Independent game creator Matt Simmonds teased his upcoming PC shooter Depth back in December, which makes creative use of inexpensive red/cyan lens 3D glasses. Music for the title will draw on the Sussex, UK-based designer’s twenty-plus years’ experience in the game industry, featuring arrangements of previously released chiptunes. For an introduction to the artist’s influential chip music style, listeners can visit 4mat’s 8bitcollective and Facebook profiles.
This week marks the publication of the prolific artist’s first 4mat album, titled Decades, whose cover art features a screenshot from the forthcoming independent game title. The album can be streamed for free on the weblog “I Hear the Sound of Waves,” or found on iTunes, Amazon Mp3 and other online retailers . In this interview the musician relates how varied experiences as a sound designer, ranging from mainstream titles to indie games and the demoscene, are currently contributing to the shape of Depth.
3D is a current obsession of the game industry, but how would you describe your own approach with Depth?
Matt Simmonds (4mat): It’s a vertical shoot-em-up that works with 3D glasses. On the Virtual Boy there was a game by Hudson Soft called Vertical Force where you could go into and out of the screen. It’s a bit like that.
What was the impetus behind exploring this style of visual design? Depth appears to have been in development since before mainstream gaming started converging on stereoscopic 3D.
I’ve always been interested in 3D stuff, and as kind of a fluke, I got it working. It seemed that no one else really was using it at the minute in indie games, so I thought I might give it a go. It’s kind of a nice coincidence that since then, with Avatar, 3D has taken off.
Your background is in music, but Depth is a solo project. How did you go about creating visual content for the game?
It’s all been trial and error. Some of it comes from making demos, but I don’t draw. I let the computer draw everything. The vast majority of things in it, such as sprites, are generated by the PC.
For the 4mat music featured in Depth as well as your newly released album Decades, do you see the style of the sound design as intrinsically related to gaming platforms?
The arpeggio sounds can be, as the music I wrote for the Amiga was very much demoscene oriented. Decades is the first music disc I’ve done. It’s been 21 years and I’m using the same trackers.
Looking at the Amiga music style that was popular back then, it was more a reflection of popular music than anything else, though you heard chip music in the “cracktros,” or the trainer menus. There was early rave stuff and Jean Michel Jarre synth. For me, I’m coming at it from more of a demoscene angle than gaming, though in terms of games when there’s an overlap it’s coming from Konami’s NES music.
Is there a certain scope to the total play experience that you plan for Depth?
I think it will be around 30 minutes of gameplay, mainly because I’m working on it by myself. Also, I don’t think you can play something for a really long time with lots of stuff moving around while wearing 3D glasses.
What platforms are you looking to release the game on?
PC is going to be lead. I’ve got someone who is offering to do the Mac and Linux ports, which is basically just a recompile.
As far as you can tell, who would you say were signficant influences on the early chip music scene?
The European chiptune scene appears to have come out of listening to Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, the Commodore 64 musicians. The American one seems to be affected by later music, for instance the NES. I started out on the Commodore 64, around ’86 and ’87.
Do you know around when the term “chiptune” began being used in reference to original compositions created on retro game hardware?
Goto80 was looking for the same answer on his blog Chipflip, but I’m not sure if he ever found out. It would have been around 1989 when the Amiga came out that the concept of “chippy” music would have kicked off.
When did you start writing background music for games?
My first was Chuck Rock by Core Designs. There’s a reasonably accurate list on MobyGames, though they’re missing a few.
Do you ever experience culture shock moving as you have between indie games, the demoscene and commercial game design companies like Climax?
They’re all to some extent aware of each other, but it depends what you can get away with in each of them. Indie games seems like kind of a free-for-all at the minute. There are a lot of ideas out there, and it’s all very anything-goes. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of borderlines or boundaries to it. Commercial games, obviously, you have to temper it in a bit.
Surprisingly, the demoscene is very opinionated about what they like and what they don’t like. It’s very insular. This is kind of a shame because it didn’t use to be like that. Currently there’s an argument going on about a demo that was at Breakpoint, and the soundtrack to it uses a lot of samples from commercial songs. There’s a huge fight going on over it. However in the old days, the demoscene used to rip samples from everything. A lot of people just seem to have a collective amnesia about the origins of the thing.
Do you draw on the demoscene in your writing for Decades?
As much as I say I’ll never do any more demoscene, it’s always going to be there. There are certain things you can’t escape.
Has contributing sound design to Silent Hill Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories proven to be a worthwhile experience?
It’s been great doing sound effects on those last two. There’s so much depth psychologically, as you can justify the sounds you’re making either in relation to the series or the particular title. Through the sound design we’re trying to simulate the character’s state of mind. You can make the sound of footsteps, for instance, reflect the mood of the location you’re in, which is a different way of working.
Your arrangement for IWADON, the Hiroyuki Iwatsuki Tribute Album, which we both collaborated on, metamorphosed from a Famicom tune to an arpeggiated demoscene track. How did you find working with a composition written for the Nintendo Famicom?
That was quite good because I don’t get to do console music very much. The main track is so short, but there are two main bits to it. The main part is a bit prog, because it’s in a weird time signature, and then there’s a lead-out. I wanted to start with the source material, get into the demoscene segment, and end with a lead solo. Because it’s a boss track it’s quite jumpy, so I extended out the melody in the first bit. There’s more of a funky sound to it.
Are you interested in the way the Konami Kukeiha club has drawn from jazz fusion and progressive rock in their NES games?
Yes indeed, though personally I can listen to Konami’s NES and MSX stuff, but real prog rock I can’t stand at all. It’s the same way with how Contra is supposed to be ’80s metal music, which I don’t like either, but Contra sounds great. Certainly their use of melody is far more interesting to me than in either prog rock or metal.
In the NES days, Hip Tanaka was big on the idea of blending music and sound effects together using waveforms. Are you interested in experimenting with the integration of sound design and soundtrack?
The last time I was doing both was on the Game Boy Advance. One of the reason I’m doing more free games these days is to get back into that combination.
Do you have any interest in joining independent game developers?
Games with context to them are interesting. I like the new one by the guy who did Passage… Sleep is Death. Yeah, if there’s a spark there I wouldn’t mind.
[For more information on the artist, visit I Hear the Sound of Waves.]