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Day of the Tentacle Composer Peter McConnell on Communicating Cartooniness

COVER STORY: One of DoTT's trio of musicians talks about the challenges of selling its zany atmosphere with some relatively primitive tools.

Interview by Bob Mackey, .

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[Editor's note: What follows is one of three articles about the making of Day of the Tentacle, written in accordance with the release of its Remastered version. For more about the art of Day of the Tentacle, click here, and for more about the game's design, click here.]

Day of the Tentacle's art, animation, and writing helped sell its status as an interactive cartoon, but it wouldn't reach this ambitious goal without one important piece of the puzzle: music:

Peter McConnell.

Just as Carl Stalling's scores synchronized with the movements of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the like, DoTT's music needed to communicate action as well as atmosphere. Luckily, LucasArts had a friend in iMUSE. This system of theirs ensured the image would always sync up to the sound, and had the capability of making seamless transitions from one piece to another—impressive in an era where the "sound card" existed as a sometimes-costly accessory, rather than something naturally included with every PC. Without a doubt, LucasArts' early innovations in the field of music made their golden age of adventures sound leagues ahead of the canned MIDI loops of PC speaker cacophony of other games.

To gain some insight into this era of video game music, I recently interviewed Peter McConnell, who served as LucasArts' in-house composer from 1991 until 2004. Odds are, if you played a PC game during this period, you've probably tapped your foot along to one of McConnell's scores—even if you didn't play adventure games. Read on, and be sure to check out the other portions of this retrospective for everything you've ever wanted to know about Day of the Tentacle.

USgamer: To start things off, could you explain how Day of the Tentacle differed from other projects you worked on at LucasArts, in terms of your responsibilities and the kinds of work you were doing?

Peter McConnell: Well, Day of the Tentacle was the third project I did there, the first two being Monkey [Island] 2 and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and, it was different in the sense that, by that time, our interactive music system had been pretty well fleshed out, and so we were pretty good at using it by that time... [For] all three of those—Monkey 2, Indy, and DoTT—Michael Land and Clint Bajakian and I split the duties, and Day of the Tentacle was the second-to-last game. I think TIE Fighter might have been the last game where we split our duties equally, and didn't have one guy who was the lead composer. So, those early games, we did a lot of the scores more like being in a band than being one composer, and we would trade pieces back and forth, especially for Monkey 2 and Indy, and very especially for Monkey 2, we would actually collaborate on some of the pieces.

By the time DoTT came along, we were working together, but we always had our spheres of influence... By spheres of influence I mean, Michael did the future, I did the present mostly, and Clint did the past, mostly. And, with one exception, I think I did a couple of pieces for the past, because they were Dr. Fred pieces, and I did Dr. Fred's theme.

McConnell's video game music career began with LucasArts' (then Lucasfilm Games) Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge.

USg: So, I wanted to ask you about working with the technology, and working in that era. Do you miss working under those limitations? I'm also wondering, what did the iMUSE system present in terms of challenges and, in terms of making your job potentially more interesting?

PM: Working on the music system was a big part of the draw for me for that job. I came out here, and my original plan was to do a band with Mike, with Michael Land, and, he was out here first, and by the time I came out, he had gotten a job at Lucas and the band idea kind of fell through. But, there was this really rare opportunity to, A, get paid for writing music, which was an entirely new experience, and B, to apply—and notice the order I put these in—and B, to apply the technical knowledge that I'd gained going back to starting as a physics major in college before switching to music, and then having a job at Lexicon, which is an audio company that makes reverb units.

And Michael and I both worked there, and we had this opportunity to apply some of my music computery skills to a brand new situation where we were inventing stuff, so, that was hugely fun in the beginning and it made up for the god-awful sound that we had to work with. I know I'm somewhat committing heresy here, because there's a lot of nostalgia for the sounds of that era, and I'm still fond of the sound of the MT-32. It's got a certain quality to it that's very charming and warm, and you can do some pretty interesting music on it.

USg: Yeah, there's a certain warmth to that SoundBlaster era that you just don't hear anymore—it's just completely gone from history.

PM: Yeah, I'm not a big fan of the FM synthesis, though, and never was. And we took it extremely seriously. We did completely different sets of music files for Sound Canvas, MT-32, AdLib, and even in the very early games like Monkey we even did PC Speaker, which, if you've ever done anything for PC Speaker, the speaker goes in and it goes out. Those are the commands.

The long and the short of it is, I just did not like the sound. It was a truly, truly a case of polishing a turd, to get your music that you worked so hard on to sound remotely like a bass guitar and drums or remotely, or even more remotely like an orchestra. And it was a great cerebral, it was a great musical challenge in one way, but ultimately you had to live with the fact that at the end of the day, you had something that sounded slightly less awful. Not to take away from the charm of that era, because I think for a lot of people, the reason [they] look back fondly on those games and the sound of those games is that, since you didn't have good production, even OK production values, what you had to do was to make things convincing and jump out of the speakers in a different way. Like, for instance, having a memorable tune.

So, I took that as, we all took that, that was our big challenge. We're going to write themes, we're going to write tunes that people are going to enjoy. Of course, you don't want to be too annoying either, that's always the dance. So, in that sense, those were the good old days, the glory days. We were like a rock and roll band, we were writing tunes together, we were listening to each others' tunes, and we were making them sound as good as you possibly could on that humble hardware.

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