Kings and Queens of Wasteland Revisited
For the 5th anniversary of Nuclear Throne's release I revisited the striking ending song of the game. Here's some thoughts on the original, the new version and some meanings behind the text.https://jukiokallio.com/blog/?post=2020-12-06
Soundtrack for the post, the song I'm talking about today:
It's already been 5 years, huh? Nuclear Throne was one of the biggest projects for me as a composer. We worked on it for around 2 years with Jan Willem Nijman and Rami Ismail from Vlambeer (RIP), and with the amazing team of freelancers consisting of visual designers Paul Veer and Justin Chan, and the incredible sound designer Joonas Turner.
Heads up: everything in this post is from my point of view, and it's not the official view of the Nuclear Throne team.
Screenshot from Nuclear Throne
Nuclear Throne started as an action packed game jam project done over a weekend, called Wasteland Kings. If I remember correctly it was done in more like 2-ish days as Jan Willem got sick in the middle of it? As soon as we started to see our game's concept through throwing ideas around the theme of the game jam (the theme was "post-apocalyptic" iirc) and Paul visualizing the game, I knew where I wanted to take the music. The game looked like it should have high-energy chiptune (action game, colorful pixel art and explosions) so I wanted to take it somewhere else. Wasteland desert looks of the first level gave me a spaghetti western feels, and that's what I wanted for the music of the game.
Some months after the jam, we decided to make Wasteland Kings into a full game. And in December 2015 after around 2 years of weekly developer streams (!), a name change, a lot of hard work and a lot of fun, we released Nuclear Throne at the PSX games conference.
A week after the game's release, when I finally released the soundtrack, I remember I fell on my bed and cried for a long time. The weight was off my shoulders and the baby was out.
Freelancers of Nuclear Throne at PSX 2015, from left to right: Justin Chan, Paul Veer, Joonas Turner and me!
While we were making Nuclear Throne it was a really good and tight-sounding action game, with fun characters and weapons to play with. But when I wrote the ending song 'Kings and Queens of Wasteland' and showed it to the team around the middle of the development, the mood for everything changed. We started to concentrate more on the lore, the backstory of the game, subtly making the world and its characters a tragedy. We had a "wasteland bible" for the team that had lore we added to, and what we referred to when making design decisions.
I believe this attention to detail and background made Nuclear Throne way more than the sum of its parts. There are so many references in the art, music, sound and texts to itself making the world feel like a coherent place, even though we don't tell much. The idea for all this I guess kind of crystallized when we finally had 'Kings and Queens of Wasteland'. The game and its lore was a huge group effort that couldn't have been done without all the amazing team members we had.
We talked with Paul about doing something nice for the 5th anniversary for a while. He made that amazing art that is the header image of this blog post. We got Justin on board and he drew this beautiful piece:
Justin Chan's Nuclear Throne 5th anniversary art
God I love these boys.
I've been wanting to revisit the ending song, 'Kings and Queens of Wasteland', for a while now. The original version on the soundtrack was this very lofi acoustic song, inspired by old Bob Dylan. With the Revisited, I wanted to go high-quality and show off my singing more. Back when I recorded the original song I was very conscious of my English pronunciation and singing voice. I've gotten over these hangups since, learning a lot through the years.
The Revisited version is still guitar driven, but this time instead of strumming a rough acoustic guitar, it's finger picked electric guitar with huge ethereal reverbs and delays. To show off the singing, I made the vocals way more dry (from reverbs) than the guitar, and sang some fun harmonies under the main vocals. This almost makes it feel like a song from Simon & Garfunkel.
Doing this kind of prominent vocal harmonies can be hard. On top of trying to get the notes right, you also have to have a perfect sync in rhythm with the main vocal track. Otherwise it will sound loose or even cacophonic, even when you're singing exactly the right pitch. Gladly Melodyne helps with the pitch and can be used to fix small deviations in rhythm, but it takes a long time to do that. I should probably invest in VocAlign or similar to speed up the rhythm fixing.
The Revisited is slightly slower in tempo and the structure is wiggled a little bit. Especially in the last line "And we throw all our weapons in to the sludge", adding a dramatic long silence there on the last word. I changed one line from the original "After so many fights the ground all in blood" into "After so many fights the ground soaked in blood".
One big change is also the key of the whole song, which is higher, as it's actually more comfortable for me to sing higher. The original was in a lower key to get a rougher Bob Dylan-vibe into my voice, heh!
For comparison, you can listen to the original 'Kings and Queens of Wasteland' here:
I talked about the game and its art referencing to itself a lot before. The ending song is one of my favorite pieces in that. Here's some trivia about it:
- The whistling and the outro melody is the theme of Nuclear Throne changed into major key. I wanted it to be peaceful and happier as I sing about being free.
- "No eyes that are kind", while the main meaning is what it is, this line also refers to one of the characters, Eyes.
- "Occasional mutated fish, I'm not even sure if it's OK to eat" is a similar half-reference to one of the characters, Fish, in the game.
- "We were granted a wish", there's a mutation called "Last Wish" in the game.
- "Fläshyn" is a word in Trashtalk, the language our sound designer Joonas created for the game. All the mutants in the game actually talk in Trashtalk and it's not gibberish.
- I used the words "fight" and "blood" a lot in the text to really emphasize this is most of the mutants life. This song is kind of an "English translation" of a campfire song of the mutants, and as you can probably tell, they dream of not fighting anymore. I believe this is one of the reasons for the melancholic feel of the game: your only action in the game is to fight and go as far as you can, but texts like these tells it's not what the mutants want.
- (Bonus: can you see where the mutants have thrown their weapons in Paul's anniversary art at the top?)
And that's just some trivia from one (1) song in the game! I really want to do a post just about all the little references in Nuclear Throne music some day.
Thing I've been thinking about lately, slowly coming to some kind of conclusion, or evolution I guess, is of who I am as a composer. Kind of crystallizing what I even do, when I say I compose. And a lot of points in the process of Nuclear Throne music for example is pointing to that already (5 years ago!), but it's only in the last few weeks that I've started to realize things.
But this post is already long so I'll let that thought hang and write it into its own post!
Hey here's some takeaways for this post:
- Personally I really like the process of jamming out a game quickly and then deciding if it's good enough to make commercially over a year or two.
- Revisiting old work is really fun. I did the same with the Luftrausers theme a while back.
- You learn a lot over 5 years, eh? I rarely look back at what I've achieved, always looking forward and stressing about what's next. Writing these blog posts is a really nice way of looking back!
Thank you for reading! This is a first in what I'm gonna call "The Process" posts. Kind of a look into the process of my work. And sometimes it will be an artist statement about the work too, like I talked about last time. This time it became a bit more about the end result itself and a short history of Nuclear Throne. I'm still learning!
You can find Nuclear Throne soundtrack on Bandcamp, Spotify or any other streaming service, if you're interested in hearing it in full. And of course you can get the game from Steam, Playstation Store, etc.
Bye for now!