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October 26th, 2012

Music that inspired TAGAP

Here comes the promised monster update on music that inspired TAGAP titles. But first...

What am I working on right now?

The obligatory update before we head into our main programming; A lot has happened in TAGAP 3 land since the last update. Actually, we're about few inches from completing, gameplay-wise, our vertical slice! In video game development this practically means we have one super-tight segment of the game polished up and nearly complete – and ready for heavy gameplay testing and balancing.

With TAGAPs 1 and 2 we actually didn't do vertical slices. Instead I kept coding and constructing content at the same time. This resulted in loads of content early on – enough to release pretty extensive trailers after only 1.5 years of development – but it also meant every time I made a significant change I had to go through the existing levels again to ensure they still worked. Good example in TAGAP 2 was the double-jump; It wasn't fully implemented until mid 2009 and by then half of the levels were already done. So I had to go back and restructure some of them in order to prevent them from breaking. With super-high-detailed TAGAP 3 we really can't afford to do that, there's just too much data to re-structure if we need to redesign something.

So, this whole vertical slice thing is an exciting new take on game development, and a more professional way of doing things. I'm sure there's plenty of stuff that won't work right out the gate, especially when it comes to weapon and enemy balance, but that's what this vertical slice is for; So that we would notice most of this now, and not two years from now.

Music that inspired TAGAP

Welcome to Music that Inspired TAGAP aka TAGAP concept album. I am auditive person with a wide music taste and thus music has inspired me in development of TAGAP almost as much as the gaming classics of the old. I've always tried to be open about my influences – credit should go where the credit is due – and since I was asked about this in the recent Q&A session, I think it's about time I compiled my musical influences into one comprehensive article.

A word of warning, though; You're about to witness the diversity of the musical tastes of both me and Petja, so if you're expecting to be find just video game rock, you're in for surprise. This ride will take you from the darkest depths of dance tracks to mind-bending realms of progressive rock, while visiting many places in the between!

Disclaimer:

This is a list of songs that inspired me, Jouni Lahtinen, when creating the franchise The Apocalyptic Game About Penguins. None of the songs were used in any distributable form of TAGAP and have never been publicly associated with the project beyond the scope of this blog post.

None of the artists mentioned here have/had nothing to do with TAGAP, TAGAP 2 or TAGAP 3. Also, none of the artists promote or endorse us or TAGAP. If you happen to represent of the artists and wish to be removed from this list, just let us know.

The Beginning: The Original TAGAP

Rob Zombie - Girl on Fire (album: Past, Present & Future)

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The first song ever to inspire TAGAP did so even before the entire project had even started! The game I was conceptualising at the time already had the title, but was far from locked down content-wise. In fact, all I knew at that point was that it would be a 2D action game involving penguins. But the moment this song started in my CD player, I had what you could almost call a vision; I saw the logo for the game, a huge, stylised, green T, splashing to the screen from nothingness – accompanied by green sparks of plasma.

If that sounds familiar, it really should; That's the title screen of TAGAP! Before Petja joined the project in early 2004, this song was briefly used as a temp track for the sequence while I was trying the get the sound systems to work as intended. Again, no-one besides me and Petja ever saw this experiment, so hopefully no hard feelings here, Mr. Zombie.

Don Davis / Junkie XL - Blue Pill, Red Pill (album: The Animatrix: The Album)

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I've been asked several times do the slow-motion-inducing pills have something to do with The Matrix. The answer is 'yes' and 'no'.

When TAGAP was starting to shape up - at the moment I already had fully designed Pablo running around with an Uzi - I had just relocated from the capitol Helsinki back to the town I left from. All I had with me, for months, were my laptop, my Xbox (sans TV to plug it into), my CD player and a couple of new-ish CDs. One day I was banging my head against the proverbial wall trying to figure out what would be Pablo's 'thing'; Mario had coins, Sonic had rings, Belmont has hearts... but what would Pablo collect? Fish? Nah, too obvious. Ice cubes? No, that's not it.

And then the CD changer shuffled to the soundtrack of The Animatrix, track 11. 'Take the Red Pill, take the blue pill, take the red pill...'. I smirked; Pills. But the smirk faded as fast as it formed – it made sense! And while the colour I went with was the one in RGB that wasn't featured in the song, the very gameplay of TAGAP was still partly defined by a down-and-dirty dance track remixing some movie dialogue. Who would've thought?

Bjørn Lynne - Worm Shack (album: Worms 2 soundtrack)

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When Petja joined me on TAGAP ride, he asked for samples of music I thought could work as the soundtrack. And I dropped about a dozen CDs on his lap, mainly soundtracks, from composers like Eric Serra (Nikita soundtrack), Clint Mansell (DOOM movie score), Bobby Prince (DOOM games) and Chris Hülsbeck (Turrican). But the one Petja picked as his main line of experimentation was, not-so-surprisingly, soundtrack of Worms 2 by Bjørn Lynne. Granted, Petja's take fast evolved into something unique, but there's still this recognizable scent of whimsical cartoon carnage beneath it all.

By the way, Mr. Lynne has lately become invaluable for our development, being the founder of an excellent sound effect site 1SoundFx.com, one of the main sources we use for commercial sound effects. Many thanks to Norway!

Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Karn Evil 9 (album: Brain Salad Surgery)

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Ever wondered why on Earth all of TAGAP is dominated by Hammond organ? Well, simple answer is that's because I love the sound of it and kept requesting Petja to use it until he gave in. But how that came to be is is pretty funny story in itself.

One day, aeons ago, I decided to check the progressive music section of our local library – back then I was just starting to discover progressive stuff – and came across this album, 'ELP – Brain Salad Surgery'. Now, what made me pick it up was the cover; I said to myself 'if this isn't designed by my biggest artistic idol, H.R. Giger, I'm bloody Elvis Presley'. I flipped the album around and yep, 'artwork by H.R. Giger'. I decided to give it a spin as if it was interesting enough music for Mr. Giger take up the commission, surely it's worth a listen. And the rest is history; I became the second biggest fan of Hammond music, right after Rimmer of Red Dwarf.

So, next time you're listening to TAGAP soundtrack and spot Hammonds, don't blame Petja, don't blame me, don't even blame Keith Emerson; Blame H.R. Giger.

Chris Hülsbeck - Turrican (album: Turrican soundtrack)

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One of the most obvious continuous inspirations from the beginning, gameplay-wise, was naturally Amiga-era classic Turrican and it's marvellous soundtrack composed by the one-and-only Chris Hülsbeck. Seriously, when someone says 'video game music', my brain automatically thinks – not Super Mario or Zelda – but Turrican. There's something in the drive of all these songs that screams 'good-time action gaming' and it's not all nostalgia talking. Not-so-surprisingly then when came the time to design one of the penultimate action sequences for the game, I set Turrican soundtrack CD on repeat and started conceptualising. The end result was the level 'Mass Onslaught', the final segment of TAGAP's first half.

Keith Emerson - Mater Tenebrarum (album: Inferno original soundtrack)

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Again headbanging the wall, this time I was trying to figure out what the final boss fight would be about. What I had in mind, originally, was to just have a straight-on duel between Pablo and Pedro. However, after all the crazy boss fights prior to it, it seemed to lack the proper 'oomph'. I still wanted to have the duel there, but I was adamant we needed something to spice it up.

After some time messing around with designs, I retired to listen to some music, headphones on and eyes closed, as usual. This time it was Keith Emerson at the Movies box set, featuring complete movie works of the prolific progressive musician. Mater Tenebrarum, score for Dario Argento's Inferno, struck so hard my brains immediately painted a picture of a huge robot penguin with fiery-red eyes, stomping about in an apocalyptic climax.

As a side note, the song used in the said fight was NOT composed with Mater Tenebrarum in mind; The track was something Petja had already composed, yet at the time he rejected it. When I played Mater Tenebrarum to Petja, instead of starting from scratch he went back and re-arranged that song into something that almost sounds like a homage. And why not, this isn't the first or the last Keith Emerson song on this list!

Story continues: TAGAP 2

Billy Idol - Shangrila (album: Cyberpunk)

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The jungle level of TAGAP 2 is an excellent example how stuff that inspired the level itself may have had little to do with the final in-game soundtrack. While Petja knew from the start he wanted to create a percussion-only jungle-rhythm to drive the level, my inspiration came from Shangrila by Billy Idol. There's something in the atmosphere of that song that paints a picture of misty, hot and lushly green tropic in the middle of nowhere, a picture so strong the visual elements pretty much designed themselves. Funnily enough, Shangrila is perhaps the only song on Cyberpunk that wouldn't fit on TAGAP 2 soundtrack if it were instrumental.

Mike Post - Theme from Magnum, P.I.

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Earliest direct influence for TAGAP 2 Petja picked up was Magnum, P.I. theme song – which naturally inspired the track 'Hawaii Mustache'. Since we knew the level would feature a segment with Pablo riding across the ocean shores on a boat, we thought it would be fun to have some 80s Miami Vice alike flavour to the soundtrack. However, Jan Hammer's style, as great as it is, just doesn't mesh well with that of TAGAP. But then I got the idea to pick up Magnum, P.I. from YouTube – series Petja knew of but hadn't seen – and that theme song really hit home.

Metallica - Frantic (album: St. Anger)

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When we decided to roll with the mutating Rockhopper Elites as bosses, I felt that the music should reflect this change; The mutant version should be ten times heavier, twice as rough and intentionally dirty. And there really aren't many examples that demonstrated all of this better than the entirety of Metallica's St. Anger album. At first Petja wasn't so sure about whether that would be fitting or not, but after I quickly assembled a demo of the first boss with the music switching to 'Frantic' when the first Henchman mutates, Petja agreed it was effective. Again, this demo was seen just by the two of us, so I hope this is OK to Lars, James & Co.

Moloko - Mother (album: Things to Make and Do)

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Again a good example of how different the initial inspiration can be from the final soundtrack, the psych ward section of the hospital was, too, inspired greatly by music. Whereas Petja drew his inspiration from Akira Yamaoka's Silent Hill scores, the level itself was drafted up with now-defunct British group Moloko's 'Mother' picking my brain. The song struck some nerve kept poking it until I had drafted up so many ideas that what was originally planned to be a sub-section of the hospital transformed into a full level.

Moloko, in general, has been very inspirational music for TAGAP design sessions – and not just for the level in question. I just can't resist the quirky rhythms combined with Roisin Murphy's brilliantly shifty singing of the clever lyrics.

Steve Vai - Voodoo Acid (album: The Ultra Zone)

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The most dramatic impact that any non-TAGAP-song had on TAGAP 2 was definitely Voodoo Acid by Steve Vai. Originally Primo's main goal was to capture the REP weather satellite and use it to cause a new Ice Age as a revenge to all mankind. However, when I was just about to start building the said level, set in the ruined and frozen city, I bought a box set of Steve Vai albums. Perfect instrumental inspiration, I thought when I bought them, but far more so than I expected.

When the Voodo Acid blasted through the headphones, I was struck by one of those 'borderline visions'; Seriously, the combination of trippy music, Vai's brilliant solos and spot-on-lyrics worked as inspiration stimulant so strong I decided there and then I would never EVER need to try any drugs for this.

Anyhow, TAGAP being on my mind, it fused with this vision and I immediately jumped up and started drafting and rewriting. The result? An entire level based on TAGAP hallucinations and funky penguins! Actually, the only thing that remains from the original design is the broken highway section Pablo traverses with the motorcycle.

This is also the only time in history of all TAGAP I made an ultimatum to Petja about using a particular song as an inspiration. In all other cases I just played him a song that inspired me and gave him free hands to be or not-to-be influenced by it, but here I was adamant.

Things to come: TAGAP 3

White Noise - Love Without Sound (album: Electric Storm)

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As I've stated before, TAGAP 3 wasn't our primary choice for our next project, but since our first choice was clearly too colossal for our two-man-team, we moved on to conclude our TAGAP saga with a bang. During the design sessions for this 'skipped' project I dug up plenty of classic sci-fi themed music – and one thing leading to another, I came across band called White Noise.

White Noise was a loose collective of musicians and audio engineers and it featured such greats like the original queen of electronic music Delia Derbyshire. I've honestly never heard anything as otherwordly and out-of-time as Electric Storm, an electronic music album that sounds like an alternative music experiment from the 90s, yet it was actually produced three decades earlier.

Even though the projects changed, influence of White Noise remained; Building a world inhabited by space penguins of Pluto does require an otherwordly influence, doesn't it? I'm pretty sure you won't hear stuff like this on the soundtrack, but then again, you don't hear anything like this anywhere else.

Bear McCreary - All Along The Watchtower (album: Battlestar Galactica Season 3)

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The Season 4 score-version of this theme was the first song to directly influence TAGAP 3, as it helped me to visualize in my head what kind of intro cinematic I would be creating for it. In fact, the idea of the Funky Penguins using weaponized Pluto as means-of-travel instead of a militarized asteroid or a space-ship materialized from these pre-vis sessions. In terms of genre the song is aeons from what TAGAP 3 will be, but the brilliantly contrasting musical styles represent what TAGAPs have always sounded like as a whole.

By the way, there is a reason why I didn't post the actual influence; That score version can only be considered as a battlestar-sized spoiler in case you haven't seen the entire show. And it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime drama moments I definitely don't want to spoil.

Keith Emerson - Sonny's Skate State (album: Harmagedon soundtrack)

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Now, I won't go into too much detail on what scene this song actually inspired (that would be spoilers), but when I cave it a test run with this song playing in the background, I almost rolled over from laughter. It's too good a match! In the final game the said scene will have a different kind of score – the scene is in a middle of a level – but Petja did agree that the wibe of this song has to be found on the soundtrack somewhere.

Phew, what a monster-of-an-update! Next time we'll be back to our regular shorter and more frequent programming.

Until next time,

Jouni Lahtinen, the head penguin