Every video game conveys a world. From Tetris’ abstraction to Heavy Rain’s stab at photorealism, every game communicates a self-contained virtual environment to facilitate interaction. When a design team builds a signature world that expresses the essence of a game, we remember it forever. Defender. Rez. Ico. Wind Waker. Bioshock.
These games feature evocative visual designs, but each also relies heavily on sound and music to establish their distinctive worlds. Rez’s electronica; Wind Waker’s pan flute; Bioshock’s whale-like groans; Ico’s silence. If you’re a gamer of a certain vintage, you’ll know why this sound still puts me on the edge of my seat (click to listen):
You could say that Kirby’s Epic Yarn is all about its art design. Nearly all its play mechanics are derived from the properties of fabric and yarn (which I’ll discuss next time), and those elements were the original inspirations for the game. As KEY's producer has noted, “At first we were trying to make a game that would be fun simply having a yarn character walk around and unravel a variety of mechanisms and contrivances.”
But, like the games I mentioned above, KEY also relies on an expressive palette of music to establish a playful sense of place, and its soundtrack does a extraordinary job of delivering the warmth, fun, and human touch that lie at the core of the game's overall design. KEY's soundtrack manages to add color to the most colorful game I've ever played.
In this post, I’ll take you on a musical tour of Kirby's Epic Yarn, and I’ll try to explain how its score reinforces the other design elements throughout the game. If music can make a player feel connected to the world she’s traversing, KEY succeeds like few other games. KEY feels at once like a familiar Kirby game and something completely fresh. Its music plays a major role in that achievement.
First, a few words about the musical concept for the game. Composer Tomoya Tomita, whose credits include several Castlevania titles, wanted to focus on “sound to express a softness as would befit a world of yarn.” This softness is primarily expressed through piano, which is the most prominent instrumental voice heard in the game.
KEY’s gameplay and art design also convey a sense of warmth and simplicity, and these are captured in the score as well. The songs have a handmade quality that reflect the game’s sewing and fabric-based environments.
The sounds had been carefully selected to give a feeling of warmth. We thought we would aim for…sound that wasn't mechanical-sounding. We wanted to use only a few sounds so the characteristics of each song would stand out all the more. I decided to use my own hands to create the songs—playing bass or ukulele in some places—rather than programming them on a computer.
NOTE: Click on a title bar to hear the music
The music underscoring KEY’s title screen sets the tone: a simple buoyant melody played on the piano that gradually segues to a more lush and open-ended sound, tinged with melancholy. The door to a mysterious world is opening.
In Patch Castle, the game’s tutorial level, we hear an unembellished little storybook tune; something a school child might listen to while practicing her letters. Many of the melodies you'll hear in these areas hearken back to previous Kirby games, but most have been simplified and sound even more childlike. The table is being set for the departure to come.
Similarly, in Kirby’s pad we hear a simple little wind-up toy ditty, reminding us that Kirby is and will always be a child. This melody will return later in far more intricate forms.
When Kirby enters Grass Land, he embarks on his first adventure, and the music reflects the transition beautifully. This piece (“Fountain Gardens”) serves as KEY’s main theme, and it clearly evokes a feeling that Kirby’s journey has begun. This early stage, set amidst green trees, flower fields, and rainbow falls captures the cheerful tone of the Kirby series, and the music here - now fully orchestrated - conveys that too.
Elsewhere in the Grass Land hub, Kirby finds himself in Rainbow Falls, and the music here is jaunty and carefree. Kirby's Spin Boarder transformation is essentially a low-risk warmup for much faster versions that appear later in the game. For now, Kirby feels invincible.
Kirby’s boss fight with Fangoria abruptly shifts the music away from sweetness and light. For the first time we hear percussion featured prominently, and the style shifts to jazzy syncopation. Kirby’s world has turned more dangerous…but not by much. When the piano reappears in a big glissando, it all still sounds like fun.
When Kirby arrives in Hot Land, he’s a disoriented foreigner in an exotic locale, and the change is evident in the music. The instrumentation abruptly shifts, and a deep bass bellows underneath. Cheerful melody has given way to a trance-like middle-eastern vibe.
Later, in Lava Landing, Kirby’s familiar piano returns, but it’s shifted much farther down the scale. Its comforting tone has been replaced by a deep, daunting ostinato. Lava-pots and walking bombs impede Kirby's progress in this burnt-orange world.
Kirby finds temporary respite in a cool, but ominous cave. The music here moves back up the scale, as if in response to the change in temperature. It’s a dangerous but beautiful environment, full of spiky wheels and falling icicles, all in purple, blue and white. You can hear that cool tension in the music.
Kirby discovers a playful jungle with swimming dinosaurs and fire salamanders. Lots of fun platforming here amidst crazy creatures, and the syncopated rhythms amplify the adventure. It’s easy to feel a little cocky as Kirby in this level, swinging from pterodactyl to pterodactyl, and the music reinforces that feeling.
Treat Land brings a tonal shift as Kirby finds himself in a bizarrely colorful land of donuts, cakes, marshmallows, and stuffed bears. In Melody Town, he navigates an enormous musical staff, a harp, and giant piano keys. The tinny-sounding piano and performance style that underscore this section sound like a pianist playing a toy piano to a strict metronome.
The secret level in this world, Dark Manor, requires Kirby to find his way through an unlit mansion. The harp we saw in Melody Town figures prominently in this music, but it eventually gives way to a canny variation on the piano we’ve heard so often: a harpsichord playing a scary melody as Kirby climbs a series of staircases, locating lanterns to light his way.
Finally, Kirby faces the boss of Treat Land, Squashini, and all the instruments we’ve encountered along the way are woven together in a fast-moving and suspenseful mix.
Kirby’s next stop is Splash Beach in Water Land, where the designers clearly decided to give the player a palette cleanser. Serene aqua environments are accompanied by a lovely solo guitar that musically captures Kirby’s new method of locomotion: he glides underwater as a tiny submarine.
As Kirby descends deeper, the visuals evolve from surface aqua to deepwater blues and purples. The music grows richer too, evoking a beautiful, but mysterious land at the bottom of the sea. Kirby transforms from a submarine to a lithe dolphin, cutting through the water in graceful bursts of energy. This level may be the most effective mix of art, audio, and gameplay design in the game.
Snow Land is my least favorite world in KEY, but it does contain one level with the sweetest song in the game. Frosty Wheel puts Kirby on icy platforms in a barren frozen landscape. Pressing twice on the D-pad usually turns Kirby into a car, but here it turns him into a sled. Hitting a ramp, flying high into the air, lassoing a button, and launching Kirby even higher - to this spare, lovely musical accompaniment - is tactile platforming nirvana. I wish the other levels in this world were similarly inspired.
Another tonal shift awaits Kirby in Future City. Tomita and team draw musical inspiration from previous Kirby games, but recast the familiar theme in epic John Williams-esque style, complete with rhythmic Star Wars homage.
Tube Town is one of the game’s most imaginative levels, and it features pulsing electro-waves, buzzing circuits, and laser puzzles - all configured in KEY’s yarn and fabric motifs. Musically, this level departs from everything we’ve heard before, but if you listen carefully you can still hear the calm refrain of a piano underneath the wavy electronica and drum machine beat.
After sewing the world back together, Kirby returns to his familiar Dream Land, and the music feels like a bittersweet homecoming. We’re back to the simple piano and bells from early in the game, but the story hasn’t been resolved yet, and you can feel that in the song here. This is one of those moments when the game especially benefits from a human touch, both in composition and performance.
Similarly, in Cloud Palace, a marvelous vertical level that relies on Kirby’s parachute ability to lift him ever higher, the music features a melodica, which you can watch one of Kirby’s composers play here. As with so much of KEY’s music, it’s a simple, gentle tune; but supremely effective at evoking the childlike wonder of floating atop clouds high in the sky.
I hope this musical tour through KEY’s score helps illustrate how music supports its other creative elements. In my next post, I’ll discuss KEY’s art design, from which the entire production concept emanates. I hope you’ll stick with me. Oh, and if you made it all the way to the end of this lengthy post, be sure to click on one more musical link. You deserve it!