Farming takes time. Genetically splicing crop genes takes time. And writing music takes time. When the team at Howling Moon Software asked me to compose the music for Verdant Skies, my immediate thought went to the bottom line: if we’re making a game that players will sink hours into at a time, the music can’t get in their way. We either needed hours of music or we needed to implement it with some careful planning.
With a team of four and no investors, smart implementation was the way forward.
Verdant Skies is a life simulation game for gamers that grew up with Harvest Moon and want a game that grew up with them. Featuring a lovingly hand-painted alien world and a diverse cast of characters, Verdant Skies is a nonviolent game that is designed for long play sessions. Building relationships with fellow colonists, spearfishing and building a settlement on the planet Viridis Primus all take time.[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/397946553" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]
I began composing a western-style score with acoustic guitar at the forefront. The “farming” aspect of the game was front and center. As we tested the music, the team felt that it quickly grew stale. I attempted to write a few stems that could transition seamlessly to each other, but that didn’t reduce the workload. As the game took shape, we found a much heavier focus on the science and space aspects of the game and less simply on the farming, so we took the music into another direction.[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/397947720" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]
For this more synthetic and sci-fi sound, I set out to compose long loops that took the listener on a journey. A rich variety of textures and densities. Peaks and valleys. It was a better fit but still would not serve a long play session before growing stale. This is when the team realized the need for an adaptive score.
I set to work on reworking the loops I had created. Every layer of the score--bass synths, drums, textures and more--needed to exist simultaneously. The logic of the game was going to create a score for the player as they talked with colonists, went spearfishing or upgraded their home. Where previously I had one bass line, I now created four variations that could be called at any time. This variety dramatically increased the complexity of the score, creating a unique soundtrack every time the game was played.
Andy Korth, the programmer for Verdant Skies, finds the audio middleware engine Wwise invaluable to creating a musical experience like this. “We start each day with one of every instrument playing. Then we semi-randomly choose from the musical stems and swell intensity up and down over time, depending on a variety of in-game factors. Wwise makes timing those transitions incredibly easy.”
I created three “summer” scores and one “eclipse” score for the game’s two seasons. Because the summer season lasts 25 days on Viridis Primus, there wasn’t a need for an expansive score for the eclipse season, which lasts only five.
Now that the bulk of the score had been composed, I had to create a mood for each of the game’s six distinct biomes: in town, cave, marsh, plains, forest, and mountains. Creating a musical identity for each locale was important to me, but because they’d each be layered over other adaptive scores, they needed to convey their personality without relying on specific chords. That was a challenge.
I decided on the piano being the unifying factor between all six biomes and relied heavily on texture, rhythm and reverb to convey the feel of each locale. The plains’ wide-ranging chords are inspired by open-world exploration games and the caves evoke tension and claustrophobia with more seconds and low tones. I had to write variations for each of the three summer seasons’ adaptive scores, resulting in eighteen distinct compositions for the biomes alone. We felt the eclipse season wouldn’t require biome music, letting that music stand on its own.
Throughout the whole process of creating an adaptive score, I worked to convey each of Verdant Skies’ twelve distinct, richly detailed characters through music. Producer and narrative designer Beth Korth provided biographies of each colonist, detailing their history, expertise and--most importantly for me--their musical preferences.
Creating such a wide variety of themes proved challenging. Reggaeton, Carnatic music, club jazz, and hip hop are not all in my wheelhouse, but it was an exciting opportunity for me to learn some new musical styles. After a lot of back and forth with the development team, we honed in on twelve musical themes that fit each colonist perfectly.
The difficulties of creating an engaging, relaxing score for a game like Verdant Skies were worth the effort. Finalizing a mix for the game’s soundtrack release was an exercise in creativity all on its own. I decided on a double album. Verdant Skies Original Soundtrack: Summer Mix and Verdant Skies Original Soundtrack: Eclipse Mix each showcase a different side of Verdant Skies. The six energetic character themes are featured in Summer Mix while the more chill tracks appear on Eclipse. Treatments of the adaptive score and the planet’s six biomes appear on both with distinctly different results. The game’s theme is driving and triumphant on Summer while it takes an introspective tone on Eclipse.