Earlier this fall I had the chance to speak to composer Jakob Eisenbach about his work on the VR arcade experience Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon. In this exploration game, you and your team are teleported to an ancient Mayan temple where you must work to stop the awakening of evil during a ‘blood moon.’
I’ve been fascinated by VR for a long time, so it was really cool to get to talk with Jakob Eisenbach about his work on Tikal and I hope you enjoy our conversation about the game (and working in VR).
How did you get started as a composer?
It’s quite a funny story: I wished for a guitar on my 15th birthday because of falling in love with the sound of electric guitars, thanks to the game Guitar Hero 3.
Since I was somehow pretty quick at learning technique, practiced up to 12hours a day and advanced unusually fast, I got interested in more and more complex and high energy music. Then I joined a metal band, played lots of Dream Theater, Jason Becker and other very technical music, but became bored with only “complex and fast” eventually.
Since this really was the first time me being good at something, I decided to take my luck into my own hands and start a career in music. But to not be too crazy and only relying on guitar, I wanted to learn everything there is to learn about music.
And as crazy as it sounds, after starting to take piano and theory lessons for 4 years, I already managed to get accepted as one of four students at the Zurich University of Arts. Something which turned out to be my most lucky punch ever –
the year I joined the program “Composition for Film, Theater and Media”, was also the first year where all of the Universities Departments moved into a newly constructed building.
And there I was….studying my dream occupation while being surrounded by so many talented people, state of the art recording studios, concert halls, classical/jazz music students, while having yet the craziest advantage to come: Collaborative in-house programs with students from game design, film, theater, dance, conducting, recording, you name it.
Somehow our field of studies turned out to be at the intersection between a lot of those disciplines, so any project we did could be recorded live with real instruments since the very beginning – simply because the musicians were next door and we simply had free access to the infrastructure.
We literally recorded full-size orchestras for fun little school projects, because the most difficult thing was to only find enough musicians. The rest was already there and free.
Fast forward a few busy years, students graduate, some find jobs at different production companies or game studios and then you eventually get a call: “Hey Jakob, since you worked on my MA graduation game, my company and I have this new project….”
And suddenly I find myself inside this incredible VR startup “True VR Systems”.
How is composing for VR different from composing for, say, a regular video game or a film?
Basically, as with any kind of storytelling, you’re aiming to re-create human experiences. And there’s only limited ways of doing that. Film for example, is something that you’d call a “linear” story: You as the consumer can only go forward in time. The most interactive a movie gets, is you pausing it or adjusting the volume.
Then there’s games: some of them also have a linear tendency, like Journey.
Most games however tend to have more “non-linear” gameplay: open world games like Red Dead Redemption or World Of Warcraft, where you can spent as much time as you want, where you want, and even do things repeatedly.
Depending on how the story is told, the music has to connect to either the environment/mood or a linear sequence, like in cutscenes or timelines.
Actually, since the definition of music is anchored at the “perception of organized sound” it’s the job of me as the composer to create those organized chunks that a consumer may eventually perceive as music. They can consist of many different possible sections with lots of outcomes, transitions and different versions of the same story and mood.
Or you can create one singular timeline, that you have to experience in one
in one sitting.
In the projects of TrueVR it’s the same: the only extension is that you could place the music in virtual spaces and environments. But no matter how much technical extension you add to a story, it still has to make sense in the consumer’s head.
Those VR projects are mostly non-linear but have a few linear timelines where the music has some straight moments (for example on the Lava River).
Fun thing to think about: The reality we experience every day can also be observed as some kind of linear story with moments and chunks of non-linear, repeatable timelines.
What inspired the sound of Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon?
The main inspiration lies in the idea that you are experiencing a “strange” world, but you are some kind of main character/hero that’s solving the ancient riddles and mysteries of this temple.
As the game itself aimed for the “wow effect” experience of huge dimensions, especially in the vertical, we decided this is achieved best with a real symphony orchestra.
The 24-piece choir really added the feeling of an ancient magic being at work.
To achieve the “strangeness” I was strongly inspired by Balinese Gamelan culture, since this has a strange character to most western ears, and I was familiar with their theory. Extended with Arabic and Asian instruments it became less specifically on one culture though, while retaining the character of something “different” and “tribal” next to the orchestra. Nobody really knows how Mayan music sounded after all. We only know of some self-made instruments like bamboo flutes and drums.
Why was it so important for the music for Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon to be recorded live?
Two reasons. The first: This game should evoke the feeling of being impressed and stunned by perceiving the virtual world, but not the kind of “gimmicky impressive” you have in most trailer music.
The second reason: Since we established a kind of “real instrumentalists only” trend, coming from the amazing experience in my studies, I simply had the experience how to pull this off. Since we did small school projects with real orchestras and ensembles all the time already, I very strongly felt that this project, which became internationally available and feels like something exceptional in its way, especially deserved to have a real soul.
How did working on Tikal compare to the other VR projects you’d composed for? It sounds like this one was bigger than the ones that came before.
Tikal was planned by the studio as their flag ship project in their “explorer genre” from the very beginning. They wanted to have one very high-quality game, and Tikal was going to be that one. The other projects that have music of mine (like Patient Zero) are more focused on the interactivity and shooting zombies had a different approach from the studio. And they felt that for PvP and PvE shooters there’s other necessities than having a huge score.
How much time did you have to score Tikal?
Not much time, then suddenly a lot of time, and then suddenly not much time again.
So, while designing the core gameplay with the visual artists and creative team, we really went hand in hand. I scored a 10-minute suite within a few days, then we split this into different sections that could work to what we transcribed in the storyboard.
During the level design, we tested a lot in the actual VR environment, like how you perceive the time for different locations etc.
But because the new licensed partners in Canada wanted to open their franchise with a new game, we had to go into beta very early. So from first draft until beta, I had around
Then this got stuck, because the dev team and me (hired as sound designer) had to go to different projects, so the composer side of me was left in the dark for quite a while.
But then, more than a good year later we got back to this refurbished the game for the new 4K hardware and the arenas in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Which was when we felt this was the time to finally record the music – but then there was COVID.
So, lots of stop and go, then during the “European summer break of covid” we sneaked into a little timeslot where travelling and recording full orchestras in one room was allowed and finally managed to pull this off in Budapest.
Let’s just say the composing part of this project was the least difficult part by far, ha ha.
Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?
Yes! My favorite part is “An Ancient Awakening”.
And you really need to play the game in the arena to understand why.
I’ll try to transcribe it though: When this cue starts, you’re already in the game for a little while and managed to advance to an ancient grave chamber.
You solved the riddle in this level and then the wind machines of the VR arena start, the scent dispensers are activated and in the game, you see a lot of beautiful particles flying around in the environment that slowly materialize into an ancient Mayan ghost in front of you. This ghost is the first NPC character you meet in the experience and since you’re inside the VR environment, he really is about as tall as you and your teammates.
I also carefully sound designed his voice and sound effects. He carries I think 5-7 individual binaural SFX sources in his prefab, which blend in with the music.
When I tested the game, I always liked to stand pretty close to his animation.
Little fun fact: The ghosts’ animation is a motion capture of the lead developer Mischa Geiser himself. They recorded this full sequence while repeatedly playing my music mockup on speakers in the VR arena and performing the movements to the music.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon.
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