We had a great chat with Ben Prunty about games and music, and more importantly music in games. As Ben has composed soundtracks for Gravity Ghost, FTL and the upcoming masterpiece of occult storytelling – The Darkside Detective.
Photo by Mike Shirley-Donnelly
“I’ve been playing a ton of Overwatch.”
Can you give us some insight into your background as a composer/musician?
I’m a self-taught musician. I never went to school for composing or anything like that. Making music with computers was just one of the many things I dabbled in as a teenager. Along with drawing, game development, writing, and programming. I just stuck with music a lot longer. Seventeen years now in fact.
How did you get into making soundtracks for games?
Working in games was always something I wanted to do, and since I really enjoyed making music I figured that was a cool thing to do. Years ago the only way to get into the game industry was to get a job as at a major game studio which I couldn’t really do because I had very little college education and very little experience.
Around 2010 digital distribution made the indie scene explode and I wedged myself into the scene by going to game jams and other events, that’s how I joined up with Erin Robinson on Gravity Ghost.
My friend referred me to friends-of-friends when they needed music for a space game and that game turned out to be FTL. FTL became such a big hit that I could afford to quit my normal job and do music full time.
You’ve made quite a few soundtracks, and for different genres, does the type of game affect how you approach writing the score?
As a composer you want to not only accompany the game but have players look back and remember the music fondly. This means you need to have a distinct sound that can’t be confused with anything else. Every game is an opportunity to come up with a new style of music and that’s part of the fun of making soundtracks!
Deciding the soundtracks style is a long involved process that includes discussion with the developer and sharing music from all manner of sources, finding unique instrumentation and sound design elements, and poring over the art while playing early builds of the game.
What kind of input do you get from the developers on how to decorate a scene with music?
Most developers give me reign to do what I think it best, but often they’ll give input and feedback as I write and submit pieces. Hopefully we’ve already established most of what’s expected early on with the aforementioned discussion.
“EarthBound is my favorite soundtrack of all time.”
Where do you search for inspiration when tasked with writing a score?
I listen to a lot of music from a variety of sources. Old game music, pop music, movie soundtracks, oldies; anything. For Skytorn [I] listened to a lot of folk music because the chord progressions are so simple and powerful and I want to bring that into the game.
Are there any soundtracks from gaming media that inspire(d) you?
EarthBound is my favorite soundtrack of all time. I’m always paying attention to game soundtracks for inspiration and to see how they solve the same problems I’m trying to solve.
Can you tell us about your studio set up?
I have a Windows PC that I built myself. Hooked up to it are two monitors, a pair of really nice speakers, a USB audio device, and a musical keyboard. On the PC itself is a multitude of digital instruments and synthesizers, too many to get into detail here. I write everything [in] Cubase.
I also have a laptop with Ableton Live installed that I use for live shows.
What games are currently installed on your computer?
I have literally hundreds of games installed on my PC. Recently I’ve been playing a ton of Overwatch, and Breath of the Wild on the Switch. Also Dead Cells on PC, which was a really great find.
You’ve recently scored the upcoming graphic adventure game The Darkside Detective and it has some spooky themes, how is this reflected in your soundtrack?
I was asked to use John Carpenter’s film soundtracks as inspiration. I tried to keep a mostly straight-faced spooky vibe, despite the fact that it’s a comedy game. But when I say spooky, I’m definitely leaning more towards Halloween and less toward The Exorcist.
So, tell me about The Darkside Detective.
The way I describe it to people is that it’s a Monkey Island-type adventure game, with a similar style of humor about a paranormal detective. It’s been fun to work on something with such a variety of settings and situations. It allows me to stretch out my creativity and insert some odd genre pieces here and there.
[Disclaimer: this is an edited version of my correspondence with Ben through email. – Ed]