Beyond chiptune

 
 

Chiptune maestro Disasterpeace talks to Niall Gosker about scoring the masterful soundtrack to indie hit Fez and what’s coming next

Rich Vreeland, or Disasterpeace as he’s more commonly known, is part of an ever-growing group of extremely talented composers working in the indie games scene. He’s best known for scoring the critically acclaimed 2012 puzzle platformer Fez, for which he won the admiration of both fans and peers alike, with a genre-breaking soundtrack that’s arguably one of the greatest of this, or any, console generation.

Like many musicians, music was introduced to Vreeland from a young age. “My mother and step-father were involved in the music ministry at our church, and used to have band practices in the basement. I used to sneak down there and play the drums, which just happens to be a very indiscreet activity.”

His passion for the medium led to him attending Berklee College of Music, after which he joined the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab; a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Singaporean government designed to explore potential new directions for video games.

It was during this scheme that Vreeland scored his first formal soundtracks, although his initial venture had actually occurred years earlier when he was a teenager. “I posted some of my music on a fantasy wrestling forum when I was a teenager and the CEO of a mobile software company contacted me to write some general MIDI music for their games. It was such a fun experience that after that I knew I wanted to get more involved.”

All of this experience was building towards Fez, a milestone that would not only be a career-defining moment for Vreeland, but also a hugely important release in the evolution of video game music in general. Speaking of its genesis, Vreeland says, “It’s definitely inspired by old-school game music, and has a lot of the same timbres, but without the various limitations that go along with it.

“I tried to contemporize the notion of writing a retro game soundtrack by generally trying to bypass game music tropes, and focus more on approaching the music as if it were part of a cinematic experience.” He certainly succeeded in this goal, with the score shattering barriers for chiptune, the result of a beautifully powerful weaving of the ambient and active.

Fez was primarily designed and created by Phil Fish, a divisive figure known for his outspokenness. For Vreeland, the experience of working with Fish was very much a positive one. “We had a very symbiotic relationship. We were in step from the beginning and generally things worked out very well. I put new material into the game regularly, so Phil and co. could hear it and give feedback, if any, but we were generally on the same wavelength. We were lucky.”

Not so lucky was the follow up to Fez, which was cancelled earlier this year only several months after having been revealed. Vreeland was set to reprise his role as composer but Fish no longer wanted to work in an industry that was so openly hostile and antagonistic towards him. “It’s a shame,” comments Vreeland on not just the cancellation itself but also of the unfortunate circumstances in which the entire debacle occurred.

When it comes to music, games of course aren’t Vreeland’s only interests, having already released a number of standalone albums. Doing so has brought more sharply into focus the differences between regular music composition and game music composition. “Games require you to think holistically and to think about music as a part of a greater whole, and how that comes into play,” he says.

“The order in which the music is experienced can also be quite non-linear and on that same note there are a lot of possibilities for creating unique interactions with music and sound that are foreign to the album format.”

Mainstream game soundtracks have, for the most, imitated the orchestral styling of film. This approach has yielded some unforgettable music, yet there’s a fatigue and lack of inspiration beginning to set in. Thankfully, indie composers have picked up the slack, often outclassing their bigger budget peers. The volume of genuinely great indie musical talent is staggering, with the likes of Vreeland, C418, Danny Baranowsky, Ben Prunty, and many more having made an indelible mark on the industry.

“It’s easier to do what you want on a smaller team. Money and other common facets of business tend to be secondary to the artistic merit of what you are doing. This method generally results in more unusual, unfettered output. Larger projects may sound great and may be very polished, but can suffer from a tendency to play it safe.”

Looking ahead, new projects are already on the horizon for Vreeland. He’ll take charge of musical duties on Kickstarter success Hyper Light Drifter, the 2D action RPG having greatly surpassed its modest $27,000 funding goal by over half a million dollars.

“Alex [Preston] reached out to me a few days before the Kickstarter launched and expressed interest in having me on board. He apparently had me in mind all along, so I was excited to be part of something like that, where he specifically envisioned me, and also I was really impressed by the aesthetic and the tone of the project.”

With Vreeland’s relatively recent rise to prominence as one of the premier composers in gaming, his next endeavour is set against new and extremely high expectations. Reassuringly though, given both his track record and the brief teaser of Hyper Light Drifter’s soundtrack already released, there’s little reason to doubt that lightning won’t strike twice.

To hear Disasterpeace’s music for yourself, visit www.disasterpeace.com

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