For people who aren’t fans of video games, there’s actually a lot to like about 2019 title Manifold Garden. Yes, technically, it is a video game. But it’s a video game designed, developed and published by an independent artist who really had a unique vision.
From a gameplay perspective, Manifold Garden is a physics-based puzzle game. It’s abstract, it’s weird, and it’ll definitely make you consider when the last time you took psychedelics was. But more than anything, Manifold Garden’s atmosphere and ambiance are as much a take on modern art as they are a modern video game — and with those visuals comes a need for a particularly unique soundtrack.
That’s where Laryssa Okada came in. With a background in music editing and audio production for much larger titles (series like Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed and Halo) and a passion for creating her own music, she brought forth a deep and diverse soundtrack. A soundtrack so good that iam8bit decided to go ahead and release a limited edition collector’s vinyl of the score, featuring a full-blown pop-up structure in the middle of it that both fits the theme of the game and sets it apart from any other record sitting on a shelf.
SPIN spoke with both Okada and iam8bit co-owners and co-creative directors Amanda White and Jon M. Gibson (via email) to learn more about the ethereal soundtrack and its over-the-top physical release.
SPIN: From a musical standpoint, what went into bringing the world of Manifold Garden to life for you?
Laryssa Okada: About half of my focus for scoring Manifold Garden was how I could introduce human elements and emotions to this lonely, impossible world. The other half was focused on how I could make the most strange, uncomfortable, un-human textures. I’d manipulate recordings of everyday things such as laughter, humming, or teeth chattering into unusual synths or calming ambiences to invoke both a sense of familiarity and alien strangeness. I learned a lot about modular synths and designing my own digital synths in the process.
Seeing as you’ve worn a lot of different hats in the gaming industry, how was scoring Manifold Garden similar or different from your other work?
Okada: Regardless of the role, understanding of the game and good communication across or within teams is extraordinarily important. There’s always more to learn that will inform your daily responsibilities, and more often than not, someone is excited to tell you about what they’re working on.
Scoring Manifold Garden was extremely unique because I was given so much freedom to experiment. [Quality assurance] is not a content creation role, nor audio production — and even though music editing is, you must adhere to a pre-established identity for the music. As composer for Manifold Garden, I had far more control over the sonic identity of the game.
What was it like to see your music come out on this super elaborate and detailed vinyl release?
Okada: I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but these days, music as a physical form can feel distant. Artists release to streaming platforms, which feels equivalent to chucking a broken boomerang into the sky and never seeing a return. In some ways, it’s easy to forget that you, as an artist, released anything at all. I think it took holding the vinyl in my hands for me to finally pause and realize I’d published an entire body of work that other people could actually listen to. I’m so extremely grateful for everyone that worked on it.
Is there anything else you’d want to share about the soundtrack for Manifold Garden?
Okada: Perhaps a fun tidbit to share is that at one point, I asked members of the team to send along clips of them singing. I recorded and sent a few pitches on piano to reference as well as scores for those who could read music. It was pretty much an open invitation for anyone on the team at the time who wanted to give it a shot — no pressure. I then manipulated the recordings into lush pads and ambiences, which can all be heard throughout the soundtrack.
As a company that seems to take a lot of pride when it comes to vinyl releases, what made you decide to do a pop-up for Manifold Garden’s soundtrack rather than just a standard sleeve?
iam8bit: Sure, we take a lot of pride in everything we do, but also — let’s be real — we’re maniacs! We spend a lot of time thinking about the best possible ideas for the story we’re trying to tell, and what usually ends up happening is that the idea is totally crazy and might simply be deemed impossible by a lot of folks.
Luckily, we’re nuts, and we think it’s absolutely worth the blood, sweat and papercuts to lift something out of complacency and into the extraordinary. Like, when you look at Manifold Garden, you are instantly immersed in its fantastical geometry. When we initially talked to the dev team, they expressed their pipedream fantasy of representing that M.C. Escher-like geometry in actual reality. Well, we’re no strangers to a challenge, so we went to town — collaborating with our best bud, Rosston at Poposition Press, one of the world’s greatest pop-up engineers, to help bring these dreams to life.
How do you go about capturing a game through differences and special features in a vinyl release like this?
iam8bit: The way we think about the production of physical items is in the same way that a Michelin-starred sushi chef thinks about ingredients — source the best possible fish imaginable, the freshest wasabi, mill your own rice, etc. We look at paper stocks, printing features, color theories, varnishes and embellishments as our ingredients, and where we source those things from matters a ton. Not all vendors care about quality the way we do, but when they do, they instantly transform from vendors into collaborators. Everyone brings experience and love to the table when you’re collaborating with the best possible humans and artists, and THAT is the magic sauce!
With all those ingredients in your arsenal, you start to craft a recipe for what is most appropriate to the world you’re playing within. It’s not just about slapping key art onto a cover and then taking a nap. You gotta really mine the narrative, cutting beyond the obvious stuff on the surface. We approach everything that we make with the goal of mythological expansion. If we’re going to put something out into the universe, it better enhance the existing experience and build upon the narrative that already is.
Is there anything else you’d want to share about the Manifold Garden vinyl release?
iam8bit: Even if you’ve never heard of Manifold Garden, this album transcends that. It’s a wonderful artifact of music and art, and we encourage you to blindly give it a go, even without much context for the game. It’s fun to discover things in a different order, so [listen first and] THEN go play the game. Vinyl as a vessel for discovery is a pretty sweet thing.