I knew from the beginning of development on Another Star how I would apply the theme of “minimalism” to the game’s story, gameplay, and graphics. But what I never was sure on was how to approach the music with minimalism in mind. Just like with the graphics, I didn’t want “minimalism” to just mean “simplistic”.
In the beginning, when the project was meant to be nothing more than a Ludum Dare entry, I decided that, to be minimalist, the game should only have 8 music tracks total. When the game became a full-fledged project I bumped that up to 16 to accommodate the longer story.
But it gets pretty boring to listening to the same few tracks over and over again in a game as long as Another Star. Even thought the game has only 256 tiles for its graphics, they’re combined and used in so many different ways that it stays fairly fresh. I wasn’t sure how to do that with the music, so I kept adding more and more unique tunes. In the first beta alone there were about 30 music tracks total, and a few more will even be added to that for the final tally (at this point I’m considering giving every dungeon its own unique music track).
So my next idea was to apply the “limited tile” concept to music by replacing the NES style chiptunes I was originally using and recreating them using a limited set of low-fidelity instrument samples. It sounded kind of neat, but it didn’t fit the feel of an 8-bit console game. Consoles wouldn’t use PCM instrument samples until much later, with the Super Nintendo’s S-SMP audio chip. (Sure, there was the Amiga’s Paula sound chip which gave birth to the modular music format, but that was a fairly expensive 16/32-bit computer system.) Finally, I just gave up and went with the Japanese Master System inspired YM2413 style that’s going to be in the final game.
It wasn’t until recently that it hit me what I had been doing wrong. The correct way to apply the theme of minimalism wasn’t to limit the number of instruments, channels, or tracks, but to limit the number of themes. I was purposely trying not to reuse leitmotifs in the soundtrack when that was exactly what I should have been doing. I should have come up with a handful of themes (maybe eight or so), and just used them over and over again in new and different ways. The soundtrack of Super Mario World is an excellent example of this. Every single level in the game uses the same music theme, from the sunny plains to the dark castles. But the plains play it fast and upbeat, while the castles play it in a minor key with lots of timpani and staccato strings thrown in.
Alas, by this point most of the music in the game was already done and it’s a little late to throw it all out. Oh well. It’s odd how something I normally gravitate towards but had avoided for so long was the direction I should have gone. I’ll have to be more careful in the future.