Writing music for video games is hard. That may sound like an obvious statement to make, and it is. Composing music in general presents a great challenge and, just like any other art form, requires an equally great deal of expertise and knowledge to do well, juggling harmony, melody, and rhythm at the same time and, sometimes, even lyrics. The ultimate purpose of a soundtrack is to accompany a piece, like a film or a play, to create a certain mood for the audience, which means that composers have to bear the progression and structure of the story to create the progression and structure of the music. However, video games face a unique struggle that no other media does in terms of their music: the audience holds a significant amount of power over the pacing. Because of this setback, video game composer may not have the luxury of depending on perfectly orchestrated scenes to base the music on. Moreover, because the pacing can vary so much from player to player, game music must accommodate for any variety of lengths as opposed to having a fixed one like any other musical composition. The oldest solution to this problem, which has been used ever since technology has allowed games to have music, involves creating simpler compositions that can easily loop for as long as necessary, and developers still employ this method to this day. For example, games use this method to give different areas certain ambiences to give them both different visual and musical identities. In recent years, however, composers have tried creating music that reacts more to the player’s actions, such as music that seamlessly transitions to other variations, such as ambient and combat music depending on the situation. However, some games take a step further with a radically different approach to the use of their music to create a genuinely dynamic soundtrack, like Rain World.
Developed by Videocult and released in 2017, Rain World puts players in the role of a “slugcat,” an adorable creature close to the bottom of the food chain that has to survive a brutally unforgiving world fraught with deadly rainstorms and predators during its search for its family. The story of how James Therrien, the composer of Rain World’s soundtrack, created the music is just as fascinating as the implementation of the music itself.
Inspired by a nightmare about the game having terrible music after looking at the game’s devlog, he decided to send Joar Jakbosson, the programmer of the project, a twelve track demo which then sparked a partnership between the two, resulting in the establishment of Videocult. Because of this close relationship with Jakobsson, Therrien became closely involved with Rain World’s level design, even “proposing entire regions and plot elements simply because [he] wanted to write music for it.” Moreover, Therrien bears a unique style to composing music unlike the vast majority of the industry. Instead of traditional instruments, he samples field recordings to create what he calls “junk audio,” then arranging them on an array of MIDI keyboards to compose the game’s soundscapes, giving it an alien and unfamiliar tinge (“Rain”).
Bearing in mind the story behind the music, the reasons why Videocult intertwined the music so deeply with the game make much more sense. Much like its unconventional sound, Rain World incorporates its soundtrack in a very unconventional way: for the most part, the music does not play at all, leaving the player with the hauntingly lonely sounds of the slugcat’s footsteps. Moreover, Rain World only employs the ambient area music, one of the core conventions of game design, when the player enters a new area for the first time, which they never hear again. However, the music’s implementation only starts getting truly interesting when the slugcat’s predators lurk nearby. Outside of the single-use ambient tracks, Rain World features a class of tracks called “threat music,” which play when the player is in the vicinity of an enemy. When these threat music tracks begin to play, they start with only a few instruments and slowly ramp up in intensity based on the number of enemies that appear and whether they are aware of the player’s presence, and the full composition only truly appears once the player is in imminent danger of dying. This radical re-contextualization of music used in games turns a convention often used to empower the player into one that disempowers and frightens them at its mere appearance. Other than very effectively setting the mood and dynamically reacting to the player’s situation, this music also circumvents some of the strange design decisions Videocult made with Rain World’s camera, which does not move and jarringly jolts from showing one portion of the world to the next, making spotting predators difficult. However, because the music does react to these systems in the game, the player will also know to remain alert of a looming threat based on the hints of James Therrien’s music. Moreover, because the music occurs so infrequently, these moments of danger and the discovery of new areas become far more impactful than they otherwise would be.
Overall, Rain World is a fascinating little gem that has so many more brilliantly implemented ideas beyond its unconventional soundtrack. I personally would not recommend this game to everyone, and I have not ever finished it myself either, but it delivers a truly special experience that I have yet to witness anywhere else.
“Rain World by James Primate.” VGM WAX, 17 Apr. 2019, https://www.vgmwax.com/reviews/2019/4/17/rain-world.
Thumbnail. Rain World. https://game-insider.com/2018/12/13/rain-world-out-now-on-ps4-and-switch-new-update-coming-next-week/.
Fig. 1. Family. https://pressakey.com/videodetail,26733,3248,Rain-World-Opening-Cinematic-Trailer,.html.
Fig. 2. Outskirts. http://rainworldgame.com/.
Fig. 3. Gate. http://rainworldgame.com/.
Fig. 4. Daddy Long Legs encounter. http://rainworldgame.com/.
Fig. 5. Lizard encounter. http://rainworldgame.com/.