The following interview was conducted around the turn of the year 2018/19. Deniz Akbulut is the composer of the soundtrack for the German indie action RPG CrossCode. You can follow him on Twitter (@interovgm) or support him directly via Bandcamp (https://interovgm.com/releases).
JRPG Scholar: CrossCode has been out of early access for a little over three months now – what were your first thoughts after the game was released? Does the tension drop away from you immediately or do you click F5 on Metacritic every five seconds, hoping someone writes something about the soundtrack of the game?
Deniz Akbulut: It was a great experience to finally release the game! But I was knocked out because of Crunch Time most of the time… I often read tweets and reviews, watched live streams, and of course I was very happy when someone praised the music! When you have worked so long on a game, you often get high expectations. So I felt a bit disappointed at first that CrossCode didn’t become much more popular. Still, I am very happy that CrossCode was able to achieve so much – it could have been much worse!
It was quite hard for me to get out of the usual stress phase and relax, I got used to working on CrossCode a bit too much, but now there is nothing more to do for me and I can finally spend some time for myself and make up for a lot in life.
JRPG Scholar: CrossCode recently won the German Developer Award for the best indie game and was nominated in other categories – in my opinion unjustifiably not for the best music in a game! Nevertheless, how big do you see the role your soundtrack played in winning the award?
Deniz Akbulut: I am very excited that CrossCode has won “Best Indie Game 2018” at the German Developer Award! I think the whole team deserved it, everyone gave their best and did an incredible job. For such an award, everyone in the team has contributed something! Music is of course very important to me, but I have to say that as a musician, after all, it is my field of expertise and I always give music a lot of attention when I play a game. Unfortunately there is no “Best Music” category at the Game Awards here in Germany. But maybe, and hopefully this will change in the future! (Note: There is a category “Best Sound”.) If I am nominated in such a category alone, I would be incredibly happy, but I should rather not expect anything…
JRPG Scholar: Before we talk a bit more about your work on the soundtrack, I’d like to talk a bit more about your background. How did you come to compose video game music? And how did your collaboration with Radical Fish Games on CrossCode come about?
Deniz Akbulut: Well, I grew up with video games and I wanted to make my own games at a very early age. Eventually, I learned to play the piano and write MIDIs on the computer and soon I started writing music for my friends’ games. At that time I was active in RPG-Maker Communities and made some friends there. I met Felix Klein and we collaborated together, and at some point I was asked to write music for his next game CrossCode. And so it started!
JRPG Scholar: CrossCode has a long history behind it – initial development started in 2012, in 2015 an Indiegogo campaign was launched, after that, the game was three years in early access. I understand how the gameplay benefits from that, but how does that long creative process affect a video game soundtrack? In those nearly seven years, you’ve probably developed technically, compositionally and humanly.
Deniz Akbulut: That is definitely right. A lot can happen over such a long time. At first I wasn’t sure exactly what CrossCode was supposed to sound like. Before the crowdfunding campaign, we only had the cargo ship level, so I decided to make the first tracks a bit more electronic, but during the Indiegogo times, there was Autumn’s Rise and then gradually several levels in nature – I had to expand the style a bit with acoustic instrumentation. In the beginning, I wasn’t as good at writing music as I am today, and it was hard to keep me from rewriting older pieces. My studio has grown enormously during this long period of development, I have learned a lot of new things and my compositional style has constantly expanded. I always hope that new players play long enough to hear my new, hopefully better songs!
JRPG Scholar: In the last seven years, has there ever been a time when you would have liked to give it all up? Where did you get the motivation for your work?
Deniz Akbulut: So, I don’t recommend that anyone works on a single game for that long. I’ve often lost the desire to work on a game, but fortunately, I’ve often had the time to distract myself and work on other smaller projects. That helped me to work on CrossCode with full power again. In the last two years, when I worked on CrossCode almost full time, I didn’t have time to work on side projects anymore, and a lot had to be done. Often I had a composer’s block or just burnout, but with discipline you can overcome that… If you have to write music every day, you need a lot of discipline. Imagine you have to write a short story every day. Every person works differently and I am glad that in the last two years I’ve found methods for myself that help me to stay productive every day and minimize burnout phases.
JRPG Scholar: Your soundtrack for CrossCode has, in the end, become really varied. Just like the game, the music manages the balancing act between the classics from the 16-bit era and a modern feel. What was your main inspiration while composing?
Deniz Akbulut: From the beginning, I wanted to make CrossCode sound like a Japanese PlayStation 1 game. I played a lot of games like this in my youth and they have influenced me a lot in terms of taste. With the money I made from working on CrossCode, I reinvested in my studio and bought sound modules and instruments that were used in the 90s and early 2000s to make that vision more authentic. I even found some old 90s sample CDs on eBay that normally require hardware samplers, but nowadays you can convert and use them almost perfectly with new software samplers. My sources of inspiration are diverse and are not always other JRPGs as many fans think; my favorite composers have never worked on JRPGs, I think. But I hope that the soundtrack is still appropriate and original! I have tried to try something new with every track, also just to develop myself as a musician. Writing music is more fun when you explore something new. I’d rather not write music that sounds the same all the time, otherwise I’ll lose interest very quickly, and my music will probably suffer as a result!
JRPG Scholar: What did your compositional routine look like? Were you always allowed to play early versions of the game yourself and were inspired by them or did someone tell you: “We need a melancholic piece! We need a Boss Theme!”?
Deniz Akbulut: So, my ideal compositional routine looks like this: I get up at 6:30 in the morning, have breakfast and make myself some tea, then I listen to some good music to get in the mood. In the morning I get better new ideas, so I usually sketch new pieces or parts from 8 to 12 o’clock. Then I have a lunch break until 14 o’clock. Until 6 pm I polish what I have roughly sketched in the morning. After 6 pm it is closing time and I try not to think about my music anymore, which is very important, I think. On weekends, I rather try not to work to rest. I try to set at least one piece as a goal for each week. Depending on how much time there is, my everyday life can of course change.
JRPG Scholar: For me, the fight music is the heart of every RPG soundtrack, and while you’re playing, there’s hardly a single track that you hear more often. What was the reason that CrossCode has so many different titles that are played during battles?
Deniz Akbulut: Felix absolutely wanted to have a lot of battle themes! In the beginning he even had a Battle Theme for each area in the game. But I find that such pieces are much harder to make… I’m more of a fan of quieter, or colorful pieces for levels or soulful music for cutscenes. In fact, I find that battle themes are rather unusual for an action RPG. In other games of this kind there are usually only Boss Battle Themes. In CrossCode ,the level music is interrupted very often, which I personally don’t like that much. But in the end it wasn’t my decision to use the music like that and unfortunately I couldn’t convince with my direction.
JRPG Scholar: The soundtrack can now be purchased digitally. At the same time, there is also a CD version, which is distributed in Europe by First Press Games and in the USA by Materia Collective. Did you come up with the idea to bring the soundtrack on CD? And how did the collaboration with the labels come about? Physical releases of video game soundtracks are unfortunately still a rarity.
Deniz Akbulut: I had always wished to have a CD release! I love to collect Japanese soundtracks of games, I even have some of my favorite autographed albums! I was contacted out of nowhere sometime shortly before release by Materia Collective and First Press Games and they were interested in releasing my album everywhere and even producing and selling CDs! I still find that very exciting! Not many Indie Games have a CD release from the soundtrack…! I am really very happy about that!
JRPG Scholar: Are there any other plans for CrossCode music releases? A vinyl version or a newly arranged or live recorded album?
Deniz Akbulut: A vinyl version has already been mentioned a few times, but unfortunately, I can’t say more about it yet. At the moment I’m talking about selling the album in Japan, which would be super cool! There is already a Japanese localized version of the soundtrack on iTunes, matching the Japanese localization of CrossCode by Dangen Entertainment, which is often praised. I am curious! More is not planned, as far as I know.
JRPG Scholar: Are you already working on a new project or do you need a break after CrossCode?
Deniz Akbulut: At the moment, I’m taking a break for the most part. I have been working on CrossCode for a very long time and I wanted to spend some time for myself. I finally bought myself a Switch and I’m playing all the games I missed because I was so busy and had little money.
However, I am already talking to new potential customers. Nothing is certain yet, but I am very excited about the possible projects I will be working on in 2019! I hope I will be able to say something about it in public soon!
JRPG Scholar: This is almost the end of our interview. To conclude, please name your three favorite video game soundtracks of all time and your three favorite music albums in general!
Deniz Akbulut: Klonoa: Door to Phantomile / Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil. My absolute favorite albums! I am especially a big fan of Eriko Imura’s music! Her music is still a great source of inspiration for me today. I find both soundtracks absolutely great! Jazzy, melancholic chords and colourful arrangements and sounds, just great… I want to be able to write music like this!
Mr. Driller. A very wicked varied soundtrack for a puzzle game! It’s always important as a musician to develop yourself by always trying to break out of your comfort zone and try something new! And somehow Go Shiina still manages to keep everything consistent! A very unique soundtrack!
Final Fantasy XI. Almost every piece begins simply, but develops into a melancholic feast with jazzy chords that are super interesting! And there is a lot to hear with all the expansions that came with the game!
Sine von Cymbals. Eriko Imura had recommended this album to me when we talked about the subgenre “Neo-Shibuya Kei”. It has become one of my favorites quite quickly! Very great chord sequences, great production and sounds!
Azurite Dance von Lu7. Luna Umegaki makes great video game music like for Choro Q3, but she also has her own band with whom she also writes really great music. Pretty much everything she does is highly recommended! She always writes great, jazzy chord sequences and is really virtuoso on the piano/keyboard! Her music is an insider tip among friends so to speak.
Cutie Cinema Replay von CAPSULE. Now I’m talking about “Neo-Shibuya Kei” music again. CAPSULE is so to speak the main representative of this genre I think, or at least in the early 2000s! Very colourful arranged music with great sounds, catchy tunes and chord sequences!