“I remember playing Dead Space and just thinking ‘why is it so scary?’,” Sergio Ronchetti tells me of the first time he realised that someone must have been responsible for […]
“I remember playing Dead Space and just thinking ‘why is it so scary?’,” Sergio Ronchetti tells me of the first time he realised that someone must have been responsible for the music found in video games. “I’m just walking down a corridor and I’m f**king petrified,” he continues, laughing and even politely apologising for swearing, “I’m just terrified and that’s when I started actively listening, thinking ‘okay, there’s a violin in the background – I wonder who did that?'”
Ronchetti’s curiosity about the power of music to create atmosphere and ambience – terror, even – then led him to films and the same realisation; that someone specifically created the musical accompaniment to the onscreen action – and it became a passion. As Ronchetti tells me, “I love discovering composers to films; they’re like the rock stars of the modern composer.”
His admiration for the work of different composers – Alan Silvestri, Ennio Morricone, Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Carpenter and Max Richter are all mentioned – is infectious and sets us off on all kinds of tangents (Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing is named as his favourite film – which perhaps also explains why Dead Space is such an important touchstone for Ronchetti too), but we were actually speaking to discuss his work on the music for newly-released pixel-art boss rush indie game, Eldest Souls.
It’s a game with beautiful visuals, tough-but-fair, rewarding gameplay and some incredibly impressive atmosphere – thanks largely to the audio aspect of the game, which Ronchetti was responsible for. Though it’s Ronchetti’s first game soundtrack, he’s hardly a newcomer to the world of music. Echoing the stories of other composers I’ve spoken to in terms of wanting to be in a band, he divulges: “When I was in high school, I started playing in bands, every spare minute. At break times, lunchtimes – jamming with friends playing Green Day songs.” His musical horizons had been broadened by what seems like a pretty pivotal visit to a relative abroad. “I went to see my Uncle in Spain; his apartment was literally laced with cassettes, vinyl and CDs. Everything from thrash the hard rock to classic to pop.”
Ronchetti soon found a style of music – and a band – that really appealed to him though. “The thing that stuck with me was how cool it would be to be a Metallica fan,” he tells me, “I was fourteen and I was like ‘yeah, I’m going to be a Metallica fan’. I got really into them!”
This had such an impact on Ronchetti that he decided he wanted to learn how to play the electric guitar himself. “At school I was waiting for electric guitar lessons to come about,” Ronchetti says, but they weren’t on offer. Instead, they were able to set up bass guitar lessons, which pushed Ronchetti in that direction. “I said, ‘okay, fine – I’ll play bass’. I discovered who Cliff Burton [late Metallica bassist] was and that was it, all I wanted to do was be Cliff Burton, with my distortion pedal, imitating his solos.”
Having no interest in University at the time, Ronchetti had a different idea in mind. “When it came to the end of high school, I had no interest in anything but playing in a band – and I managed to find a band to do that with,” he continues. “It was great; the highs were the best times of my life – but the lows were quite literally rock bottom for me.” Despite the latter point, it’s clear that this was what truly set Ronchetti’s musical future in motion, as he confirms. “We got to tour, we got to play – that’s how it got started for me.”
Music was far from Ronchetti’s only interest though, with plenty of games having made a big impact on him over the years. “As a metal fan, I love anything gory, dark and gothic,” he says, which again brings Dead Space and The Thing to mind. As with music, however, his tastes are broader than you may initially expect. “More recently, I’ve been playing Ratchet and Clank on the PS5. I’ve never played Ratchet and Clank before,” he admits, “but it is unbelievable – it’s ridiculously good. Just fantastic.” Other recent PlayStation games are mentioned as examples of great features and design as well: “Spider-Man: [Insomniac] really nail the web-swinging mechanic. Ghost of Tsushima – you can just do the same thing over and over again without even doing the campaign; you just really feel like ‘yeah, they’ve nailed it’.”
It’s not long before we’re back to the darker, heavier end of the scale however. “I think I gravitate more towards horror though – dark, moody games. The Last of Us II in my opinion is probably one of the most important, best games of the decade.”
Aside from the games themselves, Ronchetti gives me a few examples of recent soundtracks that have made a big impression on him too. “Ghost of Tsushima – the work that Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi did was just incredible; this authentic, Japanese music bolstered by the power of a Western orchestra. The result speaks for itself.” Ronchetti mentions another title, but interestingly it’s a game he hasn’t yet played. “I discovered Bobby Krlic’s soundtrack for Returnal – I haven’t stopped listening to it, it’s fantastic. It makes me want to play the game even before I’ve got my hands on it!”
With so much obvious love for games and their music, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ronchetti has found himself working on a game’s soundtrack – and, as it turns out, the audio design in general – himself. Even less surprising is that the game would be a dark, moody and brutal experience, a description that most definitely fits Eldest Souls. How did this come about though? “It was serendipity, really. I was studying at the same time as Jonathan [Costantini] and Francesco [Barsotti], the developers, who’d taken a year out to work on the game – which was a real passion project for them. I met them on their gap year at a workshop in London, we started chatting – they asked me to do the sound design and that was it.”
Ronchetti’s Eldest Souls soundtrack is incredibly atmospheric; there’s a beautiful, ethereal ambience in the game’s quieter moments – between the adrenaline surges of relentless boss battles, which are scored with much heavier and more intense music. With each boss being so unique in terms of their visuals and attack patterns, their themes are also very different, as Ronchetti elaborates: “Each boss was so distinct from the others that I could enhance their characteristics and personalities with the music, even with the pace of the fight.”
With each one being different and that approach decided upon, was that a difficult task that Ronchetti had set himself? “In some ways it was challenging, because each Boss was a fresh new idea and I wasn’t able to use recurring themes,” he says – and admits that the chosen path did create an unforeseen challenge. “As a composer who studied Richard Wagner and his use of leitmotifs [recurring musical phrases], I didn’t have the opportunity to work in the same theme in different ways.”
Despite – or perhaps more accurately, because of – this, the Eldest Souls soundtrack feels and sounds very different to the usual work that can be found in smaller scale indie games that will often rely on a certain amount of repetition in their scores. With Ronchetti being responsible not just for the music, but also for the sound design itself, interesting and pleasingly old-fashioned approaches were taken on that side of things too, as he informs me: “At uni I learned how audio was introduced into film – like in the 1930s they used to replicate rain with things like bacon frying and I thought that was so cool. Obviously they didn’t have the equipment to record water or stuff like that. So I did that as well!”
There was much more than that though, with Ronchetti revealing a few examples of the sound effects he implemented – his car handbrake stood in for the sound of levers and his voice is in boss fights, as well as NPCs. “I had so much fun doing these sounds,” he tells me.
The music and audio design of video games is often overlooked in favour of the millions of polygons or beautiful pixel art on display; gaming can often feel like a very visual medium. Yet, as my chat with Sergio Ronchetti demonstrates, sound is an absolutely essential part of any game’s experience.
Any artist will tell you that it’s difficult to be entirely happy with all of the results of your work. Ronchetti himself admits that this is a problem with artists in general. “I have a mantra which is: ‘prolific, not perfect’. Everybody’s obsessed with making something as best as they can – you write a piece of music or a piece of writing literature and you’re like, ‘it’s not good enough yet, let’s rewrite it’,” he says. “Well, no. Just put it aside. Okay, maybe you’re right, maybe it’s not great. Throw it away. Write something better – but you need to start from something in order to improve, and the more practice, we do, the better,” he continues. “It’s better to write a hundred mediocre pieces of work, as opposed to focusing on just one in the same amount of time, because every time you do it you learn something and take that to the next one.”
Artists need those limitations, to know when to just move on, he argues. “Perfectionism is you being worried about what people are going think of it – this is you being self conscious, which is only natural, so it’s better to just accept you’re never going to have that feeling of being perfectly happy with your work all the time,” he explains. “It won’t happen all the time because every now and then you write a piece of work or you finish a song and you’re like, ‘that’s great, that’s exactly what I wanted’ – and you’re happy.”
In listening to – or experiencing – the Eldest Souls soundtrack, however, it’s difficult to see any fault with it; as an outsider divorced from the process of creating it, the music and sound simply seems like a brilliantly unique creation – and one that helps to give this small, independent passion project a very distinct identity that’s not even particularly common in the triple-A games space, let alone in the indie realm. Ronchetti’s work on the project should definitely be one of those instances he mentioned, in which he was able to stand back and recognise it as a project that he absolutely nailed; a work of art that he should rightly be proud of.
Many thanks to Andrew Krop and Kyrie Hood at White Bear PR for putting me in touch with Sergio and helping to arrange the interview. Many thanks also go to Sergio Ronchetti himself for taking the time to speak to me!
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