Chatting with Chris Christodoulou is fun for several reasons: his music kicks ass; he’s worked on unique and innovative projects including Risk of Rain and The Sea Will Claim Everything; and the guy has opinions to spare about the state of game music.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
“I’m not one to cling to melody when making music,” says Chris Christodoulou over a lunchtime Skype call. “[My scores are] the background music and the player is the melody. I want to support them. The music will drive them to play in different ways but they are the lead part.”
The Greek video game composer has made a name for himself in the indie space for his carefully crafted, genre-blending music. To him they’re not just soundtracks: he’s proud to parcel up his music and present it in standalone releases as if he was was a solo artist releasing an album (reminiscent of the approach taken by one of his favourite composers, Greek keyboardist Vangelis, with the seminal Blade Runner OST.)
Christodoulou composed the soundtrack for the 2013 crowdfunded roguelike hit Risk of Rain, which went on to sell over a million copies. He’s returned to score the sequel, a surprise March 2019 Early Access release that sold a million copies in just a few months. The work-in-progress Risk of Rain 2 is available across consoles and on PC, with a “1.0” released targeted for Spring 2020.
The reason for the timing of the interview? Experimental writer and game designer Jonas Kyratzes (The Talos Principle) laid down the gauntlet with a persuasive tweet:
“This is your irregular reminder that Chris Christodoulou is one of the best composers in this business and like all composers he is severely underappreciated by the world. Journalists! Write more about game music!”
Obviously, game music is our beat here at Laced With Wax — and journalists we ain’t — but we’ll take any old excuse to talk to talented creators, underappreciated or otherwise.
Christodoulou enjoyed a “pretty typical” musical upbringing: piano lessons, music school, and playing in bands. After falling in and out of love with music as a scholarly pursuit, and also losing the desire to perform live, he settled on composition as the thing to further pursue.
“I was a gamer so I enjoyed being in front of the computer a lot. I liked that part of music-making: acquiring [👀] a copy of Cubase and fiddling with the controls, starting to work out how the sausage is made. I was fascinated just being in my bedroom and making up a song. At some point I decided to explore more deeply and became more meticulous in my writing.”
After studying composition and music theory in Greece, he traveled to Amsterdam to obtain a Master’s degree in film scoring. “I started pursuing video game work right at the point following the surge in popularity of indie games and it became sustainable to work in games. It was the right time.”
Scoring an underappreciated gem
Christodoulou’s first video game project was the 2012 adventure game The Sea Will Claim Everything, developed by couple Jonas (writer) and Verenna Kyratzes (artist). The creators refer to the game as one of several ‘portals’ into the multimedia story universe Land of Dreams.
The composer explains: “I was looking for work and people that might be in the industry by cruising forums, blogs, Twitter, and so on. I'd sent thousands of emails most of which didn't receive an answer. Eventually I found a small Greek studio [Kyttaro Games], which was basically an indie group of four friends. Their job titles included 'designer', 'illustrator', 'programmer', but there was no ‘composer.’ I emailed them and said: ‘that's a great team, but it's lacking something…’" One of the four, designer Konstantinos Dimopoulos, known for his Game Cities work as a ‘Game Urbanist’, passed on Christodoulou’s details to the Kyratzeses — although he would return to work with Kyttaro at a later point.
Games by this small network of creators were modest in budget and scope but experimental in spirit and execution. Thus, the music was made on a shoestring. As someone who liked to be in complete control of every little musical detail, and who didn’t mind long hours behind the computer screen tweaking, Christodoulou was comfortable not being able to record live musicians.
He instead set himself the challenge of creating a score using digital instruments that could nonetheless be played by an ensemble, conforming to the physical rules of acoustic instruments. Taking inspiration from Greek traditional music, he translated island dances into his own style for opening track “The Sea Will Claim Everything, part I”
“As a control freak, I want to be able to constantly improve every little aspect. In 2012, digital sample-based instruments — especially orchestral instruments — were in a transitional phase in terms of quality. I would love to re-do the entire soundtrack with better samples or live recordings, ideally. It’s fully ‘composed’ music in the sense that I’m not just half-improvising by patching in violins to a keyboard and riffing. I could isolate the scores and they would make sense to instrumental performers.”
At the time, Adventuregamers.com named The Sea Will Claim Everything as the ‘Best Game No One Has Played’ in its 2012 Aggie Awards. Christodoulou pleads: “It’s much more important to me that people discover the game rather than I sell soundtracks.” Indeed, you can grab the OST for nothing (or pay what you want) on his BandCamp page. “We worked hard on it. We weren’t expecting to be ‘discovered’, but we simply love the game and want people to give it a chance.”
University of Washington students Paul Morse and Duncan Drummond formed US-based development team Hopoo Games (stylised simply hopoo) in 2012 to further their Metroidvania-roguelike project Risk of Rain. To improve the game — and to be able to afford things like hiring a composer — the pair ran a successful Kickstarter campaign with the game formally launching in November 2013 to rave reviews. It picked up Best Student Game at the 2014 Independent Games Festival Awards.
Christodoulou explains: “Prior to the launch of the Kickstarter, hopoo heard my music for Kyttaro’s mobile game Droidscape Basilica whilst browsing for musicians for Risk of Rain. They were talking about hiring a few different composers to contribute to the soundtrack. In my arrogance or naivety I said I’d love to do it, but that that approach would end up sounding messy and incoherent. I offered myself as sole composer — and my price must have been the cheapest at that time!” Fortunately, the partnership has been an “easy-going and comfortable one ever since.”
His score is much admired by the game’s fans, as evidenced by the frequent positive comments online. It fuses various flavours of electronica with sci-fi-tinged prog rock — and not a little funk. If you know your ‘80s soundtracks, it’s clear that Vangelis’ Blade Runner and Vince DiCola’s Transformers: The Movie were influences, among many others.
“Writing music for Risk of Rain was a weird experience. It was all done in my tiny bedroom studio in Amsterdam, which was essentially my entire living space. Looking back, I'm a little bit in awe of how fast it was written: I must have done the whole thing in about three months, which seems impossible to me now! My current process is much slower because of my development as a music producer.”
How to compose oneself
It’s a common path into the film/TV/games industries: a budding composer works on very small projects, often for little or no pay, builds up a portfolio, and gets hired for gradually bigger projects. Of course the process requires patience, perseverance, practise, and all the rest.
Composers starting out now have the option of interacting with a welcoming and celebratory video games music community rather than (or in addition to) hiding away in their studios. Through social media, events, concerts, music companies, cover collectives, and social distribution points (e.g. YouTube, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp) people coalesce around talented game composers and their works. Here at Laced With Wax we’ve sung the praises of composers who have emerged through indie games and embraced the community including Disasterpeace, Lena Rain, and Austin Wintory.
This community is something Christodoulou feels fondly about — even if he’ll playfully taunt people from time to time on Twitter. “It’s super important for indie game composers [to proactively connect with the community]; and I feel like it’s an advantage that they have over some composers for AAA games where their names can often be obscured. There are many big games where I don't know the composers.
“Especially as the indie scene was [enjoying a renaissance ~2008-2015], Bandcamp and social media have played a crucial role [in helping] composers interact with people who enjoy game music. Sometimes I get emails or comments from people who seem to think that as a game composer I’m untouchable or somehow detached from them. I’m just a guy in a room doing music! I'm a fan of music, they're a fan of music. It’s exciting to receive those emails and I take as much time as I can to reply to them.
“Sometimes my answers might seem a bit rote because there are a lot of the same questions about what inspires me to compose. I don't like the mysticism around inspiration. If you’ve spent a lot of time creating music, you just learn how to do it. I can park myself at the computer and compose something even if there’s a fire outside or my pet died. I can always turn out a couple of minutes because I’ve learned how to do it.
“I say this often to composers starting out: making commissioned music is a skill to be practised, and you also need to educate yourself about music. Learning about music theory doesn’t reduce the individuality of your music — we could learn the exact same things and we wouldn’t then write the same music because our personalities and life experiences would be different.”
Risking it all over again
If an ardent fan of the Risk of Rain soundtrack was hoping for more of the same from Christodoulou, they’d likely be surprised by the in-progress tracks so far released for Risk of Rain 2 — no bad thing, either. Across the album a similar sense of anxiety and tension is conjured through electronic sounds before riff-tastic prog rock and metal takes over.
Christodoulou is anticipating some scepticism and consternation from returning listeners but it’s a sign of the strength of his collaboration with hopoo that he’s been encouraged to change direction. “From the first conversations we had about Risk of Rain 2, we couldn’t have been more in agreement that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves.
“They took a huge step moving from 2D pixel art to 3D. It even took me a little bit of adjustment — I had to play for 30 minutes before feeling that ‘this is Risk of Rain’. That transition between styles is something I wanted to do with the music. I wanted to capture the prog rock sci-fi environments and open spaces, the scale and bewilderment of being this tiny guy up against these huge monsters.”
“I don’t think I could do a score similar to Risk of Rain if I tried. I’m a much better producer, my tools are better, my computer doesn’t crash every couple of hours, and I’ve gained 7+ years of life experiences. There are elements of the first game’s score in this new music but they’ve been worked in carefully rather than copied and pasted. It’s consciously not an exploitation of nostalgia — if we were doing another 2D pixel art game, my approach would be different.”
As Risk of Rain 2 is an Early Access title, there is still plenty of road ahead for Christodoulou and hopoo before ‘1.0’ release; and, even then, the work will likely continue on updates. “Initially, the release plan created a bit of stress for me. With the first game I knew how many pieces we needed — it was a finite project. When hopoo and the publisher were deciding how Risk of Rain 2 would become available, I wasn’t sure about how much music would be needed. I was also unsure how best to release it.”
He points out that a soundtrack release is also effectively a commercial album release by a music artist. With the in-development Risk of Rain 2 and an in-progress OST having been released simultaneously in March 2019, the composer is clearly now in his element continuing work on the game and updating the album as he goes. He recently added the 11:52 prog epic “The Raindrop that Fell to the Sky” to the album..
“The game is bigger so we need all the music we can get. It’s so much fun creating it and a lot of work is going into the sessions — there’s no need for me to stop... Yet.” The plan is to keep writing right the way up to the 1.0 release of the game, pencilled for 2020. “I can guarantee I’m going to be tweaking mixes right up until the last couple of minutes before release. Then, a few days later, I’ll be sneakily re-uploading improved versions because I’ve spotted a mistake!”
There was a discussion about having dynamically reactive music in Risk of Rain 2, however, after several tests, the team decided to stick to simple playback as with the first game. This choice complements Christodoulou’s approach to the soundtrack, showcasing the substantial “album” tracks and eschewing endless loops of music.
“Dynamic music works really well in most games but we felt that we had established something that works for the series. It would be jarring for the music to cut or drop in intensity during a huge solo. There’s no reality to the world: it’s sci-fi fantasy. On this occasion we’re choosing not to have a constant relationship between the action on-screen and the music.”
Christodoulou is outspoken, especially when it comes to increasing the level of respect for game music and composers among fans, game developers, and the media.
He feels strongly that game reviews could dedicate just a little more real estate to audio and music. They are, after all, fundamental parts of the experience of a game, and the level of craft involved in getting audio right is as considerable as that for, for instance, art, animation, or gameplay mechanics. “The indie scene has been insisting that games are art — and that they are pushing artistic boundaries — for years. Reviewers should talk about the different kinds of art in games, including music. If they’re hesitant because they’re not music experts, they should do the research in the way they might research other aspects of a game.”
Another point of contention he has with parts of the AAA industry is where composers aren’t foregrounded — especially when listings on digital services cite ‘Various Artists’ or ‘X Company Sound Team’ for soundtracks. “The company didn’t write that soundtrack: a person or team of people did. That’s their music. I’d like to see more awareness about the people behind the art, the sound effects, and so on.”
It’s a similar rallying cry to that which we’ve heard from others in recent years including documentarians and podcasters such as those behind noclip, Humans Who Make Games (not to be confused with People Make Games), Game Maker’s Notebook, Music Respawn — and, of course, yours truly at Laced With Wax.
Christodoulou also demands more of game music fans and gamers in general when it comes to broadening their musical horizons — hence the punchy but easy to misconstrue hashtag #stoplisteningtogamemusic. “I’ve created a big Twitter thread of music tracks from all over the place to encourage my followers to listen beyond game music. I don’t want people to get trapped in the box of only listening to game scores and to explore beyond that. Don’t be a ‘game music fan’ — be a ‘music fan’.” His recommendations vary wildly, from Debussy to Dream Theatre, and Chick Corea to Cypriat composer Alkinoos Ioannidis.
Certain lazy music opinions agitate Christodoulou: “When people say one of my Deadbolt tracks sounds like Mick Gordon’s music for DOOM... They were made contemporaneously [and in secret] so I couldn’t have been inspired by Mick’s music, as awesome as it is. We have both been inspired by all kinds of music, whether its metal or something less obvious to the listener. I’m also influenced by all the music I’ve listened to in the last 35+ years!”
It’s not just listening to a wider variety of music that he recommends gamers (and everyone else in the universe) do — it’s a plea for us all to vary our cultural inputs or risk living with blinkers that restrict how much we demand of our favourite mediums.
To put it another way:
Next track please
Christodoulou has been perfecting his fusion of electronica and rock for years now, across multiple game projects. Naturally, he hankers for the opportunity to switch to a different palette: “I've missed writing orchestral things. My second hopoo game, Deadbolt, was also a mixture of rock and electronica; whilst Risk of Rain 2 is electronic prog. I would like the opportunity to write for an orchestra, although there’s no specific project in the pipeline at the moment to enable that.
“Mostly what I want is to work on projects that give me freedom to do interesting things. I’d like to think I have a recognisable style now, although I do try to avoid repeating myself. There are a lot of genres of music in the world so it’s a shame to do the same thing over and over.”
Something that tempts Christodoulou is the thought of recording a solo album before he takes on another game project. “I’m taking a lot of care to both push my boundaries with Risk of Rain 2 but also keep it accessible. With a solo album I’d put a lot of nonsense on there!”