Updated: Aug 20
I. Research and Stylistic Approach
Back in 2019, I got contacted by Pathea Games to compose some music for their new game in the My Time series. It was initially considered as downloadable content (DLC) for My Time at Portia but was later decided to be a new, separate game. It sets out to improve on My Time at Portia and includes quality of life improvements and much more content. This time the player would arrive in the rugged mining town of Sandrock and - just like in the previous instalment - gameplay would revolve around gathering materials and relics to upgrade their workshop, take on new commissions as well as maintain relationships with the townsfolk. Sandrock would offer a deep and open narrative, there would be villains and heroes, comedy and tragedy. It would also expand upon the lore first explored in My Time at Portia to give players deeper insight as to what the world of the Free Cities is like. The themes of the new storyline would be similar to Portia’s. The game would also feature RPG mechanics such as exploring dungeons, battling enemies, upgrading weapons, taking on side quests etc.
Sandrock is a city-state located in the Eufaula Desert within the Alliance of Free Cities. It was founded beside Martle’s Oasis on top of an ancient metropolis. At first, the city attracted many prospectors interested in an extensive supply of relics hidden beneath the desert, but, as time went on, the oasis dried up, leaving the city unable to sustain a large population. Many people left, leaving the place in its vagarious state found today.
Initial Stylistic Approach
The geography and folklore of Sandrock are highly inspired by the American Old West and Western genre. This would obviously need to be reflected musically whilst keeping in mind that the world of the Free Cities was built after the collapse of an ancient civilisation. With this in mind, our initial vision was to create some grand soundscapes that would be reminiscent of the great music composed for the genre. Works by composers such as Aaron Copland or Ennio Morricone were used for reference and I started composing some demos. My initial assignment was to write some background music for each season. I got to work and started sketching ideas for Summer and Spring.
Here's an extract of a demo I had composed for Spring (my best attempt at ripping off Copland):
Although my initial demos worked well at evoking the large landscapes and rich lore of Sandrock, we quickly found out that they did not really match the pace and feel of gameplay. We also realised that there was a need for the music to feel closer to the people of Sandrock - something that would reflect their personalities, lifestyle and culture. I started to work with smaller ensembles and took inspiration from genres such as Folk, Bluegrass, Celtic and Country music - the orchestra got replaced by a smaller group made of guitars, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, percussion etc.
Here is one of the first demos I came up with after some trial and error:
Using this type of ensemble also made a lot more sense from a production perspective as it would allow me to affordably hire live musicians, which was something that had been on my mind from the start of the project.
II. Harmonic and Melodic Approach.
Not our world
The story is set in an imaginary world; and although Sandrock looks a lot like the American west, it is not the American west. The inhabitants of the Free Cities have their own cultural background and I felt that I needed to give them their own musical language; as if it had been developed throughout the history of the civilisations that preceded them. I tried to push the boundaries of what is commonly heard in folk and western music - utilising richer and/or more ambiguous chords - often breaking some rules of Western harmony. In practice, the music still had to sound somewhat conventional as it needed to be enjoyed and understood by the player. I started to see myself as a musical translator, reinterpreting a language from another world so that it could be intelligible for people of ours. After a lot of experimentation and research, I began developing some harmonic ideas that would be repurposed consistently throughout the score. My hope would be for the player to be able to subconsciously indulge this harmonic language and, over time, recognise it as the one of Sandrock. Here is a non-exhaustive list of single chords randomly picked out of the different pieces eventually composed:
Extended and suspended chords ended up being what made the essence of the sound of Sandrock. In context, these chords would be used in contrast with simpler and more conventional harmony that would help anchor the music in the western or folk genre. I regularly found myself composing songs with a binary structure in which the A sections would use traditional western progressions and the B sections would combine more adventurous chords into a multitude of sequences. Here is a couple of them:
From the Winter theme:
6/8 | Csus2/E | Bbsus2/D | Dbmaj7 | Cm7 |
From the Spring theme:
4/2 | Bbmaj7 | Em9/11 | F6 | Em9/11 |
The majority of the melodic lines were composed or improvised to be an extension of the harmony. They could be used as embellishments that could be added, subtracted or - as we will discuss later - replaced based on the developer's needs. Giving melodies a secondary role meant that music could exist without them and still be enjoyed; allowing us to use them sparingly and avoid ear fatigue during long gameplay sessions. We could also start to imagine a range of gameplay scenarios in which melodic lines would be used as rewards or cues for the player. That being said, one recurring melodic tune was composed and it is present in almost all of the songs composed for the game.
Here's the original tune out of context:
Here it is harmonised in one of the early demos:
Here it is quoted more subtly/indirectly:
This concludes part 1 of How I Composed The Music for My Time at Sandrock, if you would like to know more about the production process make sure to stay tuned for part 2.
Thank you for reading,
Check out My Time at Sandrock on Steam:
Follow me here: