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An Interview With Video Game Composer Ryan Fogleman

Ryan Fogleman is an American video game composer. At the age of 13, after teaching himself how to play the guitar, he created his first unofficial compositions. His video game soundtracks explore sonic textures that mimic the emotional arc taken by the story of the game. I talked to Ryan about his creative process, his inspirations and how he recharges his creative batteries.

KM: What first drew you towards video game music?

Ryan Fogleman: The journey really started when I was first getting into Super Nintendo/PS1/PS2 era RPGs like the Dark Cloud series, Chrono Trigger, Morrowind and Xenogears. Those games played a huge role in my early life, and influenced the music I create quite a bit. The sound design and the audio of those games caught me from the beginning as an integral part of the overall experience, and is part of what drew me into writing game music.

KM: What are the factors that make JRPG-style video game music stand out for you?

RF: A big part of it is the way that, in a lot of cases, it seamlessly blends Western classical traditions with more modern art and pop music. There are influences from European pop as well as jazz, Eurobeat, progressive rock, and countless other genres. Not only do the composers have an impeccable understanding of groove, rhythm and melody and harmony, but it’s a very unique style that combines so many disparate musical traditions.

KM: Talk about your compositional process.

RF: My process almost always starts with some germ of an idea. I have synesthesia so a lot of my ideas initially come to me in a hybrid of sound and images. Usually those are small fragments – a short melody, a particularly interesting chord, or even a timbre. From there I usually sit in my music room and improvise with the idea, putting it in different contexts and seeing what sticks – if you can perfectly remember something that you improvised, it’s likely other people will find it catchy too. The balance of overtones, whether a sound is fuzzy or crunchy and those sorts of things are also very important to me in the early stages of writing.

Often I don’t have fully fleshed out notes, rhythms and chords until much later in the process if the texture of the piece is the focus. One thing I also like to do is to draw out the emotional arc of a piece of music on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper, and map out the peaks and valleys of the overall dynamics, as well as notes about the atmosphere.

KM: Tell me more about some of the projects on which you’ve worked lately that you’ve enjoyed the most.

RF: I’m very happy with the Ceress and Orea soundtrack which I put out this May with Materia Collective. It was an absolutely great experience. I’ve worked on a few other projects with the developer Plueschkatze, including a game we did for the IGMC 2017 jam called Dear Edwin. It’s a short little detective noir style adventure, and I wanted a grainy black and white movie kind of feel to fit the aesthetic of that project. The score, which was written in just a couple of weeks (as per the rules of the jam) ended up as this style that’s sort of like big band swing mashed up with a few elements of Victorian England, as well as some modern jazz.

Other than that, I’ve got a variety of different projects I’m working on right now. Of the ones I can share publicly, there’s an interconnected universe of comic book authors and publishers called the Powerverse. They have a shared universe set up for easy interdimensional lore and crossovers between superheroes, and currently White Guardian Studios is developing a video game called Erupt. Erupt is essentially a superhero game featuring members of the Powerverse, based around tactical RPG elements with a very strong modern/urban aesthetic. The music for that project takes inspiration from sample-based hip-hop, funk, EDM, and jazz fusion, among others. A lot of it is reminiscent of the Jet Set Radio sound collage style of music, Nujabes, and the lo-fi hip-hop movement. It’s been super fun to work on that project, and I really enjoy being able to take things in experimental, fresh directions for Erupt.

KM: Where do you feel that video game music fits into the realm of contemporary composition?

RF: I think that,in a lot of ways, they can be intimately connected. Every now and then I do some choral concert music for choirs in my area and things like that. I don’t find that I approach the musical aspects of the styles differently, although with video game music there’s often the consideration of looping. It’s a bit harder to create these grandiose crescendos when you have to bring it back to the loop. That’s something that you don’t face in other genres.

I think that the interactivity of video game music and the way it has to simultaneously be in the background while not being boring takes a lot of balancing. A lot of skills you learn from writing video game music are applicable to contemporary art/pop music or even chamber music, and there are tons of great projects melding those worlds together.

Of course, I think it’s best for any composer to have the widest variety of influences possible. Listen to whatever interests you!

KM: What are some of your future goals for your musical career?

RF: Long term, I’d like to continue to do what I’m doing now, which is primarily writing music for JRPGs. I do a lot of concert music work and personal projects. Some of the work I’ve been doing recently has been based around live, interactive visualizations. There’s a piece I wrote for the Oregon Fringe Festival this year called Lovely, Sweet Dreams. It’s essentially 30 minutes of electro-acoustic half video gamey, half avant garde chamber music that I set up accompanying computer generated visuals that were partially pre-determined, but some parameters of the rendering can be controlled in real time. I want to explore that sort of thing where audience participation in a live setting can affect not only the sounds that the audience will hear, but also what they see. I think that’s still a huge unconquered frontier.

Beyond that, I still plan to be involved in video game music. I’m loving all of the work that I’ve been doing recently with Materia Collective. I have another project that’s coming out soon that I’ve been working on with Plueschkatze. Overall I’d like to continue what I’ve been doing, perhaps on a grander scale!

KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?

RF: When I’m feeling creatively unproductive, one of the best solutions for me is to change my environment up. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful area with easy access to isolated spots of nature, and I find that being outdoors, admiring the complexity and beauty of the world, or even just seeing and hearing new things, is great for rejuvenating my creative energy, as well as helping me see things from new perspectives.

Listening music can be useful in two directions – re-listening to my all-time favorite albums and replaying my favorite games helps me put everything in perspective, and reminds me of why I chose to work towards this in the first place. On the other hand, listening to music I’ve never heard, or even just putting on a shuffled playlist on YouTube, is a great tool for being able to look at things in an out of the box way and pick up new ideas.