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How the composer of SimCity and Fringe went from scoring games to making them

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Sci-fi adventure Divide is the debut release from Chris Tliton’s new studio

Divide

For the last few years, Chris Tilton has crafted the sounds of TV shows and games like Fringe, the 2013 reboot of SimCity, and Assassin’s Creed Unity. Tilton enjoyed scoring games, but he’d long wanted to make one of his own. Back in college, Tilton and friend Jonathan Straw — who would go on to work as a designer at Telltale Games — would pass afternoons pitching each other game ideas. No budget constraints. No spreadsheet management. No Kickstarter campaigns. They just allowed their brains to wander from one wild idea to the next.

As Fringe was wrapping up its run on TV, Tilton noticed an upswing in successful independent games, particularly on consoles, and wondered if the opportunity had finally arrived. “Fringe was over, and I had some time to do something else,” he explains. “I said if we’re going to try this, we may as well do it now.”

So, in late 2012, Tilton and Straw launched Exploding Tuba Studios. Later this month the company will release its first game, Divide, on PlayStation 4. An isometric adventure game reminiscent of classic computer games like Shadowrun and Syndicate, Divide stars a young single father named David. At the outset of the game, David is living a quiet, normal life, until he opens a package containing a pair of futuristic augmented reality glasses — and is promptly transported to a strange futuristic bunker swarming with robots and secrets. Alone and searching for his daughter, David must explore a series a dark, foreboding corporate buildings, using his new glasses to unlock new areas and uncover clues, all while fighting off security forces. Tilton describes it as “a science fiction dungeon crawl.”

Divide started out with a simple premise: Tilton wanted to create a character-driven adventure game, but he didn’t have any solid ideas of what it would look like. The various pieces of the game started falling into place partly out of circumstance. The game uses the isometric view, in part, because the team is small. Divide was made by a core of four people, as well as multiple contractors working on things like animation and art. The constrained perspective allowed the squad to create a 3D game with relatively limited resources.

Tilton also knew he wanted to start the game in the real world before transporting players to a more futuristic setting, which set the stage for David and his sci-fi sunglasses. “You find out what [the game] needs to be almost by necessity,” he says of designing Divide. “We need this, let’s figure out what it is.”

Though he’s a composer by trade, Tilton had his hand in various facets of Divide’s creation. So goes indie game development, where small team sizes require every contributor play multiple roles. Tilton helped craft the story, and also constructed environments, incorporating and arranging objects created by artists. Tilton estimates he put together about 90 percent of Divide’s levels — this despite having never designed a game before. “As the story developed, I built the areas that the story needed,” Tilton explains. “Building out these things is not all that different from building custom LEGO castles when I was a kid.”

Of course, he also composed the game’s soundtrack, a process that was quite a bit different from his work on past games. Typically, composers come on late in a project and have little involvement with the rest of the creative process; they’re generally given a scenario, and then asked to write a song that fits. With such little information, it can be difficult for a contracted composer to create music in tune with the game. “Sometimes when I’ve played the games I worked on, I thought ‘It would’ve been good to know this or that,’” explains Tilton. “A lot of times with games they ask for the music for this scenario that ends up changing a bunch after you finish the music.”

Since he was involved with many aspects of the Divide’s creation from the very beginning, Tilton was able to employ a much more holistic approach. “I was so hands-on with the narrative and the pacing and all of that stuff, so I was able to write ideas early on and let them sit a while, see if they were working or not working, and go back and change things,” he says. “That’s something you don’t get to do often on a game. You’re [normally] dealing with someone who knows all of that stuff, but you don’t, and you’re trying to give them what they need. There’s always a bit of disconnect.”

The Divide soundtrack — which you can check out in part now on Bandcamp — feels both powerful and subdued. The main theme in particular starts out quiet and solemn, before building up into something much bigger than you’d expect. It’s not unlike the game as a whole. “We’re telling a fairly big-scope story,” says Tilton, “but in a way that’s restrained and a little more old-school.”

Divide launches on PS4 on January 31st.