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Exclusive: Manor Lords' Lead Composer on Writing Music For Video Games

Composer and Musician Elben Schutte has joined 80 Level to tell us how Manor Lords' soundtrack was made, explain how to get started as a Composer for video games, and discuss whether it is easier to work with filmmakers or game developers.

When it comes to game development, one aspect that often gets unfairly overlooked is the soundtrack, which, much like proper lighting does to a 3D model, can elevate a game to new heights and enhance the gaming experience tenfold.

I mean, can you imagine wandering the mysterious and awe-inspiring lands of Skyrim without Jeremy Soule's Elysian tunes? Or slicing cyber-ninjas into myriads of pieces without Jamie Christopherson's legendary high-octane bangers that are arguably even more popular than the game they were made for? Me neither.

One of the more recent games with an exceptional soundtrack is undoubtedly Manor Lords, a medieval city-builder and real-time tactics video game developed by the Slavic Magic team. With Manor Lords' gameplay receiving praise from both gamers and critics alike, it was crucial for the soundtrack to match its quality, and thanks to Composers Elben Schutte and Daniel Caleb, this goal was successfully achieved. Manor Lords' soundtrack was released by Laced Records and is available now on all major streaming platforms.

To tell us more about how Manor Lords' soundtrack was made, explain how to get started as a Composer for video games, and discuss whether it is easier to work with filmmakers or game developers, Elben has recently joined 80 Level, taking us on a trip behind the scenes of writing video game music.

How did you join forces with Slavic Magic to work on the musical score for Manor Lords?

Elben Schutte, Composer and Songwriter at Pressure Cooker Studios: The studio I'm involved with, Pressure Cooker Studios, has a strong background in TV and film. Personally, I'm a gamer, and there are quite a few gamers at the studio, so it's fair to say that gaming is a strong passion for many of us. It's always been a dream of mine to do video game scores. So at the studio, I'm always pushing towards game scores and getting more involved with the gaming world.

We first started a conversation with Slavic Magic's Greg Styczeń back in 2019. We were following the game on Reddit, and at the time, we were looking around for new upcoming projects that showed some promise and that we hopefully could get involved with. So we had our eye on Manor Lords from a long time ago, and we kept sending Greg messages like, "Hey, we would love to do something for your game," "It looks so cool," etc.

Eventually, Greg agreed for us to send him something, so we put a little press pack together, showing our team and our beautiful studio space. We included a couple of tracks that we sent over to him as examples of things we thought might be relevant, including some early experimentations and recordings with close friend and fellow musician Simon Ratcliffe from Sound & Motion Studios, Cape Town. Greg seemed pretty excited, gave us a thumbs up, and said, "Great, let's try a few things out and see how it goes." That's how the relationship started.

Is Manor Lords the first game project Pressure Cooker Studios worked on?

Elben Schutte: No, not really. Our first game, I believe, was Semblance, which we worked on quite a while ago. We also worked on Ancient Dungeon, a VR game. So, we've definitely done other gaming projects, but Manor Lords has been our first big Steam release and our first city-builder strategy game, a genre I personally love. I play a lot of city builders and strategy games, so I was pretty excited to be involved with this one.

Now that Manor Lords has been released and achieved huge success, do you see yourself more as a Composer or Game Developer?

Elben Schutte: Definitely a Composer. I see the world through the lens of telling stories through music. I think that's partly why the rich storytelling background of Pressure Cooker came to the fore in capturing the world of Manor Lords. There's, of course, a game development element to it, particularly in terms of the function your music has in the game. However, we rely heavily on the developers and love collaborating with them to understand what they want to achieve and how they push different functions and mechanics in the game. So, we try to capture those mechanics but from a musician's perspective.

What do you mean by capturing gameplay mechanics from a musician's perspective, could you elaborate?

Elben Schutte: Absolutely! Take Manor Lords, for example. We've got a city-building scenario, and we've also got a battle scenario. There's a mechanic where your troops engage in battle with other troops. At that point, you need to activate a different feeling in the game by activating battle music. This completely changes the mood and engages you in that particular mechanic.

A different example is the seasonal changes in the game, which I think were done beautifully by Slavic Magic. You've got summer and winter, and during winter, crops struggle to grow, and your settlers use more firewood because it's colder. Capturing this musically is interesting because you need to convey the sense of desolation, coldness, and iciness through the music in winter, whereas, in the summer months, everything is vibrant and growing perfectly, which should also be reflected in the score.

What were the sources of inspiration behind Manor Lords' soundtrack?

Elben Schutte: Our primary focus when writing the music for Manor Lords can be divided into two main categories. Firstly, we wanted to capture and incorporate Period music to ground our audience in medieval times authentically and effectively. Secondly, we aimed to capture the beauty of the world and the environment through Cinematic music. So, our philosophy behind the score was to incorporate both of these elements seamlessly.

For all the Cinematic music, we had to consider compositions that would still resonate within a medieval setting. We couldn't simply compose massive symphonies with grand brass sections and flourishing pieces like those found in games like God of War or The Witcher. Instead, we needed to ground our music more firmly in the medieval era. To achieve this, we conducted an extensive analysis of medieval music, listening to a vast array of pieces. We identified certain patterns and harmonic decisions made by medieval musicians, which we intentionally incorporated into our compositions. This ensured that even the cinematic elements retained a thread of the medieval spirit.

That was essentially one aspect of the score, while the other side focused on the period. This aspect presented the greatest challenge. Authentic medieval music works quite differently from modern music, posing a significant challenge for someone accustomed to composing cinematic music. While it's relatively easy for me to compose in a cinematic style, adopting the mindset of a medieval composer proved to be much more difficult. I had to immerse myself in the genre and style, learning to think like a medieval composer and translate that into compositions. So when it comes to Manor Lords, it was more about embracing a genre and style rather than being inspired by any specific composer or work.

And how does writing medieval scores differ from writing modern ones?

Elben Schutte: It's a great question that we've struggled greatly with because, as modern composers, we have these rigid structures that we stick to, time signatures that people use, and fixed tempos. We love fixed tempos because the programs that we work with are designed around them. Medieval music didn't have fixed tempos, and they didn't have rigid time signatures and structures to the music. It was a lot more free-flowing and a lot more expressive in terms of timing.

We had to break those confines to truly capture the essence of the sound. So, we heavily relied on improvisation and collaborated with some incredibly skilled musicians proficient in period instruments. Our aim was to let them shine, so we planted a seed of melody or theme in their minds, granting them the freedom to express it in their unique way. We experimented and improvised until we captured the right feeling. That's how we navigated without click tracks and rigid structures, and I believe that's what truly brought out the magic we were seeking.

When composing a music score for a game, what should a Composer always keep in mind? What are the most important aspects to focus on?

Elben Schutte: Firstly, what is the function of the music you're writing? This has to always be in the front because it's easy to get carried away by wanting to write something that only you want to write. But you always have to ground yourself into, "This is what I need to write, and within the parameters of what I need to write, I can write whatever I want to write".

The second thing, and we found it to be a recurring challenge, is the differences between writing for film and writing for games. Writing for a film involves a fixed timeline with specific hit points and events that occur at predetermined times, requiring the music to build up to those emotional peaks. On the other hand, writing for games presents the uncertainty of player actions, meaning you can't anticipate when events will happen.

Therefore, the music should trigger appropriately only when an event does take place. This necessitates the music to have less dynamic variation, maintaining a consistent level that immerses the player in the desired emotional state for that part of the game. Consequently, creativity operates within a narrower dynamic range, conveying the desired emotions within those limitations. These are certainly the two key points to keep in mind.

When starting out as a Composer for video games, do you need any special equipment in this day and age when Fruity Loops is more than enough for many?

Elben Schutte: I would say that technology these days makes money the only barrier you need to cross to start writing music. You can buy a cheap computer or an expensive one, a cheap microphone or an expensive one. If you're an instrumentalist, you can spend X or Y amount on the instrument that you want to play. And obviously, the more you can afford to spend, the better, because it does count. The quality of your equipment, especially if you want to do this as a profession, is really the bread and butter of your work.

When it comes to equipment, the best approach is to simply start using it. I think it's easy, and I speak from experience, to fall into the trap of thinking, "I don't have that, and this guy has it, and I'm never going to have that." I started writing for video games with a dream. I wanted to write for video games, and I didn't know how. What did I do? I began writing music for imaginary video games in my head, just to practice and to get ideas onto a page. Then, as time goes by, you start thinking, "It would be really nice if I had a better sound for this or that," and then you know what to strive towards and what to save up for to add to your sound palette or your set of equipment. But I would start basic and grow over time, the most important thing is to get started.

Let's say I'm a music school graduate, I can read music, I can play instruments, and all, but how do I actually transition my skills into the digital world?

Elben Schutte: I would ask myself, what is it that I want to achieve? Do I want to be a composer? Do I want to be a producer? Do I want to make albums? What does my path look like for me? And then I would do a little bit of research on which DAWs people use, and then try those out.

Obviously, there's a preference between Mac and PC, and that might also influence your decision. A lot of Mac users use Logic Pro, and I think that it's important to start by deciding which DAW you're going to commit to because that is your entry point. That is the portal into the digital world. And the sooner you can get familiar with how those work, the rest will fall into place.

And how do I enter gamedev specifically?

Elben Schutte: As I mentioned earlier, I started writing music for video games before I even had video games to work on. I think that is important because it gives you practice, drives your passion forward, and gives you a sense of purpose, and you are doing something about it off the bat. You're not waiting for a video game to one day land on your lap before you start writing.

From a point of view of connecting with developers, there's definitely not a set recipe for doing this. I think it's pretty hard work, like in any business sector, where you need to do a lot of research. In particular in gaming and with developers, you need to be familiar with the platforms that they use, the people they are making games for, and the communities where they are involved, such as Reddit and crowdfunding websites for games. These kinds of sources on the internet are where you would need to spend a lot of time to get a sense of it, poke and prod, and reach out to ask questions and get involved.

From your experience, is it easier to work with game developers or movie studios?

Elben Schutte: Generally, it's easier to work with game developers. I've worked on films where I had extremely easy directors and extremely difficult directors, and I recently just finished a film, one of the easiest I've ever done. I had no notes, which is amazing, but that certainly doesn't happen every day.

I think with film, your biggest constraint is time itself. You're always on a deadline, and with a game, this deadline usually entails much more time, and that really does help to be able to go back and forth on the score over a longer period of time. With Manor Lords, we've been writing music and working on it for three years, which is a very long time. We would never work on a film for three years.

And how much time do you usually get when working on a film?

Elben Schutte: Four to six weeks. So, it's a time crunch; it's a different environment altogether. In terms of feedback, I think Greg was amazing because he knew exactly what he wanted. And at the same time, he was a difficult person to make happy because he knew exactly what he wanted. That was amazing because it pushed us pretty hard to get the result that we got, and I firmly believe that we wouldn't have gotten this far without him pushing us to our limits. So while I think it's definitely based on personality, working on games is a little bit more relaxed in terms of timeline, and time is usually your biggest stressor.

As an Artist, what are your hopes and dreams right now? What are you planning to do going forward now that Manor Lords has been released?

Elben Schutte: I am actively strategizing on my next game score project. I'm hungry for it, I want to keep going, so I'm excited to see what we might find and do. All the while, I do a bunch of things at the studio. I'm not just a Composer, I do a lot of film work and advertising tasks on the side. It's a big part of our business, so I've always got things to do.

As far as gaming is concerned, I don't have a project on my plate at the moment, except for Manor Lords. It's definitely a relationship that we have, and hopefully, it's going to evolve going forward. Apart from that, I am definitely looking towards my next big gaming project, and it doesn't matter whether it is AAA or indie. If it's AAA, that would be incredible because there would be a nice budget that goes with it, so we could do some inspiring recordings. With indie, you're not really sure how limited you're going to be, but either way, telling the story is the most important thing as a Composer, and I just want to keep practicing and getting better.

As a Composer, I'm hungry to absorb lessons because I want to improve, and it's a journey for me, a never-ending journey. There's no arrival point with writing music. I will always be hungry for more because there is no arrival point, you can never be the best, which is beautiful. It's awesome to think that there is no endpoint. I think that the lessons that I learned are the things that are at the forefront of my mind, and going forward, I can't wait to see what new lessons I might learn.

Elben Schutte, Composer and Songwriter at Pressure Cooker Studios

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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