by @Liliana Gazzetta

In the early nineties Thalion Software realized games like Lionheart, Amberstar and Ambermoon, No Second Prize and Airbus A320. In Ninety-Four he ceased to exist, but to date there are legions of gamers that recall the power of those Amiga games, which drew impossible graphics such as impossible melodies. That is why we have contacted Matthias Steinwachs, the musician who in that period of experimentation concretely contributed to the greatness of Thalion.

PF: If I’m not wrong, your first soundtrack (Window Wizard for reLine, on Amiga) is dated 1990. How have you been involved into this project and how your career as a videogame soundtrack composer got started?

Matthias: That’s right, Window Wizard was my first project (at least the first I was paid for). But today I would prefer not to mention that music any more – come on, it’s really awful ? I got that job randomly: A friend visited the CeBit in Hannover and talked with the reline guys. They mentioned that they were looking for a musician, that friend told them that he knows someone who is making music on his Amiga (yeah, guess who…) – so I got that job. They paid 1.500 Mark (or 750 Euro) for it. Lot of money for a poor student. So I decided that this was a better way to earn some money then giving piano lessons…

PF: In 1991 you began working with Thalion. You created the soundtrack for Neuronics, a puzzle-game, and Airbus A320, a flight simulator. In this last work, made for Amiga, we can see the main aspects who became like a signature of you work: the great pathos, the emotional input, the epic atmosphere (the best example is Lionheart). Also it’s possible to perceive in your music several different influences: Airbus, for example, reminds Pink Floyd’s style. So, how would you describe your musical background and who influenced you the most?

Matthias: Honestly – that Pink Floyd thing wasn’t my idea, it was the order from the Thalion-Boss (Fritz Kamincke), a great Pink Floyd-Fan. I never owned one record of Pink Floyd (and I’m kind of proud of it). But he told me to sound like Pink Floyd, so I listened to some of their records and copied the musical basics. Lionheart is a different story. I was studying music to this time and was (and somehow am) a great fan of lots of classic composers – so I was influenced by Orff, Wagner, Grieg, Rachmaninov and some others. But in former times I also played in different bands, from punk over metal to funk – I think sometimes you can hear that also…

PF: What kind of music do you like today?

Matthias: Easy question – the good one. I like songs with “fat guitars” as much as classic, Jazz as much as Electronic. I like the Minimal Music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the old “Kraut Rock” of Birth Control and the monumental sound of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, I like Earth Nation, Blackeyed Blonde, H-Blockx, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Porcupine Tree, Element of Crime, Whale, Plastic Voice, Tom Waits, Clawfinger, the symphonies of Schumann (and also his songs) – and a lot more.

PF: What’s the process to create a soundtrack? I guess every composer has his own method. Into the movie business, for example, music and film are made in the same time or, sometimes, the music comes first and helps the director to create the moving images. What happens into the videogame business? Do you follow, every time, the same working pattern?

Matthias: No, every work is different. Sometimes you get pics and scenes from the game you can work with, sometimes you get the finished game and sometimes you first make the music without having seen anything from the game – just the fact sheet from the team and tons of mp3s with the note “it should sound like this”. So I do not have a “method”. Some of the songs were created on my piano, other songs just started with an interesting sound. Because I studied music I know a bit of how to compose – composing is in the first place a craft as building a table. You need to know the basics, how to use your craft stuff and then you can put a little bit creativity on the top. You can’t wait for a divine inspiration. There always is a deadline and you have to do your job every day. It’s not that romantic people think it is. Sometimes it’s hard work. Most of the times. But it’s great.

PF: In 1992 you worked on the mythical Lionheart, one of my videogame obsessions. The game is perfect in every detail and the atmosphere is incredibly fascinating thanks, most of all, to your soundtrack. What do you remember about the “Lionheart experience” and what were your influences?

Matthias: La prima cosa che ricordo è il poco spazio che avevo a disposizione per la musica e i brani. Oggi questo non rappresenta un problema, non è necessario controllare quanto spazio è rimasto sul DVD, ma in passato era un aspetto importante da considerare. Il compositore aveva sempre lo spazio che i programmatori ed il graphic artist avevano lasciato. E non era molto. Così, Erik (il produttore), spesso veniva a dirmi: ”Bella musica, ma è troppo lunga, non abbiamo abbastanza spazio” così, ero costretto ad accorciarla. Con i SFX è stato anche peggio, era necessario concentrarne centinaia in pochi Kylobites; ne troverai alcuni non più grandi di pochi bytes. Fu un duro lavoro, molto più duro con i SFX rispetto alla musica. Inoltre Erik aveva un sacco di strane idee a proposito degli effetti sonori: “Dobbiamo riprodurre il suono di un drago sputa fuoco, spingendo un carrello con ruote di legno nel fango. E per favore, non più lungo di 2 Kb”. A volte mi disperavo. Ma ricordo anche il grande spirito di amicizia e di squadra di Thalion; fu molto divertente. Non era il grande, impersonale, macchinario che è oggi l’industria videoludica… Noi siamo stati dei pionieri, eh sì!.

PF: In 1993 Thalion created Ambermoon, a complex and sophisticated rpg which, graphically offered an innovative mixture between 2D and 3D. There are many similarities with Lionheart (even Valdyn’s character has a cameo). The fantasy/fairy tale atmosphere is very important and, once again, your aching soundtrack, finely orchestrated, it’s a surplus value for this Amiga’s masterpiece. What do you remember about this experience?

Matthias: I started with the Amber-Trilogy when I converted the great soundtrack of Jochen Hippel for Amberstar for the Amiga. So I was quite familiar with the game and its follow up. What I remember most are Eriks phone calls: “We need another five songs until the end of the week”. Today you work a year and more on a soundtrack – in those days it was normal to make it in a few weeks. Sometimes it was like an assembly line production, with 2 or 3 songs a day. I worked with a program called “Sonic Arranger”, quite easy to use, but with lots of possibilities concerning effects. The original song and instrument discs are still in a box in my cellar. Don’t know if the still work…

PF: The Ambermoon’s story is deeply connected with Thalion’s. Originally this game had to be the second part of a trilogy (Amberstar was the first) but Thalion failed and the third part never saw the light. How did you react to that? Were you, guys, ready for something like that?

Matthias: We knew the day would come. Lionheart was our last try to develop AND sell a game for the Amiga. Piracy was the great problem in those days. We made great games, everybody liked them, but nobody bought them. So we told the mags that we’ll have a last try with Lionheart, but the pirates didn’t mind. So Thalion ran out of money and had to close. I was disappointed, but I always worked as a freelancer and had enough other jobs. So it wasn’t a financial problem for me (as for the other guys from the team). Just an emotional one – a great era ended there…

PF: In 1994 you began working with new software houses: the German Ikarion and the French Lankhor (working essentially for PC). What can you tell me about this part of your career?

Matthias: I started for a company named Kingsoft – mainly they sold games, the development was more a hobby of the boss. But that part was getting bigger and bigger, and sometime the team decided to found an independent label (as far as I remember) – that was Ikarion. I worked for them for many years, we made a lots of games (can’t remember all of them). Some guys of the team (as Franz Stradal or Marc Oberhäuser) later founded Studio 2 (Sacred) in Aachen – I still work with them. Lankhor was a funny story. I was living in Berlin to this time, and they called me the first time one evening around 8 pm and told me that they’d have a presentation of their new game the next morning, but the title music would suck. So they need a new one within the next 12 hours. So I composed a song within 6 hours, need another six to send the few MB over the Internet – and they were satisfied…

PF: In 1994, also, thanks to Psygnosis, you have been reunified with other two Thalion’s talents: Erwin Kloibhofer and Henk Nieborg. The result is the wonderful platform 2D “Flink”, for Megadrive and Amiga CD32. This game had lot of (lovely) similarities with Thalion’s games. How did you feel working with them again?

Matthias: It was quite funny. The producer was in Liverpool, Erwin in Austria and Henk in the Netherlands. Remember – there was no Internet (ok, there was, but not very useful) and you couldn’t send any ideas as an email-attach. So we sent packages through Europe every day… half the time of the development of Flink was used waiting for the next package ? But the work in that team was great – they let me do what I want (some songs really sound weird, with unusual rhythms and harmonies – you couldn’t do that today). Flink is one of the few games that I’m still really proud of… And Erwin and Henk are great dudes, always friendly with a great sense of humour.

PF: One year later you worked again with Erik Simon on Albion, a Blue-Byte’ production for PC. That game combines together Sci-fi and classical Fantasy elements and offers a mixture between 2D and 3D graphic. Do you think we can define Albion like an Ambermoon’s follow up?

Matthias: Sure. We’ve always had plans for another part (and for a PC-Version of Ambermoon), but then Thalion crashed. When Erik started his work at Blue Byte he remembered these plans. Albion is not the official follow up, but it has a lot of the ideas we had in mind for an Ambermoon sequel. 

Flink_Intro.png (198783 bytes)
Flink: Matthias fold the Mega Drive soundchip to satisfy his need to experiment and invent.

PF: In 1995 you collaborated with 4th Dimension software creating “Die Sage von Nietoom” and till 2002 you worked almost exclusively with Ikarion (Hattrick, Pinball Wizard, Demonworld o Demonworld 2). Amongst these games, or maybe something else I did not quoted, do you have one you are more fond of, and why?

Matthias: Some songs from Demonworld are quite ok… as far as I remember. But honestly I didn’t listen to that whole old stuff for the last 10 years or more. When a work is finished, it’s out of my mind. It happens that someone says “Hey, you are the composer of the Game XY, and I loved that stuff” and I answer “Oh really? Can’t remember that game at all”. Yep, I’m getting old ? I’m not really interested in the old songs. I have heard them so often during work – that’s enough till the end of my life.

PF: I listened the ambient remix “Drachenflug” (download), out of Immortal 2, and I loved it! Have you ever thought to do the same with other songs or to create a collection of your remix?

Matthias: Uuh – yeah, I often thought to remix all the other old songs. And if sometimes the days will have 48 hours, I’ll do it. Promised! ? But I hope I can do it a bit earlier… I’d love to…

Lionheart - Stumpf (download): when the soundtrack becomes epic.

Lionheart - Drachenflug (download): a poem of instrumental synthesis.

PF: The ending titles of Lionheart are the most touching thing ever seen into the videogame business: the gamer feels really involved into it (most of all thanks to “Don’t let the Amiga die…”) and he can perceive your passion and your “team spirit”. After all this time you are working into the videogame business, do you feel something is changed, during the years? Do you think, nowadays, we can find other “teams” that work with the same passion you did, or that was something like “once in a lifetime”?

Matthias: It may be too easy to say “20 years ago everything was better in the games industry” (although I think that 20 years ago everything was better in the games industry ? ). It was easier to test new concepts because the games didn’t cost millions of euro. We were working in smaller teams, not having that pressure from above – we have been more flexible, could try a lot of things and no one said “No, we can’t make that because it’s too risky”. I made the music I liked most – today you have to ask 20 sales managers, the PR and lots of other people. It’s quite hard to make music for games today – too much constrains, conditions and people who think they know it better. Money kills passion. Mostly. But you can find that old team spirit and the passion in the small, independent teams. As the one I’m just working with. Just a few people, no pressure, just the fun and the passion. You won’t get rich in those teams but have more fun. And that’s much more important ;).

PF: What do you think about the contemporary Independent videogame business?

Matthias: Thanks to Xbox Live and the iPhone apps it’s getting better and better. Good platforms to present and sell your stuff. So making games is no longer in the hands of the majors. (Making good games anyway ?)..

PF: Are you working on something right now and what are your future projects?

Matthias: Right now I’m working on a new project with some guys from the former “Studio 2” (who made Sacred). It just has a working title, and we have no idea if we will ever finish it. It’s a very strange looking kind of RPG-Adventure with a prince, dragons, mermaids and killing fishermen. I’ll let you know when it gets more real. I’m also working on a game for the iPhone – looks nice. But I haven’t the time to do more, it’s just actually a hobby – too much work for the radio and so on…

PF: Tell us something about you: what’s your lifestyle? What do you do in your free time?

Matthias: Because my hobbies are also my work (music and radio), I’m working a lot – it’s fun. The rest of time I’m training (sport is my obsession) – I’m member of 2 gyms and training 4 times the week with a personal trainer (and the other days alone ? ). I’m also running, biking and – from time to time – practicing Kendo.

PF: Thanks for your time Matthias: do you have a message for readers?

Matthias: Yeah. Never play poker with a man who has a first name sounding like a city.


Interview released on 12/06/2010