Musical Concepts and References in The Other Half (Spoilers, Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)
Foreword: I'm going to be doing a short series of blog posts about some of the process of designing #gameaudio for #theotherhalf, a short fantasy narrative rpg by Studio Egg Roll that I worked on for a little over a year. If you haven't played the game and are interested, you can find links to play it at the bottom of this post, otherwise, I will be giving spoilers for the game during this description of the audio design process! Additional posts will be about other aspects of the audio design including sound design and implementation with FMOD and Unity.
The Other Half was a unique game for me to work on from both a narrative and audio perspective. It starts off masquerading as a fantasy rpg complete with your standard npcs – a healer who will sell you potions, a friendly local injured in the woods, townspeople who spout bits of information about your surroundings, and a town-head who sells armor to aid you on your journey to find Daniel and destroy the demons infesting the area. Gradually through the game, this facade dissolves to reveal its actual narrative – a story about sexual assault from the perspective of the perpetrator. The way the game reveals this is through dialogue and slowly introducing modern objects into the game-play such as cars, street lamps, or a cafe. Since the environment was going to gradually add modern elements, I wanted to also gradually evolve the music to match this process.
Initial Music Concepts and References
I normally start off a project by giving the designer a music palette - something I learned from one of my professor's at Berklee, Michael Sweet. But in this case, I didn't need to. It turned out that the dev and I had pretty similar music tastes and inclinations for what the game needed musically. The initial music styles were fairly easy to settle on – both the game designer/programmer and I had similar ideas for how we wanted the music to operate within the game. We settled on minimalist piano music inspired by Chopin and Debussy for most of the game's score.
I wanted music that would be melodic, solemn, and introspective. It needed to provide mood and personality for the main characters, but also provide space for the player to form their own interpretations of how the story and characters would unravel. I'm also a big fan of silence in video games, inspired by Dark Souls' and Shadow of the Colossus' soundtracks, and only wanted to place music where I felt it really added something to the story. Most of The Other Half is spent wandering across a snowy and desolate forest which provided a great opportunity to use natural ambience to provide mood, and allowed me to highlight music in places where it would shine most – in narrative flashbacks and character themes. I like to tell people I mainly play the computer now, but originally I was a pianist so trying to channel Chopin and Debussy into the music I was writing felt at times familiar, but also like blasphemy (how could I even hope to write something as iconic??). For the first track I wrote, Daniel's theme, I went through a lot of variations to try to get to a place where I was referencing Romantic era music, but also creating something of my own.
Later in the game, as the environment changes and adds modern elements, our references became more diverse.
Transitioning Music Styles
My idea was to gradually add modern synth and percussive elements to the music to transition it from minimalist Romantic inspired music to a combination of minimal piano + modern instruments. In the beginning of the game, most of the music sounds similar in style to Daniel's theme:
As the game progresses, we start to see modern objects added to the game environment, and I simultaneously began to add modern elements to the music. Starting from minimalist piano offered an unobtrusive base to build off of and I started by adding soft pads.
Finally the breaking point of the fantasy rpg illusion is the scene where Daniel recounts the sexual assault he committed. The visuals and music are both inspired by psychedelic art and music and the instrumentation reflects that. Using drum machines, warped sampled instruments, guitar, and bass among other instruments, I made it clear that this was a turning point in the game both musically and narratively.
This track was largely inspired by Amon Tobin's "Slowly", a personal favorite of mine. Coming up with references for tracks is sometimes one of the more enjoyable aspects of designing a score for me. I'm really happy when I have the opportunity to write tracks inspired by some of my favorite artists. This scene in particular was very difficult to write for and I spent a good deal of time trying to determine what music would work best. There are a lot of things this scene is trying to accomplish at once. First, it's a recounting of Daniel's sexual assault of Annalise from his own perspective. Second, it's a bizarre and grotesque visual manifestation of Daniel's depravity.
Third, it needed to convey how wrong Daniel's actions were and make sure that the game wasn't condoning sexual assault. Finally, because it's told entirely from Daniel's perspective, I wanted to make sure Annalise was still involved in the music somehow (I'll get into that in a different post). We settled on "Slowly" as a reference because of its psychedelic qualities, and patchwork and pitch variable textures from samples.
I was really inspired by the down-tempo and hazy feeling of "Slowly" as well as the dazed qualities you feel from the instrumentation and samples. I wanted to bring some of that into my music but combine it with more aggressive and unsettling instrumentation. The reason we went with a bizarre psychedelic direction was to emphasize Daniel's larger than life ego in believing that bypassing Annalise's consent would be giving her what she wanted. I used a lot of pitch variation and sample manipulation in this piece to make sure that even in the beginning, before the track and scene start to devolve into chaos, it always feels off.
One of the most important moments we originally talked about when conceptualizing music was the end game music cue, but over the course of development, the story and end of the game changed so much that our initial ideas were no longer as relevant. I was originally given a reference of Radiohead's “Nude” and I was pretty happy to be able to run with that since Radiohead is one of my own personal music inspirations. We chose Radiohead as a reference because we wanted to channel the down-tempo, bittersweet, and nostalgic feeling of some of their music as well as use more modern instrumentation of drums, bass, and guitar. The end of the game went through so many revisions that I held off writing music for this part until the end of production. At that point, "Nude" seemed a bit too warm in mood and slightly leading the player to a specific conclusion at the end of the game. We wanted to leave the ending ambiguous to the players and not lead to any conclusion about what Annalise would say or do. As Daniel approaches Annalise, it's deliberately unclear what happens next in order to give Annalise agency in making her own decision on how to react to Daniel. We looked at references more like “Videotape” by Radiohead to channel something colder, textural, and more ambiguous. I originally wanted to move away from heavy piano use in the music near the end of the game's score, but as the game and music evolved, our concept needed to change because the sound of the piano had become integral to the character's themes and the sound of the game.
I was also heavily inspired by Michael Andrew's Donnie Darko soundtrack. I really love the intimate piano used throughout the score, and particularly in "Did You Know Him?" where there's deliberate noise bleed through in the recording. You can hear small details where the keys are being struck by fingers or the pedal is being depressed and lifted. It's a subtle thing that adds a lot of character to the piece and makes it feel older, nostalgic, more distant, and somehow also more intimate.
It felt like a really appropriate reference for a game that's centered around physical and emotional aggression vs vulnerability. The resulting tracks inspired by these last two references are what i consider to be the core of the game's soundtrack, they encapsulate the game's mood and themes the strongest.
Thanks for reading – the next post will be about constructing individual character theme's and variations.
Play The Other Half here: