Thursday, April 8, 2010

My 2009 OST Selection - Interview with Tomáš "Floex" Dvořák



Videogame historians and researchers will look back to 2009 not as a year of emergence but as a year of consecration of the independent game movement. As the market of commercial game becomes increasingly bland in its infinite recurrence of what has already been reiterated for too long, the need for autonomous and liberating interactive designs has risen precipitously. And while the larger productions have moved the cogs of technical excellence forward another quarter of a measure, ultimately it was raw creativity that ushered in the images and sounds for which the turn of the decade shall be remembered.

Regarding musical compositions, a feature present in most games that is seldom given due appraisal, 2009 was a year dominated by abrupt contrasts between the outsized investments that allowed for orchestras to gather and play some of the most sounding videogame soundtrack themes, as in the outstanding participation of the top-class Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer scoring a multi-million dollar war game design; and between the undersized amateur or semi-professional studio work led by lone music composers that have adorned the small budget enterprises with their suggestive themes. Such was the case of Tomáš "Floex" Dvořák's musical accompaniment for the most triumphant adventure game of recent memory, Machinarium.



One of the most appealing environmental puzzles within Machinarium consists of returning these depressed street musicians their missing instruments so they can carry on enjoying their jam.

Using science fiction motives as a cloak to disguise irony and sporadic existential reflections, Machinarium speaks openly about human condition and technological progress without the use of a single word. Deriving from the minds of painters, designers and animators, its expressive qualities rely mostly on the universally interpretable gestures as depicted in each carefully crafted animation. Given the deliberate absence of voice, the metal cityscape of the game warranted a powerful aural milieu enabling a rare aesthetic balance between visuals and music.

The most desirable quality about Floex’s music derives from the intense personality he bestowed to his reverberating tune, each very distinct from the next: the rhythmic plurality is strikingly noticeable in between the themes The Black Cap Brotherhood or Clockwise Operetta and The Bottom, where the percussion instruments are most evident; contrariwise, Dvořák (pronounced DVOR-zhack) also reduces the use of drumming to the point of nullity as can be verified in themes like The Sea and The Glasshouse with Butterflies. Bearing the clear sound signature of digital instruments, Machinarium’s soundtrack reveals erratic patterns of analog instruments that are underhandedly used throughout the game, as if an audible supplement waiting to be unveiled.





Excerpt from the theme "The Sea" that plays for the first time in the game when the first open venue of the city's interior is revealed.

Conscious of the quality of their work, Amanita Design has released this soundtrack to the public on several occasions, initially providing a selection of themes to customers who pre-ordered the game, later releasing it in Compact Disk quality together with the boxed version – released in only a few European countries. Recently, Minority Records has issued a limited edition of Floex’s defining work in the form of an autographed and hand-numbered LP (only 555 copies produced) that came both in classic black and transparent yellow vinyl. By no means an extravagance, this release was intended to be a celebration of Amanita’s crowning work, the spiritual successor to the SAMOROST series who had earned the studio a grand new status in the field of videogame creation.

As a celebration of my own to one of the most intrepid videogame experiences I’ve ever witnessed, I’ve invited Floex for a brief interview where, I hoped, he could help me understand the trials he faced during the composition of a soundtrack designed specifically for an independent game: this was, after all, one of the most electable musical moments of last year in my humble opinion.

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- Due to a large majority of English or North-American games that founded and supported point and click adventure genre through the years, it becomes very hard to evade those references when creating game outside those countries. One of the factors that seem distinguish Machinarium relate to references of its own, well outside the usual domains of adventure – almost as if the fact of being a Czech game design, not to undervalue the studio’s unbelievable talent, was at the root of its originality. How has your own cultural references influenced the composition of the music for Machinarium?

TD: Yes I think reference is more local based and it is not in the game context. That's probably the source of the originality. I see it more in the Czech animation tradition context, which is believed to be taken as pretty strong here in Czech republic. Trnka, Bojar and so on... and in a way Machinarium could be taken more as kind of interactive animation movie also considering the fact how it was made.



As for the music my influence is very wide. Most of the music comes from the electronic or electroacoustic scene and here I don't see any geographical reference. Lusine, Beaumont Hannant, Arve Henriksen, Apparat, Vladislav Delay, Fennesz, Clark, Jon Hopkins, Riyuichi Sakamoto, Grizzly Bear, OTK, Vladimir Vaclavek, Deerhoof, Thom York, Mark Hollis, Steve Reich, Portico Quartet, Hakon Kornstad. This is sort of music which for sure formed my own musical language beside endless chats with my musician friends.



The main character, Josef, was named for the sake of Josef Čapek (brother to Karel Čapek, creator of the play Rossum's Universal Robots) the original inventor of the word Robot.

- The soundtrack provides the listener several contrasts between lively and playful themes and others whose nature is certainly more stark and austere, made to match some of the greyer areas of the machine city. To what extent was the composition of the music affected by the design of the game and its visual expression?

TD: I think I was just trying to catch the mood of the image. On the other hand it is true I don't like too straight emotions in the music I think I am looking for the certain level of the deepness.

- The Machinarium gameplay experience is based, among many different aspects, on puzzle solving. It seemed to me that whenever those hard abstract puzzles were presented, the music choice would fall on a theme that was less compelling and moody; somehow much more distant in space than when the game presented context puzzles involving character interaction, where the music themes are more poignant and discernible. Was this a conscious decision from your end?

TD: Yes, we have been discussing several levels and the need to give space for the player's thoughts. But often it is compromise between the other aspects of the each particular game level - the meaning of the level in the whole, the mood, the action what takes place there.

- I was particularly enthralled by one of your compositions: the theme «The Sea», whose appearance in the game is a perfect complement to one of the first open venues from within the robot city, introducing the element of water. Please tell me more about the composition process and origins of this particular theme.

TD: Before Josef comes into the "Sea level", story takes place underground and scenes are scarier. I was trying to give more melancholic and moody feeling to the music in these scenes. In contrast to this Sea was considered as kind of bright and caressing music. Like when you see sun after long time and you are happy for the beautiful day. I was trying to make the music floating like waves. It is based on the orchestral motives which are processed through some of my favorite effect patches - I was looking for this ambient electro-acoustic feel.



Picture of Floex's humble but extremely tidy studio.

- It is customary for the adventure game genre to reduce the importance of musical composition given the fact that most of those games rely on massive dialogues, often voiced, that supersede the music playing on the background. How has the absence of any voices or text in Machinarium increased your responsibility in the process of composition and design of the game?

TD: This is for sure positive aspect for me because every new layer in the user perception takes some space for your own expression - image, music, sounds, speech, and interactivity. So I was freer with the music I could focus more on detail. Still trying to be more abstract and minimalist of course as the music doesn't stand on its own in the game. I have been carefully looking for the border to not to overcharge the image.



As illustrated by this picture, Dvořák went to lengths in order to acquire the distinct sonorities that made his work exceptional and worthy of such universal praise.

- It is often said that musicians, of all participants in the creative process, tend to take a passive stance during design – often given materials they can use to compose on their own time, desynchronized from the rest of the team. Your relation to Amanita and its team appears to be much tighter, and your participation much closer to the core of the game creation than usual. Please tell about your method of work during production.

TD: Yes we have little bit different approach. On one hand we all work from our places, we don't share some office. Everything is solved by ICQ plus meetings which are more friendly-based. I mean we don't purely solve the gaming issues when we see each other. I am really thankful for the people who are in Amanita, they are simply cool, very interesting personalities. I guess that just describes Jakub's character and his sensitivity for the people, he has been putting us together for quite time...

As for the workflow on the daily basis: Jakub gave me freedom and his notices well mostly more like suggestions, he just believed to what I do and I have been trying to listen to his opinions carefully. I know it might sound like fairy tale but it really is like this in Amanita.



- In the field of videogames, visuals often take the lead in comparison with other basilar aspects of the game such as narrative, controls, gameplay and even soundtrack. In the case of Machinarium, the game comes with a very powerful visual component due to its exquisite backgrounds and animations: to what extent was that an additional responsibility to you – to create music that would live up to the visible spectacle of the game?

TD: Well I didn't definitely feel any pressure. I suppose all of this is just more inspiring and it stimulates my musical creativity.



The yellow-tinted version of Machinarium's LP soundtack edtion.

- First with the major success of the download-version of your soundtrack; and now with this special edition version in LP, it is safe to say that many people have not only taken notice of your work, they’ve also praised it with the highest remarks. How has this particular work influenced your career?

TD: I would say it was invisibly super important for me. I am actually person who is quite critical to my and the others work too. It is good feature only to some extent. On one hand it can stimulate you for the best results - you have to see what can be improved but on the other hand it can destroy your playfulness and the enjoyment trough the creative process.

Anyway as I sometimes doubt about my musical qualities and for sure the Machinarium gave me more self-confidence to continue my musical journey. I was also happy for the personal people responses and linkage with the other musicians who wrote me.

[ Read Also: Machinarium Preview article @ Adventure Classic Gaming / Machinarium LP & Machinarium Collector's Edition Pictures / Unreleased Jakub Dvorský & Adolf Lachman Machinarium Artwork / My 2009 OST Selection: Interview with Vasily Kashnikov ]