One of the best things about Ikenfell is its soundtrack, which might sound familiar. That’s because aivi & surasshu, musicians people might recognize from Steven Universe, were involved with its creation. Siliconera had an opportunity to send over some questions to one half of the duo, Aivi Tran, to talk about making music not only for Ikenfell, but for games and shows in general.
Jenni Lada, Siliconera: What led to you working on the Ikenfell soundtrack? What were some of your greatest influences and inspirations during the process?
Aivi Tran, aivi & surasshu: Chevy Ray approached me and surasshu because of our work on Steven Universe. I loved the cast of characters, but what hooked me most was how Ikenfell’s story is about relationships! The game had a feminine energy that resonated strongly with me.
surasshu and I drew musical inspiration from The Legend of Zelda series, Ace Attorney, Canadian folk music (since the early areas in Ikenfell are inspired by Canada’s natural landscape), and our experience with composing music for Steven Universe.
Ikenfell is among your first video game soundtracks, with others including Kickstarter games like Soul Saga. How does composing for a game differ compared to a show like Steven Universe?
Aivi: I think of composing for animation as scoring time, whereas in video games, I’m scoring space. In animation, every action is predictable. I know when each character is going to speak or do something, and my job is to align my music with those moments in time.
In a video game, I’m not specifically thinking of when something will happen, but rather where the player is. My job is to help immerse people into the game’s world, so the music tends to be based on environments and locations. Sometimes I design the music to dynamically respond to what players are doing. In that sense, I think game music requires a bit of “engineering” and I find that really fun!
You’ve worked on soundtracks for three video games where the roots began with Kickstarters–Ikenfell, Cryamore, and Soul Saga. Are there any particular challenges that come from being involved with crowdfunded projects?
Aivi: I think one of the biggest challenges that crowdfunded projects face is a lack of money and resources. We often don’t have dedicated people for each job, so team members often end up wearing multiple hats.
For example, on Ikenfell, I also worked as a sensitivity editor in addition to being a composer. My partner, surasshu, often helps playtest and find bugs in projects that he composes for, and he sometimes does sound design work in addition to music.
Ikenfell is a game with a lot of different themes, and its tone can often shift from a lighthearted moment to something more serious. How did this influence your compositions?
Aivi: We had to write a lot of songs to keep up with all of the mood shifts in the game! Ikenfell is a story-focused game with tons of character acting, and we quickly found that placing one song per cutscene wouldn’t cut it. We borrowed from our experience working on Steven Universe and created many “mood themes”–songs that capture specific emotions–and wrote a detailed musical script for Chevy Ray to follow.
Our script would say things like, “When Maritte says this, play the ‘determined’ theme. After the player presses X to confirm the dialog, slowly fade the music to silence. When Ima mentions the Heart Prism, play the ‘spiritual’ theme,” and so on!
One of the first voiced songs in Ikenfell is Gilda’s “It’s Showtime!” which comes up during her initial boss battle. What led to Gilda getting that honor?
Aivi: Gilda has such a big personality! Before you duel her for the first time, she shoots lightning into the air and yells, “IT’S SHOWTIME!” with sparkling eyes. Her new powers are a surprise to everyone, so we wanted to surprise everyone with a musical number, too!
Even though she exudes confidence, Gilda is a complicated character with many insecurities. A lyrical song seemed like the perfect place to explore Gilda’s feelings of jealousy and admiration for her rivals. We collaborated with Renko to write Gilda’s theme–Renko and surasshu used to be in a Touhou band together called Orange Jam, so we knew that she’d be a perfect fit! surasshu composed the music, Renko wrote the lyrics and sang, and I helped supervise production and played a jazzy piano solo.
Which song (or songs) do you feel the most emotionally connected to from this album?
Aivi: I felt very connected to “Memories in the Mist” when I was composing it. I’m a big fan of JRPG forest themes, and I’m kind of a melancholic person, so that song came naturally to me.
I’m also very attached to “Once Upon A Universe.” I think that song reflects a lot of my determination for a better world. The song intentionally shares the same motifs as “Paint the Future – Ima’s Theme” because I wanted to create an uplifting, magnificent build-up to the moment you meet Ima for the first time.
Ima is one of our non-binary characters of color. The world often tells queer people and people of color that we don’t belong. I want everyone who identifies that way to know that they’re so beautiful and deserve all the happiness in the universe. I felt passionate about making all of Ima’s music relentlessly beautiful, in order to send that message out.
How do you decide which projects you work on? Since you’ve worked on a TV show, games, and even Google Doodles like the one for the 2018 Halloween Great Ghost Duel, what sort of challenge would you like to undertake next?
Aivi: I like working on projects that I feel artistically and morally aligned with, especially if they‘re empathetic, thoughtful, or unique in some way. I refuse to work on projects that are too graphic or violent, and I really enjoy working with other marginalized creators! Even though game music is my biggest passion, it’s more important to me to compose music that represents my personal style and principles, no matter what kind of project I’m working on.
That being said, with both Steven Universe and Ikenfell wrapping up this year, I think it’s time for me to take a break. I want to spend some time with surasshu, maybe work on personal albums together, and just focus on my personal life a bit. I guess my next challenge will be to catch up on sleep!
Ikenfell is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. The Ikenfell soundtrack is available to hear for free on Spotify. aivi & surasshu’s discography and work can be found on Bandcamp and SoundCloud.