Alyssa Menes is a composer and sound designer for video games and other media. She’s worked on games like Labyrinths of Astoria and Pixel Prison Blues. You can find out more about Alyssa’s work on her website or follow her on Twitter at @acmenes. The following interview has been lightly condensed.
remeshed: Can you tell us a little bit about your career path and how you got into creating game audio?
Alyssa Menes: I have been a life-long gamer, dating all the way back to the late 80/early 90s when I would spend hours playing NES games and DOS games. What always stuck with me about those games was the music. I would have those tunes stuck in my head day in and day out. One day, my school held an assembly all about music and I was hooked–I knew I had to start taking lessons and start making music. So ever since the 3rd grade, I’ve been making music, and of course, playing games.
Then I attended PAX East one year and saw a panel held by game audio composer/sound designer Akash Thakkar, and he talked all about how you can get into game audio. So I started attending local meetups, met developers. And then I started getting work. My first big break was the end credits theme for Blackwell Epiphany, which came after I met the series creator, Dave Gilbert, at one of these meetups.
What advice would you give to other musicians and composers who are interested in creating for games, or just people interested in breaking into the industry generally?
Go to local meetups. I used to sit in my bedroom making music and wondering why no one “discovered me”, and that’s because I wasn’t getting out there and meeting people. While there have been many people who have had success putting their work online and getting discovered that way, I have found the face-to-face meetings to be far more important in getting my name out there as a composer/sound designer for games. I would start with looking up your local IGDA chapter, and even checking out meetup.com for game development groups. Get out there, make friends, and be a consistent face in your local scene. After a while, developers looking for audio will remember your name and face, and they’ll come to you, as long as you’re a cool person!
I would also like to add “don’t be a dick”–the game industry is very small, and if you act like a jerk to someone, they will tell their friends and you won’t get work. SO BE COOL.
The last thing is I would also recommend not approaching networking as “what can you do for me?”, but: “what can I do for you?”. Offer something valuable to your developer friends, such as advice on audio.
All of this advice can also be applied to other disciplines, such as art, programming, voice acting, anything!
What kind of challenges have you faced as a woman in the gaming industry? Would you say the game audio community is more or less male-dominated than the field at large?
I am noticing a few more women who are aspiring to get into game audio, which is great. It is mostly males though. I often end up being the only woman sometimes attending GDC audio talks, or one of 3-4 women.
It’s kind of funny, because in Japan when music in games first became a thing, there were many female composers, such as Harumi Fujita (Bionic Commando), Manami Matsumae (Megaman), and Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter). They’re still all very active composers today, which is very inspiring!
As far as challenges, I personally haven’t encountered many in the games industry. I’ve always kind of done things that aren’t particularly “girly”, such as tae kwon do class instead of ballet, or whatever, so I think I’m used to trying to make a mark in a “man’s world”.
My extended family is quite traditional in what a man “should be doing” and what a woman “should be doing”, so any challenge for me has been breaking out of those stupid stereotypes and doing things I wasn’t really encouraged to do.
What’s your composition process like? Do you usually come in at a stage where the game is playable, or do you create based off concepts?
I prefer coming in at the early-ish concept stage, just so I really feel that I am immersed in the game’s world. It’s so important for music to really be a part of the game’s world, and not just kind of slapped on top of it. But there are some cases when I am contracted at the last minute, or others where I am contracted after a playable build is made. I’m also quite okay with coming in after playing the game, because seeing the concepts and the gameplay come together is very inspiring.
When I compose for a game, I start by reviewing the concept art, playing the game, and having a thorough discussion with the developer all about what they are thinking about for the music. Sometimes that will involve them sending me reference tracks. The idea behind this discussion is that I want to ensure that my vision for the music matches their vision, and that we are working harmoniously together. I also want to make sure that I am creating tracks of an appropriate length for their levels, and where each of these tracks I’m making will be played. I ask many questions, like: “what emotion should I be conveying here?” and “Is this a boss fight? Do you want something really fast and heavy?”. Stuff like that, just so I have as much information as possible. The more information I have, the easier it is for me to create a track.
Then I go to my piano, or my guitar, and start writing and laying down some demos. These concepts get sent to the developer, then we continue our conversation, and I shape the music from there.
Is there a game you’re particularly proud of your work on?
There’s quite a few, actually! I am super pleased with Pixel Prison Blues, the 30-player game. It was made with the creators of Killer Queen for ESI Design’s platform. Everything about that game is massive–it’s made to be played by up to 30 people at once, projected on a huge screen, and the sound is projected in 7.1 surround sound. There’s so much zaniness happening at the screen at once, between all the explosions, tasers, etc. And in the background is this really cool, chugging blues track featuring awesome harmonica playing by Tomlin Leicke. It’s very much inspired by all my time spent at blues jams here in NJ.
I am also quite proud of the soundtrack to Labryinths of Astoria, which is a mobile dating sim game. I got to write some very melodic tunes that captured emotions such as love, heartbreak, suspense, etc. It’s very piano and strings heavy, so I really enjoyed limiting myself down from a full orchestral scope and working to do a lot with very few instruments.
You seem to prioritize mentoring and teaching as part of your career—does this reflect a particular aspect of your personal philosophy? What do you learn from teaching others?
They say the best way to learn is to teach. I was a guitar/piano teacher for years before I got into the games industry. Nobody is going to learn anything if someone doesn’t teach them. I’ve had a lot of very inspiring people teach me over the years, whether that’s through school, or through mentoring, or even through casual conversation.
So I would encourage anyone who wants to get into any discipline to find a mentor, someone who has been doing whatever it is you want to do for a long time. At least a longer time than you. And ask questions! Don’t be afraid to. We all want to improve ourselves and learn more, and the way to do that is to learn.
I always am happy to offer advice, so anyone reading this can tweet at me (@ACMenes) and I will be happy to chat!
Do you have game soundtracks that you regularly return to for inspiration or pleasure? Who are some of your favorite composers in this field?
Quite a few! My favorite soundtrack comes from my favorite game, Kid Icarus: Uprising. It’s out of this world–there’s so many tracks with beautiful orchestration. A lot of the tunes are very exciting. It somehow manages to be upbeat and driving in some spots, and very dark, haunting, and emotional in others. It’s mostly done with a full orchestra too, which is pretty rare these days. In addition, it seamlessly fuses together classical, rock, progressive, metal, folk, traditional Spanish music, avant-garde, and jazz, and it all sounds great. Even if you don’t play the game, I would recommend listening to the soundtrack. It’s massive, and totally kick-ass!
I’m also a huge fan of the soundtracks from Phantasy Star Online, Super Smash Bros 4, Jet Grind Radio, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6, Pokemon X&Y, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and Journey. They’re all very diverse, but I feel like all of these soundtracks really bring their respective game worlds to life. These are games I always find myself thinking about, because their worlds feel so alive to me. I actually haven’t played Journey yet, but I’ve seen other people play it, and I can always imagine the landscapes from that game when I listen to the music. It really brings you to another world.
My favorite composers are Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, who did tons of classic NES soundtracks, as well as Austin Wintory, Grant Kirkhope, Jason Graves, Jake Kaufman, Yuzo Koshiro, Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu, Junichi Masuda, so many to name!
Has your collaboration with Gamer Symphony Orchestra produced any valuable insights that affected your creative process or the way you approach your work on game audio?
Absolutely! First of all, it was through working with GSO that I learned how to really orchestrate. It was the first time I’ve ever had an orchestra perform my work, which is a thrilling experience. Now that I have started my own Gamer Symphony Orchestra in Montclair, NJ, I have created a community of passionate musicians and gamers who really just love this awesome music! Plus, it’s fantastic because I get to work with them on my game soundtracks. Often times, I will have some members from Montclair GSO come in to record parts for my game music, if the budget for the project allows, of course! I don’t have to shy away from say, writing a french horn part, because I have great horn players who are just a phone call away.
How does playing rock and the experience of live performance shape your work as a composer?
For sure! Rock music is very much in my purview as a composer. I think a lot of developers come to me because they hear I secretly play in a rock band, then sometimes they’ll even come out to see me play, or they’ll hear me jam or something and want guitar on their soundtracks. I actually got into game music with the intent of only really doing orchestral music, because I am so passionate about writing for orchestra. But I’m not going to deny that I know a thing or two about rock’n’roll. I feel it’s pretty unique to hear rock in game soundtracks as well, so I hope to offer uniqueness as a composer.
As far as live performance goes, as an active performer, I need to make sure my musicianship is always on point. I feel that being a really good musician makes you an even better composer. How else can you realize your super cool ideas if you can’t play them? Years ago, I really didn’t take practicing my music seriously, and I feel all my compositions were bland as a result. But now that I am constantly performing and practicing my craft, my compositions have grown and gotten better. And I want them to still get even better! So more practice and performing is in order.
Can you tell us a little about your current or upcoming projects? What’s next?
There’s not too much I am allowed to talk about just yet, I do have another game soundtrack I am currently working on. I also have Defragmented coming out in February- it’s a top-down cyberpunk shoot-em-up that I did the sound effects for. It’s really cool!