When indie developer Jonathan Blow's latest game Braid arrived on Xbox Live Arcade last month, it challenged gamers in every sense of the word. What appeared at first to be a platformer with a simple story about a man looking for a princess was deceiving. The appropriately named game interwove a fairy tale open to interpretation, a time-manipulation game mechanic, and vivid watercolor visuals into one strong cord.
Although each of those elements has been lauded and dissected in the weeks since the game's release, one oft-overlooked aspect is the haunting soundtrack, a collection of pieces that Blow discovered on the site of music licensor Magnatune. The developer told GameSpot that he decided to license existing music instead of commissioning it partly for budgetary concerns, and partly because he wanted it to have meant something to the composer.
"The reason it was all from the same place was because that's where I found everything that I wanted," said Blow, who wanted high-quality music from musicians and understands that film composers spent many hours to create the right mood.
"My not-so-charitable opinion of game-music people is that most of them are not at that level of skill," he continued. "Most of them don't really understand gameplay that well unless it's very simple, traditional gameplay. If they give you a song, it's usually not very high-quality, like what a real musician makes. By real musician, I mean people who made the song because they cared absolutely about that song. They weren't making it for anything. They just made what they most wanted to make at that time, so that's what I was looking for."
Magnatune founder John Buckman was stunned by how it all integrated together.
"The daring 'painterly' graphics, the thinking/action gameplay, and the manipulation-of-time idea is just genius, and the music that was picked gives a sense of dancing along, of immersing yourself into this strange otherly world," Buckman said.
"It certainly set a tone," said David Hellman, the artist behind Braid's visuals. "When the game was early and the graphics were rudimentary, the music was certainly one of those things that made a strong impression as far as the atmosphere of each world. I think his musical choices were very good. I always felt they were interesting and well chosen."
Blow went through a lot of music before settling on the eight tracks that are in Braid. He had specific requirements in mind when he started his search.
"There were aesthetic goals and functional-gameplay goals," said Blow. "So I wanted songs that were long because if you're sitting in a level trying to solve a puzzle...often you're just sitting there for 10 minutes to try and figure something out. If there is this short, looping music that just repeats over and over, that's going to drive people crazy."
He was also looking for the right music to go along with the atmosphere, even though the artwork would come later.
"I wanted them to be organic and complex because that's kind of the mood the game is trying to set as a whole. Thematically in terms of the graphics, it's trying to present something that isn't necessarily clear-cut. There are all these layers in the graphics and in the emotion," he said.
"There were other functional aspects," Blow noted. "I wanted the music to be composed with instruments that worked well with the rewind. When you rewind something, the song should sound interesting going backwards, the texture of the instruments should be different and interesting going backwards and feel different."
Jami Sieber, the composer behind five of the tracks used in Braid, admits that she doesn't play video games, but has received e-mails from gamers around the world commenting on her music.
"I've heard great things about how he uses the music," said Sieber, who composed "Maenam," the first theme heard in Braid and one of Blow's favorite tracks. Sieber explained that the word "maenam" translates to "river" in Thai. The piece came from an experience in Thailand in which she had the opportunity to play music for elephants. She used a cello to invite the elephants closer to observe what she was doing. "That's where that piece came from, and to me it's a gathering of where spirits and soul meet."
When the player moves from the menu of the first world to world two, the environment transitions from a dark cityscape to a lush rainforest that is accompanied by a playful melody, "Downstream" by Shira Kammen.
"'Downstream' was written in the Grand Canyon; it is several tunes in one," said Kammen, who also previously recorded a brief piece for The Sims Online. "I was camped on the Colorado River [with] a friend of mine who had to row downstream to meet somebody who was hiking in. It was twilight and he had a headlamp on and he was rowing away into the twilight, and all you could see was his headlamp bobbing, going downstream."
Although Hellman didn't know the inspiration behind "Downstream" when he sat down to create the game's art, he thought that the piece was very appropriate for a "forward-moving jumping game."
"It works with the clouds, the way the sun moves. The music actually enhances the feeling [of] sunnyness and warmth in that world. I think it's the sound of the violin," he said.
Kammen was also delighted to hear that her music was able to reach a wider audience.
"It's hard to get your music heard," she said. "There is this particular audience for the kind of music I do, and it is a really different kind of audience...a few have written asking for sheet music, [I think] that's really neat and very nice. I would never think before this that a video game would inspire anybody to think about music."
Already available for the Xbox 360, Braid is also expected to launch for the PC in October. All eight tracks from the game can be found and purchased from Magnatune, but Blow is also working with the site to put together a full-length Braid soundtrack.
The individual tracks in Braid are listed below:
"Maenam" by Jami Sieber, from the album Hidden Sky.
"Undercurrent" and "The Darkening Ground" by Jami Sieber, from the album Lush Mechanique.
"Tell It By Heart" and "Long Past Gone" by Jami Sieber, from the album Second Sight.
"Downstream" by Shira Kammen, from the album Music of Waters.
"Lullaby Set" by Shira Kammen and Swan, from the album Wild Wood.
"Romanesca" by Cheryl Ann Fulton, from the album The Once and Future Harp.