A Tango for Two: Isaac Schankler talks music and Ladykiller in a Bind

Game composer Isaac Schankler discusses telling story through music in Christine Love's new erotic thriller.

Isaac Schankler is an independent game composer, best known for scoring the subversive visual novels of Christine Love -- including Love's most recent release, erotic thriller Ladykiller in a Bind.

A prolific composer, accordianist, and electronic musician, Schankler's work goes well beyond games: he's collaborated with everyone from the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet to poets Amaranth Borsuk and Jillian Burcar. He's also an assistant professor at Cal Poly Pomona and recently taught a semester at USC's Thornton School of Music.

I had the good fortune to catch up with Schankler at last month's IndieCade, where I was able to quiz him a little about his musical inspirations and, in particular, creating the modular jazz soundtrack of Ladykiller in a Bind.

The Beast and the Beauty. The Beast and the Beauty, during one of the (optional) kink scenes.

ZAM: Instead of the typical "what's different about composing for games vs other media" question every interview asks, I'm curious about the reverse: what do you find is the same, or similar, across composing for different media?

Isaac Schankler: Oh gosh, it's strange, because for me the process feels so similar no matter what kind of music I'm writing. I think I've been lucky in that, when it comes to composing for games, I've gotten to work with really small teams of really brilliant people. The goal is always to make something meaningful, so it's more like working on an art project than a commercial project most of the time. I'm not sure I would thrive in the world of "professional" game development where that's not necessarily the priority.

I also write a lot of music for classical-ish concerts, and most of that music is commissioned from me by a performer or ensemble. The kinds of questions I ask myself are the same a lot of the time: Who am I writing this for? What do they need? What's the context that this music is going to live in? The more I know about the people I'm writing for, the better. I don't mean the audience, which I find an impossibly nebulous thing to think about. I mean the person I'm actually going to hand the music to, whether it's a musician or developer or whoever.
Kurt Vonnegut apparently wrote most of his books to his sister, maybe it's something like that.

The Los Angeles Times called your music "the antidote to sentimentality." Those familiar with your collaborations with Christine Love might find that counter-intuitive, since her games often deal with high emotional stakes. What is the designer-composer conversation like when you discuss the mood of a scene?

I think of Christine's games as emotional, but not sentimental! She definitely has a knack for depicting the human capacity for cruelty, for one thing.

"The sex scenes in the game were definitely the hardest -- uhh, no pun intended."

But zeroing in on a musical mood for a scene does takes me a few tries sometimes. One thing that was an adjustment for me this time around was the fact that Ladykiller in a Bind has a much lighter tone than [Love's] previous games, and there's more humor. I kept writing all this dark, moody stuff and being surprised when Christine or [lead character artist] Raide would shoot it down. Yeah, sometimes it stung, because the music is my baby, but in retrospect they were always, always right. I'll look back at those initial sketches and they're so obviously wrong! But I didn't have that perspective then. Sometimes I was able to rework that material to use it somewhere else in the game. There's one "bonus track" that didn't end up fitting anywhere, though it shows up in the game's trailer.

The sex scenes in the game were definitely the hardest -- uhh, no pun intended -- for me to write for this time around. I was really terrified about it at first. But the nice thing is that the sex scenes in Ladykiller are really character-driven, and they tell you a lot about the characters if you're paying attention, so that was my approach to the music too. Sometimes that music has to convey multiple things at once. The theme most closely associated with the Beauty, for example, is a tango, and it's kind of collected and reserved, because the Beauty likes to be in control, of herself and others. But there's this wry, sinister, raw edge to the music too, because there are other aspects to her that you might find out about later.

I wouldn't have considered that, but listening to it now, you're totally right. Are there other characters with a strong motif you've given a lot of thought to?

The Stalker's theme was the other one that was hard to get right. She's one of the few characters in the game who's more or less genuine most of the time, plus there's this goofiness to her character that I wanted to capture, but in an understated way. Most of the versions I created were either too mawkish or too overtly quirky. I'm pretty happy with the balance I found in the final version!

'Beast, do you think love can bloom, even on a cruise ship?' 'Beast, do you think love can bloom, even on a cruise ship?'

For Ladykiller, you've said most of the tracks are fairly short and modular. Can you discuss how this differs from soundtracks you've composed in the past?

In the past, for Analogue and Hate Plus, I was pretty focused on creating complete pieces that were self-contained in and of themselves, and this time around I wanted to do something a little more responsive. I had all these [extremely] ambitious ideas initially, like each character would have their own theme and when multiple characters would be in a scene you'd hear both themes in perfect counterpoint and... it was obviously overwhelming and unworkable after thinking about it for like two seconds. But the idea that stuck around is that the music should change within a scene, and it should respond to how the player reacts to things, and different players could have different musical experiences in the same way that they have different narrative experiences. Within a scene, all the music would be synchronized so you could seamlessly crossfade between the tracks.

"I'm pretty sure it's impossible to hear all the versions in a single playthrough. There are over 50 pieces of music in the game."

I started to really geek out about this and there are some tracks that have really wildly different versions, like a Bach invention version, a lounge jazz version, a jittery electronica version, and so on. But the ones that I think work best in the game are actually pretty subtle. You might hear a piano solo at the beginning of a scene while you're standing in a hallway, and then some strings creep in as you enter someone's room. You might not even notice that it's happening.

This also meant that I could introduce new versions of a track as you progress through a character's route, almost as a kind of reward. In fact I'm pretty sure it's impossible to hear all the versions in a single playthrough. There are over 50 pieces of music in the game. Turning it into an album after the fact was also an interesting challenge, to try and figure out which versions fit together the best to make them feel more complete, and to give the album a satisfying arc outside of the game.

A bit of a small SPOILER here for the end of Ladykiller, but Christine Love recently observed over Twitter that, with the Brother's real name being Laurence and all, Ladykiller in a Bind is technically a game about someone called Larry who wears leisure suits. I'm curious if the Leisure Suit Larry series came up at all when you were developing the mood and feel for Ladykiller's soundtrack, since that has a similar lounge-y, jazzy-vibe.

The Laurence-Larry connection is one that none of us put together until after the fact -- it's pretty embarrassing. I do really like Austin Wintory's score for the Leisure Suit Larry remake.

As far as other points of reference go, with the piano at the center of the soundtrack I was thinking a lot about piano jazz and piano trios, especially artists like Yoko Kanno and Hiromi who bring a kind of lightness and precision and classical influence to the music. And of course I have to mention Aivi Tran and surrashu's music for Steven Universe, especially Pearl's music. (Yes, I am a Pearl, in case you were wondering.) I love the way they use a different instrumental palette for each character, it's really ingenious. 

Hate Plus's soundtrack is probably best remembered for its theme song "It's Not Ero" with vocals by Senah Kim. Why no lyrical theme song this time around? "It is Ero, Actually"?

Ha! That's a good idea actually. The honest answer is that the vocal tracks take a lot of extra time and energy to write, record, edit, and mix. We were motivated to do the theme song for Hate Plus just because we thought it was a hilarious idea, even though it was in a completely different tone than the game itself. But it was totally extraneous to the game. I think this time we were just focused on getting the game done and making sure it was the best it could possibly be. Also, I think to really do Ladykiller in a Bind justice you'd need to give each character a theme song. Someone throw a bunch of money at me so I can do this!

Isaac Schankler (via @piesaac). Isaac Schankler (via @piesaac).

Speaking with Christine Love at IndieCade, she actually did float an idea to me for a theme song, something in the vein of a James Bond song.

Does the Hank Scorpio theme count as a James Bond song? I think I would shy away from the big bombastic Bond themes and go more towards the wry, sleek ones, like the one Garbage did for The World Is Not Enough. I also have a weird sympathy for those Bond themes that were rejected because they were determined to be major bummers, like the one Scott Walker did or the one Radiohead did. Or things that aren't quite Bond themes but maybe could be, like Shirley Bassey's collaboration with the Propellerheads. It might be fun to do something like that.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. You can check out more of Isaac Schankler's work on Bandcamp.

Disclosure: Christine Love is a patron of Critical Distance, a side project of mine with no relationship to Zam. We are friends, which is the main reason a link to Ladykiller in a Bind's page on Humble Store does not appear here. I would personally recommend you seek it out though!