Checking the Score: Interview with Wizard of Legend Composer Dale North

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

Casting powerful spells, surviving ever-changing dungeons and high speed combat make Wizard of Legend an enjoyable addition to the roguelike dungeon crawling genre. With top-down motion and detailed 2D animation, this indie title from Contingent99 and Humble Bundle seeks to give players an authentic wizarding experience. Players may choose various customizable spell options to gain the advantage in this procedurally-generated dungeon crawler. With ten floors of mobs and bosses to clear, Wizard of Legend delivers on high fantasy action.

None of this action would be complete, however, without a high-energy soundtrack provided by Dale North. His blend of orchestral pieces and synthesizers throughout the game provide a necessary transformation of space. From soothing melodies of respite, to devastating boss fights, North creates a beautiful marriage between gameplay and music. The use of synthesizers gives Wizard of Legend an arcade feeling among the backdrop of fantasy battles. Each track serves a purpose to elevate the game and proves North’s attention to detail. Recently, Hardcore Gamer had the privilege to interview Dale North about his work on the Wizard of Legend soundtrack.

Wizard of Legend is a game of much variety. Ten different levels, each with an elemental type, are constantly changing every time we play. Attempting to pass the Chaos Trials means facing boss wizards in control of Fire, Ice or Earth magic. Because each elemental type also has its unique personality, we asked North about his methods for creating these melodies for different areas, “I checked out gameplay of each level and put some thought into how it would feel to run through these dungeons. All of them honestly felt like they’d be pretty stressful to run through so I put a sense of tension and speed in them — a common theme. But they were all uniquely interesting and attractive on their own, and despite the dungeons being randomly generated they seemed to have their own personality. So I tried to come up with sounds and musical passages that represented what I saw and felt. I spent a lot of time developing the soundscape, instrumentation, and overall musical feel of Wizard of Legend but honestly it was really up to the developers on how these levels would feel. Finally, after talking with the developers I got a good sense of how they felt about their work and how they’d imagine it might sound.”

These elemental personalities can be felt throughout the game, as the use of different instruments creates a theme for each area. So instead of a level just looking like an ice world, North’s desire for organic sounds create even more depth to the world building. The gentle percussion mixed with the jingle of synthesizers, pianos and strings in the track Freiya’s Cage (Ice) are reminiscent of a winter wonderland. North’s creativity to add personality to each area came from his own inspiration from natural elements, “from all this I sat in the quiet and tried to imagine a song that incorporated all of these things. So, for example, for the earth theme I imagined intertwining growth coming between the stones in the walls, and heavy wood around every corner in contrast. Woodwind runs and intertwining passages represented the growth, and solid drum strikes stood for the wood. I took this kind of imaginative approach to all of the stages.”

North’s attention to detail shines through in his composing. He takes advantage of all the tools at his disposal to create a soundtrack that expands on classic melodies. With optimistic melodies in place, North pushes the boundaries of video game music by creating elaborate, yet clear tracks reminiscent of classic games. In talking about his passion for game music and the history of the genre, he states that, “back then they didn’t have the tools or technology to write and record these huge, elaborate pieces of music that we do now, so they had to focus on making the melody do most of the work. And we all became attached to it. The strength of melody is what made me fall in love with game music and had me wanting to do this as a career so I’m always trying to put that into my work.”

North creates these strong melodies to help polish gameplay. High-tempo tracks add to the frantic energy of the game. Running through labyrinthine levels and facing off against hordes of enemies is more epic because of the energetic soundtrack. North, however, does an amazing job of creating tracks that impress the importance of battles upon the player while also maintaining an upbeat theme. In the track Duel (Boss), we hear the urgency of these fights and also the opportunity for triumph. Unlike gothic melodies found in other dungeon crawlers (like Diablo, for example), North originated a lighter tone to accompany the game’s style, “I’m very strict on myself to never look for musical inspiration. Again, with my respect for the earlier composers of game music always in mind, I’m always thinking about how they didn’t have much to go on beyond their own imaginations. So I push myself to come up with what I believe are original ideas for my work.” Much musical inspiration does come from the game itself, North explains. Wizard of Legend not only sounds great, it’s also pretty to look at. Colorful, 2D sprites slinging spells in a high energy environment are inspirational source material of their own. North states that Wizard of Legend does “not sound like a modern day action-rougelike.” While the art takes players back to a more retro time period, North chose to move away from those typical retro melodies into something more unique, “I didn’t focus as heavily on the pixel look — I don’t know that a retro soundtrack would have done service to this game.”

The overall personality of the game is what influenced North the most. From day one, he states that there was a clear idea of what the game should sound like. With inspiration in mind, North felt that a few of the tracks wrote themselves. One such track is the home theme, Arcane Refuge. A bright cheery melody transform Home base into a cozy hideaway. One almost forgets the monsters roaming about in the dungeons when uplifting piano notes and strings greet you from your latest death. Keeping with the optimistic tone of the soundtrack, Arcane Refuge creates a magical atmosphere where the player can rest for a moment. With death being such a major element in the game, creating a musical cheer-leading squad can make a major difference in whether a player wants to continue. Having played Wizard of Legend, it’s easier to go back again and again when the music is uplifting (unlike a game like Dark Souls where the music foreshadows our imminent death).  Pairing this with detailed sprite animations, North blends together art style with music, “the magic and how fantastic the animations are for it was the biggest takeaway for me as far as influence went. I love the beautiful design and animation behind them and I really wanted my music to feel equally as pretty and polished.”

North’s use of synthesizers throughout the soundtrack amidst a booming orchestra created the energetic sounds he was looking for. These decisions to use a synth came from much discussion with developers. In composing the soundtrack, North took many developer opinions into consideration. Working with them to polish the game, it was a joint effort to create musical representations of fantasy and magic. North says that the decision to use synthesizers gave way to many musical options–keeping with the game’s creative theme, “Honestly I just love synthesizers. Especially the ones that were used heavily in the soundtracks of games released in the 1990s and early 2000s. For me, the sparkly, bright, searing sounds I could generate with synthesizers would work nicely for this.”

Mixing these synthesizer elements with an orchestra helps to create a “sense of mysticism,” as North puts it. His awareness of the standard musical elements of contemporary roguelikes helped inform his decisions for composing Wizard of Legend. Where many recent roguelikes have straightforward rhythm, North states his goal was to “chase the idea of irregular rhythm.” Not only does this create opportunities for new standards of music in rouguelike games, it also stays true to the game’s playstyle and procedurally generated levels. A major component of the game is its ever changing levels. Being able to equip various spells in order to maneuver unknown challenges ahead create an opportunity for a less rigid sound. The level of consideration for gameplay in musical composition is what ties Wizard of Legend’s themes together. North speaks to his consideration of the gameplay by stating, “It’s sort of a nod to the randomly generated dungeons and how, out of nowhere, you could turn a corner and the gates slam down behind you and you’re stuck in this tense fight. Almost like magic. So I kept things fast with super quick string riffs and rhythms and woodwind runs that are so fast they’re barely playable, and the organic nature of orchestral instruments let me keep things pliable and free, and helped me get away from being rigid and straightforward.”

Wizard of Legend introduces a new type of dungeon crawler to fans of the genre. And while magical spells and high speed combat give the game unique gameplay, none of it would be complete without the thoughtful musical composition by Dale North. His respect for the title drove his inspirations for the various melodies found throughout the soundtrack. Blending organic rhythms with the diverse sounds of synthesizers, North helps guide the game’s direction by creating a memorable atmosphere. North’s musical influences create a twist for rouguelike game music and utilize themes also found within the art and gameplay. Throughout the soundtrack, North’s attention to detail is evident as he set out to create high energy, magical music for the fast paced game. Dale North, however, attributes much of the soundtracks success to developer collaboration in creating a new feel for a classic genre, “I guess what really inspired me was the guidance of the developers behind Wizard of Legend. We talked a lot about what they wanted and I could always feel the passion they had for their work. It made me want to be just as driven and just as original.”