The Music of Heroes Must Die: Variations on a Dramatic Theme
For my first contribution to the blog, I decided to look back at the first piece of music I wrote for Heroes Must Die nearly a year ago. This is the first of many musical contributions I will share throughout year as the soundtrack develops. Some tracks will be uploaded in a near-final state, others may merely be rough sketches, but my goal is to share content on a regular basis to give you, dear reader, an inside look at the evolution of the game soundtrack and insight into the creative process behind each track. While you're here, I recommend you check out the first blog post from our Music Supervisor and fellow composer Will Seegers. His expertise in developing and polishing the Heroes Must Die soundtrack is invaluable. Actually, I recommend you check out all of the developer content in our ongoing series of blog posts as this game progresses.
I won't go into a lot of detail about the plot of Heroes Must Die, but the game contains a vast and complex narrative with a maturity that will far exceed many of its peers in the realm of indie RPGs. As such, the soundtrack must accommodate a variety of characters, environments and events as the story unfolds based on the player's choices. So how does one go about starting an ambitious and sprawling musical project such as this? When I started my first piece, "Variations on a Dramatic Theme" (awesome title!), the story was far from complete and I had only a general idea of the how the overarching story was to unfold. I did, however, have an understanding of how the opening scene of the game was to unfold, and the main characters that would set major events in motion.
I decided to develop a prominent theme connected to the interactions of three main characters, Storm, Angelica, and Lord Murder. I would then alter that theme through two distinct variations, which represent events that significantly affect the characters' relationships. I only knew at the time that the musical content would follow a basic emotional arc of "calm --> struggle --> triumph --> final resolution". While the initial theme may play during a tranquil or intimate moment between the heroes, the second section of the piece (variation 1) distorts the peaceful nature of the opening theme and signals the entrance of a villain or the onset of tragedy. The final section (variation 2) will likely connect to a moment of hope or triumph, in which the heroes turn the tide of events in their favor after enduring doubt and despair. Again, the connections between music, gameplay, and narrative are still flexible at this stage of game development, but I feel that the music is general enough that it could be incorporated into a wide variety of situations in the game. It's also important to keep in mind that on their own, these variations are not very long and will need to be developed further in order to stand alone in the game. While it's possible that this piece could be incorporated into the game in its current form for a particular scene, it is more likely that the individual sections will be extended and modified to fit specific scenarios.
If you've explored the media on HMD's site, you may notice that the game is artistically and structurally inspired by 16-bit era RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and early entries in the Final Fantasy series. I drew my own inspiration for the opening theme from two beloved examples of classic RPG music: The title theme from Secret of Mana and Aeris's character theme from Final Fantasy VII. In each example the melodic piano is supported by synth string chords. The tempo, instrumentation, harmonic progressions and melodic structures are highly similar between the two pieces, relying on wide leaps in pitch and shifting between major and minor chords. The result in each case is an emotionally stirring piece of music that beautifully compliments each game.
The major challenge I find in writing about music is how to make it more than an exercise in dry, academic analysis. Since music is a temporal, auditory art, the reader needs to have a means of directly experiencing the music, rather than merely reading about it. But this poses yet another challenge - how does the reader/listener accurately follow my description of the music as it is playing without getting lost or confused as to what I'm trying to describe in the listening process? To avoid boredom and confusion as much as possible, I created a Youtube video of the recording with annotations describing musical events as they occur throughout the piece. As you play the video, please make sure annotations are enabled for the full effect.