Oh boy. I’ve waited a while for this. Today is a special day, because not only are we talking about two of my favorite games ever, but it’s a little bit of an evolution for Sound Test. In the past, it’s been pretty freeform, but mostly smaller scale – talk about the music in games, why it’s a great complement to the game it’s from, etc. While that approach isn’t changing, I wanted to grow it into something bigger, more involved, and with the input of composers and producers behind the music when possible. An easy way to think of it is to consider it a sibling to our long-standing Weekly Featured Artist feature. Starting with this article, we hope to make Sound Test a more comprehensive and fulfilling deep dive into the music of the games we love, while still leaving some room for smaller entries here and there, among other surprises.
Which brings me to the topic at hand. Back in 2013, there was a little game called Risk of Rain, released on PC via the Steam marketplace and developed by Hopoo Games. It’s a 2D pixel art roguelike where you play a survivor, alone or with a few friends, navigating a hostile planet you’ve crashed on after the cargo ship you were on was attacked. March 2019 saw the release of the sequel – Risk of Rain 2, go figure – on Steam’s Early Access program. The game’s formula, story, and atmosphere were largely the same as its predecessor, with an added dimension bringing the game to 3D along with new survivors, abilities, and items to make it a worthy sequel. Last August, it came out on game consoles so more people, like me, can enjoy it as well.
These are my go-to games to relax. Although they’re very action-oriented games and have increasingly hard, procedural difficulties that eventually fill your screen with enemies and dangers, there’s a serene property to its randomized gameplay loop. It’s fun to attack things and loot! It’s even more fun when the soundtrack expertly plays to the loner, exploratory atmosphere of the game, and that’s why we’re here. Both Risk of Rain games have a full-fledged soundtrack by Greek composer Chris Christodoulou. He was gracious enough to lend some of his time to answer my questions about his work, even as he works to finish the full and complete soundtrack for Risk of Rain 2. Look for plenty of his insight throughout this feature.
Let’s start with the first game. That makes sense, right? My experience with it has probably been unlike a lot of others. I hardly played it with friends, despite my love for co-op games. When I want to unwind, I like to do it alone. Play a cool game, soak it in, maybe listen to music along with it – can I get an amen, introverts? I found an odd solace in exploring the unnamed planet and its various biomes, the only companions to speak of were the in-game drones you can purchase/repair to help you and, of course, the music.
The way Risk of Rain works with its randomization and roguelike elements is that enemies and loot are randomized in terms of placement, numbers, and type, with some hard limitations to allow for smooth, fair gameplay. The environments, as far as terrain layout and which levels you visit in order goes, are locked. You start a game, you either begin in the barren sands of Dried Lake or the Desolate Forest overlooked by a royal purple sky. Your second level is either the deep, dank underground of Damp Caverns or the celestial Sky Forest, and so on.
“Cyclogenesis”, a song that plays in Damp Caverns, has a foreboding openness to it, just like a cavern would have. Little chiptune-ish blips poke in and out of the mix, almost acting like a skittering cave creature moving just out of sight, but close enough to give you pause. There’s a light echo with the sounds heard on it to set the tone even further, and you also hear a very distinct buzzing synth sound here that’s prominent throughout a lot of songs. I liken it to the vocalist of these songs, a ‘voice’ you can find familiarity in as you explore and survive the trials of Risk of Rain. I asked Chris about it, and he was insightful, yet understandably protective of its formation:
‘I love the idea of it being the vocalist! I’m actually asked about it often. When the first game came out everyone thought it was a guitar. It’s something I’ve been toying around with for many years. In all the bands I was in I always wanted a sound with the edge of an electric guitar and the same organic feel. I don’t want to go into sound design details, but it’s a really simple sound going through some simple processing: a bit of distortion, reverb, and just a touch of my secret ingredient :)’
That’s not to say that electric guitar isn’t present elsewhere, because it most definitely is. In “25.3°N 91.7°E”, a song that plays in the underwater Sunken Tombs and during the credits of the game, there’s a lovely melody that pervades the song, played cleanly on guitar. It’s a four-note motif you hear a lot in the soundtrack, usually sliding down a scale, but it is often also reversed to play in an ascending manner. You can hear the same thing but with more attitude in “Moisture Deficit”, the first song mentioned that can be firmly described as ‘rock’. There’s crisp drums and that clean guitar again, but it’s unchained to play around a bit more with licks deep in the background and more rhythm-based riffs in the middle. There’s a satisfying progression to it and vaguely reminds me of some calmer stuff that Animals as Leaders might write.
Some songs appear in multiple areas, yet still fit each and every environment snugly. Everything makes sense – to me, it’s because of the very balanced use of synthetics and organics, something that may stick out to me or you, but isn’t too much of a concern to Chris: ‘I literally used what was part of my collective influences, my imagination, and to my availability. I never bothered with the dichotomy between ‘real’ and synthesized instruments.‘ Instruments or elements of sound are very commonly compared to colors, especially that of a painter. It’s an analogy I’ve used before in my reviews and analysis, and it’s something that composers keep in mind as well.
‘To me, orchestration/instrumentation is a vital part of the composition process. Deciding which instrument will perform each melody/chords/rhythms, etc. Pigments mixing to form the picture that is in the composer’s head. If it takes a guitar and a drum machine, great. If it takes a flute and a frying pan, also great. If it takes plastic and pink, perfect.‘
Listening to much of this music may leave you relatively tranquil, meaning the game itself has to keep you on your toes (and it does). Sure, but Chris is a versatile creator, and there are boss fights out there on this planet that need theme songs. Enter “Double Fucking Rainbow”, a cheekily-named song that dives headfirst into progressive rock. A spacey intro eventually gives way to fierce rock instrumentation and energy, but not before setting a hell of a tone with established elements. Listening to the full Risk of Rain soundtrack once shows this isn’t your ordinary soundtrack; not just in terms of quality and flair, but also in the fact that it’s just not structured like your typical video game OST. Chris is a musician and artist first, and that’s where a lot of his skill and approach comes from.
‘I was lucky to grow up in a town where kids were either basketball players or musicians. The way it went (and pretty much still goes in Sparta) is that we all had our main band, but also participated in various ‘project bands’. This was great because the music scene felt larger than it actually was and we all got to tip our toes in different genres. Sometimes it was the exact same people under a different moniker, just to play different music. My main band at the time was covering The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Blur, etc.; Brit pop-rock stuff. The side projects were always a bit more experimental and challenging. We dipped out toes in prog metal, the likes of Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Porcupine Tree, etc. When I left Sparta I was in two bands, one of which was a ‘working’ band playing funk/pop/dance stuff, at small clubs; in this one I played keyboards. The other one was the ‘fun’ band playing mostly (power) metal, Judas Priest, Stratovarius, Queensrÿche, etc. at local festivals and small metal-oriented scenes and in which I played the drums.‘
Keys and drums are quite comfortable for Chris, as he learned both instruments from a young age. At eight, he started piano lessons at a local music school that had obligatory theory classes on Saturdays: ‘That played a key part in my further musical development. Most kids didn’t really take to theory but I loved it. It felt easier to me, much easier compared to the hours one had to invest to become a good piano player. But most importantly I saw it as a fundamental tool to create music of my own that was aesthetically pleasing and original.‘ He also notes that while learning something as rigid and complex as theory to create might sound counter-intuitive, understanding theory is the foundation – ‘only then you can add to it, or, if you’re one of the brilliant ones, break from it.‘ In his teens, Chris started drum lessons, which helped define him as a musician. This is where a fascination of complex rhythms budded from – one that’s flexed well on Risk of Rain‘s music. Guitar came more naturally, as he taught himself how to play.
There’s so much more to Risk of Rain‘s music that I just can’t cover here, like how the song “Precipitation” proves to be the perfect song to face off against the final boss Providence and his Gilded Wurms (or get your ass kicked because you didn’t find enough health items to buff you out). Or the dreamy lounge stylings of “Coalescence” and how it makes for a great send-off in the final level as you explore the wreckage of the UES Contact Light cargo ship that you were jettisoned from in an escape pod to lead to the events of the game. This game has one of my favorite soundtracks ever. I draw comparisons to the Halo: Combat Evolved soundtrack for evoking similar feelings of alienation, forming subtle mystique and extraterrestrial moods, even if they did it in vastly different ways. I also highly recommend the game itself, but honestly, just listen to the soundtrack at the very least (it’s on Spotify as well).
Risk of Rain 2 offered a whole lot of new opportunities for Chris to change things up. It was years later after the release of the first game, and he had amassed some new skills and experience, not to mention lesser limits.
‘We were very consciously doing something different. The fact that Hopoo was brave enough to do the jump to 3D freed me of any RoR1 prerequisites. I was also free from particular restrictions such as time (RoR1 OST took about three months, RoR2 OST almost three years), technical means (hardware/software) and skill. It was also a matter of personal evolution. I wanted to challenge myself to do more intricate compositions, not in terms of production values but of musical complexity – use more of the toolbox, so to speak.‘
A simple retreading of tried-and-true tactics wasn’t going to be enough for a project like this, one that was by all accounts going to be bigger and better than before. Though you can’t please everyone – ‘of course there are many that will tell you I should have stuck to basics, but, hey, at least I tried.‘
Even starting with the second game’s theme alone, you can tell things are different. There’s a more epic feeling, but the ominous mood that would likely go with exploring a hostile planet of creatures never before seen is well intact. The familiarity comes in with Chris’ patented approach – and his awesome synthetic vocalist returns to lead us all the way through loops of the game’s worlds.
Risk of Rain 2‘s biggest difference from the first game is an obvious one: it’s not even finished yet. They built the core game, playable in every important way, and released it for early adopters to try it out and have a say in its future. Hopoo Games have steadily released content for it in big updates that bring along entire new levels to explore, survivors to play as, and secrets to find. It’s been fun tracking the additions and changes, all of which have been positive, but what’s been a marvel is seeing the way Chris handles building an OST for a game still in progress. Songs are released piecemeal, but in terms of the game’s updates via its official early access soundtrack that’s hosted on Chris’ own Bandcamp page. Although the game and OST dropped in March of last year, I was holding out for that console release, and as such didn’t experience the music at all until August 2019.
But when it hit, oh boy, it hit. I can’t say if it was the dozens of hours I sank into the first game or if the atmosphere of the second game is really just that welcoming, but I immediately fell for it just as I did the first game. The game felt familiar, but so expanded, and with it the soundtrack as well. One of the first songs you’re likely to hear is “Evapotranspiration”, a gentle track with a pulsing anxiety about it. It’s a great opener, setting a tone for newcomers and re-imagining it for the veterans from the first game. And did I mention the environments look amazing in 3D?
I always wondered how hard it was to create pieces to match or at least complement these unique spaces so well, for both games. So…I asked Chris!
‘No, it actually wasn’t difficult. I’ve often said that the Risk of Rain soundtracks are the closest I’ve ever come to releasing a solo album. The sci-fi environment and the visual aesthetics of the games felt immediately approachable to me musically. Finding their ‘sound’ was intuitive. What is very hard is to actually realize these pieces, which are extremely complex from a musical standpoint both composition- and production-wise. I honestly can’t say it’s a fun process, it’s actually exhausting (especially on the second game), but the result is something I’m proud of.‘
Risk of Rain 2‘s soundtrack is one of those that just by existing makes the first one pale in comparison (it’s still really good, believe me). The sheer evolution is staggering – more prog, more instruments, more layers. More. “Parjanya” is a crawl through subspace with wavy and disruptive synths that doesn’t seem possible with what Chris was working with in the first game. “Hydrophobia” and “Antarctic Oscillation” are heavy installations that manage more progression and interesting ideas than true-blue progressive rock and metal bands do in ten-minute-long epics.
The surprises seem to be as endless as the gameplay loop in this Risk of Rain 2. “The Rain Previously Known as Purple” feels – and, of course, sounds – like a sequel to “Chanson d’Automne..” from the first game, using similar warm synths for melodies and sporting some righteous guitar wailing à la Prince. “A Glacier Eventually Farts (And Don’t You Listen to the Song of Life)” is a song that plays in a hidden area in the game, ominous and dark, but the soundtrack version is a little different as it samples a famous Werner Herzog exerpt, also ominous and dark. You might be wondering why.
‘First of all, why isn’t everyone sampling Herzog? My relationship with Herzog started about a decade ago when I was introduced to him via the hilariously outrageous impersonation of him by the comedian Paul F. Tompkins! Since then I’ve seen most of his films and every interview (including one in person a few months ago in Athens), read his books, took his online Masterclass and generally lived and breathed Herzog on a daily basis. Sampling him (and this quote in particular) was not a matter of why, but of when. Risk of Rain 2 gave me the perfect opportunity since the quote is literally (used figuratively) describing the environment of the game. I would be crazy not to use it!‘
Well, Herzog does say ‘it’s like a curse weighing on an entire landscape, and whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse.‘ Yep, that checks out, especially if you’re playing on Monsoon difficulty.
Speaking of differences between the OST and the game itself, people that have played either game and listened to either soundtrack would note that the OST version isn’t in any particular order. ‘I’ve always been frustrated by VGM releases that are loops dumped in order of appearance,‘ Chris begins. ‘This is simply unacceptable. An album needs to be a self-contained piece of art, there’s no way around that. I try to sequence my albums in a way that provides an emotional arc, in the same way a band chooses pieces to play at a concert. I also make sure the tracks are treated as music and not as ‘assets’, which is why there are differences in the intros, outros, and various parts between the in-game and the album versions.‘
For Chris, it’s not good enough to just make the music and hand it over to a studio to manhandle it into their game. What, you thought it was just empty words when I said he’s a musician and artist first? In fact, he takes it one step further, advocating strongly for professional music outside of the realm of video games. On his Twitter account, Chris has a hashtag – #StopListeningToVideoGameMusic – that he uses along with links and embeds to some of his favorite musical works, ranging from Daft Punk, Paul Simon, Porcupine Tree, and Frank Zappa, among many others.
His followers get a little…irked at this upfront approach, yet he unapologetically perseveres, regularly adding to the tweet thread every few weeks or so. ‘The reason I started this was how often my music was compared to music from other, contemporary games. I noticed most gamers have a rather narrow frame of reference – essentially they mostly listen to VGM. (Stop that tweet! I know you, dear reader, are a musically very well-versed gamer. I’m sorry, you are a minority).‘ Speaking as someone who has a lot of friends who are gamers, I can completely corroborate this – I’m sure a lot of y’all can as well. Chris continues:
‘This is not an accusation, I completely understand the reasons why. I’m simply trying to do my part so that when a gamer hears, say, a heavy metal track, they don’t necessarily compare it to Mick Gordon’s DOOM (this has been a totally random and completely non-biographical example). Of course, the hashtag has been misunderstood by some as an attack on game music. It’s fine, I don’t care to justify myself. A little bit of irony and humor shouldn’t need to come with explanatory emoticons. In any case, search for the hashtag on Twitter, decide for yourselves and by all means voice your opinion at me. At the very least you will be exposed to some nice music.‘
Indeed. For the record, I’m sorry I kind of off-hand compared some of your music to Halo‘s earlier, Chris.
Risk of Rain 2 is still unfinished, but very much playable and enjoyable, with steady and sizable updates coming out with a 1.0 version launch planned for August on PC (Steam) and sometime in the Fall for consoles (Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4). Sure, I’m biased, but I still consider it very worthy of picking up in its Early Access state. It’s one of my favorite games to play and, as I’ve spent thousands of words explaining, the soundtrack is truly top-notch, reaching beyond the expectations of video game music. As with the first game, you can always listen to the also unfinished and regularly updated soundtrack on Chris’ Bandcamp. It just so happens that June 5 marks another no-fee day for Bandcamp, so there’s no better time to support his work with a purchase than then! Check out the official site for the game as well.
To wrap up here, I’m going to place some other prying questions and the great answers to them that I couldn’t cleanly fit into other areas of this feature. If you’d like to learn more about Chris’ relationship with Hopoo Games, how you actually begin composing for a game, what tracks he’s most proud, and other cool tidbits, read on!
EIN: How did your relationship with Hopoo Games come to be? Who reached out to who?
Chris Christodoulou: I got an email from Hopoo saying they were looking for composers for Risk of Rain. They had heard some of my music on SoundCloud. Their original idea was to get a small group of people to write a couple of pieces for the game. I told them I’d be happy to score the game if I could do the full thing, explaining that different composers would be in detriment of the sonic fingerprint of the game.
I guess my reasoning made sense, and I’m pretty sure I was the cheapest too, so after a week or so I got a follow-up that I got the gig. The rest is soon-to-be-forgotten history.
EIN: For those that are unaware of how the behind-the-scenes game development stuff works, me included for the most part, could you go into how you produce music for a game at least in your experience? Are you given alphas or betas of games to get the feel for and tone of them, concept art, design notes, or prompts of some kind? Were there any limitations set upon you for the music for either game?
CC: It usually starts with a description of the game and its core ideas and themes. An early build is usually available, which helps a lot to get a feel of the game. Concept art helps too. What I particularly like to know about is lore. Things in the background (themes, lore, philosophy, character bios) are the most intriguing and inspiring. The visuals and the gameplay are of course important, but it’s the ideas behind them that light the spark, at least for me.
First, we exchange ideas of what type of music would work and why (I might also get some music references). Then, I write a demo. If it’s a new collaboration I try to be more precise in my demos, send fully realised pieces that communicate my vision for the game clearly. If the team is more familiar with each other, I might send something abstract and trust the devs to know how it will turn out. Risk of Rain 2 is a good example: there have been demos where I literally just sent a drum loop or a sound I made.
I’ve rarely had limitations because of the preparatory work mentioned above. Of course, I set my own limitations, knowing that I’m writing for someone else’s project and I need to always prioritize it above my own preferences. And of course I get feedback, which can sometimes be challenging to deal with, especially for young composers, but you soon learn that even the harshest of feedback can be advantageous.
EIN: I know it was kind of surreal for me to see my writing published for the first time, even though it probably wasn’t that good. What was it like early on seeing your name in the credits of games and films you worked on, or hearing pieces you made show up in the final product?
CC: It was exciting! Writing for games was something I dreamed of doing for a long time and it was something that seemed impossible to a young kid growing up in Greece. I had to wait for a lot of stars to align. I was particularly happy that my first game credit – The Sea Will Claim Everything – is a game I love dearly!
EIN: More generally, who or what inspires your work overall? Do you look up to other musicians or composers in video games or elsewhere?
CC: Most of my influences are outside the video gaming world. Just like most of us, my core influences were formed in my teens and early twenties. Of course I’m constantly listening to new music, not necessarily new in terms of release date, but new to me.
But a core source of my inspiration is not strictly musical. It comes from books, films, the people I interact with. I can safely say at this point there’s more Werner Herzog in my music than there is Pink Floyd. There’s more of the guy that makes my coffee every morning than there’s Dream Theater. I know it sounds weird, but it is the truth.
EIN: If you could collaborate on a song with any other musicians or composers, who would they be?
CC: I’d just do something new with the people I’ve worked with on Deadbolt, my childhood friends. Other than that, I’m not big on collaborations, I’m obsessed with having full control of every aspect of my music.
EIN: Although you had a song called “Double Fucking Rainbow” on Risk of Rain’s OST, it seems you got a lot more playful with the naming of tracks for Risk of Rain 2. Any greater story behind that decision or just having some fun?
CC: I haven’t really thought about it in terms of being less/more playful. I spend a lot of time thinking about my titles. I consider them an integral part of the piece they represent. If anything, I take the humorous titles even more seriously, because they reveal more about who I am – sense of humor is such a personal thing. Take Deadbolt for example: most titles are some sort of pun related to death. In the case of Risk of Rain 2, there is at least one title that superficially seems to be plain silly, but is in fact the most serious I’ve ever used – a cosmic inevitability. But there are also hidden jokes, like “Nocturnal Emission”. People can look it up. It sounds serious, it is borderline on theme, and a pretty silly thing to use as a title. Exactly how I like it.
EIN: What’s the track you’re most proud of across both Risk of Rain OSTs? Which was the most challenging to complete or get to a point where you felt it was a full song and got your idea across properly?
CC: It’s an impossible question of course, so I’ll cheat and answer with one piece from each game for each qualifier!
Most proud RoR1: “Dew Point” – I mean, come on, it fucking rules!
Most proud RoR2: “The Raindrop that Fell to the Sky”, because it is my very soul singing that solo.
Most challenging RoR1: “Arctic Oscillation”, because of the polyrhythms.
Most challenging RoR2: “A Glacier Eventually Farts”, because it took a long time to produce, and listening to such a bleak soundscape over and over for weeks took a toll on me.
Most hard to get a point across RoR1: “Surface Tension”, and I failed. It’s just bad.
Most hard to get a point across RoR2: I think it would have to be the piece for the final level (still incomplete at the time of writing), because this time around a lot of people have unrealistic expectations from it.
EIN: What’s an instrument or technique you haven’t used yet that you’d love to incorporate in your music in the future?
CC: Oh, there are plenty. (Proper) microtonality and alternate tuning systems jump to mind. I’ve only scratched the surface of polyrhythms. A deep plunge into bitonality – more elaborate harmony in general. 12-tone. The opposing poles of stochastic and aleatoric…music is endless!
As far as instruments, the one I’d love to incorporate more is the human voice.
On a purely technical level I would love to do 5.1 mixes, but unfortunately streaming services have pretty much put the final nail in that coffin…
EIN: If you play Risk of Rain (either game) for fun like I do, who’s your favorite survivor? What’s your favorite enemy? Are you good at the game?
CC: I’m horrible at it and I have spent probably a couple of hours actively playing in total in both games.
EIN: Let’s say composing music didn’t work out for you – a true shame. What career would you have pursued then?
CC: If I had to change careers now I would definitely pursue film editing. I love films and I’m fascinated by editing in particular. But if I could be 15 again, I would try to become a writer, purely because you never have to worry about gear. You can take a tablet (or a piece of paper and a pencil) anywhere and write. The anxiety and cost of maintaining a professional PC for music is something I’d happily part with.
EIN: Finally, you obviously do a lot more than work on Risk of Rain 2. Are there any other projects or bands, future or past, that you’d like to shout out for fans to look up?
CC: As far as the past goes, I would love it if people simply checked out my previous work.
As far as future projects, I have another game coming up (the music is written and waiting for the game to be done), and then I’m pursuing a couple of different endeavours.
One is scoring and sound designing a narrative podcast written by Jonas Kyratzes. We’ve worked together in the past, but this format is something new and exciting for both of us. It will be a limited series, the narration of which has already been recorded. No dates yet, but we hope it’s sooner rather than later.
I’m also planning to a) take a bit of time to write music outside games, and b) produce music production-related videos more consistently. To support this, I’m considering a crowdfunding/subscription platform (Patreon and/or Bandcamp) but it’s still too early to announce anything concrete. It will definitely involve a lot of interaction with the people who decide to support me, that I can say with certainty!
EIN: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your work, composing, or in general?
CC: I would simply urge your readers to read.