Interview: Aakaash Rao, Composer For Valley Discusses Creating The Soundtrack And More

A few months ago, I was reached out by Aakaash Rao, the composer for Valley from Blue Isle Studios, asking about an interview. I really dug the soundtrack in Valley so I of course said yes! You can check out the interview below, and a lot of Aakaash's work can be found right here. Thanks for doing the interview! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What your role was in creating Valley?

Aakaash: Thanks for reaching out! I’m a game composer based jointly in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Chicago, and I had the privilege to compose the soundtrack for Blue Isle Studios’ Valley. How long have you been creating music? What other games or projects have you worked on?

Aakaash: I’ve been composing ever since I learned to play piano as a child, but I only got into games a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve worked on several PC, console, and mobile titles — I particularly enjoy writing story-driven soundtracks for RPGs. One of my larger project, a voxel-based sandbox called Planet Explorers, came out late last year. What was the design process like for Valley? Did you have free range to create the music you thought would fit the mood, or was there specific notes from different members of the team?

In general, I had a lot of creative freedom. One thing I really appreciated about working with Blue Isle is that I had a working build of the game almost from day one — which happens a lot less often than you might think. The game itself was a fantastic source of inspiration, and I’d often hit upon ideas while exploring the landscape or leaping around in the L.E.A.F. suit.

That said, the other two members of the audio team (Brenden, the audio and technical director and Selcuk, the SFX designer) definitely gave me plenty of input through the process. I’ve worked with a lot of big audio teams in the past, and I think there’s definitely a “too many cooks spoil the stew” effect when too many people get involved in the music, but Selcuk and Brenden did a great job of balancing their own visions for the game’s soundtrack with my ideas. The live musicians with whom I worked also gave me some very helpful input, particularly in regards to using world instruments with which I was not familiar. There's a lot going on in Valley. There are open world elements within forested areas, buildings, underground mines, etc. You get to move really fast, and jump extremely far as you traverse this world, but there is a lot of historical pieces from the 40s told to the player while they are playing. How did this contribute to the overall soundtrack for the game?

One of the biggest challenges in tackling projects of this scope is balancing variety with cohesiveness. You don’t want to bore the player by repeating the same motifs over and over, but you also don't want a complete musical disconnect between the themes associated with different areas. For example, I made a conscious choice to write sweeping orchestral music for the outdoor areas and more distorted, electronic music for the darker indoor environments, but I approached the indoor areas with a mindset of muting and warping the outdoor style rather than selecting a whole different musical palette. Amrita, the theme for the final level and one of my favorite pieces from the soundtrack, blends pads and electronic sounds with some warped live flute.

There’s a lot of subtle melodic and textural motifs weaved into the soundtrack, so the idea is that they help weave the disparate elements together. This is probably more of a subconscious phenomenon — I doubt that most people are listening intently to recognize the musical motifs as the play the game — but I think it does contribute to the player’s immersion. This is most important at the end of the game, where the final track states outright a lot of the themes that previous pieces have been hinting at. As I’m sure your readers who have finished the game can attest, the ending of the game is definitely a cathartic experience, so I hope that the final piece reflects and amplifies the feeling of cleaning and completion. In your mind, what game excels with its soundtrack?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the early Final Fantasy. These were some of the first games I played, so there’s an element of nostalgia, but I still think it’s absolutely incredible how much emotion he was able to convey under the console’s technical constraints. Arnie Roth’s Distant Worlds albums include some fantastic orchestrations of Uematsu’s work. More recently, I’ve also really enjoyed Austin Wintory’s Journey and Gareth Coker’s Ori and the Blind Forest. Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers? What can we look forward to next?

As I mentioned, Planet Explorers came out last year. I’m also currently working on a strategy RPG called Liege, which is a dark, strategy-driven RPG somewhere between Fire Emblem and A Song of Ice and Fire. Now that I’m done with Valley and Planet Explorers, though, I’m keeping my eye out for interesting new projects — I’d love to do a more intimate soundtrack for an RPG or puzzle game.

Thanks so much to Aakaash for taking the time, and remember that Patreon's got access to this interview early. You can check out Valley on Steam, and all of Akaash's work right here.