At the start of the new roleplaying game Below, only two names come across the screen. One is Capybara, the Toronto studio that developed Below. The other name is Jim Guthrie. While Guthrie calls this a testament to the developer’s generosity, it’s also a nod to his status as one of the biggest composers in game music. Arriving in the wake of his acclaimed soundtracks for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery and his collaborative work with JJ Ipsen on the Planet Coaster series, Guthrie’s Below score marks his most ambitious—and best—soundtrack project to date.
By all accounts, the making of Below—a roguelike title which tasks players with surviving the dangerous, randomly-generated depths of a mysterious island underground—was a harrowing endeavor. A project six years in the making, it’s a masterpiece that delivers a sense of sheer scale—with the game’s nameless protagonist dwarfed by the looming lo-fi landscapes around them—unlike any game in recent memory. It’s also a divisively difficult playing experience that demands a lot of patience from its players. The music occupies a similar space on both fronts. Guthrie’s score is glacial and moody, calling to mind both Vangelis’s work on the original Blade Runner and the noise stylings of Portland, Oregon’s Yellow Swans—one of many artists whose work Below’s creative director, Kris Piotrowski, shared with Guthrie for inspiration early in the game’s development cycle.
The massive and meditative ambient songs that make up the bulk of the Below soundtrack are a departure for Guthrie, who usually works with tighter and hookier compositions, but this new work still uses an imaginative stew of synthesized and analog sounds with both vision and soul. We spoke to him from his garden shed studio in Toronto.
We talked about Below three years ago, and I remember you saying it had already been an epic journey at that point. When did you start working on this game?
I have demos of ideas from maybe 2012, so that’s around when I started. I think it took a long time to fully realize and appreciate the pace and vibe that Kris had in mind. The huge environments were there from the beginning, but it was really a different pace. When I first started, I tried to make a score more like what I had done with Sword & Sworcery. Kris was on that project as well. I really tried to stuff with beats and melodic lines, maybe not quite as atmospheric. So it changed in that way. In the beginning I had more traditional instruments in there, like synthesizers, guitar, different things. That wasn’t really landing a lot of the time for Kris. It got a lot more droney and atonal. It was still music, I guess, but it was a lot more sparse.
Yeah exactly, a lot more ambient. When I look at everything that I have for that project, I think I had a folder in my iTunes that was over five hours of music.
How much of that did you wind up using?
In the end I think I got it down to about three hours of music that we actually used in the game. I couldn’t really release a soundtrack that long, so it’s just over an hour of music that best represented the experience of the game. I plan to also release the rest of the music in little pay-what-you-want chunks, because it’s a bit more ambient than the stuff on the record.
So you think there might be a volume two, or a companion release?
Yeah. I was literally writing music, writing a couple last little bits, right up until the very end—because the game was always changing. It was just evolving all the time, right up until the bitter end where you had to just push through and finally release the game. But I want to consider what’s out now the definitive version of music from the game.
It’s such a great soundtrack. I’ve been listening to it while taking long walks and driving, and it’s just a really rich collection of songs.
That’s really great. It is very different for me personally. I think what I’m most proud of is that Kris pushed me in ways that I just wasn’t prepared for in the beginning. He was really responding to the most meditative experiments, and that put wind in my sails, too, once I figured it out. I’ve just never made music quite like that. I feel like I stepped out a little bit. I’m just really thrilled with it. And I’m also just relieved, because after working on it for so long, you’re in this bubble, and it can get kind of heady.
Do you think it was a challenge for you to get into that more ambient, open place because you have a pop/indie rock music background?
I think so, if I’m really honest with myself. It was a new way of thinking. To have one note drone out forever sometimes didn’t feel exciting or challenging. But once I got into it I realized there were still a lot of things I had to figure out creatively: what those drone-y sounds were, and how they worked, and how they built a bigger picture. Once I got into it, I realized how it’s just as tough to do that in a good way, in a way that’s not just noise or whatever. I’m an indie rock guy, and I like synth lines and melody, and I like beats and bass lines. I let go of all that.
What did that letting go look like for you?
If I could go back and take little snapshots of me working on the soundtrack over six years, there were times when I just had something on loop. I would make a little pad or a little drone of some kind, and it would just be looping for hours. I would basically be in this trance: listening to it, wondering if I should add more or take something away. I kind of went away while I was working on it. I would just zone out and really get into these little clouds that I was creating.
One thing that really stuck out about Below is how silent a lot of it is. There are long stretches where either the music is either barely there—almost imperceptible—or else not present at all.
I think early on it was pretty obvious that we didn’t want to score, or kind of handhold, every moment. It was more of a constant mood that we wanted to maintain. It just seemed to really work and make the game more magical the less we tried to score every moment. Less was more.
I noticed that when you’re crafting items in the game, there’s this tonal/harmony thing that happens there. Did you have a hand in that?
Yeah, I don’t know where the idea really came from, but that was super intentional. I made noises that would sort of stack on top of each other and create a chord. I worked with Kris on that. But yeah, we’re always looking for things like that where you’re making music with the game. It wasn’t so subtle. It’s a little happy succession of notes that sort of lead up to a moment when you craft.
Are you at liberty to say what you’re working on, now that Below is behind you?
I’m actually working on, I think, five different projects right now. They’re all in various stages. So things have sort of piled up, but nobody asks for music all in the same day. Some stuff is very synthy, and other things are more guitar-based. It’s nice to be able to wake up every day and make music based on how you feel. It doesn’t seem like there’s a real crunch for any one thing right now, which is good.
Do you consider yourself a pretty organized person?
I’m organized enough to get it done and get it in on time, but I think I’m pretty scattered. I start off with the best of intentions. I have a naming system for files on my computer, which can really give me a lot of anxiety. My studio is so small that it can’t really get too dirty.
Do you still work out of your basement?
I’m not in my basement anymore; I built a little shed out back. It just looks like a garden shed, but it’s all high-tech on the inside. I was getting a lot busier, actually making a living doing soundtracks and games, so I had to make a decision. It’s important to have it separate from the house, but it’s just a 30-second walk down the garden path to the studio. So it’s made a big difference. I love it back here.
You played in bands for many years. Do you miss the touring life at all?
Not at all. Not at all. I just really don’t love playing live. I loved being with my friends on this adventure together, touring around in a van. But I don’t love being on stage and all the people staring at me. I turn down live stuff all the time. What I love doing, money or not, is staying home and just making new music every single day, and, lucky for me, it also pays. It’s just sort of a perfect storm for me.
So many people making game music work in an entirely digital space and do everything through their laptops. You use a lot of physical instruments and you Frankenstein it together with computer music. What do you get out of that process?
I’m 46 this year, so I grew up making music most of my life without gadgets and without computers. I didn’t really own a computer until I was in my late 20s. So it wasn’t that I thought analog was cooler or better or whatever—it was just what I had. I went a bit more hands on, a bit more analog, a bit more drums—real drums and guitar and things like that. Then when I actually could afford a computer and afford all the plugins and that stuff, I really embraced that. But I always blended it with real instruments. I guess maybe that’s part of my signature sound, where it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. There are times when I hate the computer and it’s evil and it bums me out, but there are also times when I hate playing my guitar. I’m just trying to stay inspired, basically.
What do you do when you just fully hate music?
I dive right back in. I think recently I’ve become… clinically nostalgic is the term I use. I’m just really listening to older music from the ’70s and ’80s and just really internalizing how that was such a different time that’s gone forever. I’m getting really nostalgic and sort of sad, but ultimately inspired. I’ve been going back to some really feel-good music, some soul, some Al Green—just stuff where it was people, and it was real [feeling], people who were really in a groove. And that kind of stuff just fills me up.
I think most artists are prone to some depression, some manic energy. And you have this endless well that you can always draw from. That’s a pretty neat thing to have.
Oh, totally. Music has been my constant companion for sure. I’ve literally said the sentence to people, ‘I hate music.’ Just because I’ll get in a mood. I’ll be stuck and I’ll just feel overwhelmed. But ultimately, it’s my life, and it’s all I think about. I think you would have to be crazy to live [that] kind of fairytale life where you just never are at odds with it. It’s a struggle, it’s a give and take, it’s love/hate. That’s what happens when you have a companion that’s with you your whole life. You go back and forth. But ultimately the love is so strong that it’s there forever. So I’ll be in the shed until I’m dead. I’m not going anywhere.