Last November while browsing my life away, I decided to check on a game that was released in the late 90s. You see it’s a tradition of mine to replay Banjo-Kazooie every couple of years, a game that for most is memorable not only for its unique twist on the platforming genre, but also for its music. Many years have passed since Rare Ltd. (formerly known as Rareware) delivered a game of such quality and simple fun.
I started to yearn for another game like Banjo Kazooie, I looked and played through multiple platforming games, but none of them would satisfy me. Mario games are great but they don’t have the sheer amount of collectables, while on the other hand Donkey Kong 64 had more collectibles that anyone could handle.
That’s when it hit me... what happened to that interesting game that was once referred by Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez in 2012 as Wind Waker meets Banjo Kazooie?
The following year, A Hat in Time, under the guidance of Jonas Kærlev went through a successful Kickstarter campaign in which it met an array of interesting goals. Most importantly, unlike many ill fated projects, the developing team, Gears for Breakfast kept the communications open through their site, giving mini updates on the progress of the game. Almost a year ago a public alpha demo was released. People loved it, and the excitement for the game resurfaced. It looks gorgeous, plays great, but what piqued me the most was the quality of the music... It was simply astounding!
What started as a simple YouTube trek to listen to more tracks of the game, quickly evolved into something bigger. I stumbled upon the channel of the main composer of a Hat in Time. I decided to try my luck and asked him if he was interested on answering a few questions regarding his involvement of the game and the music creation process. To my surprise he agreed to answer the questions, and on December I received an email...
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, could you tell us about your role in A Hat in Time, how did you get involved in the project?
Hello, it’s my pleasure! I am Pascal Michael Stiefel and I am the Main Composer of the wonderful A Hat In Time. My job is to make sure each of the game’s imaginative worlds sound as good as they look whilst making sure everything else sounds as good as I can make it.
During the development process of “Hat” I have got to wear many different hats myself, including working on SFX sound design, audio programming and carefully play-testing the game. Kærlev, Lead Director, Writer & Programmer of A Hat In Time, contacted me in January 2014 with an exciting offer to work as Composer on their up-and-coming highly promising game and needless to say I was more than happy to take the opportunity.
How does it feel to be part of a team like Gears for Breakfast whose members are spread all over the world?
Working for Gears for Breakfast is a blast! It feels tremendous to be a part of such an extraordinary team and I feel very honored. Thanks to today’s stunning technology there are essentially no downsides compared to working in the real world as a team. You could argue there’s even some slight benefits. Albeit every one of us lives in different corners of the world and we are constantly connected. We have weekly sprint meetings online where each member gets assigned a clear-cut task and is then able to focus solely on that particular assignment. We talk about our ideas and opinions regularly and treat each other with respect and as equal colleagues. There are no bothersome distractions and if we ever need help or get lost, a brief message on Skype will quickly get us sorted.
In my personal opinion it is our director, Jonas, who makes working each day a joy. He has developed a good working strategy that allows us to produce such an enormous game even if we don’t know each other in-person.
All of our work is regularly sent to a specialized server containing the latest work files of each team member, this allows us to assemble an always up to date fresh game build. My favorite morning activity after waking is getting amazed by the truly impressive new work the vastly talented members have produced. It’s very compelling to see a game grow up in front of you like that.
Do you receive orders from the game director, Jonas Kærlev, on what kind of sound he’s looking for, or does he let you pitch your own ideas for the music arrangements?
Jonas and I make a strong team and the approach is different each time! Sometimes Jonas knows exactly what he wants and already has a very strong idea what would make a great fit for a tune. Sometimes neither of us has a clear vision of what we’re looking for and we will start discussing and planning our ideas and inspirations together to come up with something unique. Sometimes I get to pitch my own ideas and am able to freely follow my instincts and experiment to my hearts content.
Could you tell us a little bit about the music creation process?
Once I have a good idea of exactly what I am looking for I will start writing a detailed list containing all of the individual Instruments that I think would enhance the direction we’re looking for as well as writing down all of the emotions and characteristics that I would like the composition to hit.
I will load up the game and play the relevant section over and over, recording a game-play video in the process which I load directly into my Sequencer. This allows me to see the game in action during the entire composing process and it makes it much easier to see whether what I am writing actually matches up to the game and the given scene. I will start by figuring out the appropriate pulse, tempo and time signature of the song first and then I begin to carefully lay a strong chord foundation making up the harmonic landscape. It forms the soil which the entire melodic composition will rest upon later. From there I will work one note at a time until I am fully happy with the composition.
The music basically starts writing itself at that point. It’s a bit like fishing in a pond. All I have to do is pull out my fishing rod, make myself comfortable and cast my line into the pond of endless possibilities, melodies & harmonies. Then i wait until a “fish” bites the hook. However I still have to be on my guard and make sure I catch a good fish and the right kind of it as well since there’s quite a few of them down below. Each of them with their own quirks and otherworldly characteristics.
Once I have caught a pretty specimen that I personally like, I present said fish/song to Jonas, and if he decides he likes it as well then I know I have succeeded.
Of all the songs you have composed for the game, Which one has been your favorite composition to work on?
Composing for A Hat in Time has been fantastic. Each song is a challenge in itself and a unique experience, it’s genuinely difficult for me to pick a favorite composition. The vast imagination of Jonas and the entire team knows no bounds or limits. This allows me to pretty much create an open soundtrack without any restraints regarding genre and kind.
Our palette ranges from large-scale Orchestral to villainous Western, gentle Smooth Jazz, lively Big Band Swing to thunderous Metal. We have a massive diversity in styles and we’re just getting started here... I jokingly like to think to myself that by the end of the completion of A Hat In Time I will have worked through each genre/category of music at least once. I learned an immense amount in the process and it sure has made each song a fresh adventure with new vistas to learn and explore.
To be honest, my very favorite composition is always the latest one I am currently working on. It’s just such a joy to see the worlds of the game come alive and discover what those levels sound like. I personally believe this is due to the amazing work our Lead 3D Environment Art Director & Level Designer, William T. Nicholls, whose classy world designs have a vast sense of actual depth and are soaring with joyful verticality. It inspires a sense of freedom in the player that makes even the sole task of moving about a genuine delight. It’s just simply fun to write the music for a level like that. Furthermore it allows me to write complex music full of contrast, capturing all of the many characteristics and variations within the space of the levels. It’s definitely helpful that said worlds also happen look aesthetically pleasing and are exploding with color and detail thanks to the elegant Character and Concept Designs by our artistically talented dream-team Luigi Lucarelli & Shane Frost.
Nevertheless, I sometimes do get stuck writing a song. I actually find myself stopping and this can feel agonizing being unable to progress. In this situation I usually just open up the level, mute all of the sounds / music and just play the game for 24 hours straight if needs be. I play and listen until I get a flash of inspiration and all of a sudden my head goes “Oh so this is what it’s supposed sound like!”
The song that brought me agony and restless nights a few moments ago suddenly becomes my favorite composition all over again.
I have a question about a specific track in the build, Moon Jumper’s Theme, the track that used to play in the menu screen of the alpha build before the 5th patch release, it has this Kirkhope flair into it, but it also feels very Uematsu, could you talk a bit about how did this song was conceived?
Yes of course. Moon Jumper’s Theme has a particularly interesting background story as it has been created in a different way than most of the other tunes in the game.
It was the very first melodic composition that I wrote for A Hat In Time and whilst composing I had no idea where it would take place in the game. It became my own personal playground allowing me to absorb the unique essence and tone of the game and find a way to transform it into a musical shape. I had a lot of fun finding all the right kinds of instruments and melodies that would make a good match for the far-out character of the game. To me the song became a simple but faithful answer to the question: “What does A Hat in Time sound like?” (This might explain why we ended up using it in the title screen for a short while.)
Moon Jumper’s Theme also represents a sturdy bridge between the quirky and charming Kirkhopian way of writing and my own composing style, which is heavily influenced by the expressive and highly emotional works of Japanese game composers. More specifically composers like Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Hirokazu Tanaka, Kazumi Totaka and Joe Hisaishi, to name a few of my personal favorites.
The vivid memories of the songs of the games that I have played in my youth still remain strong as ever and continue to have undeniable influence on me even today. The theme has become a blueprint and point of reference for all of the other compositions that would follow, making sure all the different styles and flavors would combine into a satisfying whole.
Here is my detailed explanation of what’s happening in the tune: The first part of the of the Moon Jumper’s Theme opens with a charismatic but slightly kooky melody played on twisty Pizzicato Strings and Woodwinds accompanied by a lighthearted shaker rhythm. In the second part the Tuba and Bassoon section is introduced playing an Oompah rhythm reminiscent of what you would hear while playing Banjo-Kazooie. An Ostinato pattern played by a Celesta adds an air of unexplored mystery and solitude to the piece while at the very top of the music a high Music Box chirps its tiny melody that slowly builds towards the climax. In the third part we finally get to hear A Hat in Time’s signature instrument, the ever fascinating Theremin, with its sci-fi like sound being an excellent fit for the time travel elements of the game. The Theremin is playing the main melody of the piece accompanied by string instruments underscoring the unrefined beauty of the game and its many areas. At this point I employ a special Japanese composing technique which makes use of an extended library of chord harmonies, chromatic movement and gracious steady downward motions to invoke a sense of nostalgia and homecoming while at the same time making you wonder what kind of adventures might still lie ahead. Most of my compositions for the game ended up having a small section like that, that would focus entirely on positive aspects of the given scene. For the sake of contrast and simple player enjoyment.
After a lot of refining and fine-tuning I showed the piece to Jonas. He and the team liked it a lot and quickly figured:”This would make an awesome Theme for the Moon Jumper!”
There’s another fun story about the theme. One day I accidentally sent Jonas a wrong file, mistakenly containing an old version of the composition. According to the team the version I sent features a better build up and additional melodies that make it an overall more enjoyable experience than what we used in the game. What I sent turned out to be the prototype version of the song how it was before I actually started to “make it better” and polish it. Since I usually end up working quite a while on my songs , the arrangements become rather complicated and early versions of the song and alternate, unused content starts to pile up in the negative space of the project file. These are a bit like the minus worlds from Super Mario Bros. You never know what you are going to find.
This is the first part of my interview with Pascal Michael Stiefel, click here to read the second and final part in which I ask Pascal about the equipment he uses for composing the songs, his YouTube channel, the dynamic nature of the music and of course... the involvement of Grant Kirkhope!
You’re reading TAY, Kotaku’s community-run blog. TAY is written by and for Kotaku readers like you. We write about games, art, culture and everything in between. Want to write with us? Check out our tutorial here and join in. Also check Gears for Breakfast YouTube Channel to listen to more great tracks from the game, such as My Trusty Umbrella & Welcome to Mafia Town.
Follow J. Acosta on Twitter @Nach212 He may not tweet much, but when he does he may or may not have something interesting to say.