Lacuna: Behind The Music With Julian Colbus


Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

In Lacuna, you play Neil Conrad who is a CDI agent. Awoken by the news of a murder, you rush into a case that will soon turn your life and the whole solar system upside down. Ask questions, collect evidence, and put the pieces together until the ugly truth reveals itself or not.

DigiTales Interactive is a tiny game development studio based in Saarbrücken, Germany; who developed the game. There team has a diverse background in various disciplines including literature, music, marketing, pixel art, and programming. DigiTales Interactive games employ established storytelling wisdom from various media to convey philosophical ideas and other thought-provoking subject matter without sacrificing fun and entertainment.

Features of Lacuna include platformer movement controls (WASD / controller) instead of pointing and clicking. Non-repeating conversations and choices instead of selecting all dialog options one by one anyway Immersive, story-driven mysteries instead of inventory management and counter-intuitive puzzles, and optional outlines on anything interactable instead of pixel hunting. The story can also always be driven forward instead of grinding to a halt at every puzzle.

Lacuna has won awards and recognition such as the Game Award Saar: Best Prototype, Game Award Saar: Special Jury Award, and the Indie Game Fest: Runner-Up Best Game.

Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

Interview with Julian Colbus

Co-founder, and CEO of independent game studio DigiTales Interactive, Julian Colbus, also took on the role as the music composer for the game. He enjoys helping out local games in the industry as one of Saarland's game representatives, as well as co-organizing Game Dev Saar. Julian has been writing music for different video games under the name of Mediacracy Music.

As a game music composer, are you a gamer yourself?

"Yes! I play video games all the time, a wild mix of genres. I also play on stream ( Come say hi if you want to hear a game dev's perspective on other indie games."

What was your musical vision for 'Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure'?

"The main theme existed even before the first line of code (back in 2014), so the music played a big part in setting the overall tone. It's honestly a mix of genres I like or used to like over the years -- Jazz, Lo-Fi, Trip Hip, Synthwave --, and that made it easy for me to write music from the heart. Generally, my approach to video game music is not to divide the player's attention. 

When we play, we're in a specific mental state that's different from more passive activities like reading a book or watching a movie, and I always try to reinforce that flow state. That means that the music often holds back and only sometimes takes center stage, whenever there's enough mental space for it. Silence between tracks is also very powerful, Lacuna is very quiet over some stretches."

Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

Were there any specific type of sounds that you were going for in your music compositions?

"I used a lot of jazz harmonies and instruments to get the noir vibe across (but honestly also because I like them). When stuff gets intense, the music switches to something Synthwave-ish, but that happens rarely because Lacuna is overall a calm game. I also used jazz more to accompany the richer parts of the city and electronic music for the less privileged ones."

Did you use any reference songs for your soundtracks? Were there any composers that influenced you?

"For sure, but more subconsciously; I didn't try to emulate or recreate anyone else's style. I grew up listening to Jazz at my parents' house, then I had a long (Prog) Metal phase, then came Trip Hop, Synthwave... These days, I listen hours of instrumental Lo-Fi music (or whatever it's called) every day. I also listen to indie game soundtracks a lot, stuff by Darren Korb, Danny Baranowsky, Ben Prunty, all the greats. CrossCode, Hollow Knight, and Celeste have been in my rotation quite a lot lately, too."

Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

What inspired you to get into music? How long have you been writing music for?

"When I was six, I wanted a piano and learn how to play it. My parents got one for me -- and I pretty much hated playing it for a few years. Then it finally clicked when I got into improvisation, composition, and playing with bands. I only seriously started composing in about 2012, and then I started doing it more or less professionally for video games in 2014, at age 24."

In your music compositions, do you work with other musicians, or do you perform the entire piece yourself?

"I'm ashamed to admit that I almost never use live instruments in my tracks. VSTs are so convenient, but I know that at least sprinkling in a good soloist gives the quality a huge boost. The only "real" part is me playing the piano, but even that is recorded as MIDI notes and quantized to some degree. Oh, and I sang the lyrics for one track in Lacuna (because I essentially forgot that I needed a proper singer for it until it was too late.)"

Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

What is your songwriting process like?

"It's changed over the years, but I usually start with improvisation on the piano. I record the whole thing and extract good melodies afterwards, which the whole track will be structured around. The Lacuna soundtrack, like all my soundtracks, is heavily melody-centered."

What has been your biggest challenge as an artist?

"I've been struggling with procrastination for my whole life. I feel like my 20s could have been way more productive, but I also have good news for anyone having the same problem: Procrastination can have various reasons, but none of them are laziness. You're probably scared of something (e.g. failure), and the sooner you embrace that, the sooner you'll get past it. It will get better, you will grow out of it if you keep pushing. Don't waste time later wondering how far you'd have come if you hadn't procrastinated as much. That's also a form of procrastination, and you're past that now."

Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

What was the sound design process like in creating sound effects for Lacuna?

"We always aimed for a realistic sound design, and the feedback to that decision has been very positive. Lacuna's pixel art style is not meant to be retro or nostalgic; it's a stylistic choice that, among other things, enables the player to fill in the blanks using their imagination. Realistic sound design helps with that process because it makes the world feel more alive and relatable. I didn't make the sound design myself, all credits go to my friend Michael Klier, a freelance sound designer from Munich."

What has your experience been like working on Lacuna as the game developer?

"It's been crazy stressful and demanding, but for the first time ever, I am doing something I can see myself do for the rest of my life. One thing that struck me is how blind you become to the quality of your own work after years on the same project. Is the story good? I don't know. Will the players understand this puzzle? No idea. What will the ratings be when the game comes out? Something between 0 and 100. It turned out to be 95% positive on Steam so far, but I had no clue if the game was any good once we were finally done with it."

Image: Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure by DigiTales Interactive

What inspired you to become a game developer?

"I've always done creative stuff (inbetween all the procrastination) and video games are the ultimate creative medium to me. I get to make music. I get to write a story. I get to design puzzles. I've done all these things separately, I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that I can do all of them at once in games."

What are your final thoughts on the result of the game?

"Honestly, I am super proud of myself and the team, and eternally grateful to everyone who helped us out in one way or another. Getting any game out of the door is a pretty monumental task, and I would have been proud of that even if the game wasn't received so favorably by our players and the press alike. At the same time, we made so many mistakes designing Lacuna, it was a real struggle getting it all to fall into place like it did in the end. We learned so much, and I can't wait to apply all these lessons in our next project, which we're tackling very soon. We'll make plenty of mistakes in that one as well, but not the same ones at least!"

Image: Julian Colbus

Do you see yourself creating another game in the future?

"I'm in this for the long haul. We already developed a new pitch last summer. Funding for its pre-production has been secured, and prospects for the full production are very good. I don't want to give away too much, but it will not be a complete 180 from Lacuna.

What has been the best advice you've been given in your career?

"As a composer, the best piece of advice I ever got was from Philip Sheppard (Detroit: Become Human): Record yourself improvising and extract the best melodies later. You can tell exactly at which point in my composing career I started applying this technique (it's when all the melodies got so much better). If I were to give out one piece of advice myself, as a creative in general, it would be: You can't fail if you don't quit. Keep doing your stuff, don't get demoralized by a lack of (whatever you perceive as) success. Tenacity is the one quality that all the creative people I admire seem to share."

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Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure

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