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27. Composer Tamás Borbély’s Illuvium soundtrack casts a spell of sci-fi adventure.

Brightland Steppes artwork by Alexis Vynckier for Illuvium. Listen to the region theme music below!

Conjuring the vibe of an epic quest unfolding across a hostile alien planet takes a spell strengthened by the enchantment of music. It takes a sorcerer of sound to interpret the ambience and themes that drive the action of the game. The call to adventure needs to be palpable. The music must synergize with the visuals to immerse the players in a mysterious world, and give them a sense of urgency to explore it. To accomplish this, the composer combines their skill with their empathic ability to evoke moods and suspense to construct a spirit of adventure. That’s the magic of a great game soundtrack.

When Tamás Borbély, Composer of Illuvium, is in a flow state while composing music, he puts his body into casting the spell. “I have this bad habit where I subtly start to swing my arms like a conductor,” Tamás admits with a chuckle. “It looks ridiculous and I usually don’t recognize it until I transform into Karajan. I wonder what my neighbours think when they see me like this.”

Tamás Borbély, Composer of Illuvium

We have been steadily leaking Tamás’ audio files to our Discord community. His catchy soundtrack builds on a main style concept that remains consistent throughout all the tracks. “The game is a sci-fi adventure game, so I went with plenty of synths. But I always felt like there is a bit of a fantasy element as well,” he says. The real instruments build up that element because they feel proper and classical, and lend that quality to the emotional experience of the music. The result is nostalgic, stirring, and enchanting.

“Synths are the base of the song,” Tamás explains about the structure of a track, “and the real instruments play in the upper registers, usually the melody. I used toms as drums, to give some epicness.”

And the emotive range is varied. The game has action, adventure, darkness, and even melancholy. All the elements in a satisfying RPG.

When Tamás was invited to the project, he knew he had to develop “An epic sci-fi soundtrack, which took elements from the 8- and 16-bit era of gaming,” he says. “It’s not the aesthetic of our gameplay, but it’s just something I wanted to put in as a sign of respect for the era when video games rose.”

To prepare, Tamás listened to the soundtracks of Civilization VI and Stellaris. “They are my favourite games, and I really love their soundtracks. They are classic Sci Fi soundtracks. I also soaked in Hans Zimmer. He’s the master of cinema scores, and is my favourite composer. I channelled this a bit, but not literally. Just the way he approaches music. I also listened to the soundtrack of Zelda games, to understand the fantasy and adventure elements of it.”

Tamás creates soundtrack magic by doing three things: Understanding the game. Sketching themes. Creating a cohesive structure unifying all the music for the game.

First, he had to get a feel for the game’s story, aesthetic and what it should feel like to play the game. “I began by having many conversations with game designer Aaron to understand the game,” Tamás recalls. “We talked about every aspect, from overarching concepts or homages to other games, to the original ideas that make Illuvium unique. I looked at concept art, videos of in-game renders. When there wasn’t a visual, I would ask what inspired Aaron or Von Neumann or the artists. I also looked at countless video games and observed their gameplay, listening to the soundtracks.”

In his second step, Tamás sketches some music. He thinks of motifs and sound signatures that may recur or evolve through the game. “I sit down at my piano and start to improvise, while I imagine myself playing the game,” Tamás says. “First, I come up with a melody with some basic chords. The theme of Shardbluff came to me the fastest. I was struggling with it at first, but it kept driving me to come up with something mysterious and tense. Then, suddenly, something just clicked for me and it came together quickly.”

In sketching the whole soundtrack, he first creates the main theme, chooses instruments, and has the Game Designer review it to check if it fits the intention of the particular place or process it will be utilized in. Tamás usually offers a few variations. Whichever one Aaron and Von Neumann feels is the best fit, he takes their notes for how to develop the theme more, and sends them multiple drafts until they are fully inspired by the result.

“The sketches are not very elaborate,” he explains, “they’re more like impressions. They have a tight focus on the simple melody and instrumentation so that the foundation is really clear. I keep this part of the process loose, usually just taking a half hour per sketch to put something down. When I receive feedback, I focus on the sketches that they liked and start to really conceptualize tracks.”

The third step for Tamás is to make a plan for all the compositions, ensuring that they fit well together as one body of work, but also for them to each have their own distinct flavour. “I offer a lot of my strong feelings about the direction of the music,” he says. “I tell them what I think, they tell me what they think, and we reach an agreement on how long the soundtrack should be, what percentage should be ambience, what should get its own theme — like characters or regions.

And then Tamás composes. Every region has a different feeling, and the players will know exactly where they are just based on the ambience. There are peaceful, calm regions like Sanctum Mesa, which will serve as a headquarters for players starting out. Other regions are hostile. Dangers can catch a player off-guard, and the music reflects that tension. Some regions have strong climates. A snowy region will have icy music. A hot region will have menacing music. Some regions stir a heroic feel and will have striding adventure music. And some regions have what Tamás calls a “miraculous, magic feel” in music.

Tamás is collaborative with the whole DAO. He listens closely to feedback and is open to trying out instruments and ideas. “The more specific and straight the feedback, the more thankful I am,” Tamás says. “The Illuvium DAO is outstanding with feedback. They tell me straight if something is not working, or they simply don’t like it. On the other hand, they also give really specific instructions and tips for what else they want to hear. For example, I put a sitar into the Taiga Boreal main theme, because someone wanted to hear it in the track. It worked out really well.”

When Tamás is finished with a song, he knows it’s ready because he can’t stop listening to it. “I usually start to play it on repeat,” he says. “The longer I can take it the better it is. If I get bored of it fast, so will the audience.”

Tamás just finished the themes for all the regions. His next task is to create a long, non-repetitive ambience for these regions: “For now, they just need to be 30-minutes long, each. I’ll expand them and make them longer later. Creating a good battle-theme is also on my to-do list.”

The music of Illuvium is a sweeping, hopeful, bittersweet orchestral adventure with touches of electronic — a nod to the sci-fi setting of the game. The score is provocative and motivates the player to take off running. It teases the player’s curiosity as they follow a trail of enigmas, hoping to unravel what happened in this strange place. Always the tempo driving onward. The best soundtrack is in harmony with every aspect of the game.

Illuvium’s soundtrack is pivotal to conveying the narrative and tone of the action-packed adventure game we know you are craving. “It’s interesting because the music is in the background, and you don’t really listen to it deliberately,” Tamás says. “But, without music, something is missing from the experience.” That missing something — the power of music — provides that ambient, elusive element which enhances and elevates gameplay, and will make Illuvium that much more memorable, iconic, and magical.

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27. Composer Tamás Borbély’s Illuvium soundtrack casts a spell of sci-fi adventure. was originally published in Illuvium Hub on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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