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Stephen Rippy and the Music of Conquerors

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I hosted and attended many LAN parties in middle and high school. We’d break out the plastic folding tables, and everyone would bring a couple snacks or a pack of Mountain Dew. Invariably, after several other games had been picked up and put down, we’d get to the real meat and potatoes. Someone would suggest we play Age of Empires 2.

This was the pinnacle of the LAN party. I would always look forward to the Age 2 game. Soon, someone was cornering the market on trebuchets, another player was building only swarms of petards, and yet a third was yelling as his walls crumbled before hordes of war elephants.

Age 2 was a big part of my youth, as was its predecessor. Age of Empires kicked off my interest with its empire building and its primordial beats. Age 2 built on everything its predecessor did properly, and enhanced it. They both had a certain ineffable quality that made them special, set apart from other such games.

Thinking about it now, it’s clearer to me than ever before that an overwhelming aspect of the game’s uniqueness came from the soundtrack.

An RTS is a very systematic game. It requires concentration, planning, and repetition. If you’re going to be seeding farms and churning out infantry for a couple hours, you’re going to need a killer soundtrack. Something to set the ambience of the world. Something that could blend into the background, but that remained catchy, exciting, and addictive.

Even at LAN parties, we would play with headphones on at least one ear, and it wasn’t just to ensure we caught the battle warnings.

This OST is part of what lends the game some of its mystique and quirkiness – aspects of the game that give it so much replayability, and that have captivated fans for 17 years. Age 2 sports track names like “Shamburger,” “I Will Beat On Your Behind,” and “Smells Like Crickets, Tastes Like Chicken.” From the song titles alone, it’s easy to see how the OST could contribute to a game with a big personality.

What I love about this soundtrack is that it harnesses unique sounds and strings them together into tracks that don’t just fill space, but instead manage to build the setting and aura of the game up around you. The rhythms are engaging, the transitions are flawless, and every song is evocative of adventure, mystery, and ancient toil. Each track is, in its own way, a slice of actual gameplay.

stephen-rippy
Photo courtesy of Stephen Rippy

To learn a little bit more about what went into the creation of this memorable soundtrack, I got in touch with composer Stephen Rippy, the mind behind the Age series’ musical arabesques.

F/R: Hi Stephen, I was wondering, first of all, how you became involved with Ensemble and Age of Empires. What led you towards becoming a composer?

Rippy: I started playing piano when I was about 11 or 12, and almost immediately wanted to write music. That led to forming a band with some friends and learning about synthesizers, MIDI, and recording on my own at home. Around the time I heard Danny Elfman’s “Batman” score, I got it into my head that soundtrack work would be the way to go – and then forgot about that idea for a number of years and concentrated on the band instead.

So I wound up at Ensemble sort of by accident. That company started off in business software development, and my oldest brother David started working there in the early 90s. After a time, the CEO decided that he’d rather make games and put together a little prototype team. I passed on a tape of some music I’d been doing and I guess it was good enough to get me a shot! The prototype ended up being picked up by Microsoft, and turned into “Age of Empires.”

F/R: Are you a Danny Elfman fan? I love Oingo Boingo! Were they any sort of influence on your work with the Age franchise? How did you feel about the project at the beginning?

Rippy: Yeah, I was a big fan of Danny Elfman’s soundtrack stuff through the 90s – and I still like it whenever I hear it, I just don’t seek it out like I did then. There were a couple of times on later games (“Halo Wars” in particular stands out) where I specifically tried to go for something that sounded like him, but I’m sure that influence was there whether I thought about it or not.

It was an exciting couple of years. David and I worked on the music together in fits and starts – he had to balance it with his day job and young family, and I had to squeeze in what I could between classes. Eventually, though, it somehow came together and of course “Age” was much more successful than we would have guessed it could be. I hadn’t really played any strategy games prior to that time – maybe a few hours with one of the “Command and Conquer” titles – but I loved what we were going for. Like everyone else at the time, I was amazed by the little details that brought the world to life.

F/R: When they presented Age to you as a concept, what was your thought process in determining where you wanted the sound direction to go? Age 1 had some exciting music, and Age 2 built on that with greater complexity. How do you feel your work changed or evolved between the two projects?

Rippy: The earliest direction we had for “Age of Empires” was to make each piece of music tell some kind of story. We decided on a “hunt” story as the first attempt, which led us to bring some mics out into the woods and make all kinds of dumb sounds that we thought would come across as caveman-like. All that stuff got pieced together with a kind of rhythm bed that changed up as the story progressed – it was an ambitious weekend, but the end result was pretty unintentionally funny. I think David probably first hit on the sound that worked, and that turned out to be heavy percussion and synth washes. That approach tended to translate well to the crummy soundcards of the time.

With “Age 2,” I had the luxury of a little bit better gear and a lot more time. My initial thought was to make it much more authentic to the period and cultures represented in the game. I went a ways down that road before I realized that it was weird to be playing as, say, the Japanese civ, but hearing medieval European music in the background. So, instead, I took instruments from everywhere and mixed it all together with more contemporary beats and (again) synths. I’d have to hear them back to back, but my sense is that “Age 2” is a little more melodic and maybe a little darker in some ways.

F/R: Did you play the games as they were in development in order to help influence your sound direction?

Rippy: I didn’t play a ton of “Age 1” while it was in development since I was separated from the rest of the team. Starting with “Rise of Rome,” though, I played everything we were working on every day until Ensemble was shut down. Playtesting was a big part of the culture, and it really helped me to get a sense of what worked and what was unnecessary or inappropriate. I can remember still loving to fire up “Age 2” at the end of its dev cycle; we were all in the office every day until all hours of the night, but that thing was somehow still fun to play.

F/R: Age 2 just has so much longevity. I still fire it up now and then. I’m definitely a Teutonic wall builder, personally, not that it’s a great strategy. Did you have a go to civilization or strategy?

Rippy: Wow, I’d be hard-pressed to remember what I played. I want to say either British or Saracen, but those are just guesses at this point.

F/R: I’ve got to ask, where did the track titles for “Age 2” come from? You’ve got some killer song titles in there.

Rippy: I think the first summer after I moved to Dallas, we had this really bad wave of crickets for whatever reason – there were just tons of them. It got to the point where who knows how many hundreds had kind of piled up in the elevator shaft in the parking garage of our building, which made going out to the car pretty unpleasant…but it gave me the title for “Smells Like Crickets, Tastes Like Chicken.” Gross example, but that’s sort of where those things come from.

F/R: Wow, that’s disgusting. That really gives me some misgivings about the origin of “I Will Beat On Your Behind.” Did you have a favorite track, and were any of them particularly challenging?

Rippy: It’s hard to pick a favorite out of, what, nine or ten games… Of the “Age 2” stuff, I still like “Shamburger” and “T Station.” I don’t remember any particular difficulties with any of those early pieces. It seemed like everything was new and worth trying – I do feel like a lot of that stuff wouldn’t get through my filter of what’s acceptable these days.

“Age 1” was a challenge just to get the stuff done at all. We were basically winging it the entire time, which was really a lot of fun.

F/R: Speaking of these days, Age of Empires was relatively early in your career — do you think your approach to soundtrack work changed much between Age and Halo Wars? What sort of impact did the Age series have on you as a developing soundtrack artist?

Rippy: I definitely approached “Halo Wars” differently, mostly because I’d had some experience by that point. Also, it was dealing with someone else’s material, which I’d never had to do before – an interesting challenge for sure. As far as impact, I went from never having done any soundtrack work at all to doing an hour’s worth of orchestral music for “Age 3” in just a few years. It was an intense learning curve, and was really the road that led to everything I’ve done since.

F/R: Stephen, I need to know – did you have a hand in the now famous “rogans” and “wololos”?

Rippy: I’ve mentioned my brother David here, but there was also another brother, Chris, in the middle of this. Chris was the sound designer on “Age 1” and “Age 2,” so he came up with all the caveman-speak. I think “Wololo” was from a sample CD of African voices. “Rogan” was closer to home, but I won’t spoil his secrets!

Stephen’s most recent releases have been his soundtrack work for “Dungeon Boss” in 2015, and his record “Mainland Static” in 2014. You can find more of Rippy’s work at http://www.stephenrippy.com/.

 

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