I talked to indie game mastermind Terence Lee, who you may know from titles such as Dustforce and the, up and coming project, Spire. With the power of advanced word processing, I have taken two of our talks and combined them into a single transcript. One that will take us through his entire audio career thus far.
How was Lifeformed formed?
Lifeformed: I never really thought I’d be a “musician” – my focus had mostly been on programming and game development. But music has been something that I always enjoyed doing as a hobby.
Once I started working on Dustforce, I spent a lot of time learning about music production and tried really hard to improve my skills. Once I finished the soundtrack and noticed that people actually liked what I made, I realized that making music was something I loved and was something worth continuing to pursue seriously.
How did you land the Dustforce gig?
Lifeformed: I befriended the guys at Hitbox Team the year earlier, from our involvement in an indie game contest. From there, I wanted to work with them to do the sound effects from Dustforce, but eventually I ended up doing all the music too.
How does it feel, to have contributed to the most elite janitorial experience ever created?
Lifeformed: It’s been my favorite experience so far – working in a small, passionate, and talented team on a project we all loved was a great year. For some reason the janitorial theme never seemed strange in my head – it’s like my suspension of disbelief carried over from playing the game to working on it.
Once we released it and saw all these cleaning puns I realized, “wait-a-minute, playing as a ninja janitor is pretty wacky, how come I never noticed this?
What era of video game music, do you consider, inspires your music the most?
Lifeformed: Definitely the era of the Super Nintendo, specifically for its RPGs. When I played Chrono Trigger I realized that game music could stand alone as a great piece of art, and not necessarily just as a backing element to a game.
It’s really inspired me to approach my work more musically than thematically, if that makes sense. I want to make music, not background music.
If you could save one game and system from extinction, what would it be?
Lifeformed: Chrono Trigger on the SNES, and not just for the music. It’s really a masterpiece – it shows that games are a superset of all of media and can really take the best from art, motion, literature, and music and create an amazing experience of growth and discovery that you can’t really get in non-interactive mediums.
Do you include any game systems, such as a Gameboy or modified NES, in your setup?
Lifeformed: I do not, the only hardware I used so far is my MIDI controller and a digital recorder. I would love to experiment with game hardware in the future though!
Much in the way that Dustforce strikes a nice balance of classic style and new technology, the same can be said for the music. Was that an integral part of the creative process?
Lifeformed: That was definitely a theme. In the virtual tileset of the game (seen in the tutorial level), everything is reduced to simple colors and vectors.
Yet it’s all done smoothly and in high-resolution, and with an alpha channel, so it’s an interesting mix of retro and modern.
I tried to capture that in my track for that world (“9-bit Expedition”) – I have retro sounds, like square waves and white noise, but with a sheen of modern effects, like lots of reverb and sampled drums.
The goal was to evoke nostalgia, and I think that track was my most successful one at that.
The last time we talked, it was just announced that you were doing music for the Double Fine Adventure documentary, how did that come about?
Lifeformed: It was quite simple: the guys at 2 Player Productions really enjoyed my work on the Dustforce soundtrack, so they emailed me and asked if I wanted to get involved. Of course, I said yes. I’m working on some tracks for it now, and I’m pretty excited about the whole project.
In working with 2 Player Productions, do you ever see yourself specializing in audio?
Lifeformed After I’m done working on Spire, my current game project, I do think I want to delve deeper into making music. I’m fairly new at music production, but there are so many facets of it that I want to explore, like using more samples, trying out hardware, and performing live. Music isn’t my only interest though, so I would never drop everything else for it entirely.
Did your approach differ between Dustforce and DFA?
Lifeformed: I learned a lot working on the Dustforce album. Since I was new to music production, I didn’t really find my “voice” until halfway through the project.
Now, for the Double Fine album, I have an idea of what I should be doing stylistically, which has helped me work more efficiently. The other big difference is that doing music for a documentary means I have to capture very specific moods and ideas: a track for a celebratory scene must be upbeat; a track for a tense discussion has to capture that tension.
In Dustforce, I just made whatever sounded good to me, and we fit it in the game. Now I have to make a specific sounding track, which is a big challenge for me.
How has it been working with 2 Player Productions?
Lifeformed: The 2PP guys are really awesome; I first met them at GDC 2 years ago, and easily connected with them.
They reminded me of my own team for Dustforce – they were just a few guys who really wanted to make something great, and did everything they could to ensure that would happen.
I know they’ll always do a good job because I know what it looks like when someone really cares about their work.
I feel that your style really fits 2 Player Productions’ aesthetic, will you be working with them in the future?
Lifeformed: We haven’t talked about any future projects yet, but I would be happy to work together again.
For Spire, How has development changed for 3D, as opposed to Dustforce’s 2D style?
Lifeformed: It’s been a huge change from working on Dustforce. For one thing, I’m mainly focusing on programming now; I haven’t even gotten to the audio yet. It’s such a huge and ambitious project that it’s often overwhelming for me to think about how much work still remains.
However, we are all extremely excited about it – we’re delving into so much interesting, unexplored design space and are eager to have it finally all come together.
Will audio differ, from a technical standpoint, in Spire as opposed to Dustforce?
Lifeformed: Yes, the audio in Spire will be completely different. The goal is to build a procedural audio system composed of many layers of one-measure-long clips.
The end result will be like improvising the playback of a live set in Ableton Live. It wont simply be matching up different tracks, but rather building new tracks completely. However, it won’t be as fine-grained like many procedural music systems have been, which control the music down to each note.
The goal is to maintain hand-crafted musical quality with the exciting feeling of discovery that you get in an emergent system. This keeps in theme with the rest of the game, where the whole world is also generated procedurally.
Do you already have an audio style in mind for Spire?
Lifeformed: It will be a bit different than Dustforce, which had an 8-bit, chillwave feel. Spire will be more ambient, darker, and more textural. There will be a lot of samples, sparse beats, and a tense feeling of weightiness.
Inspiration comes from UK garage style dubstep and futurestep, like Burial, Clubroot, and Kryptic Minds.
Thanks again to Terrence A.K.A Lifeformed for taking the time out of his busy day to talk game audio!