Wandersong is a charming and insanely creative musical adventure that has been taking the indie scene by storm. It was developed by Greg Lobanov of Dumb and Fat Games, along with Gordon McGladdery, who wrote the music, and Em Halberstadt, who did the sound design. CGMagazine sat down with these three to talk about their work on the game, their influences, and their favourite bands.
CGMagazine: So tell me, how did you guys meet?
Greg Lobanov: Well I met Gord at GDC once, like five years ago? Gord’s just been around, it’s like small world game dev stuff, how I knew Gord. I came to Gord specifically because I was looking for a soundtrack and audio for this game; basically, this is the first time we ever really got in touch but I heard samples of his music which I really liked. Basically, it was like, “Hey I like your stuff, I want you to be on this game,” and then he hired Em to work on the game too.
Gordon McGladdery: And now Em knows the game better than all of us.
Em Halberstadt: The first time I met Greg was our first Wandersong meeting.
Gord: And it wasn’t at Bond’s yet…
Greg: Yeah, it wasn’t at Bond’s, it was at Richards or something? Some stupid cafe that’s like a knockoff of another one.
CGM: Greg, you said you were an American living in Canada. How are you liking it so far? What do you think of the Canadian indie scene?
Greg: It’s awesome! It’s really huge here! Where I came from, in Philadelphia, it’s a pretty big city but the game scene is much smaller. Vancouver, in my experience, is super full of game devs and bustling with it. This is probably one of the biggest indie game dev cities in the world, maybe the biggest.
Gord: Vancouver and Melbourne are pretty chock full of indie devs.
Greg: It’s kind of shocking because Canada, the population is much smaller than the United States, but it seems like proportionally, there are just as many, if not more indies. Proportional to the population there are just so many indies here and a lot of them are making amazing stuff. And it’s really cool to be part of the scene and really inspiring!
CGM: Moving onto Wandersong, I read that the game was inspired by stuff like Steven Universe and Over the Garden Wall; what else would you say inspired Wandersong in terms of its art direction and its music?
Em: I guess I’m inspired by a lot of indie games. Recently I’ve been playing Sword & Sorcery and that’s been giving me a lot of cool ideas about incorporating sound design into the music.
Gord: Most of my inspirations come straight from Greg but then I try to shoehorn in the things I’m into right now as well, which is more just instrumental stuff. We’re going to do a whole act with a Morin khuur, cause I’m just like, “I got this thing Greg, I really wanna use it!” Greg will actually work with us to incorporate that and make it work with the game. So it’s not always just Greg doing the game and us chasing and following his lead; Greg’s been changing the game a lot to suit the sound too which is pretty rare and super cool!
Greg: There’s a ton of variety in the experience and look very different—well, the art style is kind of the same—but it feels like we’re always kind of pulling from everything, you know? Everything we’ve ever loved and all of our experiences. Like with the music, the refs that I give Gord, it’s different eras and genres from moment to moment. We’re kind of worried how the soundtrack is going to sound altogether.
Gord: It’s going to be pretty fun! It’s got everything from indie-pop and chip-reggae to Russian-inspired industrial classical music.
Greg: There’s that dubstep section too…I like to mention that.
Gord: I thought that was a secret?
Greg: Well kinda…spoilers…
Gord: A dub-secret.
Greg: Honestly, tons of games for me building this one, like Earthbound. The art style was really inspired by Kirby’s Epic Yarn. There are a lot of cool games using cool specific aesthetic stuff, but the spirit of the game, I think, comes a lot from comics and animation for me. Like when I’m thinking about how we tell our stories and how we solve our problems creatively, it comes more from that stuff.
CGM: Wandersong, compared to a lot of your previous work, looks like a bit of a far cry from some of the stuff you’ve done, having made RPGs and action games. What was it like to create a game where there’s no combat and such a different progression?
Greg: Well it doesn’t actually feel like a huge restriction or a really big pivot. Like, philosophically it is—like the way I came at the game. But when we’re building it moment-to-moment it’s still just like, we’re trying to make a really fun experience and create things that are engaging to interact with, and with how to make a game that’s true for whatever kind of game you’re making, I think. Understanding what players like, in that way it doesn’t feel that different to me.
CGM: Were there any real challenges when making something like Wandersong?
Gord: Well GameMaker has no middleware…that was a challenge. Greg had to make the entire audio middleware system himself, it’s probably the most intense one GameMaker has ever seen, for sure.
Greg: Yeah, because I’m using software that’s intended for teens to learn how to make games, but none of us are teens or learning anymore. But I really like it so I’m still using it. I have technical challenges with the audio, Gord and Em do so much stuff and the software we’re using sometimes has problems with that.
Em: Yeah the tunes and we’re still adding features.
Greg: I just had an audio feature on Friday that broke it, and I had to fix it, it was a whole thing.
Gord: And Em’s got thousands of assets in now.
Greg: Yeah like three or four thousand? I’ll say three thousand sounds, I won’t exaggerate but it’s going to hit four before we’re done.
Gord: it’s going to have over 100 songs by the end.
Greg: When I think about challenges, that’s the thing. The singing stuff does have some storytelling challenges too. Because the character is so limited and sometimes the story calls for something else, there’s friction there. But that’s usually an opportunity to do something creative rather than a restriction, at least it feels like to me, and I lean on these guys a lot to solve those problems. Like sometimes, something that is really hard to write or really hard to show, I’ll do with audio instead and that is a really huge asset for me.
CGM: The way that sound and music is incorporated into a game is so important in terms of setting scenes and building a tone. What was it like for you guys to work on a game that is literally all about music?
Em: Really exciting!
Gord: Mildly intimidating and very exciting!
Em: Especially with how much Greg cares about sound and the effort he puts in, it feels a lot more organic and a part of the story.
Gord: I guess we are kind of handed a list, but it’s a malleable list, and the back and forth , without having to be painstakingly iterative all the time it’s been the best development.
CGM: What are some of your favourite song choices that you incorporated into the game?
Gord: The most exciting thing about working on it is, I’ve never had to write this much music— not even close for any game before. The soundtrack for Rogue Legacy was like…20 tracks or something? 20 short tracks, and this is going to be like ten times longer. The fact that we’re still getting songs and still finishing stuff and being like, “I really like this,” I think it’s really good that I’m not burning out on it yet. It’s really heartening!
Em: I don’t know if I can pick a favourite, I like a lot of them!
Greg: There’s that one that you did Em, I don’t know if it’s your favourite…Em wrote a song for banjo.
Em: Which was exciting because I don’t really do that.
Greg: Yeah, and I wrote some of the melodies for characters and stuff so all of us actually contributed to the music in some way. It feels like all of us are a part of the soundtrack too, and the game, which is cool. The game is mostly weird musical implementations, like, “Oh in this part, music does this! And in this part music does this,” so picking a favourite is…I don’t know, there are a lot!
CGM: So in the spirit of Wandersong, what’s your favourite song of all time?
Greg: Ever!? Like in music!?
CGM: Do you guys not have a favourite?
Gord: I have a few then, “Spiderwebs” by No Doubt has been coming back to me in a big way! “The Bay” by Metronomy is one I can never get sick of!
Em: The year, my favourite has been “Wait for the Moment” by VULFPECK, but I don’t know about all time.
Greg: Who’s your favourite band Em?
Em: Patrick Watson.
Greg: Yeah, actually in the credits of the game we have a list of music that inspired us, just like categorized by album. I had to narrow it down to 15 to fit it, and that was really hard. I could find my list of 15 albums but I don’t know. We listen to a lot of stuff!
Gord: One of my favourite songs last year was actually a song from a video game soundtrack by Gabriel.
Greg: Oh from the Jettomero soundtrack!
Gord: There’s a song called “The Feeling of Life,” which is probably one of my favourite songs of 2017!
Greg: Yeah I listen to a lot of game soundtracks as well. I really like how with game soundtracks, especially if you have an experience with the game, the soundtrack kind of takes you back to there. Like the same way hearing a familiar sound will take you back to that time; games have this world and like, memory experience so that when you hear the soundtrack you’re having this adventure again, and I really like that aspect of that!
Em: I really like listening to the Ori and the Blind Forest soundtrack when I’m snowboarding and it feels like I’m in that world.
CGM: Do you feel like you incorporated a little bit of that into Wandersong? Were you aiming to have a soundtrack that when you’re hearing it, even disconnected to the game, you’re still on that adventure?
Greg: It’s definitely something I want; I don’t know how you could do that very mindfully though. We do make a point that every area of the game has a very specific palette of sound and in the music as well. Like Act One vs. Act Two have a very different set of instruments and a really different set of sound effects. I think if you just listen to the spaces here and there the music you’d be able to identify, “Oh that’s Act One, oh that’s Act Two,” so I think that adds a lot to it too. And we have a lot of melodies and motifs that we come back to. So themes that recur but in forms and hidden in different places. So you always know this character is here because you hear this particular tune. I think the experience is woven into the music that way, very strongly.
CGM: What’s next for you guys?
Greg: I don’t know personally!
Gord: We’re always working on multiple projects with our company, so we’ve got a bunch of other things going on, but Wandersong is the biggest one right now.
Greg: Yeah, it feels close, but not that close I guess. I still have, (ugh) bugs for months. That’s all that’s on my mind.
Gord: But we’re well past the 50 per cent mark so…
Greg: Actually that’s not true! I want to make a game with pirates. I’ll say that!
Gord: We have a couple very simple game ideas we want to try out too so. So maybe step outside of the audio-only realm, because we have the power and our team-members have all the skills essentially.
Em: I’ve been thinking about writing something, a lot. I just have to start. Like a game…
Greg: Yeah, everyone on the team has a ton of interest…
Gord: And we try to make sure everyone can put their interests to use. Like Em’s a good artist and a good video editor so she’s been working on trailers.
Em: Yeah, it’s nice every once and a while.
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