Tuesday, July 29, 2014

[Review] Offspring Fling OST

Title screen, Offspring Fling, Kyle Pulver, 2012.

The thing that elevates Offspring Fling in my opinion from “cute” to “beautiful” is the soundtrack by Alec Holowka. (My knowledge of the indie games music scene is shamefully lacking, but this is the same composer who did the soundtrack for Aquaria, including its joyful and exploratory first level theme, “The Traveller”.)

To provide some context: Offspring Fling is a game in which one plays as a forest creature rescuing her eponymous offspring from monsters and other woodland hazards. The mechanics are puzzle platformer-ish, though achieving full completion requires pixel-perfect timing and starts to veer towards the “masocore” subgenre of platformer.

The art assets are all low-res small-colour-palette sprites which achieve a homely, pastel crayon look which I believe is technically known as “a less shitty Kirby’s Dreamland 3”. The protagonist herself is round and lemon-furred, with tiny stumps of limbs that belie her strength and a positively saccharine smile that never disappears from her face. Never. Well, except for the “rare” occasion where one of the cubs gets eaten — then we see her face turn to a “goodness, gracious!” look of shock for the half second before the game resets itself to the start of the level. But for the most part: unending saccharine smile.

Gameplay screenshot. Ibid.

Oh, and the main game mechanic involves picking up cubs and tossing (“flinging”) them horizontally at high speeds. This is not a game that takes itself very seriously.

Overall mood: an Enid Blyton fantasy land where everything is going to turn out okay in the end. You get coloured flowers as rewards for completing levels quickly. Flowers. The visual and story aesthetic could not get more cutesy if it tried.

Anyway! The soundtrack. Omigod the soundtrack. It fits perfectly.

The main theme, Mother’s Day, immediately sets the tone from the moment the player hits the main menu. Cast almost entirely in call-and-response phrases and filled out with big brassy chords, it jaunts forward invitingly, calling the player along. The final episode (1:09-1:41) comes as a respite, slow and pensive with a xylophone ostinato that twinkles like stars in the night sky .

Aside: episodes. Game background music loops, and this imposes structural constraints on it. Most importantly: there’s no option of giving a piece a climactic ending. If it builds up from quiet to grand, it has to simmer back down again. Episodic (or even rhapsodic) structure becomes the clearest solution for maintaining a sense of tension and movement — as the music flows from one “section” to the next, it can maintain a similar level of intensity while giving the appearance of ‘building up’. Offspring Fling’s music is mostly structured in this manner, with most tracks composed of distinct sections of 8/16 bars each that flow from one to the next.

The tracks are presented in the OST in a different order to how they’re introduced in the game. The next to appear in-game is John Waters, which like its namesake carries a sense of gravitas in its rhythm which combines with the arrangement and the game’s art style to produce a so-serious-it-isn’t effect. Mending centres on a bassoon line in an unusual chord progression (C7-C7-C7-D) and evokes the sounds of frogs croaking in a hidden woodland pond.

Gameplay screenshot, now with bees for added drama. Ibid.

In a sudden mid-game shift in mood, the aptly (albeit derivatively) named Adventure Time launches into a faster tempo. Its interesting opening motif flits between major and natural-minor modes, while the episodic interludes drive the player forward. The pace is taken up by This is the Day, easily among my favourite tracks for the opening 4 bars alone. (I am a sucker for octave jumps and that E flat at 0:05 just nails it.)

Mellow Magnificent carries the frenetic urgency known only to 7/8 (7/4? whatever) rhythms. (Yes, of course the 2-2-2-1 pattern means that everyone commenting on the Youtube video for this track draws comparisons to Murray Gold’s I Am The Doctor. It’s okay, Internet. We get it. You like 7/8. 7/8 is cool.)

The meta-level buildup is completed with the final boss music for the main quest, Rumbly Rumble, which sees our protagonist matching wits with (and flinging offspring at) a scary monster:

A scary monster. Ibid.

Like the rest of the game, this moment is textbook whimsical comedy. The monster is bigger than the protagonist but nowhere near large enough to fill the screen (and certainly not as intimidating as the opening cutscene makes it look). For a final boss in what is ostensibly a puzzle game, it is also shockingly clumsy and dim-witted. The music is again well matched here: chromatics facing off against one another in the bass and high treble registers; uneven triplets in the former accentuating a certain oafish quality.

At the end of the soundtrack we have Flinging High, which appears in some of the bonus levels. In many ways it functions as a coda — little harmonic tension, celebratory tone in the percussion and the full-orchestra hits — yet Holowka still manages to give it unique little touches that let this track stand on its own, like the seamless breaks between 4/4 and 6/8-3/4.

Even disregarding the visual, mechanical and storytelling style of the game, Offspring Fling’s soundtrack nails the game’s aesthetic and adds immeasurably to its appeal. The game may arguably be a generic puzzle platformer once you get down to the core mechanics, but notwithstanding, it’s one with heart.

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