Jack Yeates is a composer whose work has appeared in many of the games produced by indie studio Sundae Month. Hailing from Manchester, England, the man has only recently become a full-time composer. From 2016’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor to 2017’s Kickstarter success Dad Quest, he’s got quite a bit to show for his efforts. I was lucky enough to get him on Skype for a bit to talk music, games and games music.
ME: You’re a gamer, right?
HIM: I’m not hardcore. I’d probably be considered a filthy casual in that gross gamer speak, but I got a switch and it’s my favorite thing ever. I’ve been playing Zelda, and Mario and Stardew Valley and having a really good time with it.
ME: Do you have to enjoy the games you work on ?
HIM: If I don’t enjoy the gameplay, the vibe or the atmosphere then I don’t really feel connected to it. I don’t feel like I can make it better because if there’s nothing that clicks for me. I have to like what it is that I’m working on.
ME: What stage in the process are you brought on board? Do they give you concept art and say “start scoring this?”
HIM: For all of the Sundae Month games I’ve been a part of I’ve been on board from the beginning. I often do more than music and sound effects. I’m part of the concept team. I come up with ideas, bounce off writing ideas, things like that. Diaries was one that went on for a long time before I got involved. They had a main composer, and asked me to come in and do some other pieces. They just gave me concept art and showed me the build of the game and I had a little play around in it just to get an idea of what I was working with. For the project I’m working on now I was brought on board from the beginning but I haven’t had a hand in it other than the sound. That was shaped very much from the aesthetic that the team had put together. In Dad Quest I was there from the beginning in group meetings, and it was there that we decided to go for that sort of retro aesthetic. Depending on the project I can be involved from the concept stage or really near the end when they’re like “oh we need something for this.” If I’m doing sound effects as well as music it’s a lot closer to the beginning.
ME: What do you think about the role of music in games? Do you think that for a game to be truly complete the sound needs to be on point?
HIM: Obviously it depends on what the actually goal of that experience is. I genuinely feel the same way about games that I do about film. It’s not just a visual medium. It has that audio expectation as well. When the visuals, the audio and the interactively work well together, that’s when it’s a complete package for me. I’ve been playing Super Mario Odyssey, and the little things that they do to make the music, the gameplay and what’s going on on the screen all interact is great. You possess the electricity wire, and when you move along it it’s playing an extra little arpeggio which always matches up with the current chord of the music that’s playing. It just feels like another layer of interactivity. It’s a feedback thing. Audio feedback in video games is really important. From a gameplay perspective it lets you know what’s going on, but also it makes everything feel more significant. Your input is more significant because of the sound that went along with whatever action is going on.
ME: You could look at a game like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker where you open it up from the start and the music is so prevalent. You can’t imagine spending all of that time sailing around the ocean without the music there with you. The new game, Breath of the Wild, it has almost no music…
HIM: But the sound is still there! The music is still there but it’s employed in a different manner that really fits the aesthetic of that game. When you’re out there in the middle of this wilderness it would be stupid to have music playing all of the time, like a bombastic Hyrule Field theme when there’s nothing but ruins and grass. It has this sort of distant piano thing that’s really split up and broken up into pieces that only play when you’re doing certain things. You can’t listen to that track on the soundtrack and get the same experience that you would if you’re playing the game. In the game it only triggers that little bit of that music. The most important thing there is the ambience, the atmosphere. You have the sound of the wind, bugs and birds. It’s all about backing up that game’s aesthetic. Using space is just as important as filling everything with music.
ME: It’s kind of like how Wind Waker has this daring, adventuring vibe to it. The music is gung-ho, it’s in your face and it just happens on top of the action. Whereas Breath of the Wild is a precarious game, and the music is precarious in nature. You have the survive, and the music punctuates the points of survival.
HIM: It flares up when things are getting dangerous, or you discover something interesting. When there isn’t any music, you’re like “oh, I can relax.” When it plays, you’re like “oh god, what’s happening.” It’s another way of indicating changes in the state of the game and controlling the atmosphere by contracting the use of silence and space.
ME: What are the soundtracks that stand out as your biggest inspirations? What makes them so good?
HIM: It’s a long list. Some of the biggest and earliest for me are in the Final Fantasy series. There was a brilliant amount of experimentation in video game soundtracks which now seems par for the course, but at the time it was quite special. Especially in Final Fantasy VII during the final boss fight, using ominous Latin chanting alongside midi tracks. It was something which hadn’t really been done much. It was brilliant from a technical perspective as well as a musical aesthetic for those games. Final Fantasy VII is a special one for me and I’ve got a big soft spot for me because it was the first Final Fantasy I ever played. I loved the original Sonic soundtracks as well in that they’re the earlier uses of pop inspired music being brought into a video game context. They’re so catchy.
Then there’s obviously the original Mario and the original Zelda games. There was an attention to detail in those games that you didn’t necessarily see in other games of the time. They laid the foundation for treating a soundtrack as a very integral part of the art form. When Koji Kondo talked about making the original Super Mario theme it was all about backing up the gameplay, and the feeling of the gameplay, and the timing of jumps. The entire soundtrack was in service of the gameplay. That’s something that’s important to keep in mind when you make games. The whole experience has to work together.
You can check out Jack’s music on his Soundcloud, and check out Sundae Month’s body of work here. Also, Dad Quest and Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are on sale right now on Steam, so go ahead and pick those up.