Puzzles in space – on creating the Patterna soundtrack

A short while ago I teamed up with programmer Sebastian Schoener to create some music and sound for his new game Patterna, and with its release last week, I wanted to document some of the thoughts and processes that went into creating it.

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Sebastian and I first met when we were both working on the popular Company of Heroes community project Eastern Front, back in 2012. After finishing our respective contributions, we remained friends on Steam and it was through here that he got in touch about Patterna. He was building a puzzle game in Unity inspired by HexCells and wanted an ambient/minimal soundtrack to go with it. The build that I played at the time was a fair bit simpler than the upcoming release, visually in particular, but it was still an intriguing concept that contained depth and a desire to eliminate guessing. The nodes and their visual information were part of a system that was fun to learn and was presented in ‘levels’ that could be procedurally generated for never ending play, and at a difficulty and format customisable by the player. ‘Count me in!’ I said.

First, we discussed musical style. Now I am fairly accustomed to drawing from distinct themes, emotions and environments in order to piece together an appropriate dramatic soundscape, but this was a game about evoking something else – a state of mind. Specifically one suited to calculated decisions. It wasn’t until later into development that the space theme was established and so, with no dramatic or visual cues with which the music could stir the player in the traditional sense, Patterna’s soundtrack would instead need to be a backdrop for studiousness and calm. Sebastian and I exchanged pallettes of interest: the soothing worlds of ambient godfather Brian Eno, the repetition and trance-inducing layers of Steve Reich, and the shifting pulses and textures of John Adam’s post-minimalist style (a personal favourite of mine). I then set about writing a first sketch for a ‘main theme’ of sorts, something to add character to the menus and promotional material, and to act as a jumping off point for the background loops during gameplay.

 

 

‘In Mind’ was the result. Short and simple, it starts with an anacrusis from the violins (that’s a sequence of notes which precedes the first downbeat in a bar in a musical phrase) then a mechanical layering of piano, strings and woodwinds playing A and E notes with a G in the clarinet and 1st violins proving not quite enough to cement a tonality just yet. It proceeds in a slightly awkward 6/4 meter, an intentional nod to the mathematical solutions in the gameplay. Then the piano adds in these teasing A major falls before everything builds to a point of harmonic certainty with the IV of D major in bar 9, and the VI and V chords following suit. This is all a bit of a simplification for the sake of interest, but the intention is to welcome the player like a good idea coming into fruition – first the uncertainty of a problem, then the first signs of confidence, and finally a solution. We hit a new puzzle in bar 13 as we arrive this time in A minor, clusters of 2nds and 4ths in the strings and woodwinds maintaining some tension. Confidence grows as D major arrives again, the clusters in the upper register remain but are less dissonant now. Now C major in bar 21 as though an obvious route to success had emerged – it was there all along! The persistence of the slanted rhythm fades away with a resolute rise on the cello and pizzicato strings pluck away this time in 4/4, flowing tones on the glockenspiel implying a montage of future triumphs. What follows sounds like the orchestra is tuning up, before returning to our 6/4 figure from the beginning – ready for the next challenge! This was a compositional concept that would continue into the rest of the music. The sense of journey or narrative is a guiding force whenever I write, except in this case, where on the surface it appears there is no story to create personality from, instead a tale is spun from the player’s own actions of problem solving, and because the music continues to resolve any of its own harmonic difficulties (particularly in the looping gameplay backing), the tone is always one of optimism. That’s the idea anyway…

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An earlier build before the star field was implemented.

After implementing a draft of the track into the main menu, Sebastian’s response was that something felt wrong. Not with the music but with the menu itself – “The music makes you expect that something should move gently” he said. And that was what he made happen. A primitive scrolling background eventually developed into a beautiful, almost meditative procedurally-generated star field that drifted slowly across the screen. The space theme was born. Sebastian explains his thinking in a short excerpt from our email exchanges:

“The music made me realize that the game is actually set on a space station. The effects are very simple right now, but I feel that they are very effective (well, they are called ‘effects’ for a reason). Something that I found surprising is that I managed to listen to the one piece of music for hours during testing without getting bored. It fits the general tone very well. The music feels very light, which was probably why I had to think of a space station — zero gravity. (The German term for zero gravity is Schwerelosigkeit, which literally means ‘heavy-lessness’. The German word ‘schwer’ not only means heavy but also difficult. I do not think that the game lacks in difficulty; it’s more that the music takes away any sorrow that you may have had. Like leaving it all behind and going to space.) Of course I am not talking about a space station as seen in, say, Star Wars, but more akin to what you see in 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

 

By this point we had also settled on the idea of having a minor amount of musical interaction with gameplay. Success sounds would play when correct nodes were revealed and these sounds would be from instrumentation supportive of the background music and with tones of a harmonious scale. For example, (Anti) Matter stays entirely in the key of D minor and the associated success tones are all in the D minor pentatonic scale. The notes themselves are played on the electric guitar and it is entirely possible for the player to use the unveiling of successful nodes as a means to add a lead line over the top of the musical backing, albeit a fairly crude one. Each backing loop then has its own success tones of an appropriate instrument and scale. Conversely, there is also a rather harsh, metallic failure sound for when the player makes a mistake that is nothing if not jarring. It is in this more direct sense also that the music intends to support and respond to the player’s journey of problems and solutions.

Despite all this, I wanted Patterna’s soundtrack to have a soft touch overall. It was to be low in velocity, quiet in the mix and with a hushed, nebulous texture. Orchestral instruments are frequently pitch-shifted and EQ’d heavily, but with enough MIDI automation to make them feel realistic (hiring a whole orchestra was a little out of the question). Aside from the chordal string sections and rhythmic backbone of repetitive piano, vibraphone, celesta, and glockenspiel, woodwinds play an important role throughout. And I just couldn’t pass up the chance to play with a recent purchase – a MIDI Breath Controller from TE Control. It’s a USB stick at one end, with a rubber pipe leading to a mouth piece at the other, into which one literally blows like a real wind instrument. It senses the breath and converts it to MIDI information that can be used in conjunction with high quality samples to create a very natural sounding performance. Great little piece of kit that I recommend to all composers!

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USB MIDI Breath Controller by TE Control – link to product site

Once all the tracks were complete and made to loop seamlessly, my job was done! The game is now out on itch.io and you can also grab a demo if you want to try before you buy. You can also listen to the whole soundtrack and download it from the Bandcamp page. Working with Sebastian once again was a real treat and the technical design of the game is a product of his brilliant hard work and creativity. Patterna is a lot of fun to learn and play and requires no guesswork whatsoever to improve, great for beginners and veterans alike.

That’s about all I have to say about Patterna and the music for the time being, but if you have any feedback about the soundtrack or have something  you wanted to ask about its creation, feel free to get in touch any time. Happy puzzling!

 

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