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Spending five years composing a game: The music from Below

Plumbing the depths with composer Jim Guthrie

Call it exploration; call it trial and error. Capybara Games’ Below took six years to make, and in that period composer Jim Guthrie had an unprecedented amount of time to experiment and find the right sound for the game’s musical score. Equal parts Disasterpeace and Vangelis, with shades of C418 and Tangerine Dream, the result shows its history in its depth.

In Below, players inhabit a lone adventurer known as the Wanderer. Carrying traditional gear like a sword, shield, and bow, the Wanderer begins the game washed ashore on a storm-beaten island. After building a fire and finding a lantern, the player seeks shelter in the cavernous ruins at the island’s center: a vast, procedurally drawn dungeon called the Depths. This is a roguelike RPG, with elements of titles such as Hyper Light Drifter and Spelunky, made fiercely difficult by the ever-present threat of permanent death. Every time the player ventures deeper into the underworld, the fog of the unknown parts, they forge new pathways and experiences unique to that Wanderer’s journey. With each new descent, everything changes — including the music.

Below was the ultimate lesson in how to roll with it,” Guthrie says. “I started off doing one thing, and because the game took so long and I had so much time to think about it and sort of explore, I came across ideas that I wouldn’t have, had I done all the music inside of six months.”

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Playful experimentation has served him well. One of Guthrie’s claims to fame is that he’s often used an old Sony PlayStation, along with a program called MTV Music Generator, to write and record music. Using a PS1 controller as his instrument, he made an impression with his soundtracks for Capybara’s 2011 adventure game Sword & Sworcery and 2012’s Indie Game: The Movie.

Sword & Sworcery was definitely a turning point.” But writing music for games, he says, has felt like a kind of homecoming. “In a way, my detour started when I thought I should maybe be a singer-songwriter. I’ve always really been into instrumental music, and I’ve made a lot of instrumental music on all of my solo records. When you’re young and full of angst, all you want to do is bash the guitars and drums and kind of rock out. You don’t want to sit down and write a fucking score.”

Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, video games were a constant presence for Guthrie, but he was never “a hardcore gamer,” the Toronto-based composer says. For decades, he played and sang in indie rock bands, releasing cassette tapes, CDs, digital EPs, and LPs. “Over the years,” he says, “I sort of realized I actually don’t like playing live. I’ve played live a ton; I’ve toured all over the world. But then I found, doing stuff for film and TV and video games, that I could afford to stay home and just play for those. I was sort of like, ‘Man, I’ve totally arrived in the place that I want to be.’”

And Guthrie’s soundtrack for Below is the culmination of five years of experimentation.

Occasionally, he and creative director Kris Piotrowski would collaborate on specific game design beats. “I would sometimes do a piece of music, and maybe they would sort of make the game around a particular song. Other times, I would have to write stuff to a specific cue or beat or locked pattern,” he says. Mostly, though, “I just made a ton of music, and Kris found places for it.”

They had long talks about their vision for the project, which of course evolved over the span of the five-plus years Guthrie worked on it. At the outset, he’d write tracks that were catchier, more song-based, and those compositions sound nothing like the finished product, he says. “It was a totally different time. We were all in a different place. The game was in a different place.”

There’s a folder on his computer that once held more than five hours of music intended for Below. Today, the final soundtrack clocks in at an hour and seventeen minutes.

“It’s a lonely, solitary, sort of reflective game; it’s not fast-paced. You do a lot of walking around and a lot of exploring,” Guthrie says. “Over the course of making it, Kris was kind of responding to the more droney, atmospheric material — things that didn’t have beats or really a have a melody. So I had to change gears, and then I really got what he was trying to achieve. We were always searching.” For Guthrie, that search involved a studio full of hardware. “I have lots of toys now. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and so I have a lot of gear. But you don’t always get to use all of it on one record.”

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Listen to a handful of tracks from Below, and you’ll hear an acoustic guitar; electric guitars; Prophet-6 and Teenage Engineering OP-1 synthesizers; an ancient, floppy-disk-driven Akai rack sampler; space-age guitar effects like the Strymon BigSky reverb and TimeLine delay; and the Electro-Harmonix Superego synth pedal. And those are just the ones Guthrie can name off the top of his head.

“I remember trying to get inside the mind of the Wanderer in the game,” he says. “I tried to imagine how lonely and mysterious this quest would be, and picture that state of mind where you’re in this really messed-up space and, at any turn, you could get stabbed and die and bleed out. Because the game is sort of unforgiving. But at the same time, we didn’t want to make battle music; that’s just not the pace that we wanted to set.” Despite the game’s difficulty, the score is ambient, inviting, and at times utterly serene. This, Guthrie supposes, is meant to try and calm the player where they might otherwise grow frustrated.

A few years ago, he happened upon a series of YouTube tutorials about a studio technique using a four-track cassette recorder. The idea was to record a single, sustained note — hence the EHX Superego — and stack it on top of several similar, harmonic pitches to form a chord.

“You record that drone for one whole side of the tape,” Guthrie says, “so it’s like a 30-minute drone. Then I did that on the other three tracks, so I had four different chords made up of drones. And you basically run all that through a bunch of delay and reverb. You press play on the tape, and then you can essentially play the faders, and just swell the volume up and down really slowly and cycle through different chords. That’s when we hit a mood that was really dark and pretty, and sort of lonely. I managed to get a lot of mileage out of that.”

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“You want to write stuff that goes with the territory,” he adds. “If you can just write for whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, and you can listen to it and figure out what the game or the movie needs, then I think you’ll be successful. You have to be patient, and try new things, and you have to have a certain intention in mind.”

In a game, as opposed to a film or television show, players’ decisions affect the character movements, and therefore the flow of action in a single frame — as well as how often one scene (or screen) gives way to the next. “The player is the director, but we’re also directing the player without them knowing it. They’re making their own decisions, but it’s all designed. So you have to anticipate that the player might not play it exactly as you intended. And you can overthink it,” Guthrie says.

And Below had its own particular set of artistic needs. When the player falls in battle against a monster of the Depths, or steps in a bear trap on the cave floor and dies, a new Wanderer sails to the isle to claim the lantern from the departed: Each new life is, in fact, a new life. This alone required the score to change. Die and respawn, and you might hear fresh dynamics, a different key, new instrumentation.

“I’ve done records, I’ve toured, I’ve scored movies, and I’ve done advertising. With games, it’s all music, in the end,” Guthrie says. “But you do have to consider that some players might hear the same thing a thousand times in like an hour, so if you know that’s gonna happen, you can’t write a loud heavy-metal piece at three hundred beats per minute. You have to design the experience knowing how often things will play; you have to get the emotional tone of whatever you’re trying to do right.”

“It’s easy to screw up,” he says. “And the people who play it will tell you if we were successful or not at trying to gauge that pace, and to create a magical environment that also feels dangerous and spooky and beautiful. It was a real challenge, for sure.”

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