Interview with “Plants Vs. Zombies” composer, Laura Shigahara

You just won a GANG award for Plants Vs. Zombies this past GDC. The game has really taken off, did you expect it to become this popular? And has the success of this game opened some new doors for you?

I had no idea! Even though I had always felt that Plants vs. Zombies was a very unique and compelling game (especially after seeing hardcore gamer friends get just as addicted to it as people like my parents), I certainly didn’t expect it to become as popular or widespread as it is now. The game’s success has definitely made it easier for folks to find out about my music, which I’m very thankful for.

Could you explain a bit about your path to writing game music so far? Did you go to music school, or a trade school, or did you sort of happen on to game music ? How did you get your first gig and parlay that into more work? Did you learn the ropes from somebody who was already in game music?

I started taking piano lessons when I was 5, and continued them for about 11 years. Although I’m a really terrible sight-reader, I’ve always been able to play by ear; so as a kid I spent a fair amount of time just improvising and playing my favorite songs on the piano. One of my favorite things to play was music from Megaman and other Capcom games. I taught myself how to play guitar and drums at some point in high school, although I don’t think I’m very good at either of those. Despite the fact that music (and even video game music) was important to me throughout my childhood, I came from an area that was very rigid about careers. Everyone expected you to become a lawyer, doctor, or engineer so I had no idea that having a music-related career was even an option.

For college, I went to UC Berkeley where I majored in International Relations and Business, but I continued to work on music in my spare time. My friend gave me some sequencing software (Cakewalk 7.0), which I used to recreate video game songs and compose original music. I loved it. I devoted a lot of my spare time to learning about sound engineering, various music software, and producing/arranging music. Through a series of random events, I ended up being offered a record contract in Japan during one of my spring breaks. I ended up turning it down for personal reasons, but at that point I realized pursuing a career related to music and creativity was definitely possible.

After finishing college, I worked several different music-related jobs, and at some point a friend asked if I wanted to do a soundtrack for a game he was consulting for. Although I wasn’t paid for this soundtrack, the company ended up liking my music so much that they offered me a ton of paid work after that. Working with them also helped me get contracts with other companies and developers. From there, I just slowly built up my portfolio and with each job I’ve learned a little more.

When working on P v. Z, what sort of information was given to you before you wrote any music? Did you have drawings, text descriptions of levels, or an actual build of the game to try the music out etc? I’m curious what sort of information you were given during the course of writing the music that helped you arrive at the tone that is present in the music.

I actually got to play the game, which was tremendously helpful. I find that being able to experience the gameplay firsthand is great for inspiring music. In playing some of the earlier builds, I realized that the game had three major style aspects that I wanted to focus on when composing the music. I felt that the game had an overall macabre feel because of the zombies, yet it was also cute at the same time (the art style and movements of the plants and even the zombies were drawn in a very cute and charming manner). There was also a lot of over-the-top ridiculous humor (like when the bungee zombies steal your plants, or when the bobsled team slides out after a “Zomboni” ices your lawn).

So I basically composed around these three focal points… I made sure the music had a macabre feel by incorporating Gothic-Classical elements (lots of half steps, minor scales, etc.). I tried to give it a “cute” feel by utilizing catchy melodies and harmonies inspired by pop and old school video game music from the NES/SNES eras. And I integrated wacky percussion combinations to fit the humorous parts of the game. I found that mixing Big Band Swing beats with Gothic Classical instrumentation really matched those ridiculous scenes where your lawn was being overrun!

I think I read in your gang profile that you perform live (at least in the bay area) are you still doing this, if so do you have a band? Are you making other music besides game scores?

I do still perform live, although I haven’t gotten to lately because I’ve been pretty busy with work. I don’t have a band; usually I just play the piano and sing. But I would love to play with a band sometime… I’ve played in groups in the past and it’s a lot of fun when there are others up there with you! Yes, I am making music besides game scores… I really enjoy writing songs, so whenever I’m inspired I’ll try to arrange the music and record the vocals before the song leaves my head 🙂 I’m also working on a singer-songwriter album with Chuck Doud which has been a really fun experience.

Do you have any advice for anyone new to the game industry? Maybe 1 or 2 things you feel would be very important steps in establishing themselves in the industry?

I think it’s really important as a composer to figure out what stands out about your music, hone it, and get it out there for others to see. If there is something unique about your music, make sure people can hear it! Even though the current game music landscape features a lot of ambience and orchestral music, don’t be afraid to put a different kind of music at the forefront if that’s where you really shine. If you happen to be a phenomenal bass player, or maybe you write really catchy songs, or perhaps your hip hop tracks are incredible… don’t be afraid to show that to folks. Producers respect uniqueness, so even if you end up getting hired to make ambience or orchestral music, you might have been initially noticed because of something else about your music that really stood out from the crowd.

I also read that you are developing your own game. Could you describe the game, what sort of role you are taking in the project, have you hired anyone to help, how close is it to being finished?

My game (“Melolune”) is a Super Nintendo style rpg that focuses heavily on story and music. It’s pretty much a one-girl operation; I don’t have any folks working for me or anything so I have to take care of everything (story, programming, music, etc.). I have traded with folks though; I’ll make them music in exchange for background art or programming. And my boyfriend has been kind enough to help out with the battle system interface. The game is nearly complete… I’ve been working on it for about 3 years and I’m trying to have it finished by the end of 2010 (wish me luck… I’m gonna need it, hehe 🙂

The game’s story is about twin boys who come from a place where people collect song fragments and assemble them in order to keep their world alive. After a catastrophic event takes the lives of the twins’ parents, the boys are separated for reasons unbeknownst to the player at the start of the game. You play as one of the twins after the separation, and after having been adopted by a tribe of small cat-like creatures called Leebles.

Do you have any other new projects coming out soon that you can discuss and/or describe?

I did just finish recording vocals for a pet in World of Warcraft (the singing sunflower) which was a lot of fun.

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald