Duet: how a kick-ass game soundtrack is made

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Michelle Starr is the tiger force at the core of all things. She also writes about cool stuff and apps as CNET Australia's Crave editor. But mostly the tiger force thing.

There's a lot to love about Kumobius' new game — we talked to Gotye touring musician Tim Shiel about how he created Duet's amazing soundtrack.

(Credit: Tim Shiel)

Every so often, you hear a video-game soundtrack that is so well crafted that you want to keep playing just so you can listen longer. Duet, an arcade puzzle game by Melbourne-based studio Kumobius, luckily has a lot more to recommend it than just its music, but the marriage between action and sound in the game is utterly masterful.

It was composed by Melbourne electronic musician Tim Shiel, who previously worked under the name Faux Pas and, for the last two years, has been touring with Gotye as keyboardist and samplist. He met Kumobius through a mutual friend from the indie gaming community who had decided to introduce Shiel to a few developers.

"It is the first time I've worked on a game, but I feel like it's kind of strange that it took me until now to do so. I've always loved games, and I've always written music, so I'm not sure why it took me until this year to try and bring the two together," Shiel told CNET Australia. "I basically woke up one morning a few months ago and just became obsessed with the idea that I should try writing music for games, and luckily for me, it didn't take long for a great opportunity to come along. I met the Kumobius guys for coffee because their studio is just down the road from my house — we clicked. I really liked the direction that the game was heading in, and they seemed to trust that I was going to be able to write music that matched with the game's unique aesthetic."

Duet is a little hard to describe. It seems to be based on death, in more ways than one. There is, of course, a little death in video games — where you crash and burn and have to start the level all over again. Duet has a lot of that. But if you look for the thematic clues, the game is crawling with it: from the very minimal snippets of dialogue to the strange, void-like atmosphere to the names of the levels — the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief (plus a few extra, including, at the very end, "Transcendence").

(Credit: Kumobius)

It also forces you to think outside the box, requiring your spatial cognition to go into overdrive as you navigate the levels to avoid hitting the obstacles with your paired red and blue dots, which can only turn on a wheel at the bottom of the screen. Shiel's music seems to fit perfectly — simultaneously tense, with fast pacing and wailing, atmospheric melodies overlaying the beat.

Yet, while the gameplay and soundtrack are tightly paired, Shiel said that his work was mostly autonomous. "The game's mechanics were very close to finalised when I came on board (I get the impression that sound designers and musicians are usually brought in in the closing stages of a game's development), so there wasn't really much room for me to contribute or collaborate in terms of the technical implementation of the audio," he said. "It'd be great in the future to work on a project where I get to work a bit more closely with the nuts and bolts of a game, learn a bit more about the development process, but for this project, it was more appropriate for me to simply score the game and supply it to them as finished pieces, more or less."

In this way, he said, composing for a game wasn't much different to composing an album. It may have had something to do with the level of trust between Kumobius and Shiel, but the developer was happy to let the musician relax and go where his instincts guided.

The biggest challenge, Shiel felt, lay in finding the game's "pulse". "Probably the very first thing I did when I started working on the soundtrack was to find a tempo that felt like it matched the pace of the game, he said. "Kumobius had given me some initial gameplay footage to score to, and I knew from having played an early build that the game had this amazing potential to be deeply hypnotic; I knew that it would be the kind of game that could be addictive and have players lost in a trance. So I knew that the music had to have a pulse and that the pulse had to match the pace of the game — once I'd found that appropriate tempo, I actually found ways to vary the intensity of the soundtrack throughout the game so that, despite the game's consistent and very minimal visual aesthetic, the music could actually unfold and take turns and provide its own sort of wordless narrative for the game experience. So while the pulse remains the same, the mood shifts from subdued minimal techno and woozy sort of Boards-of-Canada-like textures, through to sparse and much more organic piano and slide guitar compositions, finally landing on some more house-influenced and industrial sounds towards the game's climax."

Playing Duet is like getting lost, and Shiel's music is an integral part of that. The game recommended that you play with headphones and, while you can certainly play with the sound turned off — on public transport, for example — to do so would be missing out on a deeply mesmerising auditory experience. We hope, and Shiel hopes too, that he continues to work in the local games industry.

Meanwhile, Shiel is happy with his first foray into working in gaming development. "I'm really proud of it," he said. "It's quite challenging but feels so rewarding when you master it. I'm still a few levels from the end and I've been playing it for months. I also think Kumobius have done a great job in really giving the game a distinct personality and aesthetic, hopefully I helped with that too."

Duet can be picked up for AU$2.99 from the iTunes Store, and the game's soundtrack can be picked up from Bandcamp here.



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