Growing up in San Juan Batista, a small town in Northern California, Pedro Silva split their days equally between music and video games. Silva’s Mexican-American parents, both of whom have theater backgrounds, both played music and stressed its importance. And their older brother introduced them to games. “I learned to read by watching my brother play Final Fantasy VII,” Silva says over the phone from their home on the outskirts of Los Angeles. “When you live in a small town, you can always find ways to stay inside all day.”
Combining their two loves seemed natural enough to Silva, who incorporated 8-bit sounds from a modified Game Boy in the music they made in their early 20s. There was just one strange twist. “I didn’t expect anyone to actually like it,” Silva remembers. “That was always kind of weird.” Silva’s home recording project, dubbed Slime Girls, soon became a live band. And while Silva would come to regret the Slime Girls moniker (“at it’s best, it’s contextual to a community I don’t really feel part of anymore”), the five years spent releasing music under that name gave them plenty of room to stretch their stylistic legs. While early Slime Girls releases are chiptune-adjacent, Silva’s deepening fascination with more esoteric and far-flung video game sounds from the 32- and 64-bit eras (their personal video game heyday) become increasingly evident.
These days Silva is a master at nailing the ephemeral sonic hallmarks of a video game music era that is just now experiencing rediscovery and reinvention. On the soundtrack for the new game Ooblets, the long-awaited indie magic-farming/critter-collecting /epic-dance-battle-facilitating game that manages to out-cute Animal Crossing, Silva manages to show off those skills and create some of the funkier jams heard in games since Toejam & Earl first crash-landed on Earth. We recently spoke about the word “cute,” collecting clunky ‘90s synthesizers (known as “romplers”), and Dr. Stewart from F-Zero.
Did you pay a lot of attention to game music from an early age?
My dad was always playing music—playing it live or listening to music. It’s something I was very conscious of: the idea that music is important, and it’s always playing. I have a brother who’s seven years older than me, and we played a lot of games between the two of us. I’d record the music from Link’s Awakening onto a cassette Walkman. I still have that tape somewhere. And we used to record the songs we made in the music maker in Mario Paint to VHS. My dad enjoyed using that program, so we have some recordings here and there of songs my dad made in Mario Paint.
It’s interesting that it was such a part of your family life.
I also got a bundle with Pokemon Yellow and a Game Boy when I was a kid. When you have your own experience with video games as a personal thing—not something you’re doing in the family room or sharing with an older sibling—that’s a gateway into a more personal attachment to game music.
There’s this idea in games that an orchestra is the pinnacle of sound, like “This is what all music should sound like, this is what we all should aspire to.” I hate it. There’s so much wonderful music that is made with orchestras, but to me it’s the sound itself that’s important, and that’s one of the things that drew me to the Game Boy. There are a lot of things it can’t do. It can’t be this hugely soaring epic thing like an orchestra can, that’s not what it’s good at. It is good at being wistful sounding, capable of very weepy and sad pieces, which I love.
How did you get involved with Ooblets?
I saw a GIF of Ooblets on Twitter in late 2016 and I was like, “Oh, this looks awesome, I’m going to just direct message them.” That’s probably not how you should go about getting jobs, just blindly Twitter DMing people, but it worked!
Was it hard to find the game’s sound?
Sometimes you just need to write one song that encapsulates the feeling of that game. For Ooblets, it was very immediate from the first tests I did. I saw those animated GIFs and I knew exactly what it would sound like. It was more about What is this mood? What does it feel like? Is it a particular music box sample from a hundred-dollar Yamaha sampler from 1998? Yeah, of course it is.
With Ooblets there’s a lot of farming, and you’re going around town doing busy activities and you’re going into shops and buying furniture. We went through a lot of ideas on how to soundtrack farming. How minimal should it be? Melodies can be too intrusive sometimes. So it all comes down to how it feels to play it. I might write something and it feels fine, but then you make changes based on seeing how it’s used in the game and spending more time with it.
Was Ooblets the first game you worked on, then, before the mobile game Guildlings?
The first game I worked on was a longstanding project called Omori that is releasing soon. We started that in 2014. I’ve written like 116 tracks for it, so it’ll be exciting when it comes out. I met the creator of the game through mutual friends and we got along really well. They liked my music as Slime Girls, and they asked if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said absolutely, yeah. It’s always been my goal to make game music, and that was an opportunity.
What are some of the challenges working on game music with a small team?
Making a game is stressful. Things change all the time, there’s just so much happening for everyone involved. From my perspective, I have the least to worry about. But it’s so hard to talk about music in words. I would say part of my job is to figure out what someone means when they barf words at me. Which is great! They should! It’s their project and their vision. But part of my job is to interpret what they want. You just have to hear it. It’s the stupidest thing, like “This sounds really heavy,” “This sounds chunky,” “Can you make that snare buzzy?” There are all these imperfect adjectives.
That’s something you don’t have to confront when you’re writing music for yourself.
Plenty of times I’ve had to write songs that I would not normally write, because the game needs that. And even on my favorite video game soundtracks, there are always one or two songs that aren’t really good on their own, because there are so many contexts that only happen in the game that you need music for: Well, okay, I’ve got to write this sneaking song. And I really can’t finish something unless I like it. Which is bad when you’re working in a professional environment, because with time and emotional sanity and mental stability you shouldn’t do that. Sometimes you just have to let something go.
Ooblets’ music is reminiscent of a really unique era in gaming, can you talk about that?
I have an attachment to Game Boy and NES music, but not as much as I do to N64 and Playstation 1-era game music. Around 2014, I realized that while indie games were mostly pixel-art sidescrollers with chiptune soundtracks—which are great—and I was pretty sure that low-poly 3D was going to be the trend in a few years. I wanted to start documenting and learning how to make that music online. I found resources and forums from long ago, read Google-translated interviews from Japan. There were a few articles here and there. I wanted to find out where those sounds came from. Because with Game Boy, NES, and Sega Genesis, the on-board sound chips make all the music. But starting with Super Nintendo and then PS1, it’s all sample-based. You can put anything in there. It’s all these old Yamaha, Roland, and Korg tools.
So you were researching relics of the early digital music era. Going back a couple of decades.
Yeah, tools from that really awkward in-between stage that is starting to come back in vogue with Y2K nostalgia. They’re these big, clunky boxes. They call them Romplers: big boxes that have kind of crappy digital recreations and samples of every instrument ever. So I just did a lot of research to find out how that stuff was made. And then seeing Ooblets was perfect. Not only did I find it to be really charming and pretty, it matched with what I had equipped myself to do and wanted to do.
Ooblets is pretty cute, and the music has a lot of cuteness to it. But a lot of your Slime Girls music is actually pretty explosive and chaotic. Have you had a chance to explore that in your video game music?
Not as much as I would like. Omori is billed as a psychological horror game/RPG, so there is a lot of stuff there that’s more on the harsh and weird side. There are a few tracks in that game where I’m like “This is probably going to make people turn the sound off.” That’s okay, I like that. I’m a big fan of the Nier series, and Drakengard. Drakengard 1 has some harsh, awful, experimental noise stuff in it that is so effective. Some other games, like Silent Hill 2, have harsh music. But I don’t really like to use real instruments in game soundtracks. Just by the nature of what the games are themselves, I haven’t felt it fit. If you increase that dynamic range of the instruments used to include noticeably real guitar, I feel like it kind of offsets everything else and doesn’t work for me. There actually is some real guitar in Ooblets, I just masked it a lot.
It strikes me that you talk about so much of making a video game soundtrack as sort of putting a puzzle together.
Yeah, and that goes for my personal music too. Music is always problem-solving. It’s a lot of feeling and processing that becomes problem-solving: How do you get this feeling out there? With game music you have the regular problems to solve, plus the additional [technical] challenges. With Ooblets, we decided after a certain point that we didn’t want to do battles and we switched them to dance battles. And suddenly, oh man, that’s tremendously more pressure. You can’t have a dance battle without good dance music. Battle music is what I struggle the most with. That was a lot of pressure for me. It took me a while to find the variations of the dance battle music I wanted to hear. It’s problem-solving. Probably people have spoken to this before using better words, but I think you’re mining inside yourself, you’re working at it, trying to dig something out of yourself and barf it out. For me, I know that a dance battle is in there somewhere. Somewhere in a myriad of influences and feelings, I just have to figure out how to do it.
The fateful, traditional, final question: If you could re-soundtrack one game from the annals of history, what might you pick?
I think I’m going to go with this Sega Genesis game called Gain Ground. That game rules. I’m a sucker for co-op games, because there just aren’t enough of them. It has this really unique game concept that hasn’t been recreated. But there are only five songs, one per world, and it wears out its welcome early. I play it all the time and I love showing it to people. But it could use some new music. I’d probably give it something PS1 sounding. The game is all these heroes pulled from different time periods, so it would be cool to implement the instruments of whatever country they’re from, kind of like how Street Fighter does it, but with electronic music.
But my other answer is Overwatch. Because I love Overwatch, but I wish so bad that it had Street Fighter-style themes for each character. Because they’re all from different countries and they all have different vibes, and they deserve their own themes. Like, have you played F-Zero GX on the Gamecube? Every character in that game has their own theme, but it only plays when they win, or when you view their character profiles. It’s a treat, and if I can have one Internet legacy it’s that I want everyone to go listen to Dr. Stewart’s theme, because it’s a perfect trance song and it rules