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Hyper Light Breaker’s composers on making roguelike music that doesn’t get old

Hyper Light Breaker’s composers on making roguelike music that doesn’t get old


You can get a preview of what to expect by listening to a new track.

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A screenshot from Hyper Light Breaker. The player character in orange is fighting Exus, a boss in the game.
Exus, one of the bosses in Hyper Light Breaker.
Image: Heart Machine

Hyper Light Breaker looks like it’s made just for me: a challenging roguelike from the creators of the indie hit Hyper Light Drifter but with Breath of the Wild-like exploration. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the game — it won’t be in early access until this fall — when I was presented the opportunity to talk with two of the game’s composers, I jumped at the chance. I hoped they could answer my questions about how composers think about writing music for roguelikes.

Hyper Light Breaker is an open-world, online co-op roguelike that takes place in a futuristic, ruined world. If you’re familiar with the neon, 2D aesthetic from Hyper Light Drifter, imagine the way that looks but in 3D. For Breaker, a key consideration during development has been writing music that can “stand up to thousands of hours of play,” composer Joel Corelitz says. “Can we write music that can stand up to that much gameplay? That doesn’t get old?”

Writing music that doesn’t get irritating is a challenge for many game composers, of course. And some games fill your ears with procedurally generated music, like No Man’s Sky. But the structure of a roguelike by necessity forces you to listen to certain pieces of music repeatedly as you replay levels, “so the music that gets heard more has to be less fatiguing somehow,” Corelitz says.

I asked how the team thinks about doing that. “It’s about finding the right balance of simplicity and complexity and then figuring out how we support the gameplay with that balance,” according to Corelitz. For Breaker, the team discovered they don’t need to make music that’s complex from a chordal standpoint; instead, they need to create a texture that evolves. “What we’ve really started exploring more is these rich textural pieces of music that immediately are recognizable as belonging in Breaker but can exist for an extended period of time [in a way] that really supports the world.” Another composer on the game, Troupe Gammage, added that they want to add emotion and intentionality to what otherwise might feel like largely ambient music. 

You can really get an idea of how that will all sound in practice by listening to this track from Hyper Light Breaker, titled “Enmity,” that developer Heart Machine shared with The Verge. The studio says you’ll hear it when you fight Exus, one of the “crowns” (bosses) in the game.

The composers also discussed how making music for Hyper Light Breaker has differed from the process for Heart Machine’s Solar Ash. Solar Ash has dedicated levels, so if a player gets tired of a song, they probably won’t have to hear it for too long. But with Breaker, “if [the composers are] tired of something, we probably need to do something about it,” Gammage says. “We want players to be playing [Hyper Light Breaker] for a year. We want people to be engaged with the game over time, so we can kind of just see what’s fatiguing.”

“There’s a lot of material on the cutting room floor,” says Corelitz. For games like Breaker, his strategy is to just get music into the game and hear it in context so he can have a gut reaction to it. “It coexists in this perfect balance between sound effects and level design and color palettes and everything, and it just needs to click. The only way to assess that is to play the game.”

As for the types of sounds you might hear in the game, look forward to a lot of synths. And keep your ear out for sounds from an Una Corda, a special type of piano. But to help give Hyper Light Breaker its own palette, all of the sounds for Breaker are designed specifically for the game, according to Corelitz. “Creating that palette from scratch is as much a part of the process of composing as actually writing the notes themselves.” 

The broader goal of the soundtrack is to give the impression of an expansive, synthetic vision of the future, Gammage says, as Breaker is a game that’s a lot about community and is “the least lonely Heart Machine game.” I haven’t played the game myself, so I can’t tell you if it feels that way in practice. But I can’t wait to hear the music to find out.