We caught up with The Last Guardian and Mythic Quest composer about his love of the great Hollywood sci-fi scores, the colours of the orchestra, and minimalism.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Planet of Lana is the debut game by Swedish indie studio Wishfully, co-directed by Adam Stjarnljus and Klas Martin Eriksson (both sharing a background in film and animation.)
The “cinematic puzzle adventure” is framed by a grand sci-fi story. Gameplay-wise, it may remind some of titles like LIMBO and INSIDE; whereas aesthetically it owes more to Studio Ghibli films, Star Wars, and the games of Fumito Ueda (ICO, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian.)
Scoring Planet of Lana is the BAFTA-nominated (for The Last Guardian) Japanese American composer Takeshi Furukawa. His soaring but delicate score was recorded by the Hungarian Studio Orchestra, with Furukawa himself leading much of the music from the piano.
In the weeks following the game’s launch in May 2023, we spoke over email to Takeshi about his love of classic Hollywood scores, the colours of the orchestra, and bold melodies.
Arriving on the Planet of Lana
Furukawa was the one to initiate contact with Wishfully Studios after being inspired by an early piece of game art on Twitter: “I was immediately taken by the game’s concept art, and I feel that the final game embodies co-director Adam Stärnljus’ vision very faithfully. The game feels like that initial image in moving form, which is a rare thing since visuals have the potential to change so much during development. I think this is a testament to the extraordinary initial vision of the game makers.”
The game’s overall visual design — including logotype and marketing materials — is remarkably clean and clear. Furukawa remarks: “I love that clean and minimalistic aesthetic of the game. Perhaps it’s [co-directors] Adam and Klas’ Scandinavian sensibilities, but more likely because both have a mature and refined aesthetic sense thanks to their backgrounds in commercial production.
“They weren’t too verbose with their directions, and we mostly employed the ‘show not tell’ method [during production]. They would send me captures of gameplay, we would spot the segments which could use music, and then I would go off and write.
“I feel that I was able to inject a lot of my musical inclinations into this score. I like simplicity and clarity in both melodic and harmonic structure. I feel that resonates deeper than complex technical material. I also believe softer dynamics are more sublime and beautiful, and can trigger a multi-dimensional emotional response, although the loud bombastic passages are effective for the climactic moments.”
That cinematic sound
Planet of Lana’s music is foregrounded in an especially cinematic way — no surprises there given the film background of its co-directors. Video games that have orchestrally recorded scores often also have recorded dialogue, comprehensive foley and ambient sound effects — all elements that soundtrack music has to compete with in an audio mix.
With an orchestral score but no recorded dialogue Planet of Lana is a notable exception, somewhat following in the footsteps of the atmospheric, minimalistic puzzle-platformer INSIDE. Unlike INSIDE, where the music and sound design is hard to aurally separate, Furukawa’s music is boldly melodic and distinctly… well, musical.
He explains: “Projects like Planet of Lana, where the music has so much space to live, is a rare privilege. The studio absolutely made the right decision to spend money on recording an orchestra, and furthermore embracing the bold direction of going big and symphonic with the sound.
“[Co-director] Klas Eriksson and I ‘spotted’ the game [a term for discussing the placement and direction of music cues] as would be done in the case of films and television episodes. We were very cognisant that the world of Novo would be very quiet, and we would need to strike the right balance of enough — but not too much — music to help pace the story.
“We would often confer with Francesco Ameglio the sound designer as well, to make sure the music would be working in concert with the sound effects. One scene I really love is when Lana runs through the beach with the giant robot collector legs, and you get to hear these huge machines up-close. That was a particular instance I strongly urged to not have music so that the sound design could take centre-stage.”
Any movie-watcher of a certain age — and keen listeners of John Williams, James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith — would recognise the influences of Star Wars, Star Trek and other 1970s-90s science fiction films on the Planet of Lana score. This is partly because of the bold, clearly defined melodies present; melodies that can be played intimately by a piano, or thundered out by a 90-piece orchestra.
Furukawa is evidently a fan: “I am always for bold melodies, and believe they will always have a place in soundtracks now and forever. It’s always the beautiful lyrical melodies that resonate deeply, rather than some en vogue textures which may become bygone in a couple of years.
“My daughter recently started music lessons, and she is always singing do-re-mi melodies, but not a rhythm groove or sound earworm. It’s indicative of the power of melodies. That said, I don’t want to discount textural or sound-design scores as they are tremendously effective when used in the right context.
“Melodies are idiomatic to the orchestra. The strings, woodwinds, and brass — and even some percussion instruments — are all in their element with lyrical passages. I recently had this mock epiphany when I said to my orchestrator Saki Furuya, “you know, the strings really do love it when you give them melodies!” Of course, she rolled her eyes at me, and the point of the story is that many of us have gotten so used to using strings as a spiccato/ostinato motor for modern soundtracks, that we forget — at least I did — that these instruments are meant to play cantabile melodies.”
“Jurassic Park [one of the many classic Steven Spielberg-John Williams collaborations] made me want to pursue composition. That theme plus John Williams’ symphonic sound — alongside the dinosaurs, of course — was a thrilling mix for a 12-year-old boy.”
“There are many other sci-fi scores that I love: Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Silvestri’s Back to the Future, Goldsmith’s Star Trek, etc. I guess it’s no surprise that all of these have iconic melodies that leave an imprint.
“I had the privilege to work on the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars series when I was assisting Kevin Kiner earlier in my career. That was a thrill to be able to set Williams’ themes into context, as well as adding my humble touches here and there.”
“I also love the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as I feel that his music is closest to modern film scores. Take one of his ballets, which has all the markings of what would work perfectly for films and games: bold melodies, texture, clear and concise orchestration, and epic vertical scale.”
For Planet of Lana, Furukawa exploited many different colours of the orchestra — something he admits on the podcast Music Respawn was partly to do with staying within budget rather than, for instance, hiring specialty instrument players for certain biomes in the game.
He says: “I think of the strings as the foundation of the orchestra and base the textures and colours around them. They comprise the largest section in the orchestra and for me, if the strings are balanced, then the orchestra is balanced. The brass and winds can be built on top of the string foundation.
“On the other hand, you can completely do away with the strings which creates a clear texture of just brass or winds or the two in tandem. I’ve obviously over-simplified this, and there are infinite possibilities and subtleties to orchestration, but the point is that there is a method to my madness that seems to be working for me!”
Of the thunderous “Desert Chase”, the composer comments: “This is one of the more bombastic tracks which accompanies one of the highlight scenes. Lana mounts a robot camel and gallops across the desert in pursuit of her sister Elo. The main theme is traded off between the orchestral sections and culminates in a climactic tutti."
Furukawa is cognisant of the different approaches to orchestration around the world: “I was recently studying and working using Gagaku elements in one of my upcoming projects. It’s ancient Japanese court music ,and the musical intent and construct is very different from Western orchestral music. There is no concept of metre nor triadic harmony. But the most interesting thing I was taught was that in traditional Japanese music combining colours (i.e. having two or more different instruments blending their timbers playing the same passage) is considered crude and inefficient. That’s the complete opposite of Western orchestration, as we are all about ‘mixing the paint’ to create subtle shades and variety in colours."
Voice of Lana
Planet of Lana centres around a heartfelt relationship between a young girl (Lana) and an adorable creature (Mui.) Given this dynamic, and the moments of emotional drama in the game, it was no surprise to hear vocalist Siobhan Wilson’s ethereal voice bless the score at certain points. Furuwaka says: “Siobhan has this wonderful folk-inspired voice which is translucent and airy. I’m sure she can belt and be powerful, but I feel she is in her element with the delicato/dolce tonalities. Her vocal quality encapsulates Lana perfectly: the fragile but determined heroine standing against the world.”
Furukawa finds it difficult to pick a favourite cue or moment, as “it’s like having to pick a favourite child. But if I had to point to one scene, it would be the interlude where the song “Horizons” plays. I love how the camera zooms out and you become this tiny pixel far off in the distance. Not to get too philosophical but it made me think of our place in the vast universe and contextualise our small and humble existence.”
We hear minimalistic, repeated patterns in several Planet of Lana cues, often helping to create a sense of tension and creeping dread. Furukawa explains: “I believe we process minimalistic music differently from melody-driven writing. Since minimalism by design develops slowly and layers are introduced much more slowly, we can perceive finer details and subtle differences.”
“This works well for video game scenes where the energy level needs to stay consistent, but you want to ensure things don’t get too monotonous. Cues like “Scout Bot” and “Planetarium” have this undulating pattern that sets a certain mood and allows for short segments of melodic gestures to add variation and interest to the piece.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same
The game for which Furukawa is probably best known, Fumito Ueda’s The Last Guardian, had a troubled production over many years before finally releasing on PlayStation 4. In terms of what has changed in the industry between a 2016 AAA game and 2023 indie game from the composer’s perspective, Furuwaka doesn’t see much of a difference: “It's been almost seven years between the releases of The Last Guardian and Planet of Lana, and not much has changed with regards to producing orchestral scores. In fact, I’d venture to say not much has changed in over a hundred years!
“There have been some technical advancements. We record and mix in higher digital resolution now, and often deliver for Dolby Atmos instead of surround, but the craft of composition and orchestration has remained timeless.
“I feel that the process for large AAA games and indie titles isn’t so different. In game development, there is a small group that comprises the core team: the game director, programmer, art director, narrative designer, game/level designer, audio director, composer, etc. The difference being that, on AAA titles, they would be heads of department with several, if not many, individuals working as a team under them. As such, composers would usually be interfacing with these core members and hence the workflow is not so different.”