With the OST & Artbook DLC for Blind Sky Studios’s ‘Mandagon’ now available to purchase through Steam, now seemed like a good time to publish the next part of the ‘Mandagon: Sound Design’ blog posts (following on from my previous post about the Movement).
*SPOILER ALERT: A good number of people have now played and completed this game (far more than I’d ever imagined!), so I feel it’s appropriate to talk about all aspects of it. If you haven’t completed it and want to avoid spoilers, please don’t read on until you’ve finished it (HLTF suggest it takes around 35 minutes)*
As is typically the case, Tom showed me the initial artwork and a first draft of the gameplay, then sent over a link to some music he felt would fit the bill (this very link infact!). After 10 seconds of listening I had a rough impression of what he was looking for, and set to work! In general I like to take as vague a starting point as possible so that I can fill in the blanks, and the more blanks the better!
While there was a clear setting for the game (“a world inspired by Tibetan theology and philosophy”) I didn’t specifically set out to recreate the actual instrumentation associated with such a place. While there are clear references (the perpetual gongs, the shakuhachi, the lower drones), I wanted to be able to re-imagine them and warp them, trying to create something like a distant memory of what they were.
It should also be mentioned that I also built the sounds around what my software was the most comfortable with. At my level of skill with the soft synths available I typically find that percussive instruments (harps, gongs, crotales etc.) sound much better to my ears than more melodic/sustained instruments (such as violins, trumpets, clarinets…), specifically when used melodically (rather than chordally/as an accompaniment), so for the sake of economy I made a lot of decisions around this!
Fairly early on I’d decided that the main body of the game should be in C major, or at least using only ‘white notes’. To me, C major’s a very ‘human’ key - it’s the most ‘simple one’ because humanity decided that it should be through the layout of the keyboard and a whole archive of musical history, and thus it is. This decision/limitation gave a harmonic structure which was incredibly loose whilst providing a good deal of freedom - I could use any white notes I wanted and they’d all roughly ‘work’ together, which was essential for a game with a pseudo-adaptive soundtrack; a sound world created by the player’s own exploration.
When it came to making the music for the inside of the temple, the immediate thought was to make the music from black notes. This sort of technique’s been used over and over again throughout the years (most notably in György Ligeti. ‘Éjszaka’) and my first draft, built around using bichords with a long-releasing pad, got Tom’s approval first time!
The idea of setting a new layer of music when each of the tablets was placed was apparent from Tom’s initial description of the game’s objectives. As a composer for video games I’m always trying to work out ways of using audio in a more organic, adaptive way, and from a technical perspective it was relatively easy for Lee to program (‘collect Tablet 1, play Layer 1’)!
It was then a case of making six layers of interlocking audio which would happily run independent of one another. Having set up the ‘C major’ aesthetic (as described in ‘Language’) this boiled down to roughly deciding what ranges I wanted each to fill (bass, mid, treble…) so they’d all be able to ‘speak over one another’ (technical EQing term right there!) and then building them. In general most of the music heard is the first draft - Tom asked me to tone down a few, and requested one be an actual melody rather than an ambient texture, but in general the feeling was set from the beginning.
For actually writing the music I found that treating it cinematically really helped - Tom provided me with a fairly substantial gameplay demo which I then scored as if it were a film, which was of huge help when working on the sound design (I just looked back at my previous article and realised I’ve said this before, but it REALLY helped and was a lesson of huge value). This allowed me to test the music in situ, assisting in tieing the audio to the visuals and trying to make sure that the audio always complimented, never consumed.
And there we go - you can hear all the music as it was intended to be heard by downloading Mandagon for free via Steam, or listen to a newly arranged 22 minute collage soundtrack by purchasing the OST DLC (again, via Steam).
Thanks for reading!