Musical Themes and Variations in The Other Half (Spoilers, Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

  • Spoilers below! If you haven’t played the game yet and would like to, you can find links at the bottom, otherwise feel free to read on

For this post, I’m going to go into detail about the process of writing the main themes of The Other Half. I’ll include the early original demos of the themes so you can see how they evolved and compare to the finalized themes.

Daniel

The first theme I want to jump into is Daniel’s theme because it’s the first music I wrote for The Other Half, and was also one of the more difficult tracks to compose.

The player first meets Daniel through a series of letters addressed to the player’s character, Hunter. All that is known about Daniel at the beginning of the game is that he has information about the demons that are infesting the woods, and that he’s requesting you to come find him at the top of the mountain. You begin to know tidbits of his personality from the people you encounter, and experience moments of his life through flashbacks. He reveals himself to be a bit of a loner with a growing romantic interest in Annalise and a fascination with the demon infestation. Through his perspective, he begins to imagine that Annalise could also share those feelings. His obsession becomes more and more desperate, until eventually through his flashbacks, Daniel reveals how he sexually assaulted Annalise. From the player’s perspective, you see Daniel’s progression from shy loner to someone willing to bypass consent to get what he wants. You also see how the demons you’re fighting become more and more grotesque and human as you progress through the game, eventually revealing themselves to be extensions of Daniel.

Writing music for Daniel was at best a challenge, and at worst a struggle on getting into the mindset of someone who commits sexual assault. In addition to being dark, ambiguous, and melancholy, the game designer also wanted Daniel’s theme to be elegant. Initially I struggled with getting the right balance, and it was coming off as too dark. I didn’t know exactly how to make a sexual assault perpetrator appear “elegant”.

I switched mindsets to thinking about how Daniel would want to appear to the player, and that helped me write something a little less mired in melancholy and seemingly more elegant. I restarted the theme from scratch, added more movement in the left hand, added a wider dynamic range, and a larger use of range on the keys. All of those tools helped make Daniel’s theme a more complex and unstable feeling piece, which was meant to highlight the conflict and tempestuousness in Daniel’s character.

From Daniel’s theme, one of the next pieces of music I wrote was “Daniel’s Idealization”, originally conceptualized as Daniel & Annalise’s theme. This track had a very clear reference in the form of Arvo Pärt‘s “Spiegel im Spiegel”.

“Daniel’s Idealization” is used over the flashback where Daniel & Annalise are watching the sunset by a ferris wheel. I needed to write a piece that emphasized Daniel’s relationship with Annalise from his perspective. I originally wanted to make this track a combination of both Daniel and Annalise’s themes, but while I was writing it, it became clear that this needed to be totally separate from Annalise’s theme. This track is in essence how Daniel sees their relationship and his idealization of Annalise separate from reality. In Daniel’s mind, this was a really beautiful moment in their blossoming relationship. Like “Spiegel im Spiegel”, I wanted this track to be simple, beautiful, and wistful. Also a little bit sad, because this track is everything that Daniel dreamed their relationship could be before he destroyed it.

To begin writing this track, I built the melody off of a section of Daniel’s melody that I reversed and placed in a major key. If Daniel’s theme reflects who he is and how he wanted to be seen, Daniel’s Idealization is more of an indication of who he wanted to be alongside Annalise. I wanted these two tracks to be connected to Daniel in some way so that’s why I built it off of his main theme, but after those beginning melody notes, it branches out to become something new and stand on its own. Unlike “Spiegel im Spiegel”, I wanted this piece to be less melancholic and a little bit more hopeful. Once I figured out what this track needed to say, this was one of the easier themes to write since it’s technically fairly simple.

Annalise

Annalise’s theme was one of the most important pieces for me to get right. In a game that tells a narrative about sexual assault from the perspective of the perpetrator, I wanted to give Annalise’s character as much of a voice and agency as I could. In The Other Half, Annalise’s character is a doctor, highly intelligent, empathetic, thoughtful, and independent. She is also revealed to be a survivor of sexual assault through Daniel’s narrative flashbacks, but what most distinguishes her among the other characters in the game is her kindness towards the player’s character, the Hunter, and her fellow townspeople. She doesn’t hesitate to offer assistance to the Hunter as you progress on your journey and disobeys the town’s curfew to collect the herbs she needs to continue making healing potions.

I wanted Annalise’s theme to give players a sense of intimacy and home, but also have strength. My biggest inspiration for Annalise’s theme was Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”. I wanted to try to channel some of the intimacy and intricacy from this piece into her theme. Early versions of her theme were rejected for being simply too much – too many notes, too much activity. I realized I needed to strip her theme of some harmonic bulk and ornamentation, and leave a strong core melody.

I created a set of variations on her theme to send to the game designer, and we settled on one that made its way into the game as Annalise’s main theme. Most of the leftover variations eventually made it into the game as well and were re-purposed to use in relevant narrative flashbacks.

Barnes

The concept behind Barnes’ theme is pretty simple, he’s a friendly local who’s generally beloved by the townspeople. You have small interactions with him throughout your journey when you come across him in the woods. He appears unable to make his way back to the town, stuck in the endless loop that you also appear to be in. I wanted to make him feel friendly, simple, and unassuming.

Early on in the game I made the decision for Annalise’s theme to be minimal and cold when we meet her outside in the woods for the first time, her more full and warm theme is heard inside her house. Barnes’ theme was treated the same since we only ever encounter him outside in the snow.

Barnes’ theme became a lot more interesting when it came time to write boss music for him. The final time you meet Barnes in the woods, he becomes infested by the demonic plague and in a bloody explosion, transforms into a huge mutated demon who you have to then battle.

Barnes’ story is fairly tragic – he’s just an unassuming friendly dude who got caught up in the demonic infestation drama in the woods. After his transformation, he becomes monstrous, huge, and threatening – accented by the human-like grunts and moans he makes while fighting you. For this reason, I wanted to make the music big, powerful, and threatening, but not particularly evil or scary. This battle is is more sad than frightening.

Throughout the piece you can hear warped bits of the first half of Barnes’ main theme all over (for example you can hear it really clearly at 00:29 in the warped string patch). In the game, this battle happens about halfway through. I wanted to keep the instrumentation fairly traditional since we hadn’t quite made it out of the fantasy rpg facade. I focused on piano, piano fx, strings, heavy percussion, and just a little bit of synth fx. To emphasize how large Barnes is in boss form, I placed heavy hits on downbeats in the strings, percussion, and piano, and used sweeping piano fx. This was also an instance where I practiced one of my most common composition techniques… chopping off the first 30-60 seconds of music because the good stuff happens after I’m doing noodling (that demo beginning is just rough).

I was originally given references of Dark Soul’s boss battle music, and I tried to model the grandiosity of that score without using choir or brass. I didn’t want it to have any sort of “holier than thou” feeling that the Soul’s soundtracks often give. Although I didn’t actively use it as a reference, thinking about it later I think I was probably also influenced by the Twilight Princess Beast Ganon and Ganondorf Battle tracks since I’m a huge Legend of Zelda fan and that’s one of my favorite games/soundtracks.

Carleton

Carleton is the head of the town the Hunter finds themselves circling back to on their journey. He’s egotistical, patronizing, condescending, and arrogant. He claims to only have the town’s best interests at heart, but it’s clear from interacting with him that it’s only for his benefit. He describes Daniel as being his protégé and is extremely protective of him. If you chat with him throughout the game, you’ll learn he has a negative opinion of Annalise and considers her to be irrational, careless, and silly. At one point you even witness a confrontation between Carleton and Annalise, and afterwards, when he discovers Annalise’s secret herb garden, he asks you to destroy it.

I wanted Carleton’s theme to come off as arrogant but not particularly complex, rather reflecting his true nature as opposed to how he sees himself. To do that, I made the melody, slow, plodding, dark, and unnecesssarily ornamented. Compared to Annalise’s theme, it’s much more simple.

Eventually you reach a conflict with Carleton resulting in either refusing or choosing to destroy Annalise’s garden. It becomes clear that Carleton takes Daniel’s side and tries to rationalize the sexual assault he committed. He hurls insults at Annalise and common tropes thrown at women who experience sexual assault such as “He was just trying to make her happy” or “She played him”. After the player refuses to condone Daniel’s actions, a boss fight with Carleton is instigated.

Carleton’s boss music is a deviation from much of the score – mainly because of the style of his boss fight, but also because at this point in the game the player is firmly aware that the town and environment is just a backdrop to tell the real narrative of the game. Carleton’s boss fight was modeled after a bullet-hell fight, and the music reference I was given was from Touhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom. Carleton’s theme is pretty recognizable throughout the whole piece. This is a clear change difference from Barne’s boss music where I transformed his theme into basically a totally different piece (mirroring his transformation into a demon). Carleton’s boss transformation isn’t physical in any way, he just reveals his true colors of being essentially, just an asshole.

For Carleton’s fight, the music is at this point totally modern – drum machines, various synths, and arpeggiated instruments. For Carleton, I did want a slightly “holier than thou” feel, so there’s a very soft choir embedded into the track as well. I needed to make this music sound powerful, angry, driving, and intense. It also needed to match the visuals of the fight where he’s basically just hurling fire at you for the entire duration so I gave it a really strong and propelling groove throughout. There’s really no redeeming quality to Carleton, until his last breath he defended Daniel and lamented that the whole world was out to get him, so I didn’t feel a need to make Carleton’s boss music tragic like Barnes’. Technically, I needed to study bullet hell music a bit, because I hadn’t really played a game like that before, besides Undertale where some of the battles in that game are modeled after bullet-hell. I narrowed in on a couple of core aspects that defined the Touhou music I was using as a reference – really strong drum, bass, and synth grooves, oftentimes using repetitive and sweeping piano arpeggios, and really present melodic elements. I basically used those guiding elements and applied it to Carleton’s theme, plus added a bit more aggression and power to it so it came off as angrier and more fiery.

Thanks for reading! My next post will get into creating the track “Assault” and making it dynamic within FMOD.

Play The Other Half here:

Steam: store.steampowered.com/app/917920/The_Other_Half/

Gamejolt: gamejolt.com/games/theotherhalf/359665

Itch.iostudioeggroll.itch.io/theotherhalf

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