actually lived with the developer of TowerFall, Matt Thorson, and a few other game developers in a house in Vancouver, B.C. for a while, so that’s kind of how I got involved. We were just all living together and jamming on various projects. There’d be house parties where TowerFall would be played, and I’d hear the music loop and see how people reacted to it—so if anything sounded annoying, we’d pick up on it pretty fast.

The music from that game is so intertwined with the levels in my head, it’s kind of hard to know where the design stops and music begins. How does that happen?

I was more like a contract musician on that one. The game design was all Matt. I tried to capture something of the character of the levels and the sense of battling your friends in the music. Hopefully, each level sounds different enough from the next, but there are a couple of internal rules that I came up with to try to keep things sounding consistent. For example, there’s a series of three notes that I tried to put into most tracks. It’s, of course, a downward moving segment, and I can imagine someone singing ‘To-wer-Faaaaalll’ along to it.

Did you set out to make the TowerFall Dark World music with certain limitations in mind? It’s not chip music, but there’s a certain lo-fi quality to it, even with the complex orchestral compositions and cool baroque elements in the arrangements.

I was mainly going off the art style. The early prototypes had art that Matt made himself, so for a while, I wasn’t really sure how to style the music. But once the final gothic pixel art came in, I was like, ‘Okay, I see where this is going. I can go full-out Nightwish on this one.’

All of that leads me to ask: Is there a single mantra or default ruleset you live by when composing music—is there anything you try to always remind yourself of?

I think I’m pretty big on consistency, like carrying themes over between tracks, making sure there’s a set of instruments that I can reuse for certain characters or locations. That said, it’s important to have enough variety, as well.

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Night In the Woods is such an achievement—moody but funny; sentimental but subversive; witty but not afraid to be dumb; human, but full of furry animals—and because you worked on both the music and the game itself, the first thing I want to know is: How much of your life does this game represent!? And, alternately, how much of your personality does it represent?

Night in the Woods was written by Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, and much of the game’s events are inspired by real events in their lives. I actually visited Scott in Pittsburgh to work on the game, and as part of the trip, he took me on a tour of various locations in Pennsylvania where he’d lived. On that tour, he pointed out some very specific places that inspired moments in the game. I was kind of impressed with how one-to-one some of the moments were.

That said, the game’s story and atmosphere definitely resonates with my personality and life experience as well. Growing up and living in Winnipeg has some similarities to Possum Springs, I believe. There’s a scene in the game where Mae gets drunk and ruins a party that I can definitely relate to. Some people find it hard to relate to Mae, but I find it incredibly easy!

The Lost Constellation mini-game was the first thing most players saw, in terms of Night In the Woods. What kind of influences did you have in putting those songs together?

Lost Constellation’s music was influenced by growing up in a city with a long winter, and all the traditions and magic that come along with that.

There are some songs on Woods that are interactive, sort of Rock Band or Parappa-style, that you co-wrote with your collaborator Scott Benson, right? There’s a punk rock feel to those tunes: Did those involve a totally different approach than something you’d normally make?

Yeah! Actually, Scott’s influenced pushed the whole soundtrack in different directions. You’d think that working without a boss would be hard, but since I was collaborating with Scott on every aspect of the game, it actually worked out pretty well. Most of that is down to Scott being great to work with, in terms of feedback and references. He’d have something in mind for most areas or moments of the game already. And his references were never generic and rarely references to other video game music. They’d be very specific, like, ‘Hey, check this one song at this specific timecode, just what this one instrument is doing.’ But he was also very open to me doing my own thing when I felt inspired, so it never felt restrictive.

I wonder—after having some success in the indie games world and making games that are sort of radical in their humanity—do you have any aspirations of working on big-budget games?

I have zero interest in working on big-budget games, weirdly enough. My brother [Ian Holowka] and sister-in-law [Katie De Sousa] work in the mainstream games industry, and they do some really cool stuff. They’ve worked on League of Legends in L.A., and are now working on Dauntless in Vancouver. We’ve talked a bit about the differences, but I think it comes down to what each person is comfortable with. When I was a kid and early teen, I was really interested in working on AAA games [a term for big-budget games—ed.] and levels of promotion, but that’s also because I wasn’t aware of any alternative that could actually be financially stable while also exploring emotional depths.

Which leads me to my last question, which I always ask. If you could make a new soundtrack for any existing game—not because the current one is bad, but because you’d like the challenge or think it would be fun to work on—what game would you pick?

Oh man, the first thing that jumped to mind was Final Fantasy VI. It’s already 100 percent perfect, so it would be the most incredible challenge to try to do something different with it. It breaks my brain to even imagine how it could sound like anything else! It would be super fun to play around in that world, but also the most intimidating thing ever. A more realistic answer is maybe a game in the Legacy of Kain series, just because it would be fun to go all-out gothic action.

Casey Jarman 

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