Young Gallic composer Yoann Laulan opens up about his classical influences, game jamming his way into the industry, and what it’s like to score an early access game.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Having been born from a game jam… then launched as a playable, but explicitly still in-development, project on Steam Early Access and GoG… rogue-lite, Castlevania-inspired action-platformer Dead Cells will finally launch on August 7th 2018 on the Switch, PS4, Xbox One. The game sees you battle through an ever-changing gothic castle (and a surprisingly colourful one at that) full of secrets, as you test yourself through the live-die-repeat, Souls-ish structure.
Dead Cells is a game by Motion Twin, a small development team based in Bordeaux, France. The workers cooperative has been going since 2001, and has created a multitude of mobile games prior; the front page of its website boasts that there’s “no boss”, and that all staff take home the same salary.
Handling the music for the game (though not part of the cooperative) is Yoann Laulan — freelance game composer, guitarist, synth-lover, and proud keeper of his cat, Prinze Litière von Raubkatzen. We caught up with Yoann to chat about his musical influences, his work on the moody Dead Cells score, and the upcoming vinyl release.
Yoann Laulan and his feline friend. Picture credit: Aurore Athomas.
The Dead Cells OST vinyl is currently sold out (sorry!) Music by Yoann Laulan, cover art by Thomas ‘Carduus’ Vasseur.
Laulan’s musical awakening mainly seem to have happened in his mid-teenage years: “I started music in high school, when I first had a music-making and guitar set-up. I played in bands with friends, etc., but had forgotten how to read sheet music since I was child. Later on, I got interested in computer-made music and bought my first Digital Audio Workstation — Ableton Live — which I still mainly use to this day.”
Laulan left the traditional music theory of childhood music lessons behind him: “When I make music it’s more of a spiritual thing — I just try to translate a feeling I have.” That’s not to say that his approach, currently based on in-the-box digital instruments for time and budget reasons, is unstudied. “I find it fun to listen to classical music and recreate various types of orchestration and patterns.”
A favourite composer of his is Igor Stravinsky, particularly the famous Le Sacre du printemps aka The Rite of Spring (if you’ve seen Disney’s Fantasia, it’s the one with the dinosaurs.) “I’m particularly fond of his rhythmic work, and I love it when there’s a lot of brass — it’s really powerful.” Another favourite is Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, especially the powerful and melodic fourth movement of his 9th Symphony, the New World.
(Laced With Wax recently published “Video game music is a wonderful gateway to classical”, where other game composers — including Jessica Curry and Austin Wintory — classical performers and broadcasters highlighted similarities and resonance between particular game scores and classical works.)
Getting into games
Laulan recalls: “For me, working on video games started in 2012 during my first game jam, which was with Mathieu ‘Looping’ Capdegelle, who would go on to co-develop Dead Cells. I was introduced to Motion Twin in 2014, when I took part in another game jam — Ludum Dare 30 — with Thomas ‘Carduus’ Vasseur, one of the graphic designers at the company. Our game, Schrödinghost, ended up quite high in the rankings, so he asked me to make some music and sound for a different project — Dead Cells.”
Game jam game Schrödinghost, created by Carduus for Ludum Dare 30.
One can see the seeds of Dead Cells’ art style, design and general aesthetic in a separate Ludum Dare jam game, ScarKrow, by the Motion Twin crew.
Another explicit point of reference was Motion Twin’s Die2Nite, a coop zombie survival browser game, to which Dead Cells was set to be a spiritual successor.
A screenshot of the 2014 version Dead Cells, when it was a multiplayer tower defence game.
Laulan only made “a few not-so-great tracks” for an earlier version of the game and a trailer for IndieCade, before it was put on hold. Development restarted in 2015, and, after working with Motion Twin on another game, he rejoined the project in January 2017. Dead Cells had evolved into a radically different version of the initial prototype, and Laulan’s sole focus was now on music.
One of the main instruments used on the Dead Cells soundtrack is the guitar, something Laulan had established when he first worked on it back in 2014 by using his six-string for absolutely everything, including bass and percussions. Later on, he changed tack slightly: “It’s mostly a melodic approach on the guitar, rather than big chords — more folkish. For time’s sake, I mostly used plug-ins as well, so I was working on refining a more specific sound than a straightforward guitar sound; that’s why there’s some mandolin mixed in there.”
“I would have loved to record more live guitar, as well as other instruments, but it was a tight window of time between when I rejoined the project and the early access launch five months later. I had to produce a lot of tracks, and do all the sound design as well, so one of the main things I had to put aside was the use of live instruments.”
That said, “it was definitely a good experience, and I learned a lot — especially producing sound effects.
The time limitations helped me be decisive and efficient; there’s a number of themes that were produced very quickly and were supposed to be placeholders, but ended up in the final soundtrack because of positive player feedback.” “The Merchant” was one such theme:
Indie through and through
With Dead Cells as his calling card, Laulan is excited to be part of the Western indie scene that found its platforming feet with games like Cave Story, Braid, Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, and FEZ (one could argue that Celeste and Hollow Knight are continuations of this hot streak). He speaks about notable indie game composers Ben Prunty (FTL: Faster Than Light, Into the Breach) and Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac) as if they were the John Williams or James Horner of his world.
As well as the ground broken by the indie sector over the last 10 years, it’s the “ambience” of the scene that appeals to Laulan on a social/networking level, with developers working on small games tending to be friendlier and more generous with advice.
But, for all that he’s “played the crap” out of indie darling The Binding of Isaac, it’s Blizzard’s seminal Diablo 2 that proved to be a big inspiration for the sound of Dead Cells. “The track “Wilderness” has an amazing guitar riff near the end, which really inspired me.”
“Since I was a kid I also played a lot of Streets of Rage and Shinobi, so I’m a big lover of Yuzo Koshiro’s Mega Drive music in particular. Another favourite is Clint Bajakian’s music for the LucasArts first-person Wild West shooter Outlaws. There’s not much more to say about it other than it’s awesome!”
To mangle a quote that I think (but don’t know for sure) ought to be ascribed to Rosanne Cash: ‘genre is a contract made between an artist and their audience, so the audience knows what to expect.’ In video games, we all seem to delight in our ever-sillier subgenre portmanteaus, like roguelike, roguelite, metroidvania, souls-like, Soulsborne etc. As many indie games do (and arguably have to), Motion Twin puts Dead Cells’ influences right up front by clearly labelled as a ‘roguevania’.
The biggest influences on the game’s design, art, and music are series which are effectively now genres unto themselves — Castlevania and Dark Souls — although Laulan insists that he and Motion Twin have steered away slightly from the romanticism and giant gothic scenery of those games. “There’s no princess to save. I was conscious of when to take influence from Castlevania, and when not to. Possibly the most obviously influenced track is “The Castle”. I tried a trick used in Super Castlevania IV, where the last level’s music reprises and remixes previous themes.”
As one might assume was the case with most French creators that work by feel, as Laulan intimates he does, he is in touch with what inspires him across the wider cultural world. In terms of art and aesthetics, he cites Alice in Wonderland, and several artists that draw or paint deformed, doll-like characters, including Nataly Abramovitch, aka Kukula, Benjamin Lacombe and Ania Tomicka.
Another big love of Laulan’s, as hinted at above, are furry mammals of the feline family. Indeed, listen carefully enough to some of the ambience in the game and you might just hear the purring of Prinze Litière von Raubkatzen himself… [Clue: It can be heard in one of the boss rooms before the boss appears]
The art of the Dead Cells double vinyl was created by Thomas ‘Carduus’ Vasseur — member of the Motion Twin collective and lead artist on the game. Laulan teases that the front cover has some lore significance, that players will especially appreciate when they reach the end of the game.
A fellow Motion Twin cohort and 2D artist on Dead Cells, Gwenael Massé, recently posted some sketches that he did for the vinyl sleeve.
Laulan also points out that the gatefold image is teasing content that will be in the upcoming free DLC:
“Prisoner’s Awakening”, from the first level of the game, is a favourite of Laulan’s, the dev team and the fans. It also just so happens to be track 1., Side A of disc 1 of the vinyl.
Laulan started work on “Prisoner’s Awakening” prior to his rejoining the Dead Cells project, suspecting that he would be summoned and therefore it wouldn’t be wasted effort. “I recorded the main guitar riff first, and used it as a foundation around which I could test a few plug-ins. The guys really loved the track, so I worked on it some more, imbued it with a hopeful melody and catchy rhythms, and implemented it in the game’s first level.”
He carefully picked the 15 tracks for the double vinyl, ordering them in such a way as to create and experience akin to playing through the game. “The first disc includes the beginning of the story and some ambient music. The second disc includes the more epic tracks, including most of the boss music and end levels.”
The back cover of the Dead Cells OST vinyl.
“I decided to add the credits music to the vinyl, even though that won’t be in the game until the full release in August. The in-game credits are a bit like in the movies, so I decided to create atmospheric covers of some of the themes, and add some goofy parts as well — not all the goofy stuff will be in the vinyl because the song is already long!”
Laulan is keenly aware both that game music cues will have a life outside the game — so ought to be as high quality and listenable as possible — but also that, structurally speaking, they need to work as looped tracks. Especially since Dead Cells is a try-die-repeat roguesoulsvania, he had to think through each track carefully.
“With “The Temple”, I created much of the music before I knew about the level design. There’s a big change in level after you activate a switch, which changes the ambience; I therefore had to cut the track in two in the game. The OST track is what it was meant to be originally.”
One track he omitted from the vinyl because of its style, was “Ossuary” — an ambient affair that Laulan is fond of, despite having made it in an afternoon.
Ready for launch
As mentioned, Dead Cells graduated from an early access title to enjoying a multi-platform release on August 7th 2018.
Laulan, like the wider team, is hugely grateful to the community that has supported the game to this point. Given a chance to do it again, the one thing he says he might change process-wise is to master tracks as he goes, rather than in a batch at the end. This is so that the tracks that did go into the game, however early, would sound more finished.
He’s certainly not averse to his next gig after Dead Cells being another early access project: “When it’s generally a well made game, early access is a good thing — Dead Cells changed a lot during the year of early access, and it became way better as a result.”
Currently working on more content for a Dead Cells free update, is also toying with the idea of polishing up some tracks (not included on the vinyl) that he wasn’t entirely happy with for reasons of time. These tracks, and some new ones, will benefit from his experience on the project thus far, as well as an improvement in his tools, and more freedom to record live guitar playing.
Also, sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that the Bandcamp album is called Dead Cells - Soundtrack Part 1 — Laulan harbours the desire to release a Part 2 made up of remixes and “fancy covers” in different styles, possibly with players one day able to switch back and forth between the original and rejigged soundtracks.
It has been a gratifying process so far: “I never expected that there would be a vinyl with my music on it, even when we were selling the soundtrack digitally before the game hit early access — that’s really cool. I used to collect vinyl because it’s way better than CD, and I just like the feeling.
“It’s a collectible — if you like a digital game, it’s still nice to hold something. It’s definitely something game developers should do if possible, especially in the indie scene… Fans can feel more involved in the game.” He’s nothing if not dedicated to older physical music formats: Laulan’s Bandcamp page for Dead Cells features a cassette tape edition of the soundtrack.