Charting The Pathless, part 1

The theme - the soul of a score

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The importance of melody and texture

Games have a wide variety of musical and narrative requirements. When starting a new project, the first thing I tend to do is search for that kernel that forms the basis for everything that will come after. This often manifests as trying to find the perfect theme; that quintessential succession of notes that seem to summarize all of the subtext or even literal nature of the game, its characters, and its story. I am a believer that a great theme — and in particular a great melody — can provide a shortcut into a player’s subconscious and communicate the desires of the game developers in a way that is complementary to, but definitely not overlapping with, the mechanics, art direction, etc.

Trying to find the melody

Zeroing in on what exactly that melody should sound like is always the million-dollar question. In this case, there is something ritualistic, or even tribalistic, about the premise of the game. The hunter is dropped off on this island and we slowly absorb her purpose and her traditions. So much is communicated through suggestion and implication, so I want the music to bridge a lot of the gaps in the players’ minds. It should almost feel like a folk song from a culture we’ve never visited and as a result,the melodies should feel as though they are settings of ancient forgotten poems. Even though there are no lyrics, it should feel like a folk song — or even a hymn — from her society. After a week or two of fiddling around, I came up with this melody. It was actually not as difficult as it can sometimes be, and I can only attribute that to how much I’d already fallen in love with this latest Giant Squid world.

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The theme, tentatively titled “Pilgrimage”

Choosing the instruments

The next key decision is finding some kind of unique instrument or sound to carry the theme, and indeed to be emblematic of the score as a whole. In the case of ABZÛ, Kristin Naigus’ oboe solos formed the heart and soul of everything, and were an important jumping-off point for most every cue in the game (likewise with Tina Guo’s cello solos in Journey). For The Pathless, I have a slightly different feeling — I want the island to feel simultaneously familiar yet foreign. In a way, it feels like an amalgamation of many different cultures but, in that combination, creates its own. So, any solo instrument that is deeply attached to a specific tradition seemed like it would be misleading. A lot of the times, orchestral instruments can be useful in that situation because the orchestra has been so nearly universally adopted throughout the world that its instruments don’t necessarily evoke the specifics of their European origins anymore (a cello solo like those in Journey doesn’t scream Germany or Italy, etc). At the same time, I wanted something more distinctive, so I decided to form a sort of pan-cultural folk ensemble.

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Written by

Professionally curious about music. Composer for Journey, Abzu, Erica, John Wick Hex, The Banner Saga 1–3, AC Syndicate, Tooth & Tail, etc. Fan of humanity!

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