Against the Storm and its compelling, continuous rain

Mikołaj Kurpios explains how he created the immersive music and sound for Against the Storm. 
Against the Storm

When I was a kid, my mum used to talk about ‘saving things for a rainy day’. I think most people use this phrase to mean ‘being careful with money or resources’, but she used it more specifically. Whenever I woke to the rhythmic patter of rain on my window, I knew to expect a treat; something small that she had squirrelled away, like a handful of Lego or a cut-out paper-doll book with pages of clothes to dress the dolls in. 

Recently, I noticed a similar treat-like feeling while playing roguelite city builder, Against the Storm, but had attributed it to the game’s mix of rewarding gameplay and rapid progression, rather than childhood rainy mornings inside, with new toys.

While interviewing composer and sound designer, Mikołaj Kurpios, however, I made the connection. He says, “Rain is very important in our game, so I wanted it to be present everywhere. I did my research and realised that a lot of people listen to rain sounds at work or just for relaxation. I knew that if I did it right, continuous rain might not be a bad choice at all.”

It doesn’t rain, it pours 

It was definitely the ‘continuous’ nature of Kurpios’ rain that I connected my childhood memories to. I had already appreciated some of the richness and detail of the rainy soundscapes in Against the Storm, yet learning more about scope was surprising, nonetheless.

Kurpios explains, “I have had many opportunities to record different types of rain in different parts of the world, often while on vacation. As a result, each biome and season has its own unique type of rain.” 

“There are also different rain sounds in the main menu, on the world map, in the citadel, and in the home. In addition, the pace and presence of rain are technically matched to the pace of gameplay. When the game pauses, the rain stops. When it speeds up, the rain falls faster.”

Against the Storm screenshot
Image: Eremite Games

Indeed, I loved placing buildings, organising production chains, exploring an angry forest and, when I felt ready to speed up the action, immerse myself into a denser deluge. The textural change on pause is even starker, but can allow mental space for the player to make important choices between randomly generated elements, like buildings, blueprints and orders. 

As well as instructive sound effects, like distant thunder as a warning that a storm is approaching, seasons (drizzle, clearance and storm) have separate musical playlists. I learned to fear the harsh, expansive, storm-specific horn lines that meant (among many dark things) that my vulnerable harpy populace were about to get really demoralised, and then relax to the arpeggiated chord transition into a drizzle track. 

And, if real recordings of rain weren’t enough, rain is also creatively depicted in Against the Storm‘s music, by harps, pizzicato (plucked) strings, delay (like a repeating echo), glissandi (rapid scalic runs) and descending contour (pitch that falls down, like rain). Farming Time exemplifies these techniques.

Under the weather

Of course, Kurpios’ contribution to worldbuilding isn’t limited to rain. The Scorched Queen, antagonist (of sorts), is never really explained – at least not in the tens of hours I’ve played so far. Her ‘impatience’ functions as a timer, and ‘the forest’ seems to have a complex relationship with her, but that’s about all we know. When I realised my favourite track was named after The Scorched Queen, I started trying to interpret more about her character aurally. 

Screenshot: Meghann O’Neill

The above motif, occurring at 5 seconds, and loosely transcribed, initially frames a rising open fifth (A and E) as wistful in a way that suggests ‘seeking’ or ‘yearning’ to me, where I’d usually expect this interval to sound much stronger. Use of a dorian 6th (F#) softens it, especially in comparison to the powerful bass parts introduced on an F♮ at 18 seconds.

I love that I hear the game’s harmony as rooted in a range of modes (or scales), often all at the same time (notably on F and A aeolian/dorian). If you’re familiar with harmony, there’s even an explicitly A major related C# sometimes thrown into other tracks, which blows my mind (listen here). 

So the queen is a complex, twisted, yet somehow still dignified, remnant of herself? Although Kurpios wasn’t given direction, beyond her being “mysterious and present”, he says, “I guess I somehow believed she had a good heart, even though I felt she didn’t. The Scorched Queen evokes emotions in me, both melodically and sonically, that I still don’t fully understand. That’s why I named the track after her.”

For me, Kurpios revealed, even created, more of her character than any other aspect of Against the Storm, which is a very cool thing for a composer to do.

This motif also occurs across the soundtrack, in many forms. I was hugely unsettled to hear it in a way that transformed the perfect fifth (A – E) into a tritone (A – Eb), but this presentation suited the ominous ancient seal biome perfectly.

Feel the rain, or just get wet

Indeed, there’s a sense that every element of music and sound in Against the Storm is thoughtfully placed. One of the first things I noticed was that many UI sounds pop out of the soundtrack, like contextual improvisations.

They were so recognisable that I sometimes closed my eyes and relied on sound to explain what was happening as my city managed itself; the arrival of a trader, reveal of a glade, receipt of new orders, and more. Kurpios also linked us to a process video, where you can hear examples of these sounds in context.

“I was lucky enough to do both the sound and music myself and was able to slowly plan and iterate the sounds as the production progressed. Many of the sounds were transposed to the key of the music or composed specifically to fit the music. A lot of the sounds in our game use timbres similar to those I used in music production. I just really wanted the whole soundscape to be coherent, and I believed it would make it more immersive.”

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Part of what makes the transition between seasons and UI sound effects work so well is that the whole soundtrack circles (like the storm) around the note A. In fact, I believe that it’s possible to sing A, without a dissonant clash, over every track, even the more chromatic (with notes outside of the key area). The track Call, is a great example to experiment with singing A over, to appreciate its role as a suspended note across the overarching chord progression – listen and sing A here to try for yourself. The use of ‘common tones’ and ‘ubiquitous drones’ are a great way to plan for dynamic music systems. 

In this case, richly evolving texture keeps the listener engaged over time, rather than harmony. This is no small accomplishment given, as Kurpios says, he “composed an additional 90 minutes of music” on top of the original 40. Textural highlights for me include unexpected booming bass synths that almost suggest a track is going to drop you into EDM, then leave you hanging, and contrasting moments that are absolutely bare and sparse. 

Three seasons in one day 

As I draw this feature to a close, it’s raining; that kind of surprising Sydney downpour unique to February evenings. I feel comfortable and at peace, inside my ‘human house’ (like one of the several race specific dwellings in Against the Storm) and it occurs to me that rain probably has significant meaning for most people and so is a great context to use for connection and art. 

Kurpios concludes, “My favourite part of working on this particular project was seeing an overwhelming, growing group of players confirm that they were feeling similar emotions to the ones I was trying to evoke at certain moments. That reassured me that I was on the right track and gave me confidence.”

If you’ve been saving Against the Storm for a rainy day, don’t delay further. You’ll find the impeccably detailed experience of a great many rainy days inside of your headphones now. 

Meghann O’Neill is a videogame roustabout, with a patchwork career spanning reviews, composition and education, often all three at the same time. She loves the creativity and cleverness that independent developers bring to the medium, especially in Australia. She’d love you to tell her about your game at @indiegames_muso on Twitter.