It’s been a hectic season already when it comes to new video game releases, but Ikenfell, the recent tactics RPG about a school of magic from Humble Games and developers Happy Ray Games, has still managed to maintain a grab on a good chunk of my attention. Part of this is due to its astonishing soundtrack provided by none other than the likes of aivi & surasshu, the happily-married pair of composers probably best known for their work on the animated series Steven Universe. And so when HG’s own personal music maestro Fran Soto and I were offered the chance for an interview, we were naturally delighted for a chance to discuss their work on Ikenfell and more.
Fran: What was your original motivation to work on Ikenfell’s OST? What drew you to the game?
aivi: I loved the diverse cast of characters, but what really hooked me was how Ikenfell’s story was focused on relationships. Chevy (Chevy Ray, the game’s creator and developer) also mentioned that me and surasshu being married fit the vibe of the game. The game gave off a “feminine” kind of energy that really resonated with me!
Kyle: I noted that there were definitely some comparisons to Steven Universe when it comes to Ikenfell in my review, and Fran heard nods to games like Persona, Katamari and others. So did your previous work on Steven Universe play a part in the score in some way, and were there any other notable influences?
surasshu: When we were working on cutscenes in Ikenfell, we approached them similarly to how we would score a scene in Steven Universe. This meant that in addition to “environment” and “battle” themes, we wrote many short songs capturing a variety of emotions – we called them “mood themes.” For me, a big influence on this approach was the work of Masazaku Sugimori, the composer of the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Ghost Trick. He is an expert at creating moods that fit each scene perfectly.
aivi: The characters do so much “acting” in Ikenfell! We also pulled back on melody for these moments, so the music wouldn’t overwhelm the player while reading the dialog in the game. My other musical influences were the Breath of the Wild soundtrack, and Michiru Oshima’s music from Legend of Legaia. The music from Breath of the Wild is more ambient and supportive than past Zelda soundtracks, and I really admired that approach. Both soundtracks also have somber, tragic undertones. Even though Ikenfell is a “cute” game on the surface, the characters go through a lot and deal with many personal demons.
Fran: When composing tracks for the title, did gameplay factor into your musical composition? Were you able to get any hands-on time with the title to help make the OST?
aivi: Yes, absolutely! Late in development, after we already had composed a fifty-piece soundtrack, we got a chance to play through the full game and realized we would need to write thirty more songs to properly capture the emotional subtleties of the story.
surasshu: For example, “Toil & Trouble – Boss Battle 1” was based on the cuter, funnier bosses from the early parts of the game. However, after playing the game, we found that the boss fights towards the end of the game were pretty scary and traumatic. Our boss theme was a weird fit for those moments! So we composed “Face My Fears – Boss Battle 2” to better capture the feeling.
aivi: We also thought that a “silly-hype” and a “silly-chill” theme would cover the silly moments of the game, but we ended up needing a “silly-suspicious” and “silly-sweet” theme as well. It was hard to anticipate those little details. We raced to compose and implement all thirty extra songs before the game came out, but we struggled with the workload. Luckily, Sabrielle Augustin stepped in and rescued us! She scored some of the most crucial, emotional moments in the story.
Kyle and Fran: Did you have any ideas in mind when you first saw the world of Ikenfell? Did the game’s narrative components factor into your composition at all?
aivi: I noticed that the trees in Ikenfell looked different than the ones I’ve seen in other games. That’s when Chevy told us that they were inspired by the forests of Canada.
surasshu: That same evening, Chevy showed us a bunch of Canadian folk songs from his childhood such as “The Black Fly Song” and “The Cat Came Back.” We used those songs as a major inspiration for the early scenes in the game, where Maritte is traveling through the Forest of Secrets.
aivi: While studying Canadian folk songs, I also learned about different styles of Indigenous music in Canada, notably the fiddle music of the Métis people! I respectfully avoided appropriating these styles of music for Ikenfell, but I really enjoyed learning about Métis fiddlers and how their music and dance is passed between generations. I didn’t know much about Canadian music before Ikenfell, so I’m happy I got a chance to broaden my horizons.
Kyle: And when it comes to the characters, I noticed that a few of the tracks seem to be sung by the characters themselves, like Gilda and Ima. Does any character have a particular theme that you love, or just any character that you liked?
aivi: I secretly had a vocalist in mind for each character, and I’m thrilled that everyone we asked said yes! Unfortunately, there wasn’t a good moment in the story for every character to have a vocal song, so we had to let some of our ideas go.
surasshu: I used to be part of a Touhou doujin music circle called Orange Jam with Renko (doujin means “hobby,” so this means hobby music group – in this case, we did covers of Touhou songs). Renko is a prolific singer and lyricist in that scene. When we decided we wanted to make songs for characters, I immediately thought of her for Gilda’s theme, both for her charismatic voice and her style of lyrics. “It’s Showtime!” took a few tries to get right on my end, but I think we worked well together!
aivi: Ima’s theme, “Paint the Future,” came the most easily to me. Ima is a junior professor at the school of Ikenfell, and an artist who conjures magic with zir paintbrush wand (Ima goes by ze/zir pronouns). I immediately thought of my friend Sammus, whose music I had been listening to on repeat for her feminist lyrics, and who at the time was pursuing her PhD! When I read Aeldra’s backstory, I immediately thought of Adriana Figueroa for her expressive, beautiful voice. I knew that the singer of Aeldra’s theme would be performing the most emotionally difficult song in the game, and her voice would need to convey a lot of delicate details and vulnerability. And as soon as I found a moment in the game where we could fit Rook’s theme, I collaborated with Rekcahdam on “Between the Lines!” Rekcahdam is a rapper, drummer, coder, and all-around genius. I must confess that Rook is my favorite character – I gave him extra love and care, both in his theme song and in my sensitivity readings of the game.
Fran: So what was the most rewarding experience working on Ikenfell overall?
surasshu: It was really special seeing how people reacted to the first time Gilda’s theme plays in the game! Part of my hope when implementing that song the way we did was creating a really memorable, almost overwhelming moment of shock. Judging by some of the reactions from people playing the game without knowing what was coming, it worked!
aivi: For me, the most rewarding part was working with a brilliant team and becoming closer friends with everyone. I also helped form Ikenfell’s sensitivity and writing team, a small team of 3 queer people of color, whose goal was to ensure that our diverse cast of characters was respectfully portrayed. Joanna Blackhart and Ko Green’s work on the game has been crucial to the enthusiastic reception that Ikenfell has been receiving for its representation and accessibility. It was a bit stressful for me to wear two hats, but it was so worth it!
Kyle: Moving away from Ikenfell for a bit but heading back to similar territory, I may as well ask: Given your early work and the show’s inspirations, were there any major video game influences when it came to Steven Universe’s soundtrack?
surasshu: It’s funny, we both were game composers before we got pulled onto Steven Universe, so that was a big part of how we approached the show’s soundtrack. But when we were composing for Ikenfell, it flipped to where we used our experience scoring cartoons on this game soundtrack.
aivi: surasshu and I live and breathe game music. Both of us learned to compose at a young age by listening to game music. So I think everything we compose ends up sounding “gamey” even if we don’t intend for it to!
Kyle: Now, when it comes to other games, You’re working on the music for Cryamore as well, which has been in the works for a while. Have you had to create any new compositions over time, or revisit any of the tracks? How is that coming along in general?
aivi: The Cryamore soundtrack is primarily my project, with some contributions from surasshu. I’ve composed around forty tracks for the game, and I still think it’s some of my best work! Unfortunately, development slowed down because a lot of the team went through personal ordeals and had to take different jobs to make ends meet. We haven’t given up on our game, but I wish people would be more understanding of the extra hurdles that small indie teams face.
Kyle: And then there’s Way to The Woods, which seems a bit more unique in that compared to the other projects you’ve worked on, which have more of a light-hearted retro fantasy feel, this game comes across as a bit darker and dealing more with a post-apocalyptic world. Has this led to any different approach when it comes to the soundtrack, what can we expect?
aivi: It’s been really nice to create music that’s more contemplative. It’s a side to my work that I don’t get to explore as often because of the action-oriented projects I’ve worked on. I’m leaning into more of my film music influences, especially the music of Joe Hisaishi – most known for his work with Studio Ghibli – and I hope I can play a lot of piano on the soundtrack.
Fran and Kyle: And are there any upcoming projects you’d like for us to know about? Are you working on music for any other upcoming games or other media as well, or is there any other game you’d wish to work on? What are some dream projects of yours?
aivi: Now that we’ve reached the end of Steven Universe and Ikenfell, surasshu and I have been talking about taking a small hiatus. Maybe finish some personal projects, maybe start a family… I also injured my hands earlier this year, so I’d love to focus on my recovery and try to get my piano abilities back. It’s a bit scary not knowing what’s next, but I think a bit of rest will be healthy for us. Sabrielle is also working on other projects at the moment, both for clients and for herself.
We’ll all be laying low for a bit, but this won’t be the last you hear from us! ♡