Aragami Sound Asbjoern Andersen


Aragami is a beautifully cel-shaded ninja stealth game, and we were lucky enough to have a chance to talk to Two Feathers Studio’s Nicklas Hjertberg and Elvira Björkman, the team behind the game’s peaceful yet brutal sound design and music.


Written by Adriane Kuzminski, images courtesy of Lince Works and Two Feathers Studio



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Hello Nicklas and Elvira, please introduce yourselves:

Hello! We are Nicklas Hjertberg and Elvira Björkman from Two Feathers where we make cool stuff, like writing music and creating sounds for video games!

 

Could you tell us a little about your studio Two Feathers? How did it come to be?

To start off, Two Feathers is our duo freelance company that focuses mainly on composing music for video games, as well as creating sound effects and audio implementation. We’ve been around for almost four years now and have been lucky enough to be part of some really cool projects, such as Angry Birds 2, Hammerwatch, several Toca Boca games and the newly released Aragami, which came out on October 4th.

We got the idea of making game music together and made a shared portfolio that we pitched to various studios and indie projects.

It all started when Elvira and I (Nicklas) met in 2012, where we both played in a metal band called Overworld (we both left the band 2015). We realised that we shared love for the same games from our childhoods, which mostly consisted of ’90s JRPGs (Final Fantasy 6 and 7, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, etc.). One of the biggest aspects was the music from those games, which we could listen to repeatedly without ever getting tired of it. We both also studied different areas of game development with the same goal in mind, so naturally we got the idea of making game music together and made a shared portfolio that we pitched to various studios and indie projects. Around the end of 2012, Elvira got in contact with the people working on the game Hammerwatch and they asked us to pitch a demo for the game. So she called me up and we sent them three different songs, which led us to get our very first job!

 

So you landed your first gig, and now – several games later – your latest project Aragami has been released. Could you tell us a little about the game?

Aragami is a third-person stealth game where you play as an undead assassin who has the power to control the shadows. You’re summoned by a mysterious girl, Yamiko, who pleads you to rescue her from the army of light and exact revenge on those who imprisoned her. By discovering the fate that binds them together, you learn to control the powers of shadows, like teleporting, luring enemies into traps, and summoning beasts to devour them. What is cool about Aragami is that you can also decide how you would like to traverse the various levels. The game lets you sneak past all the enemies if you so choose, or go nuts and kill everyone on sight, or maybe a mix of both? It’s all up to the player!
 

Two Feathers Nicklas and Elvira

When did the audio and music production for Aragami begin, and how did you connect with the developer Lince Works?

We were browsing TigSource Forums on a snowy night in December 2013 looking for some cool projects and stumbled upon a game called Path of Shadows, which would later become Aragami. We thought it looked awesome and PM’d them to ask if they had someone working on audio for the game. They didn’t, so just like with Hammerwatch we pitched some demos to them. Come to think of it, we sent three demo pitches to them as well! Maybe that’s the magic number?

Anyways, they liked what we came up with and so we started working with them. Now in 2014, we mostly helped out with some music for various trailers and concept videos, since the game was so early in development. We didn’t really start implementing sound effects until early 2015. During that year, we mostly worked with sound. We had some pretty clear ideas of what to do with the music due to our year of concept work, but the actual writing didn’t really start until fall of 2015, which lasted until July of 2016.

 

The game has a very distinct style – artistically, musically and in its sound design. As a stealthy ninja game, it has many of the sounds you’d expect, but the brutal attacks are elegantly intertwined with the peaceful soundscape. Where did you find your inspiration for the sound design and how did you achieve this delicate balance in the mix?

It was quite an interesting challenge to work with a stealth game, since one of the biggest aspects of being a stealthy ninja is destroying your enemies without anyone noticing. So how does that translate to sound? When we first started to play around with creating all the audio for the assassinations, we tried to be pretty minimalistic – making it as quiet as possible. However, it didn’t feel good when performing those assassinations in-game. The feel of marvel wasn’t there, as well as the feel of the game element itself. Something got lost when trying to do it too “real” for Aragami.

So instead, we looked towards the opposite direction, using a lot of non-diegetic sounds (sound that only the player can hear that is outside the game world) when killing enemies: such as a subtle sound stinger when an enemy has fallen, over-the-top noises like the crunch of breaking a bone, lots of fleshy and bloody “splosh” sounds, and that iconic “ching”-sound you usually hear from swords in cartoons and Hollywood animations. These give the player a more satisfying kill event.

We made a palette of sorts of what we used in the various powers to make them feel connected

Lots of the sounds of Aragami and his various powers are usually a bit ethereal, like the ritualistic whispers when using the shadow brush, the welcoming shimmer when reaching a checkpoint, and the whooshing sound of the teleport. We focused a lot of time on baking together what the “Shadow Powers” and “Light Powers” meant in this world from a sound perspective, and we made a palette of sorts of what we used in the various powers to make them feel connected.

When we felt we nailed that idea, we decided we wanted a much more peaceful and contrasting atmosphere for the general ambience. A lot of the atmosphere is mimicked from walking around in the forests of Sweden where we live. During our concept stage we would walk around and just take in/record various forest ambiences, which felt very lonely especially during the winter when it’s too cold to be outside! That feeling of isolation and nature felt like a fitting part to incorporate when sneaking around the various woods and graveyards inside the game.

 

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The contrast of the quiet and exciting parts is very satisfying, especially since the sound design doesn’t feel bland or weak, nor do you feel like you need to keep your finger on the volume button. The music is equally balanced – it is light on its feet, and even in the heavier sections, the melody is sprightly. Where did you find your inspiration for the music? Did your vision for the music change over the two years of development?

When starting, we listened to a lot of Japanese instruments and bought some Asian flutes, such as a Shakuhachi, to really figure out what kind of tone we wanted to have in the game. The world of Aragami itself is set in a fantasy world heavily inspired by feudal Japan and other Asian cultures, so we knew that we very much wanted an Asian tone to the music combined with our own backgrounds. Since we grew up when melodies were prominent in JRPGs, our own music tends to gravitate towards a direction like that. At the same time, we wanted a melancholic mood for the music to fit the visual style, and for the music to follow the story in the game rather than say, “I’m a cool ninja”. So with that, the music became more somber with leading melodies accompanying it.

In the early concept stage, we discussed different musical inspirations with the Lince Works team, both from what they had gathered and what we suggested. We ended up listening to a lot of different game soundtracks after that initial discussion, such as Journey, Dark Souls, Tenchu, Dishonored, and Shadow of the Colossus among others. We also listened to a lot of movie soundtracks, such as Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Last Samurai along with traditional Japanese folk music. It gave us a nice palette of ideas that could potentially be brought over to Aragami. Though when we actually started composing the music, we tried to avoid listening to other soundtracks to not get too influenced by them and make sure that Aragami would get its own style and feel. We want the audience to think ‘This sounds like Aragami‘ in the end, though ideas regarding instrumental choices were most certainly brought over in some occasions. Also, the game’s visuals itself gave us inspiration due to its beautiful and Disney-esque cel-shaded look.

 

What was your workflow like? What tools did you use to implement the audio?

When writing the music as well as making the sounds, we used Logic Pro X. For all implementation of the audio we used the middleware Fabric.

We also had a lot of awesome people who helped record instruments for us. All the strings for example were recorded by the Videri String Quartet and most woodwinds were by Kristin Naigus to name a few.

We would go back to each song and together go through new ideas

Our workflow was quite simple, honestly. Both of us have the ability to create the audio and implement it inside the game. We also decided together who should do the music for each level. We divided the work between us and chose between two levels to work on, which was mostly decided by seeing which one of us had the most inspiration or ideas for the level. Then that person would start writing music drafts for it. Later, when the drafts were done and we were starting the music pre-production, we would go back to each song and together go through new ideas that might have popped up while working on other stuff, or perhaps ideas that came up when the other person was working on the draft. That way we could both work with ideas and arrangements on each song, even if you weren’t necessarily part of writing the draft in the beginning.

Also worth mentioning is that we both sit in the same studio, basically with two workplaces next to each other, so brainstorming ideas together is just an arm’s length away – or, of course, just the throw of a random object if they’re wearing headphones!

two-feathers-nicklas-elvira-2
 

Your teamwork is admirable and quite a rare gift! However, though you are both very compatible, game audio is never free of challenges. What was most difficult about working on Aragami?

It was mostly the time constraints and the ever-looming question if the game would actually ship combined with the limited resources the entire team had. All of us working on the game poured our hearts and souls into it, even though budgets were basically non-existent until the last year. Still, there was never really a question to NOT do it, since we all felt that the game had something special. But yeah, trying to have the entire soundscape working and audibly pleasing after the implementation, along with writing a 70-minute-long soundtrack, was challenging for the two of us. We would do it again in a heartbeat though!

 

Thank you very much for speaking with us! If the readers would like to learn more about the game, your studio, or follow your personal work, where can they go?

Thank you very much for having us! First off, you can find out more about the game on its website as well as on its Facebook page. The game is out now on both Steam and PSN. You can also find more of our work over on our website as well as on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

 

A big thank you to Nicklas Hjertberg and Elvira Björkman for sharing their insight and experiences from Aragami – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!
 

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