Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Vincent Diamante

Vincent Diamante
Audio Director
thatgamecompany

Notable games Vincent has been involved with:
Cloud, Flower, Skullgirls, Castlevania: Order of Shadows

flower-game-screenshot-1-b

One of my favourite things about this generation is the great indie games we are getting to experience on consoles. Recently I have been particularly fond of games such as The Unfinished Swan, Thomas Was Alone and Journey but the first few games to really grip me were flOw and Flower, both of which were developed by thatgamecompany.

thatgamecompany really shine when it comes to telling a story simply by engaging the player with great music, visuals and gameplay. Vincent Diamante has been kind enough to suffer the fate of leaving luck to being rescued but before I send him away to survive he’s going to talk a little bit about the award winning game that is Flower, his time in education and what games make him tick.

Brad: Flower is a fantastic game but explaining the concept to somebody cannot do it justice. The game takes the player on an incredibly emotional journey simply by allowing the player to guide petals through the world; this is thanks to the soundtrack and level design working perfectly together.

As the composer of Flower’s soundtrack how did you approach the difficult task of creating the score? Did you start work based on concept art and game flow alone or were some of the levels partly fleshed out?

Vincent: Well, I started Flower really early. I began writing music even before there were any core game mechanics, art, or levels were defined. Granted, pretty much all those early tracks didn’t make it in the game, but they had an influence on everyone when it came to searching for all the different aspects that comprised the game. Back then, there were a lot of really rough mechanics prototypes that we were experimenting with. These were really rough pieces with mostly programmer art that I’d do music and sound effects for.  Back then, I think a lot of the influence came from the shape of the controls and the really low-level decisions being made with your hands while playing the game. That continued to be a huge part of the music and sound all the way to the end.

Brad: Typically, with many games it feels as though the sound design is created to complement the visuals so it’s refreshing to see that the audio and score actually had an impact on the overall game design. Were there any instances during development where you thought something didn’t quite work from a visual point-of-view and it was subsequently changed to better suit the soundtrack or vice-versa?

Vincent: There were some subtle changes here and there to better match the audio, but nothing too drastic. There were, however, a few places where the match of visual and aural originally struck the rest of the dev team as: not right. The most notable example of this is probably the exit from the canyon and the entrance of the wind level’s third music. I felt very strongly about the sound there and had to really stand my ground to keep it the way it was. From there, the guys decided to humor me a bit and work around what I was giving them, I guess! The audio and music there in the retail copy is the same as the first pass there, save mixing and mastering.

Now that I think of it, I believe that was the first time in the process I was really obstinate about my position on the overall game, and I got to really elucidate that with the audio. I’m glad they let me do that, even though my relationship was technically just as a contractor at that time rather than as an employee…

Brad: I know you had a hand in the level design and layout of the flowers throughout the game. Do you feel this was an important part of allowing the score to gel with the level design?

Vincent: When it came to level design, well, it was less about the big level design and more about flower design.  The arrangement, shape, size, and density of flower groups, lines and areas were really important because of their direct impact on the sound effects, which were designed to be an extra musical layer on top of the rest of the score.  Because of that… yeah. The flower arrangement in the levels was incredibly important to the success of the score.

Brad: Interacting with flowers to trigger audible feedback to complement the soundtrack is a nice touch. What other games stand out to you as doing something particularly interesting or unique with audio?

Vincent: I was a huge fan of X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in the day. Besides getting me really into the whole modding and level design thing (thanks to a program called TIE Mission Builder), I was hugely enamored with the interactive score and all the fast splicing of MIDI that was happening on the fly. Can’t ignore the NanaOn-Sha games; I really loved Vib Ribbon when it came out. I was just gobsmacked by the music for Vagrant Story, and I always do a close-listening of the extremely subtle interactive score for the game’s playable title sequence. More recently, I’ve been pushing Diamond Trust of London for Nintendo DS on guys; besides being a really neat electronic board game about blood diamonds, it has a looping/branching type interactive score that responds to the board game state. Oh, Rez… can’t forget about that! Loved the fact that the sound effects of the enemies and the player were an integral part of the musical score.

Brad: I know you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and you’ve worked in other industries but did game modding and level design help you decide that you eventually wanted to work in the games industry or was it just more of a hobby at that point?

Vincent: Game modding was part of it. I did have fun messing with TIE Mission Builder, doing 3D Studio Max stuff in high school, messing with Pascal… things like that. I actually knew that I wanted to work in the game industry ever since the beginning: playing games on my cousin’s Commodore 64 back as a 6 year old brat. I’m pretty stubborn.

Brad: So I guess the stepping stone into the games industry then began at University with projects such as Cloud? How did you get involved with the game and did you feel like you were part of something special during its development?

Vincent: Cloud was definitely a major part of it.  Prior to that, I got some repute for writing, having co-founded a website called insertcredit.com, which was rather well-regarded as an enthusiast/New Games Journalism type site with a crazy writing staff. (I guess my niche back then was hardcore vehicle simulation, fighting games, and visual novels.)  As a games maker, I was part of a team at USC that just got a game called Dyadin into the IGF student showcase. Most of that team continued on the Cloud project that came afterward, though that game had a very different development structure, with Jenova as a clear creative director compared to Dyadin which was much more design by committee.  Dyadin definitely got some positive press, but the contrast of Cloud to both games in the IGF and in the mainstream really caught guys by surprise.

I think we had a feeling that this game would get a good response, though we weren’t quite sure just how much. As the sound dude, I was asked early on to create music to set the tone for both the game itself as well as inspiration for the fledgling design. It was a really interesting position to be in, though it made immediate sense to me as someone who fiercely believed in music NOT being a post-production process in games.

Brad: How important was it for you to network with other graduates during your time at University?

Vincent: The networking was pretty important. I just started working as Audio Director over at thatgamecompany, which means I’m back to working with Jenova and others who’ve come from USC.  Of course, it’s not just the networking within that grad program. While I was an interactive media student, I provided music for some senior animation thesis projects from CalArts students; that experience was probably a factor in me getting hired on that Skullgirls team which didn’t have any USC connections but more than a few CalArts guys who happened to also be connected with that website I helped build. 🙂

Skullgirls_01

Brad: Well you definitely keep yourself busy, especially being audio director at thatgamecompany and on Skullgirls. It’s probably fair to say then, that you can tire yourself out and have some pretty vivid dreams such as this one…

On returning home after a day at work you look out of your window and to your astonishment you see a lush green meadow and a series of windmills. You close your eyes and upon opening them your apartment has disappeared and so you begin walking towards the only visible landmark, a derelict skyscraper. Once inside you find the building has been used as a warehouse to store a rather large games collection, as the building begins to creak you manage to grab 5 games. As you run for the exit you notice a pylon has crashed through and damaged a wall, peering through you find a game soundtrack on the floor.

You set up camp next to a windmill that is powering a generator and you decide to have a look through your haul of games. What did you manage to grab?

Vincent: Haha… all right… let’s see…

1)  Garouden: Fist or Twist (PlayStation 2)

This is one of my favorite fighting games ever. The concept of hitstun is very different in this game compared to other fighting games; here it’s a variable that changes over the course of the match as opposed to simply a function of the attack landed, and this changes the story and drama of the fight in a wonderful way.  For me, at least!  Not a popular game among the mainstream or hardcore fighting game guys, but I absolutely love it.

2)  Star Wars: TIE Fighter (PC)

I mentioned this as being my first real foray into video game modding and level editing. Back in the day, I just ROCKED at this game, and I kept on giving myself ever more ridiculous challenges to survive. (Ex: In a TIE Fighter, dogfighting escort shuttles in a mine field with both lasers and concussion missiles…) I could probably play this game forever.

3)  Sid Meier’s CPU Bach (3DO)

Less a game and more a wacky piece of music software, this 3DO game tries to compose music in the style of JS Bach… and it sometimes succeeds… in places. 🙂  It’s not a bad version of a young music student trying to employ high baroque composition techniques…

4)  Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary (Nintendo DS)

Probably my favorite competitive action puzzle game series. They finally got the online multiplayer thing going, so nowadays I actually have a challenge fighting against some very good competition over in Japan.  Or at least I did when I had the time to open up my DS…

5) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

This shooter is not only my favorite scrolling shooter, but it also has my favorite video game soundtrack.  It’s pretty short when it comes to the actual music (the official CD soundtrack release actually has the soundtrack twice… once in original ST-V/Saturn mix and again in a slightly upgraded synth arrangement) but it’s a near perfect combination of clever and elegant.

Soundtrack – Vagrant Story OST (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

As for the soundtrack… hrm…!  I already mentioned my favorite soundtrack above… and number 2 would be another Hitoshi Sakimoto score in Vagrant Story… hrm… (man, maybe I should have put that game above, considering the legs of the core game loop there…)

Brad: I tell you what I’ll do; generally I allow the castaway to select a special edition of one of the games. I’ll give you the Radiant Silvergun soundtrack along with the game, which means you can also take with you the Vagrant Story OST.

Vincent: I didn’t mention one of my other favorite fighting games, and that game happens to have a brilliant soundtrack as well.

Honourable Mention) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

Asuka 120% Limited for Saturn is my favorite 2D fighting game, and the soundtrack by Keishi Yonao is just ridiculously good fun. The best release of the soundtrack, most of which was actually written in the early 90s, even though the game continued getting updated releases all the way to 2000, comes from the Tilde Game Music Collection Vol. 3 – Asuka 120%. Just great fun to listen to.

Brad: You have certainly chose a varied selection with a mix of fighting, flight simulation, puzzle… and I’ve never played any of these choices, probably due to most of them being released in Japan!

Unfortunately, being exposed to the elements in an open field a large gust of wind rushes in your makeshift camp. Your games are caught up in the wind but you manage to reach out and grab one of them. Which game did you decide to save?

Vincent: Hrm… Radiant Silvergun? Probably that. For me, playing that game is along the lines of revisiting a Scriabin or Beethoven Sonata. I can play it for fun as well as furthering mastery of the game…

So I say, but then I just end up watching superplay videos locally or on Youtube showing the true masters what it’s like to really turn in a virtuoso performance in that game. When you play that game smoothly, it’s a thing of beauty…

Brad: There certainly are some masters out there. I always find with games I like, when checking an online leader board there is always somebody with a ridiculously large high score. It makes you wonder how many hours they have to plough into studying and practicing the game to get that good at it!

Thanks for taking the time to talk about what you do and what games you love. I can’t wait to see what’s next for thatgamecompany.

Vincent: This was fun!  Thank you!

About the choices

Garouden: Fist or Twist

Developer – Opus / ESP Software
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release (JP) – 15th March 2007

Star Wars: TIE Fighter

Developer – Totally Games
Publisher – LucasArts
Platform – PC
Release – July 1994

Sid Meier’s CPU Bach 

Developer – MicroProse
Platform – 3DO
Release – 1994

Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary 

Developer – Sonic Team
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Nintendo DS
Release (JP) – 14th July 2011

Radiant Silvergun 

Developer – Treasure
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 23rd July 1998

Asuka 120% Limited 

Developer – Fill-in-Café / Success
Publisher – FamilySoft / Kodansha
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 1994

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