Inside ‘Animal Crossing’ Composer Kazumi Totaka's Meticulous Process

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K.K. Slider

What do Chrissy Teigen, Mark Hoppus and Brie Larson have in common? They’re all obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the hit Nintendo Switch game that won millions of hearts just in time for this months-long quarantine.

For those unfamiliar, New Horizons is a game of tasks: fishing, catching bugs, furniture-arranging and playing the stalk market (yes, you can get rich off turnips). It’s not merely a relaxing escape from these tough times, but a place where you can express your identity and creativity with a virtual island as a canvas. And in a period where it’s impossible or inadvisable to attend a concert or fly on a plane, Animal Crossing lets you enjoy those freedoms.

If you’ve already dedicated a few hundred hours to the game since it was released on March 20, then you’re probably also smitten with the soothing soundtrack. It’s an integral part of gameplay, whether it’s the sound of nocturnal museum curator Blathers freaking out over you disturbing him in the daytime, the guitar-playing dog K.K. Slider performing a Saturday night gig in the plaza, or the lull of waves crashing upon your island’s high-definition shores.

That’s all thanks to Animal Crossing mastermind Kazumi Totaka, who has composed for the series since 2001. (He also appears in the game through his alter ego, the aforementioned icon that is K.K. Slider.) Totaka spoke to Billboard over email about the meticulous detail that went into creating the easygoing soundtrack: "What we wanted for the music was for there to be no sound that was unnecessary."

When did you begin composing the music?

The overall concept of the music was decided at an earlier stage in the production process, then we first completed the demo version of the title song in June 2018. The opening theme is representative of the whole work. Because of that, we took a bird's eye view while creating it, keeping the entire gaming experience in mind. After [the demo was completed], we started creating the rest of the music.

Were you able to experience gameplay and then write the music, or was it the other way around?

For this project, most of the songs were composed after having actually experienced the game first. In order to create a rich gaming experience, it was critical to accurately perceive the characteristics of a given scene, think about what musical elements were called for based on those characteristics, and imagine the kind of mood that would ultimately be created by applying the music while actually playing the game.

The opening theme appears throughout the game in many different iterations. Was extra time spent composing the theme, knowing it was going to be such a key part of the game?

The opening theme was created over a very long time, [since] the melody appears in some form in all of the island's hourly music and is also used in sound effects and other places. While we were creating this music, there was a lot of discussion among the staff to share the values and direction that would become the core of the music created for the game. It was already clear that the opening theme would be a musical representation of the work, so having those kinds of discussions and deepening everyone's understanding was very important.

What were some specific instruments or methods that you used to ensure the music would fit the game’s island theme?

Our keywords for this island setting were "easygoing" and "free." We thought an acoustic guitar and other string instruments like that might be suited to those keywords.

Keyboard instruments, like the piano, create an academic and complex feeling [as heard in the museum], whereas violins are too elegant for a deserted island. Plus, anyone can pick up an acoustic guitar -- it has a low barrier to entry, in that anyone can play music as long as they know a few chords. That is also why the guitar is so familiar to everyone. We thought that this familiarity might help players feel relaxed and comfortable. Also, the way a strummed chord reverberates conjures up images of a wide-open space with the horizon off in the distance and a pleasant breeze blowing, making the listener feel like they've been set free.

Music is vital in any game, but especially so in Animal Crossing, which players turn to for escape and even meditation of sorts. What do you see the role of music in the series as?

Animal Crossing is a game that can be enjoyed by people in many different ways. While some people have fun peacefully interacting with the animal residents, others get their fun from the bit of tension created by fishing. So basically, it needs to be enjoyable music, but we need to try to avoid musical expressions that lean too far in the direction of other emotions.

There are other sounds in the game, too -- shooting stars, waves, footsteps, conversations with other characters. How did you fit those various environmental sounds together with the music?

We asked, “What kind of music will sound harmonious with all that?” The answer was music that cuts out all unnecessary sounds -- [we] left only the truly necessary. We also didn't want to tell the whole story with music. Rather, we put the highest importance on composing music that shaped the space between the sounds. Doing so created a harmony with those in-game sounds.

By taking that approach, we were able to achieve music that suits, as we said earlier, a game that can be enjoyed by people in a variety of ways. Rather than trying to evoke all the emotions and images through the music, we strove to create music that allows the listener's own emotions and imagination to fill in the space between the sounds.

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Everyone's favorite roaming musician, K.K. Slider, has more songs than ever in New Horizons. When it came to creating his songs, how did the team approach that part of the process?

Each song was created by the composition staff that has worked on the series in the past, so over time we've accumulated a lot of songs. Some were written because someone was good at that [specific] genre, while others were taken on as a challenge.

Was there any real-world inspiration for K.K. Slider’s songs in this game?

If you dig deep into each of the many genres of music found around the world, you'll find that there are so many styles within each and all sorts of musicians practicing them. We believe that is what makes musical genres around the world so diverse and rich. So we wanted to touch upon different kinds of music within those genres, listen for common forms, characteristics, moods, and idiosyncrasies, and then place an emphasis on those things when composing.

Even if it's the first time we're creating a piece in a certain genre, we try to really understand that genre on a deep level and ensure that we're composing in a respectful manner.

Ultimately, what do you hope players take away from the music of New Horizons?

Again, what we wanted for the music was for there to be no sound that was unnecessary, to create music that allowed the listener's own emotions and imagination to fill in the space between the sounds. It was a challenge that was very much worth pursuing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.