You can't remember a Tony Hawk game without remembering its music. The Tony Hawk games always featured expansive soundtracks that blended hip-hop, punk, and everything in between. It all felt unified under the umbrella of skateboarding culture. Tracks that wouldn't feel out of place overlaid on a skate video, bouncing from the likes of Del the Funky Homosapien to Dropkick Murphys without a second thought.
Few games consider nor even take the time to curate soundtracks that are so perfectly emblematic of their era; whether it's modern, old, or whatever. There are exceptions—Jet Set Radio Future, the Tony Hawk games, others in the same breath—but when you cast a net far and wide, it's mostly sweeping compositions across bombastic triple-A games, or forgettable hymns beyond. In a way, curated licensed music feels like it's a dying breed in games, relegated only to the hits of today's pop music in a Just Dance game. But animator Jim Dirschberger and artist Travis Millard have different plans for their upcoming game.
"I wanted to have a soundtrack that was a little more diverse than just heavy metal, chugging guitars the entire time, which I think you see in a lot of side-scrolling games. It's just kind of background noise," said Dirschberger, head of independent game studio Wide Right Interactive and creator of the Nickelodeon show Sanjay and Craig. "I wanna be able to mix it up. I want digital beats from Com Truise, but I also want the guitars from Ty Segall. I want the crunchy noise from Metz, and I want the weird, kinda heady intellectual hipster goth rock of John Maus. I wanted all of that. I wanted that diversity."
Dirschberger and Millard are making the tentatively titled Gamma Ray Blue, a satire-laden side-scrolling action game that wants to feel familiar with a twist—its music will drive the action. Not quite in a rhythmic way, but in terms of how enemies and characters react, how the lighting and the mood adjusts per level, the way in which characters shoot. Everything's tethered to the song and its flow, like a Metz-soundtracked level will likely be far more chatoic than a level featuring the soothing beats of Com Truise. "It's just another way where we're trying to look at the genre and finding ways to improve upon it, and drive that connection to the awesome soundtrack we have," said Dirschberger. "The overall tone will hopefully be something that you haven't seen in this space before. Which is leaning on comedy, leaning on satire, and not taking itself too seriously."
The soundtrack, as revealed so far according to Millard's Instagram, will feature the likes of Ty Segall, Metz, White Fence, Red Fang, Com Truise, Drab Majesty, Cleaners From Venus (what they describe as "jangly British indie pop rock"), Tobacco, Radio Dept., John Maus, and many more. Even the game's tentative name is born from its bountiful soundtrack: it's directly lifted from the track "Gamma Ray Blue" from Cleaners from Venus' Martin Newell.
It's a varied soundtrack, but intentionally so. It's the type of music you'd probably see in the "recommended if you listened to" section on Spotify. It's also unlike most licensed music in games. It's not a one-off song, nor is it fleeting pop music. If anything, it fits squarely alongside the Tony Hawk series as another game that captures the tone of an era of music (and culture) across various genres, and even decades of time.
Dirschberger and Millard have worked together in the past, having known one another for about five or six years. They operate on similar but different spectrums. Dirschberger, usually in the realm of animation with his cartoon Sanjay and Craig and other independent work. Millard bends his art in strange ways, from music videos to intensely detailed sketches to share on Instagram. Around "once per year" the two make something together, usually directly related to videos.
Gamma Ray Blue is their first interactive project though; their first video game. But the process isn't technically unfamiliar. For Dirschberger, it mirrors animation even. The two complicated processes line-up: in collecting art work, performance, music, writing, and so on. Yet even then, there's still uncharted territory. Things have to be interactive, after all. "I think this is our most ambitious thing that we've tried to come together on for sure at this point," said Millard.
When I sat down to write this, I tried to muster up comparisons for Millard's art, but came up with nothing. His work is singular, with a child-like, cartoonish glee that's at once grotesque and a bit surreal. If nothing else, it's completely unlike what you'd expect from a video game. He's designed album covers and skateboards, or directed music videos over the years. Millard's work has expanded its reach far and wide, beyond just pen and paper, and video games seem like the next logical step. Something beyond just animation, ricocheting into the world of technical art. And Millard's art is part of the draw for Gamma Ray Blue—it looks like nothing else out there.
"There is not a single piece of pixel art in the entire game, not that there's anything wrong with pixel art, but I wanted to do something that felt hand drawn that was completely immersive," said Dirschberger, regarding why he reached out to Millard on doing art direction for the game. "Every aspect of the game, from the menu down to characters, was drawn straight from Travis. That was our one goal, to make it feel like a living, breathing cartoon world."
Every frame for Gamma Ray Blue is hand sketched by Millard. As Millard detailed on Instagram, the process is a long one with lots of scanning. Dirschberger will draw a "crappy" thumbnail, Millard will draw essentially a better version of that. After that, they digitize everything, and the animation team gets to work in animating the layers together. Then the final character animations are blended into the game's background, colored, and special effects are added, as are voice overs before a complete export to Unity. It's a weighty process, but one necessary to retain the clear throughline of Millard's unique art direction.
Gamma Ray Blue is a game that materialized out of circumstance. Working on a Nickelodeon show, Dirschberger naturally accumulated connections over the years; Tim Presley of White Fence once did music for Dirschberger's Sanjay and Craig. Once upon a time, Dirschberger and Millard collaborated on a music video for the band Metz (a band featured in Gamma Ray Blue's soundtrack). For voice acting, the connections weren't unlike the music's.
The cast for Gamma Ray Blue is a surprising one though, consisting of voice over juggernauts Nolan North (Uncharted, and uh, everything really), John DiMaggio (Gears of War, Adventure Time), Eric Bauza (Coconut Fred's Fruit Salad Island, Ape Escape), and Sam Riegel (Ace Attorney, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Like with a lot of the music, Dirschberger and Millard already had some connections to the voice actors. North, DiMaggio, and others once did voice acting for Sanjay and Craig. The working relationship was already there, and thus, further collaboration came almost naturally.
"I met [Nolan] at GDC this year and I was like 'Hey, I got this game, I just finished writing it, we're going into production, I want you to play the lead, what do you think?' I knew that if Nolan was into it, that most of the guys would be down too," said Dirschberger. "And Nolan loved it, he said 'This is fucking insane and I have to do it.' So, yeah. We recorded the cast about a month ago here in LA over two days, the script was only 50 pages but it was really dense."
Currently, Gamma Ray Blue is still early in development. On Wide Right Interactive's website, they list that the game is aiming for release in 2018. They hope to show off gameplay, an "official" debut, and more in the coming months. In the meantime, having wrapped up voice acting, locking down licensed music, and hard at work on animating the game, Gamma Ray Blue is well in production as a game of pure luck, with every lone oddity falling nicely into place. "Y'know, independent video game production is pretty volatile right now. You have these really great games that go under the radar and are creatively successful but commercially fail," said Dirschberger. "You have the reverse of that, but it just felt like all the stars aligned. I had access to the resources to fund the game, I had willing participants like Travis and all the voice crew. I think we have an interesting perspective with our game. So hopefully we'll see it through and people will respond to it."