Header Image: A promotional rendering for “Ascension” by Mayorhead. The Scholar, The Doctor, and The Escort (left to right) gaze out at the red flares of the Aurora Hirschfalis beyond the cold desolation of the city.
The medium of games is relatively new to trans perspectives. In recent years Maddy Makes Games’ award-winning Celeste (2018) has achieved worldwide acclaim not only for its punishingly brilliant pixel art level design but also for its endearing narrative of self-discovery. This year, developer SulMatul ventured into similar thematic territory with their self-described “transgender visual novel loosely based on [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Stalker,” Ascension: Transition And Silver (2021).
Sitting at the intersection of sci-fi literature, cinema, comics, and even ecological nonfiction (read: Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us), SulMatul‘s game is a confidently and painstakingly written work with branching paths and multiple endings that are less related to conventional narrative trajectory. Rather, they are all about dialogue and the nuanced shifts in character dynamics between the abrasive Doctor (she/her), who meets up with the shy Scholar (he/him) at an urban “underclub.” They both await the sardonic Escort (they/them) to guide them away from the tyranny of life under “The Hierarchy” through a treacherously overgrown realm known as “The Zone” (as in the famed Tarkovsky film, which is also based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel, Roadside Picnic).
Although lead development of the game was helmed by Hayley-Isabella Cawley, who lives in Scotland, Ascension has a couple of key local connections: Illustrator Joanna Estep and co-composer Kyle Merckx are both based in Madison. (Merckx split the game’s soundtrack with the UK-based Zoë Blade.) Each helped shape the game’s non-cisgender character representation and decidedly introspective identity, which stress the inextricable links between physical and emotional unity in overcoming adversity, as well as the lore (and lure) of hope in each of the three characters’ seeking out a wish-fulfilling entity known as “The Room.”
Diving deeper into the world of game composition and sound design, Merckx recently opened up about the project in a personal conversation. “I got into contact with Hayley [through a friend, Estep]. She gave me the pitch for the game, the script, and the general aesthetic they were going for. It was right up my alley. She wanted this ‘Sovietwave’-style music, [because] the game is based on the Tarkovsky film [which I loved],” he says. “The backgrounds in the game are all photos that Hayley took when she visited Chernobyl [in summer 2016 and winter 2018, respectively, to understand ‘The Zone’ as a concept]. So, I had a demo with those photos all in place…I had a few Russian reference tracks that she sent me before I started playing around with specific synth sounds.”
The aesthetic of “Sovietwave,” as Crawley methodically characterizes via email, evokes the arc and experience of Ascension itself. As a genre, it “roughly marries the idea of nostalgia for Soviet hope and idealism and progress in the future, whilst also being contemplative of its modern decay and failure,” Crawley says. “It fundamentally elicit[s] a bittersweet mood in which loss, failure, and degradation are contrasted against hopeful nostalgia for the old, with, perhaps, a certain hope that such an ambitious future still could be realized.”
Despite that intrinsic polarity, Merckx recalls, chuckling, that his original demos weren’t oppressive-sounding enough. “Musically, they were in a minor key, but they weren’t dark,” Merckx says. It was all about finding the right tone for the unfolding story, as Cawley further elaborates, while also conjuring the feeling of stillness that she had captured in photographs by simply standing at the Chernobyl site—”a peaceful graveyard” that had been reclaimed by nature.
Merckx’s overview of his approach to composition indeed suggests a lot of trial and error. “A lot of the songs actually came together by just finding a patch [with the Alchemy synthesizer in Logic Pro X] and altering it for a bit, and improvising until I was getting certain things that sounded good on my MIDI keyboard,” Merckx explains. “Get the DNA of the idea down, and then elaborate on it.”
Stripping Merckx’s tunes from their context, at first blush, there’s a bit of Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts series (particularly I-IV) in them, as well as John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s progressive electronic score to Escape From New York (1981). “I was definitely drawing on Trent Reznor kind of stuff, absolutely. And Vangelis’ Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack a little bit—that moody ’80s dystopic sound. Nobuo Uematsu [of the Final Fantasy franchise] is always in anything I write, whether it’s the sounds I try to pick or the ways I try to organize the orchestration. And my melodic sense comes a lot from him, too. It’s somewhat inescapable,” Merckx says, alluding to the subconscious connection of “Mako Reactor” from Final Fantasy VII (1997) to “Osmosis” in Ascension. Merckx’s music on this track also features a synthesized vocal sample triggered through the drum machine that comes in on the “up” beat.
However, not everything stemmed from those sinister-sounding synth patches. The title card and main menu piece, “At The Threshold,” include the echoing sounds of a shamisen that Merckx bought in Japan. “It’s like a three-stringed banjo that’s fretless, and the pick [called a ‘bachi’ resembles an] ice scraper,” he says. The initial inspiration for the song came from the 1979 Stalker theme by Edward Artemiev, which meshes synths with string instrumentation for a sort of New Age aesthetic. Analogously, Merckx felt like the initial music heard in Ascension should evoke the natural world and law of “The Zone,” but also allude to its disorienting effects, which he chose to augment by adding delay to the shamisen to distort its tonality.
“Oxidized Dreams,” the first piece he composed for the game and one of its most haunting pieces, borrows from lo-fi drone and progressive electronic templates. “Production-wise, I got to use a lot of fun techniques on that one that I’d never really tried before. I tried to make it sound like it’s coming out of broken-down technology,” Merckx says of the track. And “Symbiosis,” the game’s darkest extended closing theme, which Merckx has humorously dubbed “the sex scene song” (because it sounds like the antithesis to what we’d consider to be sensual or funky), creatively pushed him even further. “I usually compose strictly by inputting and moving MIDI notes around in a sequencer. In this piece, an arpeggiated part comes in about a third of the way through and goes through the rest of the piece,” he elaborates. “All of the changes are controlled by automation cues that I programmed in, so instead of inputting different notes to create chord changes, I automated a pitch bend parameter to do it instead.”
Although Merckx is a trained guitarist (who plays in local band Bron Sage), the game was his first chance to use and get more comfortable with the synthesizer. “I do love writing on it even if I’m not technically a performer on any sort of keyboard instrument,” he says. Merckx was kind enough to share two versions of the Ascension sound palette demos he worked with before the final mixes as well as Cawley’s additional input and approval as game director. While they both certainly sound of the same universe, they do have a starker driving rhythm that’s almost adjacent to instrumental hip-hop, and they’re even more melodically sticky than the oppressive textural and simple melodic washes heard in the final release of the game.
In tracing his journey through composing and his first foray into game music with Ascension, Merckx admits that finding work was the biggest hurdle to realizing his passion. “Don’t be ashamed of saying that [you’re] a composer even though [you] don’t have any previous work yet,” he says. “This is what I’ve wanted to do probably since I first played Final Fantasy VII when I was like 14. I never knew anyone who was making video games, so I never had the [chance.]”
He adds, “I’d occasionally post on social media that I’m available to work on stuff, but I’ve found the best way is to just tell a bunch of people that this is what you’re trying to do. Word of mouth gets around. Turns out, [someone] you know might know someone who’s making a game.” As Ascension: Transition And Silver came to fruition, it has shown Merckx that a lot of independent artists with different skill sets from all over the world are looking to come together to make something.
Taking a page from Cawley’s example, Merckx and Estep of the Ascension team are already in the early stages of planning another visual novel game together with their writer friends Amber Cohen and Christopher Luther called Song Of Fifths: Order Of The Nightingale. Merckx has again jumped at the opportunity to write the music for their story, a chronicle of “love, desire, and ambition involving the occult and a secret society,” as he teases. It has some spiritual similarities to the popular supernatural thriller Suspiria (Argento’s original from 1977 or Luca Guadagnino’s remake from 2018), cementing the influence of renowned world cinema on the world of visual novel games.
To tide anyone over who may be looking to expand their horizons with indie games and the similarly combat-adverse approach of Ascension, Cawley confesses she was notably inspired by Date Nighto’s We Know The Devil (2015) for not only its atmosphere but “how the music and the progression of songs lead into the narrative construction, with rising tension across a roughly three-act-type format.” The ludology and narrative (or ludonarrative) of 2005’s Pathologic, for which she has made a substantial and popular video essay, also factored in. Merckx’s analogous picks run just as deep from a player’s perspective, as he recommends the time travel visual novel game Steins;Gate (2009), the sleuthing role-playing flair of Disco Elysium (2020), and VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (2016), which meshes elements of simulation and visual novel into a fun package.
Merckx appreciates the connections he’s forged with other creators and game essayists like Cawley throughout the collaborative process. Most significantly, though, he feels lucky to be a part of her personal story, which became the basis for the game that speaks to a community and people who might feel unheard. Cawley says, “The three protagonist characters (The Doctor, The Scholar, and The Escort) are all, in some way, Not Cis[gender], whether that be binary or non-binary trans, and I felt it was important that I give as much representation to different trans experiences as possible.”
Reflecting further on seeing herself within her characters’ self-exploration and self-actualization, Cawley stresses that “transition is a very, very personal journey, and there is no single distinct mold that anyone should be forced to fit. Our choices, and how we feel about ourselves, our pasts, and the world we live in, are things we need our own autonomy to decide and explore. My goal with this game was to give voice to this struggle without moral judgement in any one direction.”
There’s more where this came from.
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