Devlog #44 - Soundtrack Development: Themes Pt. 1

Hi!

After the post about the functional planning of the music in //TODO: today two weeks ago, today's devlog will go into more detail on how all the tracks are connected stylistically and musically. In other words, it's all about themes!

Because //TODO: today was initially a game jam project and a good portion of the music was made in this first month of development, there wasn't much time to plan out themes or iterate on them. In fact, what I initially intended to be the main theme of the game, ultimately ended up serving a completely different purpose but I'll explain that some other time because in this first part I'll focus on the character themes.

The process for developing themes (much like the overall process for the soundtrack) was very fluid. Most of the time I'd reuse a melody or reference some elements from a different piece of music if there was some thematic overlap and let a theme emerge through that.

Teal's theme for example, only really started to feel like a theme once I made the music for their epilogue (that will be released with the next update). Before then there was no explicit connection to them as a character but out of all the music in the game, you've probably heard this one the most.
The default music when Teal is at home, "Fallback", is actually a variation of "Solid State Roommate" the music you can hear in the main menu and when playing the MMO in-game.

Solid State Roommate started out as a demo when I was still trying to find the style of the soundtrack and eventually it found its way into the game as the menu music. Partly due to time pressure this scrapped my initial plans for the game's main theme and I decided to just use SSR instead but... as it turns out even now it's hardly used as a main theme.
Just as far as melodies go, it is still the most influential track in the game because many others borrowed elements from it (though sometimes in a very abstracted form).

The second section of Fallback straight up reuses the melody from the main section of SSR and hints at other parts of it with the arpeggio in the beginning and the glockenspiel in the background.

"Going Forward", the new track you'll hear on Teal's ending then takes Fallback's versions of these melodies and packages them in a calmer and reduced version of the song.
Pianos only gradually found their way into the soundtrack because the majority of it was supposed to be electronic. For the most part they are in the background to blend electronic and organic sounds but in two tracks (Going Forward and Breakpoint) they're very much in the center because they both focus on emotions and/or Teal as a person.

The themes for Joyce and Phoenix didn't emerge in such a roundabout way because they were actually planned as character themes. That said, the initial plan for the soundtrack only accounted for a single track for each of them, with no in-depth knowledge of how they'd be used.

"Coroutine", the track for Joyce, was planned as an upbeat song that is also one of the most artificial and digital sounding tracks in the game. But after their first appearance, Joyce somewhat faded into the background of Teal's life and the next use of the track (when Teal is selected for the second round of the competition) is only tangentially connected to Joyce because they're the messenger for these news. And also it's the happiest and most upbeat track in the game...
This last reason actually proved to be a problem in the second half of //TODO: today though. The next moment in the story that really focuses on Joyce and therefore needs music that is related to them, is the talk in the server room. But atmospherically it's pretty much the opposite of Coroutine.

This is why a new track was planned and "Decompile" was born. Similar to the connection of Fallback and Going Forward, Decompile takes the main melody of Coroutine and puts it in a new context that is a lot more vulnerable. Stylistically it still keeps the digital sound of Coroutine with old sample libraries, some bitcrushing, and raw square waves in the background, but bridges the gap to other tracks a little with the e-piano and the glockenspiel.

A similar thing happened with Phoenix's theme. Even though "Winged Necklace" gets a bit more use than Coroutine, it still didn't fit all situations where we needed music unique to Phoenix. And especially after Decompile was made, it only seemed fair to give Phoenix a variation of their theme as well.

And that's how "Ashes" came about! The way this variation was made, was very different from Decompile though.
Instead of using an existing melody in a new track, I took all the guitar takes from Winged Necklace, put them in a new project in their raw state without any distortion and adjusted the tempo. From then on I stripped away elements and adjusted the structure of the song until it started to feel less like an acoustic cover and more like a new take on the track. To that end I also added a subtle piano to the background, some vinyl noise, and a guitar track with an endlessly looping delay for a constant buildup that also gives the track some ethereal qualities.

All in all it's probably the warmest and most organic sounding track in the game but given that Winged Necklace already broke almost all style conventions, it seemed right that this track was a bit different, too.

This is all about the character themes for now. Next week there will be another devlog about art and the week after that I'll be back with a post about all the remaining themes in the soundtrack.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this insight into the music of //TODO: today!

eerron

Part-time composer. Working on audio things for Boys Laugh +

todo-today, devlog, music