Known for their combination of piano and vintage electronic “chiptune” music, Aivi & Surasshu has quickly carved out a niche for carefully crafting a niche sound.
Known as the composers for Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, the duo — pianist and composer Aivi Tran alongside electronic artist and sound designer Steven “Surasshu” Velema — recently explored a new direction on the hit indie video game, Ikenfell. As a charming tale of the hijinks and adventures of a group of students at a magic school, the title captures the warm and optimistic feel of old school RPGs while still maintaining all of the modern quality-of-life features players have come to expect.
Given the sheer size and emotional range of Ikenfell, Aivi & Surasshu recruited the help of composer Sabrielle Augustin to tackle scoring the magical adventure. SPIN spoke with all three of them to get their thoughts on the game and its soundtrack.
SPIN: How did you decide what kind of sound and which songs to include for the Ikenfell soundtrack?
Steven “Surasshu” Velema: We settled on an eclectic combination of live instruments, vocals, sequencing, and authentic chiptune tracking. We are trying to proliferate a genre called “digital fusion,” which combines elements from various genres — such as jazz, classical, prog — and computer music. We also wanted to make sure that we scored the emotion of each moment in the game, so in addition to the level themes, character themes, and battle/boss themes, we created what we called mood themes [for moments that are] “mysterious,” “funny-cute,” “ominous,” etc. Then we went through the whole game, writing a detailed document of instructions for where these songs should start and stop. In total, we had about 50 tracks initially — which we thought would be enough. But when we went through the game, we found that we’d need to write many more since the story has many twists and turns.
For people who are unfamiliar with Ikenfell, what would you want people to know about both the game and the soundtrack?
Aivi Tran: Chevy Ray [Johnston, Ikenfell’s primary developer and designer] populated the world of Ikenfell with so many delightful surprises — from relatable characters to plot twists, hidden treasures, magical spells, and lots of cats. I hope the soundtrack is full of delightful surprises for everyone, too.
Sabrielle Augustin: Ikenfell is beautifully diverse throughout its story and sound. The music that was composed for the characters, events and locations had a huge amount of care throughout its process of creation. So when the players listen to these tracks, I would say to try to feel the connections that were formed. There’s a huge amount of kindness, healing, diversity, strength, and charming feelings of optimism. At least that’s what I would hope that people can take away.
With how advanced video game soundtracks have become, what was it like to create a title that has such a happy retro feel?
Surasshu: It was really great to be able to work on a game like this, because I think it plays to our strengths with chiptune and piano. We were able to bring our respective histories to the table, as I grew up with a Gameboy, NES and Sega Genesis, while Aivi’s first console was a Nintendo 64.
Aivi: Although chiptune is associated with retro game music, many of our production techniques are modern. We composed songs with vocals, live musicians, and full production with mixing and mastering. Even many of our chiptune songs are influenced by modern electronic music.
Augustin: It was such a cool experience and one that I really enjoyed and appreciated. I’ve been composing a lot of orchestral and piano compositions, but the thought of “why did I never attempt to try this before” came to mind while doing this. I don’t think I’ll focus on this more, as it’s not my forté, but I am happy I can say that I contributed to something like this. The combination of both retro and modern elements that advanced video game soundtracks have is what makes it all so unique.
How different was working on a game like Ikenfell compared to the projects you’ve previously done together?
Surasshu: The biggest previous project we worked on together was Steven Universe, where the workflow is very different from a game because we would compose each episode’s music from start to finish in one week, and then move on to the next episode. With Ikenfell — and with games in general — we have a lot more time to carefully consider what we want to compose and where to use it. We can even decide to use a song in a totally different place than where we originally intended it. For example, we originally wrote “The Sorceress’ Tower” — the song that plays in the final dungeon — for the Southern Dorms area, one of the earliest dungeons that’s meant to feel like a cozy home. As may be obvious, that song was way too intimidating, so we found a better place for it.
Speaking of which, how would Steven Universe fare in Ikenfell?
Surasshu: I think Steven would get along with everybody at the school in Ikenfell. He might have trouble with the classes though.
Aivi: I imagine Steven would also try to befriend all of the cute creatures in the game instead of fighting them — especially the flowers with teeth.