Divining the Music of Splice

Many goals in game development are easy to understand, if not to implement. You know you need to create an enjoyable experience, that the UI needs to be readable, the menu needs to be useable, that it needs to interface with whatever distribution platform you’re putting it on, and so on — the implementation of a solid game design largely comes down to patience, practice, and coffee. But artistic goals are less obvious, especially when you go to write something like the soundtrack to Splice.

Now, if you’re writing a soundtrack for somebody else, they’re going to give you a set of rules to follow — for instance, “It needs to be western-themed,” or, “It should sound like an Ancient Chinese epic.” But when you’re the one creating the game, your only constraint is that it needs to sound good. And as most artists know, trying to create in the absence of constraints is damn near impossible. So what do we do?

We create our own constraints.

Choosing Constraints

With Splice, we chose a microbial theme. But its movements and general milieu are meant to feel somewhere between the macro- and microscopic. We wanted to play with the ideas that exist on the boundaries between Science and Religion; in short, we wanted to create the feeling that you are toying in God’s domain. But because we tend to focus on experience-based gameplay, and we don’t generally use things like “plots” and “characters,” we ended up creating this ambiance through our visual style and constant but subdued references to religious symbolism.1

To help establish this mood, I sought to create the music as a character: a singular companion to soothe you while you are messing around in this domain. To enhance this music-as-character aspect, I limited myself to a single instrument — the piano. I also wanted to give the player the sense that their companion was something a bit more than them — a guide and a guardian, something quite possibly angelic. And so, I settled on writing music for three pianos. The idea of using three pianos simultaneously was to create music for a piano to be played with six hands. In doing that, it sounds like a piece a person should be able to play — much like this piece in Gattaca that was composed for twelve fingers. I’ve heard of people trying to play Splice‘s songs by ear, saying, “Oh, I can play ‘Barachiel,’ but ‘Cassiel’ is too complicated to pick out,” even though it sounds like it should be something you can pick out. It sounds like a single person playing the piano, but with six hands — an “impossible” piano soundtrack alluding to its “divine” origins.

Practical Art

Composing for three pianos created a definitive aural landscape for the game, and it’s also a style that is relatively easy to compose for. Which means that, when deadlines come up and we suddenly need another four tracks, it’s not something that takes me weeks to compose the same way something heavily orchestrated like the Auditorium soundtrack did. So this was a good choice from both a practical and artistic perspective.

Now we add even more constraints. Every track starts in the same way — with an introductory ostinato punctuated with a heavy bass note. The time signatures and tempos change, but there is always a two-or-three note ostinato permeating the entire piece that the additional harmonies and melodies are built on top of. In this way, I created a complex soundtrack built from simple elements, echoing the gameplay that were creating. Finally, every piece is pitched one white key down from the previous, starting in Bmin with Barachiel and finishing in Cmaj with Cassiel. In the Epilogue, I do the same with the black keys, starting in A#min with Ariadne and finishing in D#maj with Daedalus.

In the end, I was extremely happy with the resulting soundtrack. Without the constraints, however, I’m sure I would have done what many artists do in these situations — wait for inspiration. And while inspiration is a wonderful gift, it isn’t something to be relied on. Some people complain that constraints weigh them down; I’d agree that constraints are weights, but how else would you exercise your creativity?

1 For example, the number seven recurs throughout the game: there are seven sequences in the Origin thread; there are seven strands in each Sequence; the Splice logo has seven nodes in it; the game shipped with 77 levels…
5 replies
  1. John says:

    Interesting, took a listen to Cassiel wondered if it was a duet but 3 separate parts that I definitely wasn’t expecting Bravo!

  2. Benjamin says:

    Wonderful writeup! I wish more musicians for games went into detail on their thought process. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Phillip says:

    Is there a single piano piece that is composable with two hands? I would very much like to learn one of the song… That is, if it is possible.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *