My Life as a Bottom-Feeder: On Hunting Music in the Public Domain

It’s fortunately long past now, but the weirdest phase of work on the Pale City came quite early. The game took great joy in reminding me of my limited range of talents. Writing (the fun stuff) was less 10 percent of the work, which I would never have imagined possible for a 70,000 word script. Programming was the biggest challenge—the game eventually did most of what I wanted, but it grew erratically, one feature at a time over the course of months or (sometimes) years. I always knew I couldn’t program. But there was another, less expected obstacle: the music.

I had a very specific vision in mind for The Pale City’s sound. RPGs are a bombastic genre—they assault the player with flashing lights and loud music. Sometimes I’ve wondered if these explosions of sound and light are a way to make up for the text-based gameplay. The result is basically an interactive slot-machine: this wild, colorful set of feedback loops as a reward for mashing one button (“attack”) over and over. Even as the player explores towns, the songs brim over with drama and fantasy clichés—any rpg gamer can recognize music from a home village or world-map the moment they hear it.

…It feels incredibly good to listen to this, actually.

My vision for The Pale City was the opposite of all that. I kept thinking of the cold ambience in David Lynch films: that roaring quiet as the camera pans in towards darkness. (You can hear this influence quite clearly in the first dungeon, and in a bunch of different permutations throughout the game.) Sometimes I wanted almost no music at all, just the dull clamor of humans being alive; others, a sort of delicate quiet, with the faintest echo of music in the distance. Another inspiration came from watching my brother play Dark Souls. That game is mostly just environmental noise, but the few songs it does have (usually during boss fights) bloom majestically from the silence. They feel epic, huge, and important. This was an effect I wanted to imitate, even if I do use music more often than Dark Souls.

Anyone who has ever played Dark Souls knows what I’m talking about.

The game was completely silent for nearly a year. All that time I wondered—where the hell was I going to find music like this?

There was only one option: the public domain. I was shocked to discover the range of stuff I could choose from—thousands of songs on over two dozen websites, from choral music in ancient genres to little blips of noise so minor it’s shocking a human being ever bothered to record them. But as anyone with a Netflix account knows, too much can be just as daunting as too little. Most of it didn’t fit or simply wasn’t any good. Then, even when I did begin finding things, it seemed impossible to unify them.

Freesound is, in fact, a pretty awesome place.

The result was string of the strangest weekends of my early twenties. Every Friday, when classes at IUSB had finished for the week, I woke up and scoured the public domain every day until six in the evening on Sunday. Slowly, I accumulated a library of about 400 audio files. This collection is still sitting on my computer today, and resulted in many more evenings listening, categorizing, and figuring out how to use them. I’ll admit to an oddly personal pride from assembling it all, less like a dragon with its hoard than a rat in its den—a sort scavenger king. Some evenings I just listened and felt proud of all the stuff I had dug up; occasionally I built new areas specifically to suit certain songs. And even now, that library of audio files (eventually, I used only about 30 percent of it) gives me a weird sense of accomplishment.

It can be hard to find what you want in the public domain, but there’s a lot to find if you look long enough. A part of me even enjoyed my time as a bottom-feeder. The hunt has its unique rewards: the shock of spotting something useable amidst mountains of junk; the satisfying click of fitting puzzle pieces that were never meant to go together; the lowly, flee-bitten glow of scavenger’s pride. Fortunately, in the end it mostly worked out—the soundtrack is one of my favorite parts of the finished game. But, to be honest, next time it might be easier just to do the music myself.

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