After beating hell and monsoon on hypnotic rhythms of the Risk of Rain OST, the idea came to meet the man who composed the sound universe of the game. Talented composer with an impressive background, Chris Christodoulou speaks openly about him, of his work, and of his relationship with video games.
- In order not to betray tradition, could you please present yourself to our readers?
Hi, my name is Chris Christodoulou and I’m a composer. Lately I seem to be working almost exclusively in video games but I’ve also written music for film, theatre and “stand-alone” compositions. I live and work in Athens, Greece.
- What made you a composer? What is your academic, professional or personal background?
I’m really not sure what made me a composer. I’m not one of those people who say “I could not live without music”. If I was back in school I would probably try cosmology, or linguistics, or perhaps neuroscience. I think I picked music because I thought it would be easier… I thought wrong.
I started learning the piano when I was young and later took drum lessons. I eventually went into composition because studying theory appealed to me much more than practicing to become a performer. I have degrees in harmony, counterpoint, fugue and composition and a masters in film music.
- You sound like a gamer, could you please tell us more about your relation with video games? Which ones did you grow up with? Which are your favorite games and genre?
I am a gamer! I played my first games in a ZX Spectrum. At some point my father bought a PC and the rest is history. I spent countless hours with Alley Cat, Test Drive and many other DOS games but since I played Zak McKracken my life has never been the same. I remember the feeling of being in a completely open world, able to travel not only around the Earth but all the way to Mars! I only managed to complete the game many years later, admittedly with the help of a walkthrough, but I consider Zak the game that defined me as a gamer. Therefore, my favorite genre is that of adventure games—I particularly love the LucasArt classics ad I’ve played through them many times (and still do).
My favorite game is Grim Fandango, a game that I consider a piece of art comparable to any masterpiece. As Dr. Jones would say, “it belongs in a museum”.
- Like many, we discovered you and your work thanks to the Risk of Rain soundtrack, how did you get involved in this project?
I got lucky. I’d written music for a mobile game a few months ago (Droidscape: Basilica) and uploaded the tracks on SoundCloud. The developers of Risk of Rain discovered them and sent me an e-mail. I know they were considering other composers too but I guess I was cheaper!
- How did you get close to the indie game community?
I don’t think I’ve fully infiltrated the community yet. I follow some people on twitter, try to interact with them once in a while and sometimes they interact with me. I also send lots of e-mails looking for work. There are a few people in the indie scene with whom I have a closer relationship but they are only a handful. The fact is that prior to Risk of Rain very few people knew of me but the game’s success has helped me a lot. People actually reply to my e-mail now!
- What makes you so passionate about video game music?
In Greek the word for entertainment is psychagogia (ψυχαγωγία) which translates to “exercise for the soul”. Psychagogia implies a higher form of entertainment and is used in reference to the arts (cinema, theatre, etc.) and other activities that go beyond “having fun”. To me, video games have the potential of providing psychagogia in ways that other art forms simply can’t. That’s because they transcend passive enjoyment. Direct interaction leads to stronger immersion and a deeper connection with the medium. Also, Tetris is a video game and we can all agree its human-kind’s greatest achievement.
- What is your creative process? Do you have a standard method you can use every time you compose, or are you driven by inspiration only?
I can’t really say there’s a standard method. Sometimes I sit at the piano, sometimes I try out different sounds until something clicks and sometimes I start with a blank piece of paper. The one thing that remains constant is that once I find a main theme I try to make the most of it. Thematic unity is my number one priority.
I don’t really believe in inspiration as something abstract, otherworldly or divine. Inspiration is the result and sum of our own experiences. It can be drawn from reading a book, taking a walk, having a discussion… When I need to be creative I try to engage in new activities or visit new places. I’ve also discovered that whenever I feel stuck or need to clear my mind, cooking helps a lot.
- Risk of Rain music is an important part of the game itself, and playing without it feels like playing a very different game. What were you main inspirations to create this musical world?
For Risk of Rain I really wanted to go back to my roots. I’ve used lots of drums, countless synths, real guitars and basses, and everything you hear (except for the drums) are actual performances. I wanted to create something that portrays the sci-fi element but also remains organic. That’s one of the reasons why many times the music is driven to solo outbursts. That’s a bit unusual for game music since it usually needs to remain unobtrusive. But if I felt the track was going that direction I would not stop it, I wanted it to have that natural flow as if it was a stand-alone piece.
- Was the choice of instruments easy (should they be real or synthetic) or was it a real quest to find the sounds you needed to transcribe what you had in mind?
The overall sound is mostly inspired by the game’s color palette. My first impression of playing an early demo was “those pixels look really dark”. Many sounds were chosen because of that. For example the album features a mellotron variation that gives away a very eerie sound because sustained noted gradually get detuned. Other orchestration decisions that were the result of conscious planning were the use of an acoustic drum kit (in addition to the electronic ones) and performing all the bass parts with a real bass instead of programming them. I wanted the foundations to be as human as possible.
The one instrument that I was not sure of was the electric guitar. I first tried it out in Moisture Deficit and got the OK from the developers. Then I smeared it all over the album!
- Do you perceive your work more like building a world and its musical landscape or more like a narrative complement to the game story?
It really depends on the game. For Risk of Rain the world came first and the story second. It took me a lot of time to decide the order of the tracks in the OST album because I wanted them to have a narrative-like flow but I didn’t compose with that in mind. I just kept true to the sound of the alien planet. I’ve had other games (The Sea Will Claim Everything for example) where I wrote with the narrative in mind and the development of the music follows the story closely. That is a much more filmic approach and takes a bit more planning and careful management of your material.
- Nearly the entire soundtrack of « Risk of Rain » makes you feel like you just landed on a new planet. How did you manage to do that? Are those lengthy notes a usual trick to picture space?
I think the sensation of being somewhere new and unfamiliar comes from the unconventional elements in the music. Most of the tracks are not written in the traditional 4/4 time signature. There are moments where the music glitches as if something is wrong. The harmony often remains unresolved. All these creates a sense of instability and incertainty. Of course using long drones and atmospheric pads helps a lot to convey the “unknown”, I won’t deny that.
- At the beginning of Arctic Oscillation, would I be correct in assuming you tried (and managed) to recreate the sound of a raindrop?
Perhaps in a subconscious level. I was mostly trying to use a retro sound in a new way. Most of the times you will hear theses 8-bit sounds in a rather cheerful setting so I was tempted to use them within a darker palette of sounds. I think it worked well enough. If it sounds like rain, all the better!
- Listening to your work again reminded me of the movie ‘Forbidden Planet’ (oddly enough, water drops can be found in its soundtrack). Did you prefer the 50′s sound approach to space (odd sounds) to the 70′s rock approach (Flash Gordon and Queen)?
I did prefer it the 50s approach. Mainly because it was a sound that was born in scoring stages and editing rooms. As you’ve already mentioned, the 70s brought the pop sound in films and that meant that it was more about popularity than function. You can still see pop music being abused in films in horrible ways. I remember watching Kick-Ass and thinking “wow, the director just wants to show off his music collection”… In the end you do your own film a disservice.
- What made you label one of the tracks ‘Chanson d’Automne’? Were there any French inspirations behind that specific track?
First of all I would like to point out that the track’s title is “Chanson d’Automne..” Those two dots are not a typo and exist for a very specific reason.
I did visit Paris while composing Risk of Rain so there might be some French residue in there. The truth is though, that while all songs were given titles that had to do with rain and weather phenomena, I wanted something less scientific and more lyrical for the last track. I thought of autumn since it’s the season we mostly associate with rain. Searching online I came across this beautiful French poem whose first verse was a perfect fit for what I was looking for. People who bought the album might have noticed the poem in the mp3’s lyrics tag.
- There is an indescribable sense of nostalgia or even melancholia throughout the whole soundtrack. Was it your way of illustrating the main protagonist’s homesickness?
Certainly. Frantic action aside, you’re still stranded in an unknown environment left with nothing but your humanity. My goal was for that to be the prominent feeling of the music. At the time I was struggling with my own feelings of homesickness (I was living in Amsterdam and decided to move back in Athens right after I finished the album). I think I channeled those feelings into the music. Besides, composing is a very lonely job. If you allow me enough creative freedom I’ll probably end up writing dark stuff more often than not.
Thanks to Chris for his kindness, don’t forget to follow his actuality through :
Interview by Morty and Fox
Crédits : Grim Fandango by Tim Schafer edited by LucasArts, Tetris Theme, Risk of Rain OST by Chris Christodoulou.