VMP called up the restless artist as she shares the influences behind her original soundtrack for the new open-world adventure, Sable, and how the experience was a pleasant departure from writing for her main gig as Japanese Breakfast.
Video games are one of our culture’s most overlooked sources of musical riches. Soundtracks from classic titles like Chrono Trigger should be as canonical to the ’90s as the decade’s traditionally championed classics, while more contemporary entries such as Toby Fox’s improbably accomplished UNDERTALE Soundtrack and Lena Raine’s striking atmospheres for Celeste stand up among the best albums of 2015 and 2018, respectively. Far from the bleeps and bloops that have stuck around to define the popular perception of game music for the last 35 years — although let’s be clear, those bleeps and bloops are often masterful — modern games stretch out across genres and styles, from big band and ragtime, to hard rock, to everything crammed into the *Persona 5* soundtrack.
The technical limitations of early gaming devices meant that the original innovators in the space, like Nintendo’s Koji Kondo, had to employ sly music theory tactics to transcend the limited range of vintage sound chips. However, in the years since his work on Punch-Out!! and The Legend of Zelda, Kondo and his many new peers have been granted far greater means in which they’re able to realize their visions. Just compare the groundbreaking “Overworld Theme from Super Mario Bros. to some of Kondo’s work from Super Mario Galaxy 2. Meanwhile, songs once constrained by pulse-code modulation have come to be reimagined by full-fledged orchestras. Composing for games no longer requires working with a limited palette, and the result has been an explosion of musicians crafting sounds as wildly forward-thinking and immersive as the games to which they come attached.
While the video game industry is now more profitable than sports and movies combined, mainstream outlets often still continue to treat it as a niche interest. Yet gaming casts a long shadow over popular culture today — and music in particular. Chiptune found its way in everything from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s revolutionary electronic music to the Postal Service’s cult-classic turned Platinum album to hit singles from chart-seekers like Kesha and 50 Cent.
More recently, a diverse contingent of celebrated artists from this generation have owned up to the influence of the medium’s composers on their work, from Porter Robinson to Danny L Harle to TOKiMONSTA. Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, in particular, has been one of indie music’s most visible spokespeople for video game appreciation, regularly sharing with fans what she’s playing and even releasing a game of her own back in 2017, featuring 8-bit arrangements of songs from her sophomore album Soft Sounds from Another Planet.
That game, the perfectly-titled Japanese BreakQuest, is what attracted the attention of Shedworks, the tiny-but-mighty development duo Gregorios Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg, who reached out to Zauner via Twitter DM with a proposition to compose an original soundtrack for their coming-of-age open-world adventure Sable. Although there have unfortunately been few examples of indie musicians working with video game studios, Zauner described the opportunity in a conversation with VMP prior to the game’s release as “a golden ticket.”
“A lot of musicians are always asking me how I got this job,” she reflected. “And well, I just got really lucky.”
Zauner eagerly began work on the soundtrack near the end of 2017, and she didn’t stop working on it until about a week before we spoke, as the game’s original two-year development timeline stretched out over two delays to this month’s ultimate release date. Throughout that time, Zauner was continuously composing and iterating. She first developed material based on the text files for various environments in the game, before she ever saw them visually rendered.
“I was writing a lot of music by asking, ‘What do I think the “Glow Worm Cave” looks like from its description?’ she recalled. “Sometimes what I came up with worked, and sometimes it wouldn’t. If it didn’t match the depiction, I would come up with something else, and the prior music would go elsewhere in the game.”
Being a small team working simultaneously — the only other primary collaborator involved was Meg Jayanth, who was hot off of the acclaimed novelesque adventure 80 Days — Zauner’s work often helped to inform the spaces Kythreotis and Fineberg were drawing up. While she’d write music for parts of the world before they were playable, the atmosphere she conjured would affect how the developers brought those early ideas to life. As Zauner explained, “I feel like we were really working step-in-step with one another.”
The resulting world they built together became one of 2021’s most anticipated indie games (as it was one of 2020’s and 2019’s before). In Sable, which finally comes out today, you play as the titular character, a young girl who embarks on her “Gliding,” a traditional rite of passage through vast, hand-drawn desert regions (inspired by the Star Wars planet of Jakku, but also reminiscent of Mad Max-by-way-of-Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). There are no enemies, health bar or traditional boss battles, as you might expect in a typical adventure game. There’s not even a set storyline or order of events. Instead, the focus is on unguided exploration, with the player piecing together their own path as they traverse via hoverbike over the distinct regions, learning the stories of the world’s inhabitants along the way.
Accordingly, the music had to accent the feeling of vast discovery in the waiting, and foster the type of intrinsic motivation that might be initially discomforting for gamers more accustomed to constant in-game rewards. “Breath of the Wild was a huge reference point,” Zauner noted, referring to the most recent installment of the Legend of Zelda series praised for its non-linearity and seemingly boundless game map. “We were all bonding over the way they incorporate so much silence and sparseness, and how necessary that is when you’re working with an open-world game.”
For Zauner, this was a refreshing departure from her comfort zone. “Japanese Breakfast is a pop project, and so there are certain structures and rules that I tend to work around,” she described. “Whereas in this game, you can’t really call too much attention to yourself. The tracks have to be very ambient and based in loops, which is a new experience for me — the total opposite of what writing for Japanese Breakfast is like.”
But while Zauner’s soundtrack does not beg for your attention, it does reward close listening. Every song unfolds as a gradual evolution, steadily introducing subtle, but surprising flourishes that unlock new dimensions to melodies that had already felt complete. Consider the thumping beat that comes in at the 1:49 mark of “The Wash (Day)”, and how it transforms the previous yawn of ambient tones and flute into a sideways groove, like a Björk track dropping the floor beneath you as soon as you settle in.
Or look to “Redsee (Day)”, which begins as a tightly woven trance of long synth notes and a steady shaker, then adds in cavernous double-tracked guitars, incorporates a new slide lead and overlays all of that with tapping arpeggios, before each element is removed in reverse order, one at a time. The effect is entrancing, and throughout the soundtrack the constantly evolving swirl of glacial synthesizers, nylon guitars and yearning percussion — among many other instruments folded into the album’s lovely palette — are as evocative as the instrumental passages found on Sigor Rós albums.
“It’s the first project in a very long time and at this level that I’ve produced, composed, performed and arranged entirely on my own,” she said. “That was really important to me to push myself as a producer. I’d never done string arrangements by myself, or worked with this much classical guitar and woodwinds.” She paused for a moment, before adding, “Oh, and hand drums! I never thought that I would be arranging hand drums.”
The sounds Zauner drew from brought her back to a childhood spent playing games like Final Fantasy IX, Secret of Mana and Majora’s Mask. You can hear those touchpoints in the many moods of the Sable soundtrack, from those that evoke a sense of mystical scale (“Sensee (Day),” “Hakoa (Night)”) to those that are whimsical and warm (“Cartographer’s Theme,” “Chum Lair”). But you can also trace connections to more modern works from Zauner’s recent dive into the world of indie games. The calm of her compositions feels at peace with the idyllic vibes of some of her favorite titles, such as Spiritfarer or A Short Hike, and especially Stardew Valley, a game that revels in idleness and Zauner fondly likened to a pacifier.
“I think I’ve always looked at art as a way to investigate my own emotional problems. It was really exciting that I didn’t have to excavate my personal trauma and life in order to make something that could move people, or move me, in this way.”
Another callback to her prior familiarity with gaming traditions is the musical distinctions between day and night within many of the environments, a practice Zauner specifically adopted from her experiences with Breath of the Wild and Chrono Cross.
“Those games basically have ‘other world’ versions, so they’re very similar to the theme, but perversions of it, like either the BPM has slowed down or there’s added instrumentation,” she explained. For example, where the “Day” version of “Ibexxi Camp” is a marvelously plucked and peaceful number, the “Night” variation becomes swallowed by its underlying synth line, the guitar restrained to a solemn march. The process of terraforming these tunes into two distinct, but complementary halves was among Zauner’s favorite parts of the project.
The biggest misconception most people have about video game music is that it can’t stand on its own. This is about as true as it is for movie soundtracks — which the streaming numbers on Hans Zimmer alone should give you all the evidence you need to the contrary. More often, it’s the opposite, in which playing a game on mute can take away much of the intuitive rhythm, cues and feel that puts players into a state of flow. Zauner’s soundtrack is essential to the tapestry of its companion game, but it also works especially well as a piece of its own. Each song tells an independent story, as richly textured and fully formed as anything from the Japanese Breakfast songbook. If you listened to the album before playing Sable, discovering the “Abandoned Grounds” or “Burnt Oak Station” in-game will likely feel like returning somewhere you recall from a dream.
You might also already feel familiar with the tenor of the story, which Zauner likens to the Studio Ghibli classic Kiki’s Delivery Service, in which a 13-year-old witch-in-training undertakes a similar rite of passage as Sable’s Gliding, leaving home to figure out her calling. Zauner managed to capture those themes without needing to spell them out in lyrics, specifically appreciating how she could “write something without any real specificity.” As she explained, “I think in a lot of Japanese Breakfast songs, the power in my writing I draw from very personal details or observations. For Sable, the narrative came way later. There was a general idea of a girl coming-of-age, exploring different biomes and towns, and deciding on a mask — that was all I really had to go on.
“I think I’ve always looked at art as a way to investigate my own emotional problems,” she continued, likely including her New York Times bestselling memoir (and tearjerker) from earlier this year Crying In H Mart. “It was really exciting that I didn’t have to excavate my personal trauma and life in order to make something that could move people, or move me, in this way.”
You might be able to play much of Sable without realizing that the one-of-a-kind soundscapes were designed by the mastermind behind Japanese Breakfast. That is, except for “Glider”, Zauner’s big vocal spotlight (and one of only three tunes on the 32-song soundtrack with proper vocals). The vibrant colors and intimate, introspective songwriting would not be out of place on Jubilee, the latest and greatest Japanese Breakfast album from a few months back (if you hadn’t already noticed, Zauner has been busy). “I’m caught between the wind and parts of the unknown,” she sings, simultaneously in character, but also perhaps self-referentially.
Just a little over five years ago, Zauner was contemplating quitting music entirely before her Japanese Breakfast debut Psychopomp became an unexpected lightning rod for career opportunity. This soundtrack is a fitting end to her self-described “2021 trilogy of creative output,” because the story of Sable in some ways mirrors Zauner’s own. As though on a Gliding herself, Zauner ventured forward headlong, despite being unsure what awaited her on the other side of Psychopomp. She did not resist the uncertainty, instead learning just how much she was capable of by simply sailing forward to do it — whether in the land of publishing, video games or soon, cinema (Crying In H Mart was quickly picked up for a film adaptation). “Glider caught the breeze, feels like flying,” she belts with genuine euphoria on “Glider.” She hasn’t touched the ground yet.