Dead Cells, one of the biggest breakout indie games of 2018, is often described as a “Metroidvania” title: a portmanteau referring to games that recall unforgiving classic platformers like Metroid and Castlevania. But Dead Cells—which tasks players with escaping a sprawling, monster-infested prison island—is more psychedelic and whimsical in tone than either of those franchises. It’s also much more freewheeling. The randomized level structures and risk-reward gameplay ensures that no two playthroughs are the same. Each time the player character (a mysterious figure known only as the Prisoner) dies, they lose all their hard-won power-ups and must start over from the beginning.
That “choose your own adventure” quality carries over to French composer Yoann Laulan’s celebrated soundtrack for the game, a collection of songs as dynamically potent as they are stylistically diverse. Some passages nod to percussive Flamenco percussion (“Promenade of the Condemned”), some to spaghetti western soundtracks (“The Village”), and others to the tension-building drones of a Hollywood action flick (“Prison’s Rooftop”). Unifying these disparate sounds is the score’s relatively austere palette—built from a handful of synthesizers and Ableton Live plug-ins—which, after a million or so deaths, begins to sound a lot like home.
In order to properly appreciate Laulan’s Dead Cells soundtrack, as well as his prowess in general, you have to consider them on the artist’s own terms. The musician, who spent his formative years in the small French city of Marmande (a town most famous for its delicious tomatoes—or so he says), works more from instinct than schooling. “Everything starts with a nice cup of tea,” he says. “Then I start to jam.”
And the Dead Cells sessions keep rolling on. The game’s first expansion, “Rise of the Giant,” released late last month, added a handful of new songs to the already-sprawling score (which currently clocks in at over an hour and 45 minutes)—and according to Laulan, there’s more to come. We recently caught up with him over email.
What came first for you, a love of video games or a love of music?
I think it was video games first. I’ve played them since a very young age, but got really into them when I got a Sega Mega Drive (which I still own, and it still works!). My interest in music came later, mainly in high school.
What kind of music did you get into as a teen?
I was, and still am, a big fan of trip-hop (bands like Portishead and Earthling were ones I listened to the most). I used to listen to a lot of metal as well: classic things like Metallica and Megadeth, and also more melodic music from Finland, like Eternal Tears of Sorrow and Kalmah. I also already liked more experimental artists, like Rosa Crvx, who was an inspiration for Dead Cells’ music.
What was the first game music project you worked on, and how did it come about?
I used to spend a lot of time using RPG Maker 2000, so basically, that was when I made my first games—before entering high school. When I found out about a program in which you could easily make your own Japanese-style role-playing game, I couldn’t pass it up. I started to compose a few MIDI pieces using Guitar Pro software when I wasn’t able to find specific music I wanted in RPG Maker. The first game I made music for, and had some visibility with, was Schrödinghost, a short adventure game made for the Ludum Dare game jam in 2014. The game isn’t playable, but there are some videos on YouTube.
It seems like game jams have been an important piece of your development in making game music. Can you talk a little about what a game jam is, for people who don’t know, and describe what the experience of making music at a game jam feels like?
Game jams are usually contests in which you make a game using a specific theme in a certain period of time. It’s a really good and important exercise, because in a few hours—or days—you go through all the steps of the making of a video game: conception, creation, concessions, and communication.
What I like in making music for these jams is the amount of freedom I have. Despite having to follow a theme, you can really do anything—experiment and have fun! And if it combines well with your team’s mood and ideas, there’s a very cool project at the end of the Jam.
What are some game soundtracks that mean a lot to you, and why?
I’m still a big fan of some Yuzo Koshiro works, like Streets of Rage and Revenge of Shinobi. I could mention other titles from Megadrive, like Sonic The Hedgehog and Phantasy Star 4; I think that’s because I love FM synthesis sounds, and those soundtracks have this nostalgic flavor. It will not come as much of a surprise, but I’m also a big fan of Final Fantasy’s soundtracks (mainly from Final Fantasy VI to IX). I would also like to mention the music for Outlaws by Clint Bajakian: I love old-school first-person shooters, and that one has an amazing ambiance to it, as well as the nostalgia factor.
Dead Cells was obviously a breakout game for you, and it has put your music on the map. You were involved in the project pretty much from the get-go, right?
My first work on the game was back in 2014. It was very different back then, and I started to make some music that didn’t sound very good, quality-wise. My former roommate—and one of my best friends—worked with [game developer] Motion Twin, so I was always updated on the project as it progressed. I rejoined the team in January 2017, when most of the core mechanics were working well and we started to focus on creating levels and ambiance.
The game’s music can feel very baroque and formal, and then suddenly very intense. What were some of your inspirations for it musically?
As the game took inspiration from Castlevania and Dark Souls (especially the boss battles), there are some vibes from those games in the soundtrack. The song “Wilderness,” from Diablo 2, was always on my mind, too—especially in the guitar arpeggios at the end.
Outside of game music, Dead Cells was influenced by flamenco singer Enrique Morente, who mixed flamenco and its guitar style with a lot of different genres. There’s some Woodkid in the epicness and the drums, some Rosa Crvx for the dark mood and drums. It was also influenced by other classical composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Antonin Dvorak. And probably Soap&Skin; she’s my favorite artist, so I guess I must have been influenced by her.
It’s a deep game with a lot of variety, but the player has to die a lot to learn how to play it. Did knowing that players would repeat levels a lot influence the way you composed the music?
I think it influenced the intensity of some of the music. Some tracks from the early access days were very ambient because I was afraid that having something too melodic would be annoying to listen to over and over. But after getting feedback from the community and seeing that more action-paced music was really appreciated by the players, I just tried to make something cool.
It’s kind of hard to tell when you’re in the thick of playing the game, so is your music broken up into stems and loops, or did you make full songs that remained more or less intact? Any implementation secrets you want to share?
Some music just naturally loops, and some songs have an intro, then a loop in part. The idea at the beginning was to have something catchy to start the level, then when you don’t have a lot of enemies and action left, the music would loop into something more ambient. We had different ideas with more “modern” approach with dynamic music and different layers, but it was hard to imagine them working in such a random game, especially with its audio engine, which is in some ways very limited.
One track that’s quite different between the soundtrack and in-game is “The Temple.” I made the music before knowing the level would be divided into two parts, so we had to cut the music in two. That track also uses the first theme ever composed for the game, back in 2014.
One cool thing is that on some tracks you can hear some drone sounds made with my cat’s purring! And if you let the credits roll for long enough, you’ll be granted a musical “gift.” There are also a few funny things hidden in the game’s sound effects.
Can you talk a little about the software and instrumentation you used? There are live guitars and some live percussion here, right?
I use Ableton Live to work. I’ve used it since more than 10 years, especially when I made some trip-hop. I never had the inclination to use another program. I’ve used more plugins than real instrumentation in my work—mainly due to time restrictions, but also because I used to work a lot at Motion Twin’s office. Making a lot of noises with a guitar in that open space wouldn’t be the most appreciated thing by my coworkers. But now I’m working in my studio, so I have more freedom.
Last question! If you could rewrite and record the score to any video game ever, what game would you choose and why?
Tough question! I can’t answer it properly, because I don’t feel I could do better than any composer. But I would love to work on a good old RPG, because those games tend to have long and emotional stories, which give a composer the space, freedom, and mood to make good music.