When it comes to video games, Spencer Doran describes himself as an “outsider.” The musician, curator, and one-half of acclaimed electronic duo Visible Cloaks didn’t play them growing up nor does he own a modern console. It’s a notable admission from Doran, who has composed and audio-directed one of 2023’s best reviewed games, Season: A Letter To The Future. Indeed, rather than immersing himself in games for inspiration, Doran instead looked to the world of acoustic ecology. The likes of R. Murray Schafer and Hildegard Westerkamp, practitioners whose influential work is closely associated with space and the environment, helped him focus on the “act of listening,” he explains over an hour-long Zoom call, “the sort of details that give the feeling of reality and of place.”
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It should come as little surprise, then, that Season: A Letter To The Future sounds like few other video games (although fans of Doran’s previous output will feel at home with its typically artful compositions). Warbling woodwinds, plaintive piano, and chiming vibraphones accompany the player as they explore a picturesque valley on the cusp of an unnamed cataclysm. However, in contrast to most games, Doran’s score bleeds into the environment itself to the point where diegetic and non-diegetic elements become essentially indistinguishable. Sometimes this occurs through instruments found within the game world (an organ that sits atop a teetering cliff, for example); at others, it is through the sound of nature itself (“In-game wind that is pitched to double the melodic lines of the score,” explains Doran). The magic is in how enveloping the audio feels, the way it delivers so expressively on the medium’s dimensional possibilities.
“The way I thought about the overall experience of the game was through the lens of it being a giant composition,” Doran says. It was recorded entirely in ”the key of C,” he laughs, an approach also used on Visible Cloaks’ 2017 album, Reassemblage (written in F#, he reveals). “It becomes really easy to collage all of your material when you’re working like that,” Doran continues. “Elements that you’re doing for one piece, you might be like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t really fit here, let’s try it over on this piece.’ You can really shuffle the deck, so to speak. It goes back to the aleatoric dimension of how I approach this stuff.”
It’s not just Doran shuffling the musical deck—so does the player. They do so in various ways: walking and cycling about the painterly, Studio Ghibli–inspired environments, thus causing Doran’s delicate soundscape to change dynamically; more explicitly, by pulling out a microphone to record whatever sound has caught their attention—perhaps birdsong or a waterfall. Doran helped design such moments, drawing on his own experiences of field recording (some of which have made it into the game). “It’s very different to you just sitting there and listening to it,” he says. “You’re hearing the specific direction that the microphone is pointing in. It magnifies things that are closer to you, and then also filters out other stuff. We did a lot of iteration to make it feel not only realistic, but also just nice to experience.”
Season: A Letter To The Future OST gives a tangible form to other ideas that have long featured in Doran’s music. The game’s visual aesthetic and the way its setting is an amalgamation of global cultures resonates with Jon Hassell’s “fourth world music” that Doran has previously spoken about (not uncritically it should be noted). So too are there similarities between composing music for virtual spaces and physical ones, the latter of which, in its guise as as “environmental music” in Japan, Doran has played a key role in reviving (the compilation he curated, Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019). That said, the composer is keen to make a distinction between the influence he draws from the “the conceptual apparatus” of such ambient music (some of which explicitly built on R. Murray Schafer’s idea of the “soundscape,” he says) and its “musical content.”
Such ideas were marinating in Doran’s mind just before he started work on the game. He had a tour lined up with Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano whom he had collaborated with on the album Serenitatem, including a show at The Barbican in London. Moreover, he had been commissioned to recompose the music for the Spiral building in Tokyo alongside Ojima (who produced the original building music in 1988, a classic of Japanese environmental music) as well as another environmental design project with Liz Harris (i.e. Grouper) back in his hometown of Portland. Doran was wholly in the spatial music zone before the pandemic completely scuppered such public projects. Like so many others, Doran swapped the real for the virtual.
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If the concept of artifice is central to Visible Cloaks’s uncanny synthesizer music (Doran has spoken of the “psychedelic effect” of using “hyper-realistic music software”), then the game soundtrack ironically softens such concerns. Despite being made entirely “in the box” without a single “real” instrument, it’s a more organic, perhaps even human work that stretches Doran’s idiosyncratic style in new directions: the close-harmonized organ melodies of “The Road Out of Caro,” and the wispy jazz of “We all rested together until it got dark…” the latter featuring just a hint of pedal steel guitar. On “Ascending to the Shrine,” Doran’s music has scarcely been prettier, its music-box melodies gliding atop the gentlest of shuffling drum beats.
The soundtrack as it’s been collected for RVNG Intl. is an opportunity to peek into Doran’s head, to hear how he conceives of this “acoustic ecology” he has created from scratch. Another version of the soundtrack exists on Steam which Doran describes as just about “everything” he composed for the game albeit in a more “static” form. The RVNG Intl. version, by contrast, recreates “the experience of actually moving around the environments,” Doran says, “closer to what I think the ‘final’ composition of the pieces are.”
He uses “Caro Village” to illustrate this point. “When you first walk into the square,” Doran says, “there’s this washed-out, ambient version of the piece. Then as you go down into the stairwell towards a field, the piece comes into focus. You’re like, ‘Oh, this is actually a harp progression.’” Doran could well be describing what it actually feels like to play Season: A Letter To The Future: a picture, sound, and, ultimately, a place, gradually assuming a striking sense of clarity.