New horizons: Disasterpeace on Hyper Light Drifter and stepping back from soundtracks

You might not recognise the name Rich Vreeland, but when I tell you that he was the man behind the scores for Fez, The Floor is Jelly, and more...

You might not recognise the name Rich Vreeland, but when I tell you that he was the man behind the scores for Fez, The Floor is Jelly, and more recently the horror flick It Follows, you’ll probably look at me, brow furrowed, and explain “no, you mean Disasterpeace”.

Of course, you’d be right. Vreeland, a.k.a award-winning soundsmith Disasterpeace, has shot to fame in recent years, with the New York-born composer becoming a beacon for video game music thanks to his mesmerising work on Polytron’s dimension-bending platformer, Fez.

Since then he’s been putting his considerable talents to good use outside of the games industry, focusing on film and animation projects, as well as performing live and giving talks around the world.

Fortunately for us, Vreeland managed to take some time out of his busy schedule to attend this year’s GDC conference in San Francisco, where we caught up with the man himself to find out more about his work on Heart Machine’s gorgeous retro-inspired exploration title, Hyper Light Drifter.

Side One: What’s it like collaborating with someone using audio tools, like you did on Hyper Light Drifter? Could you talk us through the process?

Rich Vreeland: We usually start simple, and then I’ll play the game a bit and try to figure out what makes sense. In this context, in the case of Hyper Light Drifter, Alex – Heart Machine’s head honcho – had a pretty clear idea about the structure of the music in that it shouldn’t be too procedural or anything like that. So, knowing that, we created the simplest tools, but they still gave us the ability to create a piece of music and break it up into lots of layers that could be faded in and out as players move through worlds.

Do you benefit from communing with nature and spending time away from the office?

Yeah, getting away from games and from my work is so vital for me. I gained so much motivation and inspiration from communing with nature, having routine doing things like meditating every day, doing yoga, playing sports, socialising, and doing things that have nothing to do with work. All of those things keep me balanced, and when I do work, I think they allow me to be more efficient over the long term, because I’m less prone to burning out.

I live on the outskirts of the city, in the suburbs in Berkeley, and I have a nice quiet place. I like to get away for periods of time, take it really slow. For example, my morning routine is very slow: I meditate, do some exercise, take a walk, do some reading, drink tea, and usually I don’t get to work until 1pm. After that I’ll work until I feel I’ve done a satisfactory amount for the day.

How long have you been meditating and doing yoga?

Probably about three years, so it’s relatively new, but I definitely felt a huge improvement in my energy level and my ability to just handle things in general.

Getting back to Hyper Light Drifter, your job is to create an emotional palette for the game, so has the game’s creator Alex explained to you what the drifter is dealing with, emotionally and physically?

Yeah, I mean it’s broad strokes. There’s a general trajectory for the character, and I know what that is, and that certainly influences that composition to some extent, but most of the music is contextualised based on locations, and the culture and history of the places that you visit.

Is the game built on this concept of meditational mortality? 

Yeah. Alex and Cassie have the clearest sense of the overarching themes of the game, and how those ideas play into it on a more specific level. I have a general sense of the arc of the character and what he’s going through and how that changes, but it is pretty much broad strokes.

“When I feel comfortable and confident in the direction that I’m going, then that’s the way I generally like to work.”

I think that’s okay though, because of the way that we’re depicting things in the game, you know, there’s no dialogue, there’s a lot of area for interpretation.

There’s no dialogue and that partly harkens back to the Super Nintendo era of action RPGs. I was reading about how The Legend of Zelda has inspired the aesthetic of Hyper Light Drifter, does that era, that kind of game, hold a special place in your heart?

My first RPG experience was Super Mario RPG, and that completely engrossed me. I came in and played a lot of that game. I’ve played a lot of Super Nintendo, and yeah, my relationship with RPGs is strong.

There were a couple of games I was really fond of, and outside of that I cultivated an appreciation for some of the music. That’s not really where I am these days, but it definitely a big influence on the game.

So, Alex doesn’t like to throw out names of games because he doesn’t want to limit your creativity?

Well, we have a playlist of music that we share and talk about, but most of the specifics of the music is up in the air. Honestly, I think Alex trusts me to do what I do. When I feel comfortable and confident in the direction that I’m going, then that’s the way I generally like to work. I’m happy to defer to somebody if they have a really strong vision, but I think Alex’s vision for the game suited my style.

Do you see independent games as an area where there’s a greater degree of volunteerism, where people are choosing to make the games that they want to make? Alex isn’t making any artistic compromises, he’s making exactly the game he wants to make. Is that in line with your vision of doing what’s right?

When people are working for people who don’t have their interests at heart, who are stopping them from expressing themselves in the most meaningful way, I usually take issue with that. I’ve come up against that in my own career, and I’ve tried to move away from that over the years. I certainly think there are a lot of games that are more valuable than others, but, of course, that’s my opinion. There’s always a level of subjectivity in those kind of things.

What was it about the Hyper Light Drifter pitch that made you feel like it was a title of value? 

The things I saw from the very beginning were artistically inspiring, and I think artistic inspiration is extremely valuable. Whenever somebody says “I listened to your Fez soundtrack and it really helped kick on with my own project”, that’s proof to me that I don’t need to be saving the world to have a positive impact.

“I certainly think there are a lot of games that are more valuable than others, but, of course, that’s my opinion.”

When I feel comfortable and confident in the direction that I’m going, then that’s the way I generally like to work.

So, when it came to Hyper Light Drifter, I was inspired by the game’s aesthetic and its obvious potential. 

What other games have you played that you felt gave something back, where you felt there was a degree of artistic integrity?

Certainly in the last couple of years there have been maybe a dozen games that I felt that way about: games like Threes, Monument Valley, Kentucky Route Zero, 80 Days, and Papers Please. Games like those have a side value but they also have some other utility as well.

Sometimes it’s bringing up a social question like Papers Please, or sometimes there’s just this beautiful design like Threes, which is this beautiful little thing. Games have this amazing power to convey different, complex ideas in a variety of ways. Sometimes they tell a story and sometimes they don’t, while on some occasions they give you the ability to tell your own story. There’s this amazing breadth of possibility. 

Have you ever had the chance to speak with any of those developers?

Yeah, sometimes we talk online, or I’ll talk to them right after I’ve played their game.

I think there’s value in learning about the processes and sharing information, but also in just telling someone that you genuinely appreciate what they’re doing. Yeah, that’s very valuable, because I think as human beings we need all the motivation we can get.

I think you’re incredibly prolific. There are a lot of people who would like to be more motivated, more creative, but, for one reason or another, it’s just doesn’t happen. Do you simply spend more time working than other people, or it there more to it than that? 

I don’t know. I would say that I push myself really hard, but I’m also incredibly discerning about the projects I take on.

When you say you push yourself really hard, are you hard on yourself? Are you self-punishing?

Yeah, well, I try to be a little self-punishing. I can go a little overboard sometimes, but for the most part I try to set high standards for myself. I want each project I work on to mean something, I want it to have value, I want it to be different from other things that I’ve done, and I want to it allow me to continue moving forward as an artist and explore new ideas.  

“I try to be a little self-punishing, and I try to set high standards for myself. I want each project I work on to mean something.”

Those are all things I hold myself to, and if I’m not reaching that goal then I will make a very strong attempt to right that.

How do you know when you have something? Is it an emotional response that you have to music?

It’s definitely an emotional response. You hit this level and it’ll make you smile or laugh. It’ll just click.

How are you feeling about your Hyper Light Drifter score at this point? Does it stands out from your previous work?

For the most part we know what it sounds like. We’re in the latter stages. Aesthetically there are different parallels between it and Fez, but the actual function of the music is different. The music in Fez isn’t as subtle.

I think what we’re doing with Hyper Light, we’re creating these enormous pieces of music, like the backer demo that we did last year, it’s about thirty levels, and we created about 20 minutes of music for it, and it’s all thematically part of the same piece and it builds up very slowly.  There’s a lot of ambiance in that, so I think at times it doesn’t capture as much of the player’s attention. It serves a different function than the music in Fez, because I think, more often than not, the music in Fez demands your attention.

Will you try and keep the interactive aspects of the score when you come to turn it into an album?

I don’t even think about that until the game is done. With the soundtrack, it generally takes at least a couple of weeks to put together. For a game like Hyper Light Drifter, however, it will probably take me a month, if not more, because of the level of granularity in the music. There are so many intricate segments that are all coming and going depending on how you move to the world.

Do you like the fact that game audio has a granular dimension?

Yes and no. It gets so intellectually and so compositionally intensive, I think writing music that can branch in all these different ways is incredibly complicated, which is why I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who are good at that. I saw a talk about two or three years ago by Paul Ipson and Tom Saulta, who worked on a sci-fi title based on procedurally generated in-game trailers that varied different races of aliens, the narrative arcs of battles, and the outcomes of matches.

They had to create different modules for all of these different possible outcomes, and there were just so many variables, but they still managed to create an insane lot of music.  The branching system meant they had to stitch different sections together, but it worked out incredibly well.

“I’m coming to a point where I need to figure out a little bit more about what I want to do as a composer, and as a creator.”

I like working on projects that aren’t insane in scope. There’s a lot about working on huge games that’s really admirable, but I enjoy being able to work on something for a couple of months before letting go and moving on to something else. I don’t like to work on the same thing for years at a time, because part of my work ethic is to try and lead a relatively balanced life and not stress myself out.

Do you think you’re achieving that? Are you happy with where you are in life right now?

I’m really happy with the projects that I’m working on right now. I think I’m coming to a crossroads though, where I need to take a step back and re-evaluate what I’m doing and figure out what the next step is.

I’ve been doing music for a while, maybe eight or seven years, and I’ve not had much time to write music purely for the sake of writing music. There are things I’d like to try, that I’d have to fund myself, that’ll give me the freedom to explore my own ideas.

Of course, that’s been an amazing path and outlet for me so far, because it’s given me the chance to do all of these diverse things and to really stretch and push myself in different ways. It’s been phenomenal, but I’m coming to a point where I need to figure out a little bit more about what I want to do to as a composer, and as a creator.

Thanks to Rich for his time. To find out more about Rich, you can check out his official website by clicking right here

Rich was interviewed at GDC by our good friends at The Ongaku, who you can follow on Twitter using this link. We’d like to extend an enormous thank you to Jerry and the team for their help with this article. 

[photo credit: Nika Aila States]