Released in 1996, The Neverhood was the first game to make use of claymation in all of its animations. Its environments burst with distinctive singularity, but the game’s popularity was boosted by its memorable puzzles and, particularly, its soundtrack. Composed by Terry Scott Taylor, a prolific songwriter and founding member of Daniel Amos, its odd vocals and playful tone were a perfect match for a world pocked with fingerprints and creativity.
Just two years later, a sequel dropped for the PlayStation. Instead of a point-and-click mystery, Skullmonkeys took the form of a platformer. Its music, also written by Taylor, followed suit with more driving beats and evolving arrangements. Lauded for its catchy themes and importance to the game’s humour, Skullmonkeys‘ soundtrack may receive more retrospective attention than the game itself.
Though Taylor would go on to work on other titles, such as BoomBots, his return to the clay vistas of Armikrog — a spiritual successor to The Neverhood — was much anticipated. Driven by new environments, fresh characters and a brand new story, the results struck a slightly different tone. Taylor’s compositions always help to define the otherworldly personalities of the games he writes for, and Armikrog proved to be no exception.
As a prelude to my upcoming podcast series about video game soundtracks*, I spoke to Taylor about The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys and Armikrog. I used to have a Skullmonkeys t-shirt as a preteen, so the chance to ask Taylor about his role was humbling. Scroll down to read the interview in full, in which he offers heaps of insight on his music and adapting it to the medium. Additionally, click here to find out more about Taylor’s songwriting. You can also support his Patreon here!
How did the role of music differ between The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys and Armikrog?
Obviously each game is unique, so the idea was to sonically capture the “feel” of each of these distinct worlds. The commonality of the three soundscapes lay in their role of helping to keep the player entertained and involved, especially when he or she is stuck in a room. You don’t want to bore or drive the player crazy with a repetitive soundtrack that is sonically shrill or otherwise abrasive in some way. It’s a balancing act of creating something essential to gameplay but which, at the same time, doesn’t call an inordinate amount of attention to itself in a distracting sense.
The composer’s job is to supply the appropriate musical backdrop unique to whatever is going on on screen at any given moment, and in this way it’s not significantly different than writing a score for a movie or television show, except in a movie the characters aren’t likely to be stuck in one room for a couple of hours. Oh wait… I forgot about My Dinner With Andre!
What was behind the decision to include extreme minimalism and soundscapes for The Neverhood and Armikrog? How were the more ambient pieces created?
First let me say that Doug TenNapel gave me pretty much free reign to do whatever I wanted. We’ve formed a very trusting relationship over the years, and so his confidence level in my ability to intuit what is needed is very high. Doug was a true fan of my work and quite familiar with it before he asked me to create music for the first game, The Neverhood, and even though I’d never done anything quite like the Neverhood stuff, my work up to that point was very eclectic, so Doug already possessed an assurance going in that I would find the musical sweet spot for this unusual game.
As I recall, the only specific instruction I got from Doug in pre-production was that he wanted the music “to sound like clay.” The proof that we think alike is the fact that I didn’t find this vague at all! I immediately knew exactly what he was talking about and left the meeting with ideas for my approach already percolating. If I understand your question correctly, the minimalism you refer to in The Neverhood and Armikrog is due in large part to production decisions made once I turned the music over to the powers that be. Sometimes the decision was made by the game’s creators to have their music engineer take a couple of tracks (or “stems” as they are called in this kind of work) from a fully produced song heard elsewhere, and use them for certain puzzle rooms throughout the game.
In contrast, Skullmonkeys has an incredibly percussive soundtrack – often relying on rhythm as a basis. Was this the natural result of working with a more fast-paced game?
The pace of the game was one factor, but it was obvious going in that the jungle visuals of the game called for a tribal style approach to the soundtrack, heavy on the percussion.
Within each world of Skullmonkeys, levels develop on musical themes by adding instrumentation. Where did this idea come from, and how does it enhance gameplay?
As I said earlier, most of the decisions to “strip down” a fuller composition heard in its entirety within the game to a more minimalist format, used elsewhere, was made by the creative team in the soundtrack’s post production. I didn’t have input into these decisions but it didn’t bother me at all. I knew going in that this was a method that would be implemented and, just as TenNapel and crew had great confidence in me to make the right creative decisions, I had an equal confidence in them.
How closely did you work with Doug TenNapel to musically adapt the game’s humour?
While I consider myself a serious songwriter, a good deal of my body of work outside my work with Doug is infused with humor and satire, although it’s usually on a more subtle level. With the nature of these games being what it is, I was free to give that side of my style free reign. Doug and I share similar senses of humor, so even though stuff like Bonus Room was non-collaborative, being on the same page with Doug in regard to the game’s humor was certainly helpful.
Vocals are a key component of your soundtracks, which is rare today and was even rarer in the 90s. Considering your background in songwriting, did it feel natural to make heavy use of vocals?
I am essentially a singer-songwriter so yes, it did come naturally. I absolutely love word-play and I consider lyric writing to be my forte. I also enjoy experimenting to find different, and sometimes unusual, ways to utilize the human voice within a given song. I’m very thankful that Doug knew from the start that the vocal and lyrical side of me was a strength to be utilized throughout these games and that, as a result, we’d likely wind up with a fairly unique soundtrack for a very unique game.
How did you develop your distinctive vocal delivery for The Neverhood?
It just seemed to me somehow appropriate. I simply felt that The Neverhood demanded a fairly loose and lowdown clickity-clack blues and jazz style and that it screamed for a type of gruff, marble mouthed Leon Redbone meets a little bit of Ray Charles-type vocal approach. In a sense this vocal style took on the role of being yet another character in the game.
Was there a conscious decision to move away from that delivery for Armikrog?
Absolutely. While both games share in common the use of claymation for their visuals, Doug and I felt that with Armikrog we needed something fresh and new to create the proper atmosphere for its unique, outer-space setting and story line. I was excited about the challenge of essentially leaving behind familiar, and what was now somewhat safe, ground and to go about exploring new territory. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good metaphor for the story-line of the game itself!
How do you go about defining abstract locations, like a hot dog factory, through music?
I think that this is something that is instinctive to some composers and doesn’t come easy to others. I absolutely revel in the challenge of mulling over what things like hot dogs and clay figures would “sound” like if they could emit sound. It’s really not only fun but it’s deeply satisfying when you can pull it off.
In both The Neverhood and Armikrog, there are puzzles that rely on music to solve (specifically one with a radio, and another with a baby’s mobile). How involved were you in the development of these puzzles?
I had no hand in the development of the puzzles. I’m essentially just a music man.
Armikrog‘s soundtrack is somehow more tense and, at times, even melancholic. How conscious was this approach, or was it a reaction to the game’s environments and story?
Much of it was written as a reaction to the visuals and storyline of the game, but there was more to the process. While I don’t consider myself inordinately so, I do have a tendency to lean toward the melancholic in a good deal of my work. For me, the vastness and mystery of space can at times conjure up a sense of awe and wonder and a kind of ethereal longing within me. It’s similar to the way a lot of people, including myself, feel when they hear the long distance whistle of a train passing in the night. It was enjoyable, as well as fortuitous, that I found myself working on a game perfectly suited to my proclivity for using wistfulness as a source of inspiration.
When composing for cutscenes, were the claymation animations already completed, or was it more collaborative?
I was given rough cuts of the “movie” sections of the game to compose to so that I could get the timing right, so yes these scenes were already created.
*This podcast, The Sound Test, is currently in production and due to drop sometime in June/July. There are two trailers available, one featuring Danny Baranowksy discussing Super Meat Boy and another centring on GoldenEye 007 with Grant Kirkhope. Confirmed additional guests include David Wise, Nathan McCree and Rob Hubbard, with several more interviews yet to take place! Both trailers can be found below: