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Breath of the Wild composers on changing up Zelda’s music formula and much more

Posted on January 5, 2019 by (@NE_Brian) in News, Switch, Wii U

Last year, Zelda: Breath of the Wild received a soundtrack release in Japan. It was packed with a few goodies, including a booklet containing a special interview. Sound designer Hajime Wakai along with composers Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, and Soshi Abe had plenty to say about the game’s music.

You can find our full translation of the discussion below. The four team members commented on why it was decided to mix up the usual Zelda music formula and how the direction was ultimately settled upon, creating specific character themes, bringing back classic themes in a new way, and much more.

Why did you decide to change the usual Zelda music formula?

Wakai: For a year I tried different types of music to go along with the battles and tried to include ways for the sound to interact with the gameplay itself. As an example let’s take the main piano theme. In the other Zelda games there have been other instruments, such as harps and ocarinas becoming key items during the game, so the main instruments I initially thought of were portable. It might be a little crazy but I also thought of a Dulcimer… (Laughs). But the idea with changing the usual Zelda score was to express this feeling of a large, open-world. So, I thought: isn’t it OK to use a large instrument that isn’t necessarily portable? In the end I decided on a piano, which hasn’t been used much in the series to date. But even though I thought there were lots of things about the piano that made it ideal, I was still anxious over some points, and I remember composing while worrying whether or not it would work at all.

Iwata: We showed the first trailer at the 2014 E3 game show, but at that point you were still composing on your own, weren’t you?

Wakai: Yeah. I thought to myself: ‘once the piano music is featured on the E3 trailer, there’s no turning back!’ (Laughs) That was the time I finally made up my mind.

Kataoka: It’s listed on the CD as ‘E3 2014 Trailer BGM’ so please give it a listen!

Wakai: Because it isn’t even in the final game I was in two minds about including it. But because I feel like it acts as a prototype to the finished score, I put it in there to show the process towards the final product. After that trailer came out, Iwata and Kataoka came into the team, and because they were so good at piano, I thought: ‘OK then, let’s do this!’

(All laugh)

Kataoka: After I joined the team, the first thing I did was try playing the game, but it was still a little un-moderated and I very quickly got a game over. Because of that, I had the impression of it being really difficult. And because Wakai had the idea of not having any music in the world itself, I was left thinking this was a kind of stoic, hardcore survival game. (Laughs) And while there are people who enjoy nature through camping and challenging hikes, there are also people who enjoy glamping and these lighter experiences, so I talked with Wakai about how we could add a fresher, more welcoming feeling to the world. So we continued preliminary work with the intention of adding depth to the different phases of day, between daytime and night.

Wakai: There was a logic behind having no music in the open world. In the trial and error process I even tried having the music from Twilight Princess playing in the world. But because this game is open on a much grander scale than previous games, I thought that even if we had a piece of music in there, it wouldn’t be able to match that sense of inspiration the player already finds in that world. When a composer makes a piece of music he has a plan and idea of how he wants to player to feel, but if this insistence is too strong it can have an effect on the actual game. We would end up forcing a feeling of intensity onto players. The music would be all stirring and dramatic, but then the player would think: ‘hold on a minute, all I did was throw away a mushroom…’

(All laugh)

Kataoka: I agree with Wakai that the music could have pushed a certain way of feeling onto the players, and I think that sticking with a BGM that allows them to hear the environmental noise and footsteps can really have a beneficial influence on their awareness of the world around them. For a real-world example, someone might go for a walk outside while listening to music on their headphones, but even though they are outside their enjoyment is very much interior, as if they are in their own little world. Of course, that type of thing is still fun, but in this game we wanted players to hear the distance cry of a beast or the burbling of a river, so we sacrificed some of the music so that the player could really experience the environment and get that sense of exploration and adventure.

Wakai: We ended up deciding we would express the game with just with the environmental noise and the scenery, because we thought this would be better. We stopped using the phrase ‘World BGM’ and replaced it with ‘Environmental BGM’. It wasn’t just environmental noise and it wasn’t just BGM, but the environmental noise becoming the BGM.

Iwata: Exactly how much BGM we really wanted to use was a major theme for us right from the start of development. Because of that we originally had the idea of not only forgoing the World Music, but of cutting BGM in towns too.

Wakai: That’s right. We were thinking of having something play briefly when a player enters a town, but not any sort of tune playing on a loop. In the end we decided on having music in towns, but even this concession was still a little too painful for Iwata. (Laughs)

Iwata: Yeah. (Laughs) I thought the variation of music from World to Town was too subtle, so by preparing other music to connect these areas I wanted to create something to enhance those subtle variations. In order to add density to that world BGM, we added the change in sound when approaching temples, to try and change the atmosphere.

Wakai: That’s why I think the way we created the sound for the game is very similar to the way the game itself was made. This huge game world is made with these areas of sparsity and density, and so we tried to replicate that variation of dense and thin.

Iwate: Wakai, Kataoka and I walked around Hyrule for something like a month just trying things out. There was no point having the music if you couldn’t hear it anywhere, so we tested how far you had to be from a temple before the music changed, and how loud that music would be. We tried to hit the right balance. We spent a long time wondering from one end of the map to the other tweaking parts of the sound.

Abe: But… I wanted to do that too…

(All laugh)

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