Don Schmocker, founder of Zurich-based indie studio Okomotive, describes meeting composer Joel Schoch as the luckiest moment of his career. During a social at the Swiss city’s University of the Arts – where the pair were both undergrads – that was more like professional “speed dating” than anything else, video game designers met composers and other creatives to assess their compatibility and, if successful, agreed to work on future projects together.
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At the time, Schmocker was working on “a fun little bee game where you just fly around” and Schoch’s inventive work on the game’s score led to a fruitful and ongoing working relationship for the pair. In 2018, Okomotive launched the vehicle adventure series far with the game Lone Sails, an atmospheric game with an equally touching and explorative score from Schoch. Song titles such as ‘Sail, My Friend!’ and ‘Rain. Storm. Thunder.’ are good early indicators of its mood and energy.
Four years later, Scmocker and Schoch are back together for the second far game, Changing Tides, which the developer describes as more of a “companion piece” to Lone Sails than a direct sequel. Following the game’s unveiling and ahead of the full soundtrack’s release, NME spoke to Schmocker and Schoch from their home studios in Zurich to discuss the evolution of their work together and how the player can manipulate the game’s soundtrack to their will.
“The mood of the game was very clear to me from very early on,” Schmocker says of the genesis of Changing Tides, which is based around a journey across the seven seas in an awe-inspiring yet rickety nautical vessel. “It’s a place where you can relax and enjoy the environment, but it’s also not always such a happy place,” the developer adds. “It has this tension, this grey landscape, and the vehicle is always moving and driving.”
From this evocative yet open brief, Schoch created a mesmerising score that swoops up and down, tracking the plain sailing of parts of the game down into its dark and stormy sections. When the vehicle you’re in heads under the surface, a totally different musical palette emerges, with looser sounds and woozy electric guitars reflecting your new environment under the sea.
While some hallmarks of soundtracks – sweeping strings, clinking pianos, a push and pull of suspense and release – are evident in the Changing Tides score, the unique power of Schoch’s music is that it’s exploratory as the game you’re playing while hearing it. You get the sense that he’s as excited to see where it’s going next as you are to be working your way through the game’s landscapes. At one point during our interview, he takes us over to a corner of his studio where a wooden organ sits. “It was built by a guy when he retired, and he worked on it for 12 years but then he died,” he explains. “It was just sitting around for years and then a friend of mine got it for free.”
“It doesn’t sound perfect, and wouldn’t fit in a church, but it has so much character,” he says glowingly of the instrument, whose whistling sounds and chugging tones are a cornerstone of the Changing Tides score. The organ feels like a living thing, the composer says, in a way that reminded him of the giant, mesmerising new vehicle in the game. “The vehicle is so much bigger than in [Lone Sails], and at the start I struggled to find the instrumentation that would support this new big thing that feels heavier and more powerful,” he remembers. “I searched for instruments that could transport that,” and the wooden organ quickly became a centrepiece around which the Changing Tides score was built.
“In Changing Tides, we wanted to communicate more about the world and the cultures and architecture we see,” Schmocker says, creating a connection between these environments and the music. As such, similar musical motifs and instruments come back around in particular corners of the landscape, serving as little nudges as to your whereabouts in the game. It’s almost as if Schoch is whispering to you: Yes, you’ve been here before, remember?
When working on the score, dynamism is a word Schoch kept coming back to for what he wanted to achieve. “When I’m thinking about dynamic music in a game, I tend to lose sense of time because it’s so much fun! If you make everything dynamic though, it becomes more random, so it has to be easy enough to be recognised by the player.” When you raise the sail on the vessel, he says by way of example, you’ll hear a muffle of music if you do a sub-par job. If the sail is raised perfectly, though, a sweeter and louder blast of sound greets you, encouraging you on your way. “It’s a challenge to find the sweet spot when you feel that connection: that you’re doing something and the music is reacting to it,” he adds gleefully.
This is where the power of the Far: Changing Tides soundtrack hits its peak; it feels like it’s living, breathing and changing with you as you travel through the game. Its immersive power is also proven by scores of people who have commented saying they struggle to identify the boundary where sound design ends and the score begins, such is the music’s centering in similar worlds to what the gameplay is showing you at any given moment. “A philosophy of mine is to find unusual instruments,” Schoch says, getting pleasure out of the listener being unsure of what exactly they are hearing. “If you hear a trumpet, it’s just a trumpet. You listen to it and think, ‘Ah, that’s a trumpet!’. But if you combine three stringed instruments that make a melody together, you just take it as the music it is, and it can help to dive deeper into the experience.”
Though Schoch has seen this adaptability and interactive nature in some video game scores, he believes it is a way of working that’s set to be explored far more in years to come. “There’s a lot of potential in it, and I don’t only see it in the games world. It can apply in installations and museums. Interactive music can be very important in these surroundings.
“People are really amazed when they can actually do something and change something [about the music] when their experience changes,” he concludes with a smile. On Changing Tides, he’s sculpted a beautifully interactive score and then handed the keys over to the player to get lost in its infinite worlds.
Far: Changing Tides is available on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch. It’s also available on Xbox Game Pass. If you’d like to learn more, here’s an exclusive video of Okomotive discussing how it created the game’s audio and score.