One of the reasons Inscryption sits with you so long after the credits roll is the superb music that thrums beneath it. The man behind this ocean of mind-bending tunes is Jonah Senzel, who began his career scoring the cult classic Pony Island. From there, he scored The Hex, a very odd game with multiple soundtracks nestled inside it. Now, he’s crafted the stunning score for Inscryption.
Fun fact: All three games are made by Daniel Mullins, which I think makes these two the David Lynch and Antonio Badalamenti of the game world.
Jonah has a whole other life outside making music for games like Inscryption — he’s also a media artist and a solo performer — but he cleared some time to talk with me about his influences, his process, and how to set a game as frightening as Inscryption to music.
PAUL: Inscryption is, to put it mildly, a hodge-podge of ideas. It’s a frighteningly ambitious and fractured landscape in which to immerse yourself. As a composer, how do you approach something this disparate? Do you drag in ideas upfront based on the premise, or do you let the game dictate the terms for you?
JONAH: Well the funny thing about Inscryption is, like, it’s actually coming off the back of The Hex, it’s less fragmented! ‘Cos that was basically six different soundtracks, and a seventh one for the overworld, and all of those had to have extremely different identities. So this time it’s like… oh! I only have to write three soundtracks? That’s awesome! That’s super easy! And they all really do have their own sound palate and identity, but overall, there’s a kind of consistent tone, this creepiness, an otherworldliness, and an old school flavour in several different styles.
And Dan, of course, just directs me, letting me know what he wants, but he also gives me the freedom to experiment; to take a track out on its own and do whatever I want with it. The other thing is that it happens over such a long period of time. When you play the game, it’s just… oh my god! Over however long it takes you to play, you’re seeing all this different stuff coming at you. But for me, it might be a whole year between hearing about one section of the game and another section. There really is plenty of time for me to stay and sit in one space, conceive it as its own thing, almost as if it’s its own game, do the soundtrack, then move on to the next.
PAUL: So does composing this way, for a game like this, blow the reveals, ruin the flow that a player might experience? Or is there a different type of magic you experience from the other side of the curtain that we don’t get on our end?
JONAH: I guess it kind of blows them in a way, because I’ll get a “business” email – our emails aren’t very business-like – and it’ll have the spoiler for some huge, vital section, in the body of the email, as a gif. And “Hey, hi. Can you score this?” But given the nature of the game, I still found it a lot of fun to play.
I remember when I was doing one of the test playthroughs, pretty late in the development cycle. You know, how’s the game at the end, is it going to be successful? Do we like how it is? And I sat down, started it up, and literally missed plans that night because I was having so much fun playing it. And I was like, oh! That’s a good sign. I had to cheat a bit, to get through… cos I have to check every single sound in the game, and the music. To make sure everything’s working, in a pretty short amount of time, so I cheated through a bunch of sections, and that made me kind of sad… and also like I was maybe really good at it? Even though I was using very, very explicit cheats!
PAUL: Jonah, when you write music for chiptunes, are you sitting there hearing the chiptune track in your head? Or are you hearing a fully orchestrated piece and boiling it down, rendering it down into its simplest form? From which direction do you approach the music here? JONAH: Oh, it’s definitely the first one, for me, at least. To me, there’s kind of two distinct things involved in writing music, which is the melody, the chords, the musical language and structural stuff, of a track. And then there’s what texture are we using that with? Is it gonna be an orchestra, is it gonna be chiptunes? Acoustic instruments? So when it’s chiptune, that basically means for me it’s going to be simpler, and you really then do get to focus in on some of the more fun elements, like, OK, now the harmony can be more p[ronounced. Now, the melody can be more pronounced. Chiptune to me lets you really show, like, this is how I write music.
But there are lots of tracks in Inscryption which are on the other side of that; all texture, all vibe, all sounds and weirdness, and there’s not that much harmony, and I love that, too. But chiptunes is this: you lay down the harmony, you lay down the bass, you lay down the melody, and that’s kind of how you conceive it in that chiptune world. I mean, real chiptune artists use hardware limitations, which makes it a different ballgame. They’ll actually use only four channels, just like an NES, or SNS will have a specific size of samples that it can take in. These really specific hardware limitations that they’ll stick to and work inside, which kind of brings its own identity to writing that music.
PAUL: And that’s kind of what this game is like, right? Having limitations put on you; the gating of experiences. You’re trapped in a room, forced to progress at a snail’s pace. As a composer, were there any walls up, any limitations? Or are there dangers in working with someone you’ve worked with already in that they might start saying yes to everything, stripping away those limitations?
JONAH: I think me and Dan have a very… wait. I think he likes being called Daniel, and I call him Dan! (Laughs) I can never tell. We have a very good working relationship, in that on both ends of what things need to be… on the one hand. He’ll let me run free. Usually, there’s some kind of reference track from him, and I’m always adding some crazy section, and he likes that. I like that. It keeps it really fun for both of us. And sometimes, he’ll ask me to write something really small, like a tiny little theme for a tiny little area, and he’ll figure out the area later, once he’s heard the music. That helps him decide what it is.
PAUL: So you can write a piece that will influence the development on his side?
JONAH: Oh, occasionally? There’ll be this tiny little area of the game, and he’ll let that influence him, kind of. There’s this track — not a throwaway track, not a particularly large set-piece track either, called the scribe of magics. I think. Might need to google that, to make sure I know the name of my own track. And this was like one of the boss fight tracks, and it just has this little melody that goes round, and there’s a little guy who actually dances around to it in the game. And that was put in there after the fact because Dan really liked that track! Also, the fan’s really like that track for some reason. Every time I get a message about the music, it’s always that track, specifically.
PAUL: I gotta say, I love that track too! Maybe because there’s literally someone on-screen really digging the music, which is kind of meta?
JONAH: Right! And musically, it’s also kind of strange — I did this very theory-ish thing where the melody doesn’t start or end at specific points, it, like, loops on an uneven cycle. And I thought, OK. It sounds cool, but I really hope people aren’t gonna be weirded out by this. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be a particularly popular track.
PAUL: But all my favourite things are weird, and like this, asymmetrical, right? Music, game design, people’s faces… I want things off-kilter! But what about musical influences? Where’d you draw from?
JONAH: It’s interesting! When you’re writing your own music, it’s much easier to see the influences and where they’re from. When you’re writing for a project, the influences are the project. Primarily, I mean. And then, also, I’ll get reference tracks for things, but for some people, in some industries, reference tracks are a really oppressively strict thing where it’s, like, we can’t get the copywriting for this so it’s got to sound exactly like that. Luckily for me, reference tracks are more, hi. Something in this quadrant of the musical universe would be good. For 8 bit stuff, and Inscryption, Pokemon is a big influence, actually. I got sent the Lavender Town theme at one point; it’s unsettling and weird, but there’s something kind of satisfying and cosy about it, even though it’s… it’s not horror, but there’s an odd, melancholy creepiness.
JONAH (cont’d): And in the first parts of Inscryption, there are two thirteen minute-ish songs in the soundtrack which play as you go through the main card bits that are really long. They go over and over, so you don’t get stuck listening. And it just so happened that I’d gotten really into Brian Eno over the last couple of years, and some minimalist music… there’s not much influence there directly, but I think the thing about creating a soundscape that’s sort of listened to horizontally, rather than vertically, as they say… I took influence from that. Very minimal, very stretched out, and has a bit of movement, but is there for the mood, the vibe, the aura.
PAUL: Is there anything about the score that you’re particularly stoked about?
JONAH: Well the main guitar, on the first track. I’m curious as to how much of this is out in the open. I’m not sure how clear this lore is, but everything was originally set in Canada, which is kind of hard to sometimes distinguish – the fur trading Canada vibe and the American fur trading vibe are kind of similar, right? But I had looked up this, like, kind of pioneer folk scale for tuning, to tune my guitar to, so that I could write that first theme. So that it would make sense in-world.
Oh! And here’s something I have to tell you. In the part three-track, the really long part three-track, there’s an opening, an end, and a middle section. And the middle section… I wrote a mock Bach intervention, which is like a Bach piano piece – poorly, I might add – but I wrote that in real-time, this little minute-long piano piece, that sounds a bit like Bach. And then, that got stretched out over fourteen minutes! And processed, to create the harmonic content of classic music, but in this super weird palate of strange, stretched sounds. So I actually wrote and rendered out that little theme that nobody has heard, but it’s in there!