Something Old, Something New: The Musical Influences of Monument Valley 2
With today’s release of the Monument Valley 2 soundtrack (available via iTunes, Spotify, Google Play and an extra-juicy vinyl edition), Todd Baker, the game’s sound and music creator, discusses his personal influences and approach to channeling these while working on the game.
Originality and novelty are placed on high pedestals in today’s creative world. It’s cool to be unique, and everyone is keen to experience or create something new. As a result, it’s often seen as a criticism to note that something has drawn heavily from, or copied, something else. The reality is that all of our creations exist in the grey area in between the two. Can a piece of music or work of art ever be entirely original? And is there really a clear line between being heavily influenced by something, and simply copying it?
With the distinction being difficult to make, artists may be inclined to hide the extent to which other influences shape their work; this certainly helps to maintain a feeling of magic and intrigue around the creative process. It’s romantic to believe that — in moments of pure creativity — ideas ‘just come to us’, and maybe there’s a degree to which this is true. But every piece of music, art, or storytelling is essentially cooked up in the melting pot of the artist’s various influences and inspirations, both consciously and subconsciously.
“Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it”
- Laurence J. Peter
When I started to imagine how the world of Monument Valley 2 might sound, my aspiration was to make sure the game had a unique and original musical identity. Maybe I’ve succeeded in terms of realising a combination of ideas — and I’d like to think that some of the music does contain a lot of ‘me’. But my own melting pot of influences has of course played its part — sometimes subtly, and in places, obviously.
I enjoy hearing people demystify their creative process, and as someone who is keen to keep learning, there is a satisfying clarity that comes from stripping away any pretence and seeing how ideas come together. So with all this in mind, I’d love to share a few tracks from the Monument Valley 2 soundtrack, alongside the music that shaped and inspired them.
‘Interwoven Stories’ & Steve Reich
As well as forming the basis for the menu music, this track is echoed at several key moments throughout the game, before eventually swelling into its full form over the final credits. I actually wrote it early on during the game’s development, at a point when the story and concept were only just beginning to take shape. It seemed to inspire the team and capture something that fitted the soul of the project, so I’m glad it found a home in the final game.
I wanted to conjure the emotion of something deep and exciting, and evoke the feeling that everything is connected. Cue Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’:
I’d been looking for an opportunity to get some kind of Steve Reich-esque minimalism into a project for years. The cyclic, hypnotic and ever-evolving beauty of his music conjures up such depth and epic-ness. When I’ve introduced Music for 18 Musicians to people, they’re often surprised that it was composed in the 1970s; there’s definitely a timeless, other-worldly quality to it.
Often an idea for a track starts as a kind of imaginary remix: ‘What if I captured the feel of track A, but use the instrumentation from track B?” or “Could I capture the feel of track C using acoustic guitar?”. In this case, I imagined capturing the essence of this Reich sound — particularly in terms of instrumentation and the style of harmony — but combining it with more modern production elements. I also moved away from his purer take on minimalism, using a more typical chord progression, as well as adding clearer melodies, and structuring things for a shorter, contemporary-feeling arrangement.
‘Impossible Worlds’ & various Warp Artists
‘Impossible Worlds’ was by far the most difficult piece of music to perfect for the game — and it took five iterations before I felt happy with the result. The team could have licensed almost any existing piece of music, so I was faced with the daunting challenge of offering something more in the form of a bespoke track.
As the first full track released to the public (as part of the official release trailer), it was great to see how positively Monument Valley fans responded. Interestingly, many people assumed it had been licensed, and started trying to figure out who could be behind it. Multiple people suggested Tycho, who I’m familiar with — but who didn’t factor into my influences on this piece.
There are many other influences going on here, though, and I feel the most relevant stem from a few banner artists from the notable Warp Records.
There is a particular brand of warm, analogue-infused electronic music that I’ve always felt grew from the sound of Boards of Canada. I remember being introduced to Music Has the Right to Children at university. I wouldn’t claim to be their biggest fan or listener, but their sound is full of unique ingredients that have undoubtedly had an impact on a generation of music makers, myself (and yes, probably Tycho) included.
Another Warp artist: Bibio (a favourite of mine and another Boards of Canada disciple) definitely played a big part in influencing not just this track, but throughout Monument Valley 2. Bibio, Boards of Canada and Tycho all root their music in a nostalgic, organic sound palette that contrasts with and softens the electronic production style, and this was something I strived to replicate in my overall approach to sonic textures and production styles in the game.
But probably the most direct inspiration point here was a specific track from the granddaddy of contemporary electronica — Aphex Twin. Here’s the track from 1996:
I lack the objectivity to know how obvious the reference may be here — but the memory of that pulsing synth intro was definitely the starting point for what eventually became ‘Impossible Worlds’. ‘Yellow Calx’ quickly goes to a different place emotionally and sonically, but there was something into that intro that stayed with me — and eventually found a way into the track.
‘Lessons & Learnings’ & Erik Satie
‘Lessons & Learnings’ is essentially a one-take guitar improvisation that came together in a matter of minutes (the ambient pad and flute phrases being added later). With the rollercoaster of independent game development sometimes requiring music to magically appear at very short notice, there are pressured bursts of creativity which can be fruitful — albeit a little traumatic!
Not really having a chance to consider anything beyond “I think some spacious solo guitar might be nice here”, this is an example of where my unconscious influences came into play. I improvised this simple chord sequence on a nylon string guitar. It wasn’t until the following day that I noticed this rather obvious reference:
This very recognisable piano piece from 1888 has been used heavily in film and media. Unsurprisingly, when it’s often considered to be one of the most beautifully tranquil examples of solo piano music. The key element in this track, for me, is the spacious and gentle pacing, encouraging you to pause and ponder for a moment, something which perfectly suits the moment in the game where the child is gently and patiently being taught her first lessons.
Inspiration as Currency
Listening now to the Monument Valley 2 soundtrack, there are also many tracks that I’d struggle to link directly to a particular inspiration or reference. We absorb so many of our influences without realising, that it’s impossible to recognise the importance they have in shaping our own creative expression.
But these influences form just part of the complex process required in shaping a game’s audio. My real focus is on connecting to what is happening in terms of meaning and emotion — and asking the bigger question of what the audio (and the way the player interacts with it) adds to the game experience as a whole. In the case of Monument Valley 2, this meant immersing the player in a beautiful, impossible world, and telling the story of a mother and child.
Whatever your creative ambitions, I think it’s healthy to ask yourself the difficult question, “why do you do what you do?” For me, there’s no easy answer, but I’m always drawn back to the inspirations that continue to shape my work. I see these as a kind of currency in creativity, something that constantly flows from person to person. So much music, so many films, stories, images, places and people can inspire us throughout our lives — and can be a source of much joy, wisdom or reflection. If we are able to combine some of these influences into our own creations, adding part of ourselves in the process, perhaps this in turn will inspire others on their own creative journey.
Hopefully that’s adding something positive to the world!
About Todd Baker
As well as working closely with ustwo games on Monument Valley 2 and Land’s End, Todd Baker is known for his work on BAFTA-winning projects with Media Molecule (Tearaway) as well as producing music for the LittleBigPlanet series, and as a guitarist with the instrumental band: Lydian Collective. Follow Todd here.
About ustwo games
ustwo games are a mobile games studio that loves to make interactive entertainment which challenges the medium, with a strong focus on user experience and elegance in presentation. They are the creators of the BAFTA and Apple Design Award-winning Monument Valley, and its sequel, Monument Valley 2, as well as the Gear VR experience Land’s End.