„Writing Music is more fun when you are exploring something new“
For several months on the market already, CrossCode has been a declaration of love for the 16-bit era that couldn’t be better. But not only the gameplay and the amazing optics contribute to a fun experience, but also the soundtrack provides great entertainment. We now had the opportunity to talk to Deniz Akbulut, the composer of the soundtrack!
Note: The interview was conducted just before Christmas.
Hello Deniz! First of all, thank you for taking the time for a little interview. CrossCode has been out of Early Access for a little over three months now – what were your first thoughts after the game was released? Did you immediately feel relieved from the tension or did you click F5 on Metacritic every five seconds, hoping someone will write something about the game’s soundtrack?
Hello, Matze! Thank you so much for interviewing me! It was a great experience to finally get the game out! But most of the time I was K.O. from the Crunch-Time … I often read tweets and reviews, watched live streams, and of course I was very happy when someone praised the music! When you’ve worked on a game for so long, you often end up with high expectations. So at first I felt a bit disappointed that CrossCode didn’t become much more popular. Nevertheless, I am very happy that CrossCode could achieve so much – it could have been much worse! It was quite hard for me to get out of the usual stress phase and relax, I got a bit too used to working on CrossCode, but now there is nothing left for me to do and I can finally spend some time for myself and catch up in life.
Recently, CrossCode won the award for the best Indie game at the German Developer Award and was nominated in other categories – from my point of view unjustly not for the best music in a game! Still, how big do you see the role your soundtrack played in winning the prize?
I am very excited that CrossCode won „Best Indie Game 2018“ at the German Developer Award! I think the whole team deserved it, everyone gave their best and did an incredibly good job. Everyone in the team contributed something to such an award! Music is of course very important to me, but as a musician I have to say that, after all it’s my area of expertise and I always give music a lot of attention when I play a game. Unfortunately there is no „Best Music“ category at the Game Awards here in Germany. (Editor’s note: There is a category for „Best Sound“.) But maybe and hopefully that will change in the future! I would be incredibly happy if I would be nominated in such a category alone, but I should rather not expect anything …
Editor’s note: Shortly before this interview was published, Deniz was nominated in two categories for the Annual Game Music Awards 2018 by the video game music portal vgmonline.net! There was one nomination in the Writers‘ Choice category for the soundtrack, the other as Newcomer/Breakthrough for him personally. We keep our fingers crossed!
Before we talk a bit more about your work on the soundtrack, I would like to talk a bit more about your background. How did you come to compose video game music? And how did your collaboration with Radical Fish Games on CrossCode come about?
Well, I grew up with video games and wanted to make my own games very early on. At some point I learned to play the piano and write MIDIs on the computer and soon I started writing music for my friends‘ games. At that time I was active in RPG Maker communities and made some friends there. I then met Felix Klein at some point and we collaborated, and at some point I was asked if I didn’t want to write the music for his next game
CrossCode. And so it started!
The work on CrossCode
CrossCode has been in development for a long time – development began initially in 2012, an Indiegogo campaign was launched in 2015, after which the game was in early access for three more years. I realize how gameplay benefits from this process, but how does this long creation process affect a video game soundtrack? In those almost seven years, you’ll probably have evolved technically, compositionally and as a person.
That’s definitely right. A lot can happen in such a long time. In the beginning I wasn’t exactly sure how CrossCode should sound. Before the crowdfunding campaign we only had the cargo ship level, so I had decided to keep the first tracks a bit more towards „electronic“, but during the Indiegogo campaign there was Autumn’s Rise and several levels taking place in nature – I had to expand the style a bit with acoustic instrumentation. Of course I wasn’t as good at writing music as I am today, and it was hard to keep me from rewriting older tracks. My studio has grown enormously during this long period of development, I have learned a lot of new things and have constantly expanded my composition style. I always hope that new players will play long enough to hear my new, hopefully better pieces!
So is it the case that the pieces found later in the game were written by you last? Have you never returned to earlier pieces and fundamentally revised them?
Yeah, that’s right. The game was mostly developed parallelly to the story. The final boss, for example, was only finished two weeks before launch, then I had to add a track as the last link in the chain. I had the chance to expand or redo older tracks from time to time, but it was better not to overdo it, sinceI had so much to do in general. The music at the beginning of the game on the Cargo Ship is still from 2013-2014.
I’d rather not write music that sounds the same all the time, […] my music will probably suffer!Deniz Akbulut on his approach to composing
Have you ever had a time in the last seven years when you would have liked to throw everything away? Where did you get the motivation for your work from?
So I don’t recommend that anyone should work that long on a single game. I’ve often lost interest, but fortunately I’ve often had time to distract myself and participate in other smaller projects. That helped me to work on CrossCode again with full power. In the last two years, where I worked on CrossCode almost full time, I didn’t have time to work on side projects anymore, and a lot had to be done. Often I had a composer’s block or just a burnout, but with discipline you can overcome something like that … If you have to write music every day, then you need a lot of discipline. Imagine you have to write a short story every day. Every person works differently and I’m glad that in the last two years I’ve found methods for myself that help me to stay productive every day and minimize burnout phases.
Your soundtrack to CrossCode has become really varied. Just like the game, the music manages the balancing act between the classics of the 16-bit era and a modern feel. What was your main inspiration when composing?
I wanted CrossCode to sound like a Japanese PS1 game right from the start. I played a lot of such games in my youth and they influenced my taste a lot. With the money I earned from working on CrossCode at the beginning, I reinvested in my studio and bought sound modules and instruments that were used in the 90s and early 2000s to realize this vision more authentically. I even found some old 90s sample CDs on eBay that usually require hardware samplers, but nowadays you can convert and use them almost perfectly with new software samplers.
My sources of inspiration are diverse and not necessarily other JRPGs, as many fans think; my favorite composers have never worked on JRPGs, I think. But I hope the soundtrack is still fitting and original! I aimed to try something new with every track, just to develop myself as a musician. Writing music is more fun when you explore something new. I’d rather not write music that sounds the same all the time, otherwise my lust will pass very quickly, and my music will probably suffer as well!
What was your everyday life as a composer like? Were you always allowed to play early versions of the game yourself and were inspired by it or did someone tell you „We need a melancholic piece! We need a Boss theme“?
So my ideal everyday composition life looks like this: I get up in the morning at ~6:30, have breakfast and prepare some tea, then I listen to some good music to get into the mood. It’s easier for me to get new ideas in the morning, so I sketch mostly new pieces or parts from 8 to 12 o’clock. Then I make a lunch break until 14 o’clock. Until 18 o’clock I then polish what I have roughly sketched in the morning. After 6 p.m. it’s the end of work and I try not to think about my music anymore, which is very important, I think. On weekends I rather try not to work in order to rest. I try to set at least one piece as a goal for each week. Depending on how much time there is left, my everyday life can of course change.
To me, a battle theme is the heart of every RPG soundtrack, while playing there’s hardly a piece you hear more often. How did it happen that CrossCode has so many different titles that are played during the fights?
Felix absolutely wanted to have a lot of battle themes! In the beginning even a Battle Theme for every area in the game. However, I think that such pieces are much harder to make … I’m more of a fan of quieter or colorful pieces for levels or soulful music for cutscenes. I even think battle themes are rather unusual for an action RPG. In other games of this kind there are mostly only Boss Battle themes. In CrossCode the level music is very often interrupted, which I personally don’t like that much. But in the end it wasn’t my decision to use the music that way, and I couldn’t convince with my direction.
The soundtrack can now be purchased digitally. At the same time there is also a CD version, which is distributed in Europe by First Press Games and in the USA by Materia Collective. Did you come up with the idea of putting the soundtrack on CD? And how did the collaboration with the labels come about? Physical releases of video game soundtracks are unfortunately still a rarity.
I’ve always wanted to have a CD release! I like to collect Japanese soundtracks from games, even have some of my favorite autographed albums! I was contacted by Materia Collective and First Press Games sometime before the release out of nowhere and they were interested in releasing my album everywhere and even producing and selling CDs! I still find this very exciting! Not many Indie Games have a CD release of the soundtrack …! I am really very happy about it!
Are there any other plans for CrossCode music releases? A vinyl version or a newly arranged or live recorded album?
A vinyl version has already been mentioned a few times but unfortunately I can’t say more about it yet. At the moment I am talking about selling the album in Japan, which would be super cool! There is already a Japanese localized version of the soundtrack on iTunes, matching the Japanese localization of CrossCode by Dangen Entertainment, which is often praised. I am curious! I’m afraid there’s nothing more planned, as far as I know.
Are you already working on a new project or do you need a break after CrossCode?
Right now, I’m taking a break for the most part. I worked on CrossCode for a long time and wanted to spend some time for myself. I finally bought myself a Switch and play all the games I missed because I had so much to do and so little money. But I’m already talking to new potential customers. Nothing is certain yet, but I am very excited about the possible projects I will be working on in 2019! I hope I can say something in public soon!
That’s almost the end of our interview. Finally, please mention your three favorite video game soundtracks of all time and your three favorite music albums in general!
Klonoa: Door to Phantomile / Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil
My absolute favourite albums! I am a big fan of Eriko Imura’s music in particular! Her music is still a great source of inspiration for me today. I think both soundtracks are absolutely great! Jazzy, melancholic chords and colorful arrangements and sounds, just great… I want to be able to write such music too!
A very cool soundtrack for a puzzle game! It’s always important to evolve as a musician by trying to break out of your comfort zone and try something new! And somehow Go Shiina manages to keep everything consistent! A very unique soundtrack!
Final Fantasy XI
Almost every piece begins simple, but develops into a melancholic festival with jazzy chords that are super interesting! And there’s a lot to hear with all the expansions that came along to the game!
Sine by Cymbals
Eriko Imura recommended this album to me when we were talking about the subgenre „Neo-Shibuya Kei“. It quickly became one of my favorites! Very great chord sequences, great production and sounds!
Azurite Dance by Lu7
Luna Umegaki makes great video game music such as for Choro Q3, but she also has her own band with which she also writes really great music. Pretty much everything she does is highly recommended! She always writes great jazzy chord sequences and is really virtuoso on the piano/keyboard! Her music is an insider tip among friends.
Cutie Cinema Replay by CAPSULE
Now I’m talking about „Neo-Shibuya Kei“ music again. CAPSULE is so to say the main representative of this genre I think, or at least was in the early 2000s! Very colourfully arranged music with great sounds, catchy tunes and chord sequences!
Thank you for answering the questions & hopefully a few quiet days over Christmas!
Many thanks for the interview! I also wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
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