By D. Yvette Wohn
Laura Shigihara wears many hats. A California native of Eurasian descent, Ms. Shigihara’s passion for games is so great that she not only plays games, but actively participates in the development– which includes game music composing, producing, and even singing. Yes, singing. In Plants vs. Zombies, a new casual game scheduled to be released tomorrow, Ms. Shigihara sings the theme song (in both English and Japanese) that she composed– a catchy tune that will stick in your head for the rest of the day.
In the following interview, Ms. Shigihara talks about her life as a freelancer, being a woman in the game industry, tea as inspiration, why she chose not to be a pop star (she was offered a contract in Japan!), and about Blue Star, an RPG that she is developing.
Q. Who (or what) influenced you as a child that you could say relates to what you do today?
A. I’ve had a lot of influences over the years. My parents let me take piano lessons, which helped enormously. They both introduced me to a lot of different styles of music, and encouraged me to be creative. Although I was classically trained, I was so terrible when it came to sight reading and theory; my big thing was playing by ear. I could play anything by ear. I actually liked a lot of NES music, so I was frequently playing stuff from Megaman games, or anything from Capcom or Squaresoft. One time I recorded a piece from Megaman 3 onto casette tape just so I could listen to it and dissect all the different parts. I was fascinated by how many different melodies were going on at the same time, and how they all managed to sound good together. I thought it was like classical music, but more simple and melodic. Even though this music was for 8-bit games, I still knew the composition was excellent. And in retrospect, I think it had to be excellent… I mean, they had next to no space, they had barely anything to work with; the composition had to be good. Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu, and Yoko Shimamura are all game composers that have influenced me a lot, I love their work. I also listened to a wide variety of music growing up… everything from Johnny Mathis to Tupac, Disney songs to Red Hot Chili Peppers, and everything in between.
Q. What are the pros/cons of being a freelancer?
A. Well, the nice thing about freelancing is that I set my own hours, so my schedule is very flexible. I love not having a typical Monday through Friday commute, and it’s nice to have extra time to work on side projects like teaching piano or working on my rpg. The downside is that it’s kind of a lonely job. I’m a fairly social person; I really love talking with people… but most of the time it’s just me working from home or the studio. So I try to make a point to have regular interaction with folks so I don’t go crazy!
Q. How do you feel about women’s representation in the game industry?
A. I think in America, there are fewer females who are interested in playing games, so naturally there are even fewer females who are interested in making games. But I think that will most likely change over the years, as companies provide games that appeal to a wider audience. It’s already changing; I mean, 20 years ago my mom was certainly not playing video games. But now she loves World of Warcraft and Animal Crossing 🙂 Another interesting thing I’ve noticed, is that most of the females in the game industry tend to be involved in the business side of the company (HR, marketing, legal staff, etc.). In contrast, over the years I’ve encountered very few female game designers, programmers, or composers. But again, that could very well change with time. The sad thing, is that there are plenty of women who I’m sure would love to play an epic adventure game for example, but they’re often put-off by things like the gratuitously drawn female characters on the box cover. Of course they’re less likely to pick up a game that looks like it’s been made for guys. But hopefully companies that are looking to increase their female demographic will realize this.
Q. Why did you decide not to become a pop star?
A. Do you mean like, why didn’t I accept the contract in Japan? I guess the main reason was because there were some things included in the contract that compromised my morals. I was really put-off by that whole incident, and it prompted me to take some time off to figure out what I should do next. During that time I was in America, and I started working as the sound director for a company that produced an audio talkshow, and English learning materials through Apple Japan. I also composed my first video game soundtrack. I really enjoyed it, so I started taking more video game contracts. And I guess that’s why I’m doing that now instead 😛
Q. Is Super Shigi kind of like Super Mario?
A. Oh, do you mean Super Shigi like my email? Hehe… well, “shigi” comes from my last name. And the super-part actually came from this one time back in college when I was learning how to play Counterstrike. When I was living in the dorms, I happened to be on a floor that was full of gamers. We used to stay up all night playing these huge 8-player LAN Starcraft games, it was a lot of fun. When I first started playing Counterstrike with them, I couldn’t get a headshot to save my life. So my friend Davy was giving me some tips. He made me practice on our friend Jeremy. The deal was that none of us could go to dinner until I got a headshot on Jeremy. After many failed attempts under the online alias “shigi”, I decided to change it to “supershigi” as a joke; and almost immediately after I changed it, I finally got a headshot, and we all got to go to dinner 🙂 So from then on, I always used “supershigi” as my online name.
Q. You seem to have a diverse interest when it comes to games. What are your top 3 favorites and why?
A. Wow, this is a tough one! Well definitely my favorite game of all time is Chrono Trigger… but as for 2nd and 3rd place, there are so many games I love that could go there. But I think I’m going to have to say Megaman 5 and Starcraft. Chrono Trigger is just an all around good game. The story seemed very simple and straight forward at first, but it gradually turned into this wonderfully deep and yet accessible plot. The battle system was fun, the music was beautiful. I’ve gotten about 8 friends to play it; including folks who had never really played video games before, and they all loved it. I like the Megaman series in general, but I chose Megaman 5 because I just had so much fun with it. The game felt very balanced; the levels were quite challenging, but the player control was excellent so you really felt like you accomplished something when you defeated each boss. I liked the cool little cutscene at the beginning where Protoman’s scarf falls from the sky, haha. I thought the music was so catchy and melodic. And there was just so much stuff for an NES game; great graphics, a very satisfying ending, etc. Starcraft is super engaging whether you’re playing a huge 8-player LAN game with friends, or just going through the campaigns by yourself (the story is actually quite good). It’s got such a culture about it, too. As odd as it sounds, when I went to Korea for the World Cup, I felt like there were so many cases where Starcraft was the common language.
Q. Are you really not interested in International Relations anymore?
A. I am, but I’m certainly not as involved as I was before. But I still try to spend some time each week catching up on the news and reading about what’s going on with our foreign policy.
Q. What kind of role does your ethnicity play in your work? (How important is your Japanese identity?)
A. I think being Eurasian has definitely had an impact on my work at some level. I was exposed to music from many different cultures growing up, which I’m sure has influenced my compositions.
Q. In your soundtrack for Plants vs. Zombies, it sounded more natural in Japanese. Do you think this is a fair critique?
A. You know, it’s really kind of funny that it turned out that way. Given that I was born and raised in America, I’m far more comfortable speaking English than I am speaking Japanese. But I think it actually has to do with how the languages are spoken. When I wrote the song, I had in mind that the lyrics would be sung by the sunflower, who I imagine has a childlike voice. And I’m not sure why, but it’s a lot easier for me to sing like a child when I’m singing in Japanese, than when I sing in English. There’s probably some kind of linguistic explanation for this, but I’m not sure what it is.
Q. What kind of programs do you use for composing? Do you play any instruments other than the piano?
A. I prefer Sonar 6 for the majority of my projects, along with Soundforge for editing. I use a variety of soft synths, along with my Korg Triton which I love, because it feels like a piano, but is very versatile in terms of programming and samples. I play the guitar and a bit of drums, but I don’t think I’m good at those instruments.
Q. Do you have any special “ritual” in getting inspiration for the games you have to make music for? How involved do you get with the graphic designers and developers?
A. Since I’m a contractor, I’m usually the only person on the development team who isn’t in-house. So generally I’ll meet with the project’s producer about the details of my assignment, and I’ll work with the designers and programmers to make sure the audio is implemented properly. Even though I make a point to get to know the other folks on the project, I don’t often get to see them outside of meetings. With “Plants vs. Zombies” however, things were very different because my boyfriend is the game’s designer. So I was around for a lot of the brainstorming sessions, I did a lot of game testing, I’ll go play Dominion with them during lunch 🙂 As for getting inspired, I do all sorts of things. Talking with certain people, dancing or running to upbeat music, going on some sort of adventure… these things are all helpful. Tea helps a lot, too. I love tea. One time I watched a video of the Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross live orchestral performance from the “Play!” Concert which really got me in the mood to make music!
Q. We should probably do another interview when Blue Star comes out, but remind us: why are you developing this RPG? Are you going to move from composer to game developer?
A. I guess the main reason I’m developing this RPG is because I really wanted to do something with the story I wrote. I’ve always loved video games, and I’ve always felt that there was something special about an RPG with a really good storyline. Even now, when I hear music from games like Chrono Trigger or Suikoden, I’m reminded of how much the characters and their stories moved me. If I could create that kind of experience for someone else, it would make me so happy. If I can manage to finish this game, I would like to continue designing games (I already have something in mind for my next game). But I would certainly not stop being a composer. I think it’s just that I’m kind of a multi-tasker. I like to work on more than one creative project at a time, so that I can take a short break from one to work on another until my inspiration for the first one comes back (and vice versa). I just finished a really sad scene in the game that involves one of the main characters talking about the lullaby his mother used to sing to him before she passed away. I got to write and sing a lullaby to go with it, and that whole process was such a great experience.