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Interview: The Terrifying True Story of The  Plants vs. Zombies  Soundtrack

Interview: The Terrifying True Story of The Plants vs. Zombies Soundtrack Exclusive

May 19, 2009 | By Jeriaska

May 19, 2009 | By Jeriaska
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[With the influence of pop music genres and classic console chiptunes, PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies' boisterous blend of audio ideas are part of its unique charm -- Gamasutra interviews Laura Shigihara on its musical development.]

Laura Shigihara is the musician behind the original soundtrack for long in development PC casual game Plants vs. Zombies, a typically addictive addition to the 'tower defense' genre that brings adorable real-time combat to the front lawn.

PopCap's PvZ pits a battalion of vegetation against the tractor-riding, bucket-festooned undead in a race to the porch of your house. Drawing on the traditions of pop music genres and classic console chiptunes, the boisterous blend of audio ideas that make up the background music is part of the game's unique charm.

Here Shigi offers her perspective on the surprisingly deep casual game and its music. An angle on the process underlying the soundtrack and the accompanying online music video, the conversation offers a closer look at one game's mission to poke fun at horror and do so with style:

Plants vs. Zombies has attracted a lot of attention for the fun and humor of its music. How did it come about that you joined PopCap for this game project?

Well, [P Vs. Z designer] George [Fan] had been following my music for a few years prior to the development of this game, so at some point he asked if I'd want to compose the music for his next one, which at the time he was programming in his bedroom.

I thought that would be a lot of fun because he's a very creative game designer. I did my best to come up with music that matched the theme of the game shortly after he put together a solid prototype. When PopCap hired him as a full-time designer, I just kept working on the music. I guess that's how it happened.

When this Plants vs. Zombies project started rolling, were there aspects of the early concept art or gameplay that gave you the idea of a particular direction for the musical score?

There were some awesome pixel-art-zombies with long tongues, and for some reason that always made me laugh. Whenever I looked at them I thought "macabre... but goofy," which is basically what the soundtrack is all about. It mixes typically "dark" sounding music with a wide variety of melodies and uptempo beats. In the night level for example, I mixed together Big Band/swing beats with several haunting and serious melodies, and the result was pretty funny.

Two examples of this approach are currently up on your website Was there a particular setting in the game that helped inform their design?

"Loonboon" and "Brainiac Maniac" were both written towards the end of production. I think I was reacting to the game as a whole: I've actually played through the entire game a couple times, so I made the music to match the feel.

Things of an "undead" nature tend to go really well with creepy orchestral stuff... howling strings, lots of half steps, and weird sounding note progressions, soft piano and pizzicato... but Plants vs. Zombies isn't your typical creepy game. It will get you to focus really hard one minute, and have you laughing out loud the next. The zombies are goofy, and the plants are cute.

There are a lot of different "feels" going on. That's why I thought it'd be great to do something weird, like match the whole Danny Elfman style with melodic tunes and funky beats. One of the first stages has marching band percussion and swing beats. Another has this bizarre techno beat with lots of organic sounds that I made myself. I like to keep it interesting.

"Loonboon" was initially inspired by Metroid, our black kitten. The stage I was composing for was a tad frantic, so I just watched Metroid for a while as he ran around the house like crazy, attacking random strings, jumping at the walls, and chasing his toy mouse. "Brainiac Maniac" was inspired by the old Capcom games I played as a kid, especially the Mega Man series. That music was very melodic and complex. There were a ton of melodies going on at the same time that fit together nicely.

We are seeing a resurgence of Capcom's 8-bit era music lately, with the retro aesthetic of Mega Man 9 and the return of the Bionic Commando melodies arranged by Simon Viklund. Does the NES being so in vogue make it tougher to express a personal appreciation for it?

While I think it's great that more people are coming to appreciate music from the days of the NES and Super Nintendo, I don't think it has really affected my ability to express my affinity for it. I think I've always been fairly comfortable telling people how great I think that music is. Back then, composers had very limited space to work with. They couldn't rely on high-end samples in order to make their music sound good. They had to be creative with the composition itself.

That creativity is probably the main reason why there are so many NES/SNES video game remixes out there nowadays---because their main melodies were so wonderfully catchy and memorable. I can't get over how great some of the music was from the Mega Man games. I'm listening to "Gravity Man" from Mega Man 5 as I type this.

These days I think a lot of people feel that good licensed games are few and far in between, but back in the day Capcom did such a great job with their Disney games. DuckTales, Chip 'n Dale's Rescue Rangers, even the lesser known ones like Darkwing Duck and Adventures in the Magic Kingdom were extremely fun. And their music was great!

I still remember very clearly several of the in-games themes because they were so catchy and creative. Some of my favorite themes from those games were the moon stage from DuckTales, the final stage music in Rescue Rangers, and Bushroot's stage in Darkwing Duck.

On your blog you have spoken about grinding through some of the tougher passages of Star Tropics on the Virtual Console, and mentioned some strategies you have employed for letting go of frustration and honing your focus. When it comes to music composition, have you developed any analogous tactics for surmounting those challenges and achieving flow states?

Oh yes, definitely. I remember back when writing music or spending time at the piano was my most effective means of relieving stress. I always felt that doing something creative was immensely helpful in calming me down and helping me regain focus. Now that I'm composing for a living, I try to maintain other creative projects so that I'll always have something to turn to in case I need some sort of creative stress relief.

Besides that, I like going on little adventures to distance myself from all my electronic equipment. I used to ride the bus just for the purpose of talking with random people. I go on all sorts of walks. Exercise helps a lot as well: dancing, running to upbeat music or doing old Shotokan drills is very effective for me.

What's this about Shotokan?

Shotokan is a traditional form of Japanese martial arts---karate. There is a lot of emphasis on mental and physical discipline through various exercises. There is also a lot of importance placed on having respect and compassion for others, patience, and humility. I think the idea is that you always want to strive to better yourself. I practiced for about five years back in middle school and high school, and although I haven't practiced formally in a long time, I still try to do Kata (forms) now and then.

You clearly have a personal history of appreciating and analyzing VGM from previous console eras. To what extent are you able to listen to your own music and recognize it as a departure from the precursors of the 8 and 16-bit eras?

Recently I went on a mission to try and pinpoint all the various musical influences I've had since I was a kid. It's been very interesting. For example, my sisters and I used to listen to this old Disney vinyl album called "Splashdance" when we were really little. My boyfriend recently got me this album on CD so I could listen to it again. I discovered that one of the songs, "Gyro Gearloose" has a lot of note progressions that as an adult, I happen to be quite partial to. I thought, "Ah, so this is where it came from!"

I think my music definitely has its own style, and it has developed over the years as a result of various influences and personal experiences. As your question implies, I've learned a lot about melodic structure from old video game music. But I also studied classical music and jazz. I love hip hop and R&B, so I probably learned a lot about beats from that.

The music from Miyazaki films has influenced a lot of my piano music. Basically, I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, I think there's something in almost every genre that I like and have learned from in some subtle way. And I hope to keep learning as I get older.

What sparked the idea behind your Plants vs. Zombies music video?

Towards the end of production, I decided that I wanted to make a funny theme song. I thought it would be great if the lyrics were basically a dialogue between the Sunflower and the Zombies. Once I was finished, I showed George and he said, "Hey, let's make a funny flash video to go along with it!" So Rich (the artist) flew down for a week, and along with Tod (the programmer) everyone worked really hard to put it together. It all felt pretty spontaneous, but I'd like to think it worked out pretty well.

Are there any plans for the music from the game to be available as a stand-alone item?

I would really love to do that actually, so there's probably a pretty good chance.

Now that we have heard something more about the story behind your Plants vs. Zombies soundtrack, how can listeners keep up with the music of Laura Shigihara?

I'm actually in the process of developing a new website, but for the time being the current site is divided into three parts: video game music, my old pop music site, and the development blog for my RPG. I think for now the best way to keep up with my music is to visit the "video game music" section. It's sort of my home base until the new website is online, so I'll try my best to post updates and share new music there.

Thank you to everyone who has visited!

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