Talking with Composer Shaun Chasin about ‘Way of the Turtle’

Late last year I was presented with the opportunity to speak with composer Shaun Chasin about his work on the expansion of the game Way of the Turtle, a charming platformer game that instantly stole my heart the moment I saw some of the gameplay. Shaun has written music for dozens of video games, as well as film and television works. Shaun studied at Berklee College of Music, where he majored in Film Scoring with a minor in Video Game Music. Upon graduating Berklee, he attended the University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television graduate program.

At the time of the interview, the music of the expansion was about to be released and we talked about his work on both the original game and the expansion.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

  • How did you originally get involved with Way of the Turtle and what kind of game would you describe it as?

I worked on a horror game in 2015 called Hector, that was with a super-small team with only five of us. The artist on Hector ended up working for Illusion Labs and he became the main artist for Way of the Turtle. So when it came time for them to talk about music he said “I have a guy!” and they brought me on.

  • Was there any gameplay for you to look at? Or did you compose solely based off still images?

There was pretty quickly gameplay to look at. I was playing a lot of [game] builds along the way. They made a PC build that I could play with and run around and see how things are working. This is because a lot of the time you really don’t know how long it will take to clear a level or area, so if you’re designing a loop it’s hard to know if it’s going to get really annoying. You have to think about “What if the players get stuck, is [the music] going to get annoying?” That’s why you have to get a feel for how long things will take. I like to go through as fast as possible and as slow as possible, to make sure it’s working either way.

The same thing happens with [musical] stingers in-game. Occasionally the gameplay will be interrupted for a scene, for example when you get a turtle shell upgrade, the camera pulls back and torches light up. And I wanted to have music timed to the torches lighting up and the camera movement. The only way to work that out and implement it correctly is to play through the game.

  • Did the game being a platform game affect have any influence on the music? As opposed to the music in an open-world game?

I like to think of it as having the qualities of both, it’s like a pseudo-3D game, so you have a lot opening up with the camera turning as you go down a ramp. There’s also some non-linear aspects like at the gopher hub where you can purchase things and talk to the gopher. But there is some of that [platforming aspect] in the game’s music.

For example, the “low health layer” is really inspired by older game music. It’s not necessarily inspired by platforming games, but more like the N64 version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. [In that game] there’s a little *ding* that happens that I always found anxiety-inducing as a kid but in a really effective way. So, when you’re low-health in Way of the Turtle you get a similar *ding* sound that comes into the music but also works in rhythm and in time with the music. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have my mindset shifted towards older games.

  • You said in the press release that creating the music for Way of the Turtle was uniquely challenging, how so?

It was that unique combination. I’m used to writing for orchestra, that’s my bread and butter with most projects that I do. However, the fact that [the game] needed something extra, a straight traditional orchestral score would not have worked, is why I needed those extra instruments, like the kalimbas and other instruments like that. As soon as I started tinkering with a lot of smaller sounds, little things that made the orchestra feel quirky. This helped it become its own sound.

Once I got that sound together, the rest of the score wasn’t that challenging and I was able to exist in that musical world. It was the first couple things that had a lot of back and forth and I didn’t think I was going to get it. Eventually though, we got into a sound where I was “okay, this is what the game sounds like.” From then on we were able to blast off in a certain direction.

  • Were you getting a lot of direction throughout the process?

There was a lot of direction at the beginning [of the process], with a ton of feedback and revisions. Once we got locked into a sound, most everything got in on version 1, which is unusual for a project. I’m working on a show now where we’re on version 21, for example. And some of that would be from: “This is great, but we changed the edit so now it needs to be updated.” It’s really unusual to see a version 1 in a project, but it happens. I think it’s because we had such a back and forth at the beginning, there was an established vocabulary for the project. Once we all worked to get on the same page, I think that’s why things were able to get through so quickly.

  • What inspired the overall sound of Way of the Turtle? I wasn’t expecting something that sounded so epic and cute all at the same time. Was this inspired by anything specific?

When I did a demo for the game, my first shot at the music was a lot more “cute” and electronic with synthesizers. The developers were like “This is okay but it’s not what we’re thinking of.” They actually gave me a reference, then, from Finding Nemo and said that they wanted the game to sound like a big adventure.

Instead of a cute platformer [sound], they wanted a big Disney adventure sound, which led to the use of a full orchestra. For some of the sounds, I covered the turtles with kalimbas and marimbas, to create the quirkiness of the turtles moving around.

  • What kind of instruments are included for Way of the Turtle? I hear the general orchestral mix but there’s some unique sounds mixed in there too. How did you pick which instruments to include?

So one instrument I included was the kalimba, that’s a little hand percussion instrument. I added little touches with it because it’s such a delicate sound and if you put the microphone right up to it, it’s a very close and intimate sound. But if you mix it with the vastness of a traditional orchestra, they really complement each other, one pulls you out while the other one pulls you in. It creates an interesting balance that I hadn’t really done before.

In the expansion music, there isn’t much oboe, but in the original score that I did for the base game in 2019 there was a ton of oboe. I recorded this amazing oboist and he came over to record and the one part that I thought would be super difficult he just blazed through on his first take and it was absolutely perfect.

For the darker scenes we included a guitarviol, which is a mix between a cello and a guitar. It’s sized and tuned like a guitar, but it has cello strings and it’s played with a bow. This instrument was used a lot in the score for Game of Thrones. It sounds like a cello but it’s also a little bit ancient and harsher in an interesting and cinematic way.

  • How does the music for the expansion build on what you created for the original game?

This expansion actually finishes the story of the base game. The original game ends with a “to be continued” and the first update ends with this big explosion sending purple goo all over the island. This update then, sees you re-exploring the island but it’s been overrun with this evil, magic goo.

The music for the expansion is all fully new stuff, although the challenge there was to make it sound cohesive. Like, it’s still somewhat familiar, but in the base game the music is much lighter. In this last update, you’re trying to clear off this evil goo, so the music I came up with is so much darker and more evil. There’s a lot more brass, more low elements, and a lot more big, deep percussion. We’re getting much lighter on things like the kalimbas. There’s still some moments of hope when you can hear them shine through but in general the direction was to go way darker.

  • What was the process like for scoring this expansion? I’m assuming there was new gameplay footage to look at to give you an idea of what was needed?

Sort of. There were two more “explorer” tracks they needed, both of which came with a corresponding “tension” layer and a corresponding “low health” layer. The “tension” layer is tied to the number of enemies on the screen. The more enemies on the screen, the louder it becomes. So you’ll hear more aggressive percussion, and as you then defeat enemies the music becomes more subdued. This makes the music ebb and flow as you’re fighting.

Then they sent me footage for all the different cut scenes. These included all the puzzle endings and the introduction of the boss. There’s also the music when the boss is defeated and the final cut scene when you can re-explore the island as a peaceful paradise that’s been cleared of all monsters.

  • How much time did you have to work on the expansion music?

A few weeks. I ended up taking a month off work and they came and were like “hey we need music for the expansion” which was perfect because it was music I knew I could nail. It was a perfect first project back because it was music I’d done before. And for the most part everything was approved very quickly after a little back and forth.

I hope you enjoyed this interview and I want to give a big thank you to Shaun Chasin for taking the time to speak with me about Way of the Turtle.

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