Composer and director of Rakuen on crafting an evocative soundtrack
Rakuen tells an emotional story of a young boy staying in a hospital, who, despite his own illness, takes time to help his fellow patients. By the actions he takes in the real life, as well as those he takes through a magical fantasy world he enters via a beloved book, he’ll bring joy back to many that have fallen into illness and despair.
Rakuen is emotionally powerful, taking players through heart-rending highs and lows. That’s not only clear in the game’s story, but also its incredible music. “I think if someone were to listen to the soundtrack without playing the game, it would be clear that Rakuen is kind of an emotional roller coaster.” says Laura Shigihara, composer and director of Rakuen.
Shigihara explained to Gamasutra how she tried to make her compositions enhance gameplay moments, and the players' connection with her characters.
Shigihara’s work has been tugging at the heartstrings for some time, having composed the soundtrack for the emotionally evocative To The Moon. She was lead composer and sound designer on Plants vs Zombies, and contributed tracks to Minecraft and World of Warcraft.
“Growing up, the music in my favorite video games left a lasting impression," says Shigihara. "Story games with moving scenes like Chrono Trigger or Suikoden stayed with me for years afterwards, as did the exciting boss battles in Mega Man and Secret of Mana, and the feeling of panic when your torch was about to go out in Shadowgate.”
Shigihara has seen that the music can enhance the feelings and emotions contained within a given point in a game, giving the player an emotional connection stronger than words or actions could convey alone. What moves the player moves them more powerfully with the right choice of music.
"Should the player feel unsettled? Bittersweet? Filled with a sense of curiosity and adventure?"
“There's definitely something about particular chord progressions, melodies, beats, etc. that have the power to make us feel certain emotions,: she says. "Going from C major to F minor (or the relative chord progression in other keys) for example, creates a feeling that is often associated with romantic longing. Dissonance makes us feel unsettled. Arrangements that build in intensity by increasingly layering instruments, culminating with a reverse cymbal that leads into a strong beat can make us feel more excited and alert (the build that happens around 0:58-1:07 in this super rad cover of "The Spirit Envoy" from the game illustrates that feeling pretty well I think^^).”
“There are so many of these kinds of things with music," adds Shigihara. "I think as a composer, it's super helpful to reflect on what types of musical patterns make us feel certain emotions, so that we can better channel them into our own compositions when we need to match the feel of the story or gameplay.”
She spends a great deal of time considering what she wants from a scene, and how music, created before or after, can make those feelings stronger. In others, the music flows first, and then a scene may form in her mind, but in both, she is seeking to strengthen a certain emotional core.
“I try to think about how I want the players to feel at the time, and then I go from there. Sometimes I put together the gameplay or cutscene first, and then I compose the music afterwards.” says Shigihara. “Other times, I start with the music... I might sit at the piano and improvise a melody and chord progression, and then imagine how the corresponding scene would play out. I ask myself, should the player feel unsettled? Bittersweet? Filled with a sense of curiosity and adventure? It helps if I can imagine those emotions, and often the music just follows naturally.”
By finding the emotional core of a scene or character, Shigihara can create the music that would strengthen that moment, creating further resonance within the player that will let them truly feel a given moment within the game.
“I hope that my music works hand in hand with the dialogue and gameplay to create an engaging experience for the player.” says Shigihara.
Creating connections through songs
Shigihara uses her musical training and heremotional connection to music to create those connections between song and the player. Even instrument choice was based on how to better connect the player with her world.
“Since a lot of the game takes place in Japan, I used some instruments found in traditional Japanese music (the Koto, for example) for some of the tracks.” says Shigihara.
From there, she chose instruments she was familiar with, as well as means of musical storytelling she had grown skilled with over the years. “My primary instrument is the piano, and I feel the most comfortable telling a story through its music... so you'll find a lot of piano throughout the soundtrack. And of course, vocals play a major role in Rakuen's music (there are at least 10 tracks on the OST that feature vocals).”
As she works, Shigihara tries her best to take herself into the right mental state for that scene, finding power in composing songs for an emotion that is flowing through her. “Concerning my own compositions; music starts playing in my head when I have heightened emotions (especially when I'm really happy). I'm thankful for these times, because I don't really have to do much at that point except figure out how to get it out of my head and into a recording... I know that whatever music materializes during those states will match an emotion quite accurately.” says Shigihara.
"Chords and melodies that aren't straight up 'sad' are a lot more effective. Music that feels a bit lost and unresolved hits me much harder."
Feeling what she wants the player to feel will often help strengthen what she wants to say. As such, at times, she will try to get herself within that mood and mindset in order to add more emotional power to her compositions. “When I'm not in that state however, I usually try to get into whatever mood I'm composing for in order to recreate that connection between music and emotion.”
This emotional guide to her musical knowledge helped her fine tune many of the game’s songs for the right effect. “For Rakuen's soundtrack, I ended up using a lot of piano where I went back and softened up the notes quite a bit for the tracks that were meant to feel more wistful," says Shigihara. "I'm not quite sure how to explain this next part, but I find that chords and melodies that aren't straight up 'sad' are a lot more effective at actually making me feel 'sad.' Music that feels a bit lost and unresolved (like 'Tony and Christina' or 'The Time to Cross Worlds') hits me much harder.”
At the same time, her own years of musical knowledge help her create musical flourishes and crafty changes that make her songs stand out with a given emotion. “As for my upbeat or cheerful music, I think the main common thread would be the inclusion of a clear melody and a fun beat (like with 'Welcome to the Forest'). I enjoy using a simple but catchy melody at the forefront, and making the arrangement more complex underneath to extend the longevity of the track.”
“Things like multiple secondary melodies (the bassline often has a melody of its own, rather than just echoing the chords), adding little ornaments (things like using harp or sine wave or pizzicato strings placed manually to add accents here and there), etc. all help make the track feel more full of life and generate more endorphins :).”
A Story in Music
Rakuen draws the player into the emotions of its scenes through powerful music that Shigihara put a great deal of thought, and her own feelings, into creating. Part of this was made easier in this instance because she had full control over how the game and music tied together, ensuring both worked perfectly together.
"Being both the composer and game developer helped a lot. Music wasn't an afterthought; I was able to take it into account from the very beginning of development."
“I think being both the composer and game developer helped a lot in this regard. It was super easy for me to run through a cutscene or play through a particular location in the game so that I could make sure the music and ambience fit the mood I was going for. Because of this, music wasn't an afterthought; I was able to take it into account from the very beginning of development.” says Shigihara.
“Sometimes the music was composed first, and the dialogue of a cutscene (or the layout of a particular room) was crafted while listening to the music. I had a particular song that was with me from fairly early in development. It wasn't actually even in the game (it was used in the two trailers for the game), but it helped me to keep focused on the game's theme: the Boy and Mom, and all the characters they meet along the way, they are searching for meaning in their lives.”
Having full control of story, play, and song helped her make sure each scene mingled perfectly with the mood she wanted players to feel while going through it, letting her fine-tune every aspect of the game to the emotional state she wanted.
“In the beginning, the music is subdued to match the desaturated colors and sedate atmosphere of the hospital. In contrast, the Leeble Village is filled with melody and color and life. The musical tone jumps from adventurous, to unsettling, to frightening, to wistful, and back to happy again throughout the course of a single questline.” says Shigihara. “I think the story I want to tell with the music is that underneath the surface, people have incredible and complex lives and struggles. Lots of ups and downs, lots of meaning.”
Shigihara wanted players to go through all manner of emotions throughout Rakuen, and part of this meant creating a seamless flow between sadness, joy, and everything in between. By taking full control of her game, Shigihara was able to tune every single moment as they connected to one another, knowing how to best make one scene move into the next, even if the emotional change could be quite jarring.
It was in doing all of this that Shigihara was able to tell an emotional story with her music – to carry the player along an emotional journey that whispered a tale without words. Through her work in connecting emotions to scenes, she could create a story within the music that would tie her game all together.
“Each questline is punctuated with a song performed by the specific person you help. These songs encapsulate the characters' personal stories and resolutions. And throughout their questline, the main melody of each song is present in the background music; you can see how the feel of each piece drastically differs based on what is going on in their life at the time. At the end of the game, all five of those songs' main melodies will merge together to create a final 5-part harmony that must be performed in order for the protagonist to progress.” says Shigihara.
In doing so, she also hoped to convey a message to its players, one that would be drawn from the game’s connections with music. “I'm hoping that this aspect of the music conveys the idea that we're all in this together; we can help each other and empathize with one another. Sometimes, being someone's hero means being there for them and just listening.”
Rakuen’s music does many things. It enhances the mood it wants players to feel. It carries them along an emotional journey. It smooths over the jarring transitions between these moments. It even tells its own story, and carries a message of hope, compassion, and connection with the people around us who are suffering.
Through Shigihara’s years of musical knowledge, and a self-awareness surrounding her own emotions, she was able to craft a game that carried the feelings she wanted it to, and have the player go through this musical and emotional story she’d spent years trying to create. She had not just told a story, but made the player feel a story as well.
“Since so much of Rakuen is about empathizing with the various characters you meet throughout your journey, I hope that the music helps you connect with them in a deeper way.”