Soundtrack spotlight is back with a Q&A with Chris Christodoulou, composer of the much loved soundtrack to Hopoo Games’ critically acclaimed smash hit roguelike; Risk of Rain 2.
Featuring soaring synth solos, prog rock inspirations and arguably some of the best menu music in gaming (up there with Yuka Kitamura’s ‘Dark Souls 3’) Chris created a spectacular and distinctive soundtrack with Hopoo that he was kind enough to answer a few questions about over email with us this week.
When did you start composing – and what or who were your early passions and influences?
Chris: I started writing small pieces at about 9 or 10 but I wouldn’t call that composing, more like naive loosely structured improvisation. In my teen years I tried my hand at songwriting for the various bands I was in. But I’d say that my first real composition attempts started in my early 20s when form, orchestration, harmony and melody became factors of my writing. The earliest major influences were definitely Pink Floyd and The Beatles, then Dream Theater. In my late teens and 20s the influence of orchestral music, especially the brave new world of avant garde (Xenakis, Ligeti, Penderecki, etc.) also influenced me greatly.
What would you say were the biggest moments in your career, have there been any projects or occasions that have really shaped where you are now?
Chris: There are two projects that stand out. One is my very first game score for The Sea Will Claim Everything. Very few people have played the game but I put my foot in the proverbial game development door. The feeling that I had earned the right to call myself a game composer was crucial to keep going. The other one is obviously Risk of Rain. It was commercially successful enough to allow me to make a living out of my music for the very first time and it established my relationship with Hopoo, which is still going strong today. It’s safe to say that without ROR we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
What ideas and inspirations did you draw on for Risk of Rain 2’s soundtrack?
Chris: Risk of Rain 2 is heavily inspired by the prog and electronic music of the 70s (from King Crimson to Pink Floyd to Vangelis to Jean-Michel Jarre). That is not to say it is a pastiche—far from it. It evokes that music filtered by my own influences, sensibility and style. It is also standing firmly on the shoulders of the original Risk of Rain soundtrack, with many motifs, themes and even entire sections carrying over.
A video game protagonist wakes up in an on-fire science lab with nothing but an AI and a high-tech gun to…
How did you meet the guys at Hopoo and what made you want to work together?
Chris: Hopoo sent me an email looking for a composer for Risk of Rain after finding my music on SoundCloud. After a bit of back and forth we agreed to collaborate. Interestingly enough, with me being in Greece, despite having done several projects together we still haven’t been in the same room, in fact it was only after ROR that we had our first on-camera conversation! But I do consider them close and I love working with them.
My ulterior motive for working with Hopoo was not particularly noble. The project seemed perfectly fine but I had no reason to think it would be the breakout hit it became. I just needed work in the industry and money to buy food. On their side, I imagine the main reason they picked me was because I was really cheap 🙂
How much shared musical DNA is there between Risk of Rain 2 and the first Risk of Rain and how do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician between the two releases?
Chris: ROR2 definitely stems from the original Risk of Rain. As I already mentioned, there’s plenty of thematic material that is reused, either verbatim or in various permutations. There’s also a shared sound palette with plenty of instruments (especially some more characteristic ones) establishing their role as permanent fixtures of the ROR music-verse. And of course the writing style remains largely the same between games.
As far as my own evolution as a musician, I feel like there’s a certain amount of improvement in the second soundtrack which I’m personally happy with. (Of course not all players necessarily agree with me on that one.) I consider the compositions in ROR2 (mostly) more meticulous (mostly) better mixed, both the result of very conscious and hard work. I’m really proud of the outcome.
What’s your favorite game soundtrack and what makes it so good?
Chris: It’s the soundtrack to Grim Fandango by Peter McConnell. It’s a jazz extravaganza that fits the game perfectly while being a great score in its own right.
Did you compose the soundtrack separately to the game or did you get a chance to play it first?
Chris: I composed Risk of Rain 2 parallel to the game’s development. I got to play a little bit, enough to understand how the game works and how it is different from (and/or similar to) the original. Then I went on with the compositions, separating them in level tracks and boss tracks, with the occasional auxiliary tracks (menu, cutscenes, etc.).
Did the game’s early access period influence the soundtrack at all?
Chris: Early Access played a big part because we needed to have enough tracks for the EA launch, which meant we had to use music that I did not consider final. That was not an easy thing because I knew players would become attached and not take to further changes kindly—which is exactly what happened…
It also had an effect on my overall process because after the launch we were working on scheduled releases with specific (and public) goals, which meant I had to change my usual semi-chaotic workflow to focus on delivering music for these goals.
What differences are there between composing for film and video games and what lessons have you applied to games from your studies and work in film?
Chris: The major difference is time. A film is a firm structure with each scene consisting of a specific number of frames which translates to a specific number of seconds every time you watch it. Games are different. The player might spend from a few moments to several hours in the same scene. In one way this is freeing for us composers, but at the same time it adds the responsibility of accommodating for such extremes.
I think my film music studies have helped in giving me a better understanding of feel, mood, pacing and how to better convey them. Sometimes this is applied in a directly analogous way, like in a cutscene, but otherwise it’s just a good skill to have, even when creating a small loop or a longer ambient underscore. My time in a film mix bay has also helped me better understand the interplay between music and sound, which is of great importance in games.
Repetition is a key part of Risk of Rain 2, how did you tackle the challenge of making music that would be heard dozens if not hundreds of times by an individual player?
Chris: By making it as long and as good as possible 🙂
Some of those levels get *busy* on higher difficulties, with hundreds of enemies on screen at once – what role does the soundtrack play in communicating things to players that they wouldn’t be able to pick out visually?
Chris: The game loop is directly reflected in the compositions, which, almost to no exception, start more relaxed and build up to huge climatic crescendos. In addition the choice of using a baroque style (as is, multiple voices, complex counterpoints, etc.) is again a reflection of the busy gameplay. I’m not sure it’s so much a way to communicate certain things to the player as to complement and enhance what they’re experiencing.
Do you have any dream projects that you’d like to take on and what’s next for you?
Chris: I have several things I would like to do, mostly involving writing stand-alone music.
Games-wise I would really love to do something in the vein of the old X-COM games (i.e. slow burn turn-based strategy with some mysterious/dark undertones). Speaking more broadly I like working on games that provide opportunities to explore new musical ground. Or I could do the next Hitman, wouldn’t say no to that 🙂
As far as upcoming projects, there are some games brewing but I can’t reveal anything yet. What I can say is that I’m working with my dear friend Jonas Kyratzes on a mystery/horror audio drama for which I’ll provide music and sound. It’s something that I’m very excited about and in many ways it’s literally a dream project come true. It’s still in early stages but I can’t wait to get fully into production and eventually share it with everyone!