Welcome to LadiesGamers new series of articles. Years ago music in games was 8-bit music or chiptunes composed of simple computerized blips and bloops. It’s come a long way since the days of 8-bit music. Not only in the triple-A titles but also in the indie titles. Independent game developers pay more attention to in-game music than they ever did. To gamers, the music in the game can help the game. It brings the whole package together to immerse you into the gameplay.
So we thought it was time to introduce some of the composers of our favourite game soundtracks and ask them a few questions. We feel that composers of game soundtracks are entitled to lots of praise for the excellent work they do on in the game.
For the first in our series, Max LL, composer of the soundtrack for Spiritfarer, has agreed to chat with us.
Composer Max LL
How did your journey into music composition begin?
I’ve been writing music since picking up the guitar at 14 years old. I very quickly realized that writing songs and melodies felt more appealing to me than learning already existing music. Then I started playing in a heavy metal band throughout high school, we used to organize charity concerts which was a great learning experience. Meanwhile, I also started discovering the world of cinema and film music around that time. So I kept writing songs after school hours during my teenage years. I think deep inside I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music but somehow strayed from it for a few years while I completed my bachelor’s degree in business.
After completing my degree, I travelled for half a year around Asia which really helped me gain perspective on a lot of things and led me to conclude I would not be happy in life if I didn’t do music for a living. I came back home and started working towards that goal. I recorded and produced my first solo album and played a few concerts around Montreal. Some people working in the film industry heard it, which led to my first scoring opportunities. Years later, William Dubé, the drummer of the metal band I used to play with in high school, decided to start his own game studio, now known as Thunder Lotus Games, the makers of Spiritfarer.
Composing for Video Games
Did you always want to work in video games?
I played video games as a teenager but never envisioned working in the field. So many of my childhood memories are interlaced with playing the Ocarina of Time, games were part of my life but pursuing a career in the video game industry was not something people talked about in my circles. A lot of that has changed since, the video game industry has really taken off here in Montreal and it’s now a very tangible career path, but the context was different in the mid-2000s. When I started my music career around 2012, I simply wanted to write music for stories, no matter the medium.
Can you explain how you might compose a new piece of work for a video game, such as Spiritfarer?
For me, it all starts with the story, concept and artwork. To me, those are enough to inspire me with melodies, themes, arrangement ideas, etc. After having the first creative discussions with the team, I usually rush back to the studio to write a first theme suite, which usually becomes the main theme for the game. During winter 2018, I wrote the track Spiritfarer when the game was still only in its early stages. I instantly fell in love with the story, the themes, the artwork, everything about the idea was inspiring to me. I sat down at the piano and composed for a few days to get the most basic essence of the melodies right before moving on to arrangements, orchestration and instrument recording.
What would you consider the most challenging aspect of composing music for a game?
I love writing music that is memorable, that has lots of thematic development and counterpoint, but that can sometimes be distracting if the music needs to be looped as it’s often the case in video game music. Writing music that is interesting, memorable, enjoyable and that doesn’t become intrusive when repeated over and over again is definitely an art. It was one of the biggest challenges when writing some of the “boat” music in Spiritfarer (such as At Sea and At Night).
How does scoring for video games differ from the compositions you create for film and or television?
The most obvious difference is that video games are interactive, while a film will never change once the picture is locked. I love to compose for both approaches. There’s an immense creative potential that’s unlocked with interactive media that you don’t have in film but I also love the way films are permanent and locked in time. Everyone will witness the same story, images and music throughout the years, yet each individual experience will be different.
Can you play a musical instrument? If so, what do you play and how long have you been playing?
My main instruments are guitar and piano, but I’ve learned to play a lot of different instruments over the years, namely flute, bass, santur, charango, Ronroco, percussions and a few others. They’ve become interesting textures I can add to my compositions when needed. I collaborate with some gifted players here in Montreal when I need to record strings.
What inspires you to make music?
I gather inspiration from a variety of different sources, but I’m usually most inspired when I’m out of the studio, experiencing life. I’ve spent about a third of my time in the past 10 years abroad. I learn so much about myself, others and the world from being immersed in a different country and culture for long periods of time. Some of my most inspiring moments were experienced while I was travelling in Iran, India, Nepal, Tajikistan, Bolivia…to name a few.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I’m inspired by so many composers, musicians and artists so that’s a very hard question to answer. I guess a safe answer would be to say that I’ve been gently rocked by John Williams’ music since early childhood. As so many of the films that I loved growing up had his musical signature. The music that I write is very different from his. But I think some of the emotional DNA of his musical language has been forever imprinted in me.
Of which works are you most proud?
Writing my album Golestan was a huge challenge for me. I was trying to convey the indescribable emotions and experiences I felt while travelling in Central Asia and Iran for 5 months in 2014. I wanted to write music that embodied the beauty and richness of Iranian culture. Also the kindness and impassioned nature of the people and their resilience in facing the hardship and challenges the country had to go through in the past half-century. It was an impossible task. I’m still not sure if I accomplished what I set out to do. However, the title track is nonetheless one of the songs I’m most proud of.
Advice for Others
What advice would you give to young people starting out in the music business as a video game composer or composer?
I often get asked this question. I think the most important thing would be to write your own music. To develop your own style and musical identity before pursuing scoring opportunities. Nearly every opportunity I’ve had has come from my personal solo projects or albums. People heard the music I was writing on my own time. That leads them to become interested in collaborating with me for a film or video game project.
Developing your own musical identity is important. Getting better at writing, recording, producing, and arranging can be a very important part of the learning process at the beginning of a career. Even if I don’t have as much time as I used to. I still set aside some moments to compose music for my own projects. It is what helps me grow as a composer.
You can find Max LL’s website here, where you can view and listen to some of his music samples. Max also has a Spotify page, where you can check out his music and listen to the outstanding soundtrack for Spiritfarer.
LadiesGamers would like to thank Max for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us.