IGM Interviews – Laura Shigihara (Rakuen)
Friday night already? I guess it’s time for another installment of IGM Interviews! This week, we’re featuring Laura Shigihara, a composer known for working on projects such as Plants vs. Zombies and, for the WoW fans among us, provided the vocals for the Singing Sunflower pet. But pretty soon, you’ll also know her for her upcoming game, Rakuen. A story-based adventure game, Rakuen is about a boy in a hospital, and the partly whimsical journey he goes on through light puzzle solving and heavy dialogue.
Rakuen is being developed by a three-person team; Shigihara works on the programming, design, audio, and pixel characters, while two of her artistically inclined friends assist with concept, character, and background art. Beyond the game, she also creates original music and is an active member of the YouTube community, posting cover songs and music videos of her own design. I got the chance to chat with her about Rakuen, her music, and what inspires her during the music creation process. There may or may not also be an embarrassing story she willingly shared somewhere towards the end, too.
IGM: Do you have a particular routine when preparing to compose for a new game?
Laura Shigihara: I do. I have a lot of things that I do to get ready, like in the right state of mind. I like going on walks, and drinking tea. Sometimes eating chocolate. I usually do some combination of things to get in a creative state beforehand.
As for doing music specifically for levels, I usually ask if I can get a build of the game to play, so that I can just see how it feels. Hopefully, new music materializes in my head from there.
IGM: Where do you look for inspiration when creating a soundtrack?
Shigihara: I think a lot of times, I just try to go with the feel of the game. So if I have a build and I can play through it, usually I get music in my head that matches what’s going on. I don’t do a lot of research unless it’s something really new. So if it’s a style I haven’t composed in before, I’ll usually go listen to a lot of different tracks to learn more about it.
IGM: Do you have a particular style or genre that you prefer to compose?
Shigihara: I enjoy, I don’t know what you would call it, but a lot of melodic stuff where I can kind of mix genres together. So the base is where I can use a pop-type melody that’s relatable and kind of simple, and I can build onto it and make the arrangement more complex. Then I like mixing all different kinds of beats; everything from swing music, or hip hop, electronic stuff. I guess I just like combining different things together.
IGM: You grew up playing games, right? What were some of the games you enjoyed growing up?
Shigihara: Well, my favorite game of all time is Chrono Trigger. I love that game. Everything about it, I thought was so wonderful.
What else? Let’s see… Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Yoshi’s Island was one that I played a lot. The Mega Man series, I played like all of the Mega Man games. There’s so many. Starcraft is another one, I played a lot of Starcraft.
IGM: Can you recall any tracks in particular that stood out to you when you were younger? Why do you think the music had such a powerful effect on you?
Shigihara: I really liked Gravity Man’s theme from Mega Man 5. I thought that was so cool because, well, I used to play a lot of game music on the piano when I was a kid, just like listen and then play it, but Gravity Man’s theme was the one that alluded me. I remember it being really difficult to figure out how to play. I was like, ‘this is so complex!’ It was very interesting.
I also like Schala’s Theme from Chrono Trigger. I love the instrumentation, I felt like it was so mysterious and, I don’t know, it just felt like I got to know the character better by listening to her music.
But I mean there’s so many, I don’t even know where to begin. I always say that my favorite soundtrack is the Chrono Cross soundtrack, I can listen that over and over again.
IGM: From your perspective, how can developers best use music as a way to enhance the storytelling or gameplay of their games?
Shigihara: I think that, a lot of times, there’s a lot of music that’s sort of generic, you know? You don’t really remember it afterwards. I think that if a game has good music, that’s melodic and memorable, that can bring out emotions in the player; then they’re more likely to remember certain things, or have the scenes make a bigger impact on their life.
There’s this one game I played, Suikoden; the music that played during this one super sad scene, which I won’t say in case anyone plays it, it just hit me so hard. So whenever I hear that song, I remember the characters so well, and I remember the scene so well. So, I think that just having music that’s memorable, that can help the game be more memorable overall. Especially specific scenes or exciting parts, or scary parts.
IGM: You’ve composed for a number of games now. If you had a choice, is there a particular game series you’d love to be a part of?
Shigihara: I’d say Mega Man. Either Mega Man, or some type of Square [Enix] RPG where I can write sad songs.
IGM: What would you say was the most difficult part of getting started as a composer? What sort of roadblocks did you encounter?
Shigihara: It was really hard to find work. Nowadays, I feel like there’s probably more opportunities just because there are so many different kinds of games out there. But I felt like there were just not that many jobs available. And also, I guess the nature of composing is that, for anything other than huge AAA games, one composer can handle multiple game soundtracks at the same time. So there’s not really as big of a need for composers as, say, programmers or artists. The jobs were pretty limited.
I feel like I really had to put effort into looking for work. I was part of many game development forums and I went to industry events, and I tried to build up my portfolio anyway I could, by working on friend’s games and free projects and stuff like that. I guess that was one of the bigger challengers.
I think another thing too, is that when I first meet people, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl or I look really young or what the deal is, but it often takes people awhile to know I know what I’m doing. I think now it’s easier, because people know what I’ve worked on, but in the beginning it was hard for people to take me seriously.
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