Water Music: Composing for Tombeaux

I’m Joseph Fear, the composer working on Tombeaux. Dave asked me to jot down some thoughts about how we arrived at a direction for Tombeaux’s music. I don’t blog for myself, but hopefully you’ll find a few interesting tidbits that will leave you salivating for more.

I’ve been writing music professionally for over ten years, but this is my first experience writing for a video game. Video games have been my main hobby since forever (and my first compositions were written with Mario Paint for the SNES), so I’m excited to get the chance to merge my two main interests into one career opportunity and close the loop, as it were.

Dave and I met at a game music conference in Saint Paul, MN, while stopping by the Minnesota Public Radio booth and chatting with Emily Reese, the host of the Top Score podcast (an excellent resource for anyone interested in listening to game music composers talk about their experiences writing for a wide variety of games). It was a bit of planned serendipity on my part, since as anyone in the game industry will tell you, most of your early career opportunities derive from networking at these sorts of events (if you are an introvert, remember: many of the rest of us are also introverts). We exchanged contact info, looked at each other’s work, etc., and found that our artistic voices aligned well for this project.

The title theme that serves as the source material for all the music in the game

Turning to the project itself, the structure of the game helped me make a number of choices early on in the process to help support that structure. Since the game is about a natural environment and humans’ interactions with it, I decided that I should use primarily acoustic instruments. Also, Tombeaux is unique among games that I’ve played in that, although the game-space is small, the time of the game changes quite drastically. This led me to a theme and variation form, the theme being a Copland-inspired representation of the river and the variations being period-influenced forms using that theme.

A brief clip from the background music for the first level, in which the player will hear stories about how the Ojibwe used the river

One of the exciting challenges of opting to take this route is that it requires a lot of flexibility from me. In addition to Classical treatments of the material, I’ve also used the material as an Ojibwe-inspired flute, drum, and rattle piece, Joplin-style rag, a folk-music work song (complete with some Earl Scruggs banjo-picking), and I’m in the process of working out how to overlay the melody in country, hip-hop, and rock styles that play at the same time (good luck with that!). All of these are interspersed with an increasingly (musically) complex loop based on the theme that plays while the player interacts with the cabin between river exploration periods.

The music for level two: if you’re ever feeling down on life, write a cakewalk.

The description sounds disjointed, and that certainly was a risk of this approach, but so far the results have been gratifyingly cohesive, and it has given me the opportunity to explore a number of different musical styles that I enjoy but in which I have never chosen to write (pro tip: if you’re ever feeling down on life, write a rag).

There were, of course, a number of ideas and sketches that went into the virtual trash can. Dave and I had talked about the inclusion of a phonograph player in the cabin that would allow players to revisit the music of the different levels/time period. It was a good idea, but ultimately one that we decided to put on hold at least for the first release of the game.

I have had a great time working on this project, and am pleased that the music is coming together and fits well within the context of the game. I hope that what you’ve heard will leave you wanting to hear more.

Ciao for now,



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