Q&A with Risk of Rain Composer Chris Christodoulou

Risk of Rain is definitely one of the better indie-roguelikes out there, no doubt. (In fact, it was our 2013 Game of the Year.) The space odyssey climate, combined with challenging gameplay and meaningful, underlying lore is backed by someone very important: Chris Christodoulou, a Greek music composer who did a stellar job on the game’s original soundtrack. His haunting tracks stand out, rich with instrumental variety and guitar riffs.

I had the pleasure of speaking with him about working on Risk of Rain, creating the music itself, and what kind of fun things he hid in those sounds.

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Luke: How did you get on this project?

Chris Christodoulou: I think I just got lucky. I got an email from Hopoo Games, Paul Morse and Duncan Drummon. They were sort of shopping around for composers and they found some of my music on SoundCloud for a previous project. I guess they liked what they heard, sort of electronic thing that I did for an iOS game, Droidscape Basillica. I think their initial idea was to find a bunch of composers and have them write one or two tracks, but I ended up doing music for them.

L: At that point, how much of the game did they have ready?

CC: There was an alpha that I played after our first exchange of emails. It had just a little bit of sound if I recall. They wanted to add more items and levels, etc.

L: How much direction in creating the music came from you, and how much from looking at the game?

CC: I think I played the alpha for like half an hour. I had it on my computer, to get a little feel. Then I would just run it once in a while to get back to it and see how it is. Maybe have a little bit of the music that I wrote in the background just to playtest. I’m not sure that the music influenced the game [creation process] in any way. After that first build, I downloaded another one at some point, but I didn’t really follow the development closely in terms of story or lore. Basically, what I worked with were screenshots for inspiration, because I don’t have the time to progress to later levels in the game.

I think, with Risk of Rain, the initial impression I got was quite enough. I got how the game looks and how it feels, so I wasn’t constantly going back to the screenshots. I started writing and I would send new tracks to the guys, asking how they feel about it. We tried to see if there’s something that doesn’t really fit. I told them they can play around with it in their programming, test it with some levels. After a while, what we did is: They started sending me a log, saying, “ok, we have three fast-paced tracks that we can use for boss fights, or the teleporter event.” We started keeping the balance by adding another slow track or fast track. We didn’t really know which tracks would go where. I certainly didn’t.

L: What kind of impression did the game make on you? What kind of themes and words popped up in your head with which you started to create the music?

CC: The immediate impression that I got, two things: Risk of Rain is really dark, and has a purple color to it. Then there’s this sense of scale, you get the planet revolving [opening screen]. Then you go into the game and you’re a tiny, little sprite. You get really huge enemies eventually, so while the game may be pixel art, it’s not all happy. It’s not like Super Mario, it’s not going to have little happy music you dance around with. It’s darker. And small. So the music, I felt, needed a sense of scale, a grand gesture to show you there’s greatness surrounding you.

L: What kind of tools did you use to create the music?

CC: I’m pretty vocal about what tools I use, and if you want to find out more, BandCamp has a PDF which includes almost every plugin and tool I use. On SoundCloud, you’ll also find info on each track. I work in Cubase, where I record and mix and master. Almost everything is sampled, I record very little. The only thing that is recorded in Risk of Rain are the guitars and electric base. Two things that I recorded myself. There’s a lot of programming going on. I took a lot of time writing in the drums because I used to play drums. I know how it is to be a drummer, so you will not find things in the drum parts that require four hands.

I go into the media editor and I edit things, and there’s an enormous amount of automation in the session. For Risk of Rain, I’ve used a lot of effects like bit-crusher, to lower the quality of the signal so it sounds like it’s coming from an old-school machine. I used some chip sounds, enormous samples from  the NES, Gameboys, etc. I’m not really a chip tune guy, but I’ve used a lot of these. I had some people that characterized the soundtrack as “chip tune,”, with which I completely disagree. I wouldn’t say that, and I didn’t make the music with that in mind at all. I felt there’s a connection with that style of sounds, but if I had to use fewer possible worlds, I would say it’s a rock album.

I’m a keyboard player mainly. When I started learning music, I was a piano player. There’s also a lot of solos in the game for which I use a keyboard. Many people thought they were guitar solos, but many of them are just lead synth with a few amplifiers and distortions.

L: Who are your inspirations?

CC: I have a classical training, so a lot of my inspiration comes from classical composers. Debussy, Stravinksi, Prokoview. Bach, of course. For Risk of Rain, I really looked back to stuff like Pink Floyd, Ozric Tentacles… this sort of 70s movement. I also have many references to some of my favorite stuff, like Daft Punk. Mainly, for this particular album, I’ve looked at things I was listening to in my late teens and 20s [Chris is 33]. A little bit of psychedelic, a little of prog rock – that’s most of the stuff that you can trace back to Risk of Rain.

It’s not recognizable to everyone in the same degree, but you still get the subconscious sense of unity.

L: Can you explain the uniform theme you were going for? How do the tracks balance each other and become cohesive?

CC: First of all, there are two things for me that work really well to have a continuity, a common sound. Composers know this. Orchestration and thematic unity. What I do for Risk of Rain, and what I do for albums meant to accompany another media is that I usually find some themes that are relatively recognizable and they have something strong enough to say. This is my smallest unit of information. And then I go and use it over and over again.

So in Risk of Rain, there’s a main theme that is practically used in every track. And sometimes it’s exactly the same thing, sometimes you’ll find it in reverse, or mirrored, but it’s there. I’m using the same palettes for the whole thing. There are a few core instruments and sounds that are there and are maintained for the whole thing. For example, drums are there for the whole thing, the same drum kits. And I have synth bass that I use throughout, and my solo lead sounds are always there.

Building track after track, I use the same session. I just delete the old music, and I have the same palette. I might make little additions to the core foundation of instruments and sounds. You get this uniformity. There are many times I used the same progressions; sometimes they are slower, sometimes they are faster. It’s not recognizable to everyone in the same degree, but you still get the subconscious sense of unity. The same material is used all over the thing.

L: One of my favorite tracks is “Coalescence.”

CC: It’s the favorite of a lot of people. I think it also has to do with it being used in the final level. It gives this kind of emotional attachment with the game, which you’re finishing. I think it really has to do with that also.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/102958685" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="100%" iframe="false" /]

L: Are there any easter eggs hidden in your music?

CC: Oh yeah, definitely, there are a lot of easter eggs. In most of the tracks, I think. Some were discovered, here and there, but there are few that are not. Some are really obviously hidden, some are really obscure references to other music, some only I would know about. I’m not expecting anyone to find those.

For example, if you get the album, there’s a track in the middle called “Intermission,” and it’s just white noise going through a filter. But if you look a little bit deeper, you might find something. Or, in “Coalescence”, the drum track that starts, the beat, is directly taken from a Daft Punk song, “Something About Us”.

So I just took the drum pattern that they had, note by note. I wanted  to have a little reference to this, because it’s one of my favorite albums. I didn’t sample it, but I recreated it. There are little things like that all over the place, little references. There’s the obvious one, there’s the track that’s a bunch of coordinates [25.3°N 91.7°E]. Just Google them.

When somebody in the RoR forums discovers a mystery, it gives me a smile. Something that I can cross out on the list.

L: I also love “Chanson d’Automne..” – why did you put two dots in the name?

CC: That’s something I cannot reveal. But it’s not by accident, that I can say. It’s just a little nod to one person.




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