Home Top News and Stories World News Headlines Scoring ‘Sable’ was different from anything Japanese Breakfast has done before
Scoring ‘Sable’ was different from anything Japanese Breakfast has done before

Scoring ‘Sable’ was different from anything Japanese Breakfast has done before


Scoring ‘Sable’ was different from anything Japanese Breakfast has done before

Michelle Zauner has been busy.

2021 has seen not only the release of her long-awaited third studio album, Jubilee, under the stage name Japanese Breakfast, but also the publication of her memoir, Crying in H Mart, which is set to be adapted into a feature film after being crowned a New York Times Best Seller. Now, Zauner’s latest musical endeavor is out in the wild, and it’s different from anything she’s done before: a video game score.

Sable is about a young girl’s journey through her “Gliding;” a rite of passage that is meant to enlighten its brave participant and help them discover their destiny. Sable’s adventure sees her and her trusty hoverbike navigate a sprawling world of captivating landscapes filled with ancient ruins, spaceship remains, and a rich history that is ripe for meticulous investigation. The game’s unique art style and explore-at-your-own-pace world was the perfect canvas for Zauner’s first foray into composing a score fit for an ambitious indie darling.

“It’s been a really, really long time coming.”

“I got involved very early,” Zauner told Mashable in an interview. “Daniel Fineberg, one of the devs, invited me on in October of 2017. He was a fan of my music, but he’d also seen that I released a small RPG to help promote Soft Sounds from Another Planet and had done an interview with Polygon where I talked about my love of video games.”

Because she joined on so early in the development process, finding what Sable‘s score would sound like was a gradual process that required a lot of patience and small steps forward.

“It started with just seeing the art and GIFs, and reading a Word document of what they imagined the game’s different biomes would be like. And then the next year, it would be seeing actual clips and videos, and composing to that. The year after that, I finally started getting builds of the game once a week and playing through it, adding music throughout. So it’s been a really, really long time coming.”

Zauner’s history with gaming goes way back. “I really love a lot of early RPG games,” she said, citing Secret of Mana and Chrono Cross as two of her childhood favorites. Her admiration for those games is due in part to their accompanying soundtracks, and they would eventually go on to inspire some of her work on Sable.

“It was really fun to make, like, variations on a theme. That’s something that I think Chrono Cross and Breath of the Wild did really well, where there are daytime and nighttime variations of each song.”

Zauner says that finding small ways to manipulate established themes and create different feels for each of them was an invigorating experiment. “That was a really fun thing that I never got to do before, where I could say ‘Oh, it’s nighttime, so I’m going to take the same theme, and same instrumentation, and the same key, but I’m going to slow it down by like 20 BPM and make it feel sparser.’ Or even making percussive elements a little bit softer and quieter to make it feel different from the daytime track.”

'Sable' is now out on Xbox and PC.

‘Sable’ is now out on Xbox and PC.
Credit: Shedworks

While Zauner is no stranger to making music as Japanese Breakfast, she admits that tackling a video game score is an entirely different beast that presents its own unique challenges. “Sable is largely made up of instrumental and ambient songs, so they’re the total opposite of a Japanese Breakfast song, which kind of operates within a pop structure where you’re always trying to captivate a listener with a great hook.”

Constructing a sonic identity for Sable wasn’t about being catchy, though, she says. “You want to have these like, really sprawling loops that don’t take up too much of your attention, because you’re hearing it so often and it would get super annoying to hear a repeating hook over and over.”

Even when Zauner does enter back into the lyrical realm in Sable, the approach still contrasted with how she would go about writing a song for a Japanese Breakfast album. “Lyrically, this game has nothing to do with my personal life, whereas a lot of Japanese Breakfast songs are hyperpersonal and explore a lot of very detailed observations about me or investigate some sort of emotional trauma that I’ve experienced. Sable had to be very broad and explore more universal, vague themes that didn’t have a lot of detail yet, because a lot of the game’s narrative was still getting worked on while I was composing for it.”

Getting involved so early in development also allowed Zauner the opportunity to help shape some of the game’s bigger, show-stopping moments. “One of the first references Gregorios and Daniel [Sable‘s two lead developers] mentioned was the scene in Red Dead Redemption where the José González track comes on as you’re heading to a town and you’re riding on your horse.”

That’s when Zauner knew that she wanted Sable to have a moment of similar scope, which would become the game’s post-tutorial opening that releases players into an open world to the tune of standout single, “Glider.” It’s the perfect introduction to hold your hand as you, the curious traveler, begin to cross Sable‘s expansive sands.

Hand-holding is something that Zauner’s score does a lot in Sable, and it’s vital to the experience. It’s a game that, for long stretches of time, forces you to be alone as you traverse liminal salt flats and empty plains. That might sound boring, maybe even frightening to some, but it’s not. It’s actually beautiful, thanks not only to Sable‘s gorgeous art style, but also to what you hear as you trek through its many spaces. The game’s score is a presence that’s always guiding you, and a reminder that soon you’ll happen upon something magnificent. It’s a comforting hand on your shoulder, telling you to keep going when you feel like you might be the only person roaming this strange, lonely world anymore.

Zauner made that a reality by carefully considering the instruments and tones that would accompany each area of the game, developing distinct personalities that set one apart from the next. “I knew that I wanted the camps in each biome to have a warm, homey feel to them. I felt like more analog instruments would work better for those areas, so every time you hit a camp I’m using a Nylon string guitar. But in the Badlands, you’ll hear super reverb-ed out electric guitars, and more woodwind instruments when you come across the open dunes. It was all about the feel I wanted each area to evoke in terms of instrumentation and what kind of chord changes they needed.”

Sable‘s remarkable visual identity helped to inform what exactly the “feel” for each area would be. “There are a lot of different eras at play in Sable‘s world. Like, there’s a lot of really organic flora and fauna that you’ll see, and then there are also these sort of industrial ships and types of sci-fi technology.”

Zauner kept that in mind as she composed the game’s 32 different arrangements. “[The dev team] talked a lot about those ‘eras’ within the game. The ‘atomic era’ is the more industrial stuff, so I knew I wanted to use an instrumental palette that felt more futuristic. Then there’s also the ‘monumental era’ that feels very ancient and has a lot of history, so I incorporated more organic choir samples and woodwinds into those moments.”

For some composers, creating a musical arrangement starts with a foundation in theory. Zauner confesses that the technical stuff isn’t her biggest strength. “I think so much of it is like, intuition. I watched these 8-bit Music Theory videos on YouTube, which are all about the theory behind why certain sounds and chords make you feel tension and other emotions. But I also was talking to Aaron Maine of Porches about this, and he was like, ‘or sometimes you just find a ‘spooky chord.” I feel like I don’t have a tremendous knowledge of musical theory, and as much as I wish I did, a lot of the time it was just about coming across that ‘spooky chord.'”

Sable has been in the works for many years, and it’s finally out on the heels of two of Zauner’s biggest undertakings to date. She says that it’s an amazing feeling, even though it wasn’t necessarily the plan.

“It’s really surreal. I mean, I feel like people are really fed up with me because I’ve had so many major releases this year already, but like, I’ve been working on all of these projects for the past five years and I didn’t anticipate them all coming out at the same time! I kind of wish it was more spread out, but it’s such a new, exciting medium for me and I’m really excited for people to finally experience what I’ve experienced; to see what we’ve made with Sable.”

When asked if scoring for a game is something she would be open to doing again, Zauner’s answer was a resounding “yes.” “I’m really looking forward to people just seeing my capabilities as a composer, because I don’t know if many people see me that way. Hopefully, I’ll get another job!”

If the initial reactions to Sable are anything to go off of, it’s all but certain that we’ll get another Japanese Breakfast-scored title in the future. Until then, you can fill the time by listening to the soothing sounds of Sable as you peacefully glide across its many desert dunes, ready to uncover whatever lies beyond the horizon.


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