A Charming Lot - Jonathan Methuen


This is part of a series of interviews with the team behind Critical Charm and those who helped us getting our game together. Here’s Jonathan Methuen, our Sound Designer and Composer!

So… Kingdom Hearts 3 is out and you’re not playing it, but you are learning all about the lore and the story. What compels you to watch rather than play a game?

Well, I probably wouldn’t be watching Kingdom Hearts if it wasn’t for a twitch streamer called Cohh Carnage. He played through the games or watched just the story parts to catch up with the franchise before the third mainline game was released. It’s fun to watch him enjoy and figure out the story and also figure it out myself. I think watching someone who’s entertaining play a game and also that person’s community being engaged in it adds a lot to the experience rather than watching just the game on its own. 

When I was a kid we used to play through games together with friends or cousins but nowadays nobody really has time to do that. To just play through and experience a whole game with someone. Watching somebody play on Twitch or YouTube or somewhere else can feel a little bit like that. It’s also an awesome feeling to get really immersed in a game’s world and story on your own but I almost never have time for that.

It’s convenient in terms of time usage to just watch a game I’m interested in. I can do other things like eat, work out or stretch at the same time. It’s a bit like watching a series or a movie. Time use is also the reason why I like to listen to music, podcasts or books on public transport or while doing other things. If it’s a story driven game and if that’s what I’m mainly interested in it for, like in Kingdom Hearts, I can skip to the story parts and also check out the boss fights and music. Also, I can’t afford to buy consoles to play the exclusive games on them. 

When I watch a PC game that seems to be really good I might want to experience it on my own and buy it. If it doesn’t cost too much and I think I could have time to play through it sometime. I also like to watch competitive games but they are a different thing. Watching esports is pretty similar to watching sports. I used to watch Starcraft II and League of Legends, but nowadays when I watch something it’s mostly FPS games and Super Smash Bros. when there’s big tournaments. I like the tension of the big events and over who’s going to win, the history and rivalries between the players and the excitement when an underdog defeats a dominant veteran. I like to see people be really good at and passionate about something and do things that require incredible skill and amount of practice.

How is your experience of watching or listening to a game's music different than when you play it?

When I’m playing a game I might be so immersed that I don’t analyze the music much at all. Maybe a little bit occasionally in the back of my mind. Contrary to listening to a soundtrack on its own when I either just enjoy the music or analyze it more closely. I like to listen through soundtracks because a good soundtrack can tell the game’s story in musical form. Just like an album can tell a story. 

Then there’s the experience of listening to a soundtrack in the background while doing something else. There’s a lot of music in games that’s perfect for that. Music that creates a great ambience and isn’t too distracting, which makes me feel better and everything I do feel more exciting. It also helps me concentrate and relax. 

I can also listen to other music or other soundtracks than the game’s I’m playing. For example we usually listen to other music with friends while playing Smash Bros. The series has a lot of awesome tracks but I’ve heard too much of most of them. It’s also a good time to use for listening to something new or to a random playlist on Spotify or YouTube and find something new. The experience of listening to a game’s music while watching someone play a game is also a little bit different. Then I’m also interested in how the person playing feels about the music.

Does that change how you compose a soundtrack for a game? Knowing that you and your friends play and listen to games in such a way and that presumably others do as well. I know I do it with games I've played a lot of. And does anything differ between composing for a game and a movie, knowing that the audience's attention may be different?

When I’m making music for a game or a movie I’m mostly making something that’s enhancing what’s happening or expressing underlying emotions of the story that might not be apparent on the screen. I always try to make the soundtrack as interesting as I can so that people might enjoy listening to it outside the context too. But the most important thing for both movie and game music is how it fits and that it doesn’t take the viewer’s or player’s attention too much at wrong times. At parts the music can be intended to be the main focus of attention too. 

Game music is mostly creating tracks that have a looping part. Movie scoring is more like making one long track that spans over the whole movie popping in and out with different themes and motifs. But game music can of course be movie-like too. When I’m creating looping tracks for a game I try to make them long and with enough variation so that they don’t get repetitive and boring too fast. But everything gets boring eventually when repeated for too long at a time. Having breaks from the music in a game helps with that, but it depends on what the game is like if it works.

So in a way game music is very much like game design with the emphasis on loops but the need for variation and change to keep it exciting. What makes for a good motif or theme to provide that variation? And when do you add it?

You can make theme music for all kinds of things. For example, characters, events, areas, situations and feelings can have their own themes, which can be used to reference them when it’s suitable for the story or situation. As how they were originally made, or as some motifs from them or different versions. Like a moment which evokes hope could be accompanied with a certain theme. 

A part of that theme can be then used later in the story to remind the player of that earlier event, and that there is hope. There’s cool things you can do with merging different themes together. Like if a hero of the story gets possessed by a villain, and you have to battle, there could play an intense version of the villain’s theme with parts of the hero’s theme in it. 

The hero’s motif could be twisted in some way. Maybe, if it was originally in a major key, it would play in minor instead. Different states in a game, like for example, victory, failure, danger and time is running out, can also have their own theme music. They bring variation, and can be used to indicate the player of what is happening. To bring in even more variation, one track can have many layers which play based on the situation.

That’s awesome. It offers so much potential and makes me really excited to hear what you create for A Giant Problem. And I know the players are too.