(character art by Jen Zee, background art by Joanne Tran, animation and logo by myself)
So Hades is finished, after three years in development and two in Early Access. The response so far has been very positive and it’s been humbling and rewarding to read so many glowing comments about our work. I’ve never felt more appreciative to have had the opportunity to work with such a passionate, skilled team, and to have contributed my small part to its success.
On a personal level, working on Hades has been something of a transformative experience for me as an artist. As we came closer to the 1.0 launch I found myself looking retrospectively at my career, and moreover my experience working with Supergiant for past seven years (and man those years have gone by fast!)
When I joined in 2013, mid-production of Transistor, I found it fairly easy to hit the ground running, at least from a stylistic standpoint, as I was well familiar with the general style and execution of sci-fi/cyberpunk aesthetics. I remember feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance at the idea of working Art Nouveau elements into my very mainstream idea of what a sci-fi UI should look like, but with enough guidance from our visionary and inimitable art director Jen Zee, we found a way to make it work. But I remember it being one of my first professional experiences in a long time that required me to break the molds I’d been so comfortable and falsely confident in for years.
On Pyre, there were definitely moments where I felt out of my element, maybe even a bit of imposter syndrome. I could no longer rely on my old comfy tool-based tricks of pixel-perfect vectors, glows, Layer FX and photographic textures to produce all of my assets – it all really needed a more organic, worn, hand-drawn touch and the workflows I’d become so comfortable with were no longer quite so directly applicable. But necessity is a powerful motivator and at some point I reluctantly picked up the old Wacom pen and attempted to mimic some of Jen’s impeccable line work in a way that hopefully wouldn’t stick out like an awkward sore thumb.
While I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time, leaning too heavily on tools also presented a difficult mental barrier to overcome. Even in the weeks that we spent freely experimenting during Pyre’s pre-production, I found it hard to try to simply do something new with what I had at my disposal. The limitations of the tools I had spent so much time learning and staking my livelihood on had ironically become something of a creative block.
Of course we got the game done, and the art was well-received, but I think a subconscious part of me was left with a nagging feeling that I’d done my work despite my failings and weaknesses, rather than having overcome them.
So at the start of production on Hades I felt like I wanted to break free from that – to execute work that was immediate and impactful, visceral and satisfying, and to do so with boldness and confidence without endlessly noodling away, mentally hand-wringing over unnoticeable details. While it didn’t happen overnight, I think the subconscious idea of that motivation helped guide my work, especially as necessitated by the pace of our Early Access releases. There was no time to second guess myself, much less time to noodle and lose the forest for the trees.
Thankfully to that end I was also aided by Jen’s endless encouragement and, on the VFX side, some inspiring and badass concepts by my old friend Andre Mina. Not to mention the awesome work done by the rest of the art team, all of whom are inspiring in their passion, skill, creativity, and dedication to their craft: Joanne‘s beautiful environment art, Paige‘s meticulously detailed and faithful 3D models, and Thinh‘s stylish character animation, breathing life into the models in a way that makes each feel unique. It’s been a pleasure working and growing with this team and I hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
To paraphrase the wise words of Napoleon Dynamite, “It’s pretty much the best drawing I’ve ever made.”
As I was gathering the “Metamorph” source files for backup, I started listening to some of the half finished, in-progress ideas I had rendered out for consideration, as well as a few that were completely finished but didn’t make the cut. After hearing them with fresh ears I found it a little easier to discern the elements that I’d originally been developing in them before over-listening to the point of boredom (this kills the spark of inspiration.)
I ended up re-listening a few times and, feeling fairly certain that I wouldn’t revisit them in the future, decided to upload and share some of them instead of letting them rot hidden in the cloud for eternity. And maybe share some thoughts about them and where they fit in the path to the album. I’m going to sort these more or less chronologically.
DontNeed This was started shortly after finishing “Observer” and feels to me like it would be more at home there than on “Metamorph”. Sort of a Burial x Microfunk vibe. The vocal sample seems like too much of a focal point to me, despite mixing it in at a low level, and it didn’t feel right basing the most interesting part of a track on a stock (or maybe sound pack, I forgot) Maschine sample.
Symbol Sampled some classical music here in the vein of Susumu Yokota’s lovely “Symbol” album, but ultimately felt like my sample use was a little too straightforward and not particularly creative. The vocal sample did end up granulized in “Voice of the Zodiac” though.
Monark160[Persistence] Prior to playing Celeste, it had been a long time since I’d stumbled across a game soundtrack that I not only enjoyed but also really connected with. I think Lena Raine‘s phenomenal work ended up inspiring parts of this; I was impressed with her use of the Monologue in the OST it got me inspired to have another go at Monark, which I previously hadn’t really had much luck patching myself. While I enjoyed this result, ultimately I don’t think this track particularly fit the broad picture sound and technique I wanted to pursue.
Monark170[Float] More “practice” patching and utilizing Monark without it dominating the track. Hot off Observer, sounds like I was still riding Maschine’s Grain Hold effect pretty hard here. Still too same-y.
FormUserAmb I think I was pursuing two main impulses here: focusing more on negative space and minimal use of notes, and making more use of some of the softsynths I hadn’t used much in production yet. While I had a blast exploring Native Instruments’ Form and made a decent number of my own patches/presets with it, I hadn’t really featured it on a track yet. So here I was trying to build something up using mostly my own sounds.
Blkmir Still trying to find a voice here, but too close to my old habits again. I worked on this with headphones one night while Marissa was watching Black Mirror S3E4: San Junipero, so it ended up as a weirdly muted background inspiration (or at the very least, a filename.)
Fluttr I really enjoyed the sparse piano work in the Zelda:Breath of the Wild OST, so I think that inspired me to experiment with some playful, staccato piano here. I was also listening to a lot of Frederic Robinson around this time, so there was some inspiration from his amazing work as well. Unfortunately I don’t think this hit anywhere near the mark of either of those inspirations, so I shelved it.
AndanteSine Just an experiment in “virtual modular” ambient with generative melodies, plus a couple of chords granulized through Antonio Blanca’s DRON-E. I still kind of like the minimal-ness of it, but didn’t think it was interesting enough to stand on its own.
Kontour+nod-E_Clix Another attempt at generative melodies (courtesy of NOD-E,) minimalism, and trying to utilize softsynths in my collection that hadn’t seen much use yet. As the title suggests, this was an attempt to make more use of Kontour. Despite being successful at all of these aspects, I don’t think the end result ended up all that interesting.
Dighyp Mostly an attempt at glitchy ambient IDM in Maschine. I think absent a driving emotion during production, the whole thing ended up just sounding cold and lifeless to me.
Drumsync This was part of the prototype that led to finishing “Tornadogenesis”. One sunny Saturday morning I just felt like making some crunchy, funky minimal beats. I think I knocked out like 10 or 12 a la carte drum patterns, and eventually added some of these sparse hypercompressed delayed synth lines, but wasn’t totally happy with them and how much they distracted from the drum patterns. Nevertheless I had fun recording this by shifting around the drum and synth patterns and using Maschine’s Perform FX in realtime.
Gamelan Probably one of the less melodic explorations here, but one of the early sparks of direction for “Metamorph,” utilizing more generated sequences and focusing on modulation. It also felt good to break some molds and do something a little more bold, at least at he beginning. I think the title came from the Newscool preset I started with for the initial sequence.
ToyBoxCombDrum Here I believe I had gone too far into the “make a whole song with modulation” methodology. Aside from the background ambience, it’s entirely made from my own Reaktor Blocks patches (plus one instance of TRK01 on bass duty trying to keep things orderly.) It ended up being kind of pain to control, and I think it even sounds a little out of control. By the end of it, even my OC’d 8700k was having trouble keeping up with low latency playback.
CT_Lite After spending a good few months with the Analog 4, I felt a little sorry for my dusty old minilogue and decided to use it for the main synth sequences on this one, plus some synthetic drums from the Reaktor Clonetonic ensemble. Sorry minilogue, this one didn’t make the cut (though you did get center stage in “A Growing Uncertainty”.)
MX_Simple[Empath] After buying and learning Massive X I had an initial slump of disenchantment with it; it seemed like whatever I made with sounded too complicated and demanding, and few of the factory patches were inspiring (though there are some awesome ones in there.) Here I tried to tone things down and make some more simple, useful patches. I actually like how it turned out and think I found a simplicity that worked here, but didn’t feel right selling or including it on the album with the vocal sample (and also feel like the vibe wouldn’t be the same without it).
MX_Stonewheel Speaking of Massive X, this one’s featuring an awesome Massive X patch that came in with a new set of factory presets. I felt this ended up a little too on the nose and predictable to fit on the album, and wasn’t sure where else to take it after a couple minutes.
RazorMetal This one I was working on alongside “Abiogenesis” and initially thought I might just release the two together as single. Ultimately this one felt a little too predictable and similar to warrant its own spot on the album though.
SmolReaktor[LMK] Started as another early experiment with generative melodies, this time using Reaktor’s factory Newscool ensemble (which made it into like half the tracks on the actual album). It turns out, tuning the pitches on the generators at 1px per semitone is a bit of a pain in the ass on a 4k monitor. Anyway, as the track started coming together I was happy to hear a bit of resemblance to one of my enduring favorite 90s drum&bass tracks, Technical Itch – Can’t You See (Dub Mix), and ended up intentionally taking it in that direction. But it wouldn’t be complete without a little vocal sample, would it? This one almost made it, (indeed it is finished) but again, copyright law completely aside, part of me felt wary about prominently using such a well-known vocal sample.
IRCstalker Making heavy use of the Analog Four & Rytm here, along with an instance of Reaktor Skrewell which until this I had never found a practical use for. Another one that almost made it; it is finished and fits thematically with a few of the other tracks. Ultimately though I think there’s a fine line between minimalism and boredom and this veered further than I would have liked into the latter, overstaying its welcome.
SparkOhm[Retrospective] Went hard on a couple of impulses here: utilize underused softsynths (Reaktor Spark, in this case) and channel late-90s netlabel IDM. Despite finishing it and initially thinking it had promise, I thought I fell back into too many of my standard habits here.
Firstly, I wanted to express gratitude to my supporters and listeners so far; it’s been motivating, heartwarming and reassuring to read your comments, and I appreciate each one. As I’ve written about previously, the internet has become such a huge place and releasing new work can feel like emptying an eyedropper into an ocean of music. As of this post there are something like 50 million songs on Spotify alone, so having anyone listen and enjoy enough to drop me a note feels truly remarkable.
I wrote a bit about the album in the preview post but figured I’d elaborate further on some of the themes and influences.
As parts of this are somewhat inflammatory, I feel like I should qualify my thoughts by stating that they’re completely subjective and result from my experience largely as an armchair listener, bedroom producer, overall outsider, and certainly not a professional. That said…
I think a major part of my renewed interest in IDM comes from the current state of electronic music in general. An extremely brief history of my interest would start in the early 90s with Rave, Techno and Demoscene music, closely followed by Hardcore Rave evolving to Jungle, early Drum&Bass and Trip Hop, which led me to Atmospheric Jungle/DnB, which branched off into ambient (which of course had been around for decades,) and then by the late 90s, IDM – some of which combined my favorite aspects of all of these genres.
From the early 00s to 10s I still mainly followed Drum&Bass, but also branched out into some more mainstream and accessible sounds, lounge and disco house, 2-step/garage, stuff I could listen to in the car without weirding out new friends. At this point I think I fell out of the more niche experimental genres as I had personally associated them with a less mature, more introverted part of myself that I felt I’d grown out of or wanted to leave behind.
So here we are in mid-2020, and I feel like the unfortunate mainstream adoption of electronic music, its commercialization and commodification into predictable, polished, festival-friendly frameworks and the cult of DJ personalities has drained so much of what was interesting about it in the first place. Looking at Drum&Bass in particular, to me its origins and spirit were about forward-thinking and innovation. (As an aside, my impression of most of the “Future ____” genres implying innovation seem the most straightforward and resistant to experimentation, but I digress.) As the structures of its subgenres solidified, they became increasingly predictable and boring. Early Atmospheric/Intelligent Drum&Bass was such a mind-bending fusion of cleverly chopped high energy breaks contrasting with the stillness and beauty of ambient music, but after 20 years of solidifying its framework to the point of paint-by-numbers YouTube tutorials… today the beats just sound so bland and mindless to me, blurring together into a light sludge of hihats, shakers, gutless kicks and mushy snares at the most obvious intervals, lazily repeated ad nauseum for the duration of the track.
So I’ve been asking myself where that leaves me and what that drives me to create, my creative roots having been appropriated by the insatiable machine of capitalism and eroded to banality by an endless stream of producers trying to do the same thing.
I think that’s why I’ve had a renewed interest in IDM these past few years – a genre I ironically steered away from because of its inaccessibility, its esoteric and obtuse qualities. It seems to me these aspects also make it innately immune from being clearly defined and iterated into monotony. While it certainly can have qualities of Jungle, Drum&Bass, Acid, Techno, House, Ambient, Downtempo and of course purely experimental sound, it isn’t any of those things in particular. It’s nebulous and flexible by nature, and that’s what makes it so interesting and full of potential for artistic exploration.
And that’s also why I’ve tried to look back to said roots without creating purely for the sake of nostalgia. While there’s certainly some nostalgia in the form of break selection or patches that harken back to the genre’s progenitors, my goal was to try to extract the essence of what made those things so inspiring at the time, present them in a fresh form, making the most of the contemporary production techniques at my disposal.
I guess one could also say it’s fairly reactionary to all of these things – broadly the state of electronic music and its connection to my own identity, as mentioned, but also the state of the internet and social media: connected to millions of people around the world but more isolated than ever, increasingly fast machines saving time through automation, but still busier and working harder than ever, uncertainty and fear looming as we cope with this pandemic, and the desires that all of those contradictions and issues lead us to reach for.
Well, I’m not sure if I entirely succeeded by any of those accounts, but I certainly tried, and to that extent I’m satisfied with the result.
Over the years I’ve received occasional requests to put my old music up on YouTube, so today I finally set aside some time to make it happen. I took all my old mods (mostly from 1996 to 2000), converted to 320kbps mp3 with foobar2k and encoded to video with ffmpeg. The idea of using a video streaming service as a music sharing community didn’t sit right with me for many years, but I think it’s finally time I went with the flow. YouTube’s ease of access is way beyond getting listeners to download a proper xm rendering player, to the point where the huge inefficiency of converting a 400kb mod into a 19mb video no longer bothers me.
So I’ve organized them into a playlist in chronological order as best I could remember. I’m planning to do the same for my older MP3s that aren’t available on bandcamp or soundcloud soon as well.
Also intentionally found some garish old art I did in the late 90s as a backdrop, for added nostalgia.
Wow, it’s been over a year since my last post. A detailed update is overdue, but first I’m excited to say that Transistor is out today! I joined Supergiant Games in June last year as artist #3, primarily responsible for VFX/motion graphics and UI art. After a busy 11 months, the game was released today on PS4 and Steam. Check out the Launch Trailer we put up last Friday too!
The following is a personal post. I don’t usually update this site with details of my personal life but felt the need to vent and I’m not sure where else to do it.
Six days ago Mars and I were at the pediatrician’s office for Penelope’s 1.5 year routine checkup. As I was entering Penelope’s next appointment into my google calendar, I received a daunting all-caps e-mail from our new CEO: *** TIME SENSITIVE COMMUNICATIONS *** – please leave the office by 3:15 today, enjoy the rest of the day. I had a sinking sensation in my stomach, based on a few other foreshadowing recent departures at Gaia, that it was going to be a heavy-handed set of layoffs. We went out for a snack afterwards, and Marissa told me her phone wasn’t able to receive any of her work e-mails; second sinking sensation. After we put Penelope to bed that night, I tried logging her into her account via web and that didn’t work either. A few secondhand messages on facebook and a closer look at the separate e-mails we received earlier in the afternoon pretty much confirmed my fear – she was laid off while we were at the pediatrician’s office, and I was kept on.
The next morning we went in to collect her things and sign paperwork. I felt a heavy sense of finality, sadness, and personal failure as we sat down with the new HR manager and quickly went over what she missed the day before.
Seeing the original copy of our terms of employment, the signature she signed on our first day six years ago and the original insurance forms dated 2007 really brought back a flood of memories and feelings. I remember the both of us being so happy and excited at the rare golden opportunity we’d been offered – to work together and collaborate as we had previously been doing freelance, but with the benefits of job stability, a nice salary, stock options, health insurance, free lunches, and the prospect of working with an inspired group of talented peers who we really understood and clicked with. Mars was a member of Gaia almost since its inception and the culture and humor and inspirations behind it matched our own; the idea of working for such a community and environment was so much more inspiring than the dry freelance work we had been doing for record labels and military subcontractors. On top of that, we were living practically back in my hometown, an area I’m comfortable and familiar with, with the support of my parents close by. Suddenly new opportunities opened up everywhere – buying bicycles and getting regular exercise, upgrading our computers and furniture, visiting my family for awesome home-cooked meals, Mars crafting and going to the salon for her hair. My parents had also invited us on an all-expenses-paid trip to Maui that happened to be two weeks after our employment started. Soon after that, we also hired two of our closest friends from art school, who ended up living in the same apartment building we were. It was a golden time, and it felt like we were finally in the right place, excited to work and live together.
The arrangement of working with one’s spouse is a double-edged sword though, and adds another level of commitment and upkeep to the relationship. I struggled with that from the beginning – the pull between wanting to work together in the ways we complement each other well and playing to the best of our strengths, and wanting to work independently and be recognized for my own skills and hard work as an individual. The workplace provided plenty of challenges for that struggle to manifest itself, and Mars fought emotionally and passionately to keep our collaboration alive. At the time I didn’t have an appreciation for what she was trying to do – she has an excellent sense of the big picture, of seeing the forest for the trees, and I often didn’t recognize that. She had another reason to fight for it though – the work I do is easy to see, it’s quantifiable and objective, it has a requirement, and when the requirement has been fulfilled it is complete. Her work is often more ephemeral in many ways – like I mentioned, it’s the big picture, it’s the spirit of the thing – sometimes that can be direction, sometimes storyboards, sometimes tweaks during development to fit the vision. That kind of sense is invaluable to me, since I focus much of my energy into polishing details and getting things finished. The end result is that I was often the one recognized and credited for the fruits of our equal labor.
Getting all of her work together to update her portfolio over the past week was a nostalgic and poignant experience. Looking back on the early work we did for Gaia – the battle animations, cars renderings, summer olympic games, aquariums, towns emotes, and game prototyping, I realized all of those projects really played to our strengths and were all products the both of us were deeply involved in. In retrospect, it felt like over the past couple of years our ability and/or opportunities to collaborate dwindled, and eventually our role shifted to one more suited to a solo artist. That is, completing a list of assets necessary to develop visual portions of a game. As the detail and execution half of our unit, more often than not those responsibilities fell to me. Left with nothing else, we tried to split those tasks – I did my best to funnel the more big picture ones to Marissa and take the nitty-gritty stuff I prefer for myself. But I think the passion she felt was gone – the magic of working together and showing off the fruits of our labor, of having created something greater than the sum of its parts, was no longer part of our duty.
I know that a part of that shift in direction has to do with the rapidly changing industry, with the constantly shifting nature of the company itself and the overarching choices that were made, but I also can’t help but feel a sense of personal failure on that front, and that’s possibly what bothers me the most about this. A sense that I didn’t value our collaborative relationship enough, our once golden opportunity, and in my relentless push to be recognized independently it slipped from my hands, a dead dream. That maybe if I’d worked with her more closely we would have been recognized as an inseparable unit and not rent asunder as we were.
As I mentioned, I’m a detail person, and it’s as easy for me to get tunnel vision working on the details of a project as it is to get caught up in daily duties and leisure. And perhaps that’s why I didn’t really see it coming. I may have had a very vague background feeling but never expected it would happen. But my better half is the opposite.
I was surprised at how well she kept it together when we went to pick up her things the day after. I felt terrible sitting in an all-hands meeting and the following creative team debriefing while she sat at my desk, excluded from even logging on to her former workstation of six years. To me, it almost felt like a final insult-to-injury to her from all of the times I’d been approached by a colleague to take part in a meeting or give feedback or been thanked or rewarded for a job well done without credit going to Marissa; a final exclusion. When that was all done and I saw how well she was taking it, part of me wondered if it was because she had known and accepted the eventuality of the situation long before. I remembered all of the passionate arguments we’d had and realized all that time she was just fighting for us to work better as a unit, and it occurred to me that maybe things hadn’t gotten better in the past couple of years, but rather that she’d resigned and accepted that this was how it had turned out.
The realization that this was the last time we’d come in to work together brought a sudden retrospection, a flood of memories of our nervous and excited first day, of vacations, friends and coworkers come and gone, of past successes, my marriage proposal to her at a Gaia Fanime panel, of happier times when it felt like we were unstoppable. As Mars said her final goodbyes, I couldn’t hold it together anymore. I ended up taking the rest of the day off; we decided to go to one of her old favorite restaurants for lunch, for old times sake, and start mentally projecting what the future might hold.
Sad as the situation feels, I also know it’s just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. In a sense, I feel it’s brought us a bit closer again – I definitely feel more motivated to help and collaborate with her on our personal time. Since we’ve had Penelope it feels like most of our collaboration has manifested in the mundanity of running a smooth household; in a sense it’s been a motivation to affirm that the possibility of our artistic collaboration is not bound to our employment. Seems obvious, but in practice it’s ended up that way and the idea of breaking out of that is a motivation in itself. And knowing that we won’t have just about every waking (and sleeping) moment together lends a new sense of appreciation of her.
Six years is a fairly long time to stay in one place in this industry. It was a wonderful opportunity and I’m glad we seized it, and I’m thankful for all of the experiences it provided us together. I’d like to contentedly look back and say we took full advantage of it, but I’ll always wonder if I really did.