Melbourne, Australia-based composer Tim Shiel rarely takes a break from music. He is a radio DJ, runs the Spirit Level record label, and manages artists when he’s not creating his own music or spending time with his wife and kids, including a new daughter born earlier this month. And while he’s a relative newcomer to the field of scoring video games, Shiel is two for two in landing great projects. The first was a minimalist mobile game called Duet, where the player spins two orbs around objects that come toward them like Tetris blocks while Shiel’s steady trancelike electronic accompaniment—the bulk of it composed on Teenage Engineering’s charming handheld synthesizer/sampler, the OP-1—waxes and wanes.
More recently, Shiel worked on The Gardens Between, a meditative and gorgeous puzzle game for consoles and PC with an enthralling and warm ambient soundtrack that weaves itself so seamlessly into the game that it’s hard to tell where the visuals stop and the music starts. His heavily expanded soundtrack for The Gardens Between, which he has entitled Glowing Pains, was released October 12. It features contributions from a number of collaborators, including Wally De Backer, aka Gotye, whom Shiel has toured with extensively.
The songs on Glowing Pains run the gamut from delicate and untethered ambient fare (“Golden Satin”) to more traditionally structured pieces with vocals, like the warbling “Are You The Same (feat. researcher),” which sounds a little like what might happen if Disasterpeace produced a Radiohead track. It’s one of the year’s best game soundtracks, and also only narrowly a game soundtrack at all. We caught up with Shiel over Skype to discuss Glowing Pains, side projects, and what game he’d like to soundtrack next.
Did you grow up playing games?
This will show my age a little bit, but my first computer was a Commodore 64. My dad bought one for me, and for him, when I was six. I think because my dad had a bit of that nerdy urge, he gravitated towards programming basic games. And I did, too. So I played some early role playing games, but I had just as much fun making basic games: text games, choose your own adventure, math games that emulated sport results and stuff.
Did the programming you did as a kid lead you to make electronic music? Is there a connection there?
My first experience in making music was not about ambition or technique, it was that punk idea of ‘I’m just going to turn it up and move my fingers on this guitar until it sounds cool.’ But once I figured out that I could make music on a computer, which took me a couple of years, I had my moment of ‘All right! This makes sense!’ Where I’ve gotten to with my process is that I tend to not be that interested in the technicality of things. I don’t labor over tweaking over very small bits, I don’t build my own instruments. I love presets. I love having a cheat way to get to an outcome. What I’m trying to get to is an emotional or visceral effect that translates to other people.
Can you tell me about the music scene context around your electronic/sample-based project Faux Pas?
Early on I was inspired by artists like The Avalanches and DJ Shadow. I didn’t grow up with vinyl in any way, but I really got into these vinyl-based collage artists. That informed a lot of the stuff I did with Faux Pas.
My first day at university as a 17-year-old, I met Wally from Gotye. The two of us became good mates, years before he had put any music out. He was exploring sample-based music at the time, so we were exploring similar music and ideas. But in terms of a scene, there really wasn’t much of one at the time. It was probably five years later that the first wave of electronic music started to really sweep out of Australia, with Cut Copy and Midnight Juggernauts and the whole modular sound. Now, it’s a whole other world: Australian electronic music dominates all over the world, especially here at home. But the fact that I started those few years earlier mean I still have a bit of an outsider mentality. If anything, I found peers and friends on the internet.
How did you wind up joining Gotye on tour?
Well, what he was imagining for his next tour was a hybrid live band and Ableton Live setup. I knew Wally needed someone who had those skills, and I’d just left a job. I was really deep into Ableton at that time. We were at a birthday party for a mutual friend, and I went over to him and said, ‘You know how you keep asking me to join your band and I keep saying no? Ask me again!’ Twelve months after that, everything exploded. No one involved in the project anticipated what was going to happen [with the worldwide hit single “Somebody That I Used to Know”]. But it was a good time to join the band, that’s an understatement.
How did you first get involved in making game music?
It never occurred to me as something I could pursue until I watched this great documentary called Indie Game: The Movie, that came out a few years back. I found that story really interesting because at that time I didn’t know much about the independent game community. But I also really enjoyed the soundtrack to the film, and then figured out that it was Jim Guthrie, who also works on indie games. It turns out that Melbourne had an incredible indie game community that I literally knew nothing about. Friends connected me with groups I could join and events I could start going to. I joined up with one developer in particular: Kumobius, who were working on an early prototype of Duet. We met over coffee and it all came together really quickly and organically.
Did you feel at home with game developers and designers?
There’s a different energy and positivity around the gaming community. Depending on who you’re hanging out with, the music industry can be stoic or jaded. And people should be cynical because it’s hard and getting harder. But in indie games no one has really written the rules yet. There’s something kind of fun about that brave new world. I try to filter that attitude back into the music-making process and the process of releasing music. I tell artists, ‘Forget about what you’re meant to do, and do whatever.’
How did you start Duet, your first game project?
That first session was sitting down, putting the game on a screen and trying to hit on what the sound of the game was going to be; Duet is intense, but it’s also meant to put you into this flow state. I think that’s why people have loved the game so much: It might be hard, but it’s not so hard that it interrupts the flow state you’re getting into.
So you were conscious of not wanting to stress people out?
Absolutely, we talked about that. And the game is really good at training you as you go along. You always feel like you’ve learned something valuable that you can apply to the next level. That’s some of the real art of game design.
The Gardens Between is similar, it doesn’t overtly teach you to play, it’s kind of something you feel out. The music feels like a necessary piece of that. How did you approach this game?
Moving time back and forward is a core mechanic of the game, and that was definitely a huge inspiration for the whole project. I came in really early, before it was even locked down what the game’s themes were, but I knew there was going to be an emotional weight to it. That’s what [game director] Henrik Pettersson aspired to. I could tell in our initial conversations, that’s why he wanted to work with someone like me and why he wanted to bring a composer in even before there was anything to do. Music often provides the emotional cues. Because we were all working at the same time I think it all feels so connected. We were all trying to inspire each other.
You’ve worked on sound design on both of these games. That’s precise work and you’ve described yourself as more a ‘feel’ person than a ‘dialing it in’ person. So is this detail-oriented work an acquired taste?
I’m probably not jumping out of my skin to do more sound design. I’m lucky that the ambition on The Gardens Between wasn’t huge in terms of what we wanted to do with sound design implementation, and eventually I had help from Daniel Olsen. Probably the key stuff we had to figure out was how to make a sound work both forwards and backwards. It was a fun thought puzzle. Like, what does it sound like when a waterfall goes backwards? Do you just play the waterfall sound backwards? It turns out that sounds almost exactly the same as a waterfall going forwards. So, do you put a wacky sound effect on it? Maybe you do, because it’s a surreal game anyway. That stuff is really interesting to think through and experiment with.
How did you decide on the really unique format of this soundtrack, a collaborative project that uses game music as a building block?
Well, about a year ago the developers were looking for something they could do to raise awareness about the game and do it in a creative way. Because the level design is so beautiful, and such a lovely aesthetic, someone came up with the idea of putting these 15-minute trailers up. All the videos really are [shots of] one of the levels slowly rotating, with subtle, minimal action happening. I thought it was a lovely idea, and I wanted to do something creative in terms of soundscapes for it. So I took three bits of music that were being developed for the game and sent them to a bunch of my friends and collaborators. And then, as people started sending recordings back, I revised my initial sessions and blew things out, and I wound up with these three 15-minute different pieces, each of which had seven or eight different people on them. And that’s what wound up on those trailers.
The idea that that music would be the official soundtrack didn’t come to me until a bit further into this year. I thought maybe one would be literally the sounds from the game, and there’s a second release for Glowing Pains. But the game is so thoughtful. Soundtracks are what they are. It’s a collation of the songs that are in a game or a film or whatever. I wanted to do something more than that. It features some stuff that’s in the game, but a bunch of stuff that’s not.
It sounds like you find the idea of ‘a soundtrack’ slightly limiting.
I think it’s true that soundtracks, in general, are filed off in a different section than other music. Whether they should be or not, I’m not sure. I think a lot of good electronic and ambient records get missed because they have the word ‘soundtrack’ in the title. So part of doing this was to see if I could subvert that a little bit and frame it as both a soundtrack and a record, an album I made. I wanted it to function as both. I’m super proud of the game, but I hope some people will find this record who don’t engage with games at all. Hopefully it does more than just remind you of the experience of playing a game that you liked. It’s actually an album experience of its own.
Last question: If you had the opportunity to write a new soundtrack for an existing game, is there one that comes to mind that would feel like a dream project?
Well, I want to work on Civilization 12. I’ll give it a few years. When it gets up to 12 I’ll be ready to tackle it. That’s essentially my favorite series of all-time—and in terms of making music that people will listen to for hours, that would be an interesting one to take on.