Video game music with Miguel Hasson - a character dressed in armor with a teddy bear

Video game music and creativity with Miguel Hasson

“Sometimes, you have to be the fraud”. Candid and insightful words, both for budding criminals and, slightly more pertinently, creatives in any field. It’s one thing to read such sentiments in self-help blogs or Instagram reels, but quite another to hear them within the context of a thoughtful and illuminating conversation with the creator of one of the most beautiful indie releases in recent years, 9 Years of Shadows.

I must confess, I judged Halberd Studios’ debut release – very positively, I might add – by its cover. In my defence, the pixel art is so vibrant and satisfying, I sort of wanted to eat it. Bit weird, maybe, but you take a peek at those screenshots and tell me they don’t look like they’d taste like the most incredible meal ever. Anyway, as it happens, both the gameplay and soundtrack live up to those enticing first impressions, the latter striking me as easily one of the best of 2023. So when I discovered that the game’s creative director, Miguel Hasson, single-handedly composed and produced almost every song in the game, I was very, very intrigued.

“For the trailers, it was super stressful,” says Hasson, when I ask about the creative process of writing music for 9 Years of Shadows. “I made the sound effects and the music for the trailers, but I usually had to make them in a night because the animation was ready at the very last second. I was like, I need to render this, put the video together, edit the gameplay, it must look amazing, it was so much work. That was awful.”

Just the kind of experience we wish developers wouldn’t have to go through. Thankfully, work on those trailers wasn’t representative of the entire score. “The other ones were great. For example, one of them that I really enjoyed making was Sector C, in the plant-based area, because it made me feel relaxed. It was an antidote to whatever was going on”. Listen to the track here.

Sure enough, Hasson’s compositions for 9 Years of Shadows employ a fascinating blend of emotions and styles to amplify the game’s nuanced tone and aesthetic. Many of the tracks exude a calming ambience whilst simultaneously weaving in hints of urgency, tension, and “iridescence”, a word that sticks out from our interview as particularly apt. “There’s also a huge emphasis on the crystals. It was supposed to be healing music, but the characters are also broken. It was meant for you to get a relaxed kind of vibe, but also get that sadness that’s in the air, and it’s a bit melancholic. I feel like those slightly detuned synths do that really well”.

The “healing music” that Hasson describes is a lesser-known concept that he utilised in this soundtrack to access precisely the right atmosphere. The technique involves slightly lowering every note in the scale, so that A in the fourth octave, or A4, plays at a pitch of 432 Hz rather than the typical 440 Hz. Some proponents believe that music built within this framework resonates with the Earth’s natural frequencies and provides various benefits to health and mental wellbeing.

Whether or not you’re onboard with those theories, one thing’s for certain; healing music allows for a distinctive, very subtly off-key sound, (noticeable immediately in the game’s title screen track, Crystalline Tears) that can lend more weight to nostalgic, intriguing atmospheres, amongst many other moods. A perfect choice for the layered emotional context of 9 Years of Shadows. Hasson also harnessed yet more intricate musical colour using modal interchange and rhythmic techniques. Hasson smiles fondly over the video call as he recalls more details of the soundscape he crafted for 9 Years. “The cool thing about, like, 90s synths is that they sound very nostalgic, and they add a bunch of noise and artefacts that you only get in that kind of music. I don’t know, I felt like that was the way to go.”

It’s clear that projects with true character, that can genuinely connect with their audience, simply cannot exist without being immensely and intensely personal to the creator. 9 Years of Shadows was originally conceived as a story written for Hasson’s high school girlfriend, and he continued to pour himself into the project when it later took shape as his game development studio’s very first release. He lists some of the influences that can be found in the game as Castlevania, Metroid, the anime series Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac [PEGASUS RYUSEIKEN! – ed’s note], and many others. Musically, Hasson drew upon some of his most loved inspirations and incorporated them into his own style to suit the game’s strong, unique identity, which was emerging as development progressed. 

Bach, Ravel, and Debussy were all present in Hasson’s household as he grew up, later joined by the sounds of Megaman X, Actraiser, Metroid Prime, and various other iconic game soundtracks. Without any formal training in school or college, Hasson relied upon experimentation to refine his piano and composition chops, as well as some very contemporary resources. “It’s a lot of YouTube videos, man. It’s a great era in which you have great influencers out there talking about this stuff.”

He mentions Nahre as just such an influencer, and then, to my delight, Louis Cole, an incredibly talented and unorthodox musician whose work has captured my own imagination. “He’s fantastic. And he was really inspiring as well because, according to him, he can’t read music. This guy is very much himself, and he makes the music that I like. I’d much rather listen to him than a perfect mix, like over-engineered. It’s so him, it’s so natural, I was very much inspired by that kind of thinking”.

This idea of connecting less to sonic “perfection” than the comforting rough edges of raw expression is arguably the core principle behind a huge chunk of the current popular music landscape. The rise of 90s-inspired jungle and the ubiquitous “Lofi Girl” chillhop wave is the clearest manifestation, and it’s exciting to see video game composers, too, embracing the emotional impact of the old ways.

Hasson’s autodidactic approach speaks to the diversity of talent in video game music, and serves as a reminder that there’s no single “right way” to achieve success, creative or otherwise. Lena Raine, the celebrated composer behind Celeste’s award-winning soundtrack, did study music formally in school and college, but also opts for a mix of modern sound design techniques and retro-styled synths to achieve nostalgic emotional impact whilst maintaining a vibrancy that reflects the fantastical worlds she scores.

If you’re anything like me, you have, at one point in your life (or perhaps at hundreds of points), struggled to pick a lane. Whether it’s business ideas or creative outlets, there ain’t enough hours in the day to do it all. Hasson can certainly relate. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I loved film, I loved video games, but it was the kind of thing where I wanted to do everything. I wanted to do the script, I wanted to do the music, I wanted to do, like, everything. It was very hard to pick just one. But I was lucky because I started really early, and I picked cinematography, and that turned into [organising and directing] concerts, which were video game-related and music-related. That turned into services and managing artists, and that eventually evolved into a video games studio in which I could direct, because I had some experience in various positions, I guess.”

Sounds like a pretty solid approach to me. Make a decision early and follow that lane while keeping an eye on the others, combining them wherever possible. Hasson’s idea to bring video games to his work directing concerts was a stroke of genius, and just shows the kind of doors that can unexpectedly open when you stay focused on your passions: it was, after all, through one of these concerts that he first met Michiru Yamane, who, years later, contributed two stunning songs to the 9 Years of Shadows soundtrack. Yamane is known for her work on numerous beloved game series, including Castlevania, and introduced Hasson to healing music.

So how the heck did the Halberd co-founder, composer, and creative director find the time to hone all these crafts? Anyone who’s even dipped a toe into music composition or production knows that there’s a lifetime of learning and refining right there. “In my twenties, I was very lucky because I had time, and I wasn’t super stressed out with uni or anything. It was just, play a little piano, then go shoot, then think about doing a short film. It was a very healthy 20s. A lot of that paid out later when, like, ‘you need to make a trailer tonight and it needs to be the best thing you do, and everyone will watch it!’ So that’s what I feel happened, I had some time before, to practise and be healthy, and now you sort of need to rely on what you learned back then and just exploit it, but with a gun pointed at your head. And enjoy it. Otherwise you go crazy.” 

Did Hasson manage to keep that latter point in mind throughout the development of 9 Years of Shadows? “Not at all. That was something I learned later, because I was very much in the production trap of thinking ‘you’re doing this for the result’. But if the result is not perfect then you’re set up for disappointment in life, and that’s just a very crappy way of living, especially on projects that last for four or five years.”

The key, Hasson says, is to make a conscious decision to appreciate the positive side of game development; the ability to work with like-minded people and get paid to do what you love. I wondered if he had questioned his abilities or hesitated at all before jumping into development on his studio’s very first release, and this is where Hasson encourages us all to commit and give ourselves a chance.

“I was at a point in my life where I wanted to do all that stuff, because I felt like I could do it. Not because I felt I was great at it, but because I wanted to do it, and if I didn’t trust myself to do it, no magic producer or Nintendo director was going to reach out and [say] ‘hey, Miguel, you wanna do the sound for Metroid?’ It’s never going to happen, so sometimes you have to be the fraud, and you have to believe that you can make it, and you can be as good as someone you admire.”

Still, Hasson acknowledges that this mindset can be difficult to maintain, and confidence can  fluctuate day to day. But this can be useful; being one’s own worst critic has its uses, in that it facilitates improvement. Again, though, the crucial point is to make a decision. Decide when that self-criticism is useful. “When the game goes out, and you have actual critics being really rough with the thing, then you have to switch. You always have to think about the utility of your own thoughts. Is this thought helping me? And if it’s not, then you can just switch, and that’s it”.

There’s another secret to Hasson’s success, especially in the face of extreme workloads and the temptation to prioritise them over all else. “That’s a huge trap, going into workaholism. Again, it’s being very conscious… even [from] a productivity standpoint, you realise that people like Michael Jordan, who are very effective people at their industry, they’re usually very good at resting, and that’s not something that makes the documentaries or anything. But that’s the secret. How do you perform at that level and work the next day? Anyone can burn themselves into the ground, but how do you do that constantly? Yeah, I feel like resting is such a professional thing to master, it’s very, very difficult.”

As we near the end of our time, I ask Hasson about his pinned Tweet, which pretty much speaks for itself, but I suspected he might have some thoughts around it that would be worth us all taking away. “Just be a sunflower. Look for the pretty stuff. There’s always going to be bad shit to look at. You can focus on what’s not great about the product, you can focus on what’s not great about you, but again, what’s the utility in there. If you’re finding some utility, then that’s OK, but if it’s only deliberately hurting you then it’s not worth it.”

Halberd Studios are currently working on their second game, Mariachi Legends, scheduled for release in 2024.

Adam Grindley

Adam learned at a young age that video games are more fun than responsibilities, and has prioritized them as such ever since. These days, he spends his time searching for a game that can dethrone Mount Your Friends as the greatest of all time, documenting his discoveries along the way. Say hello to him on Twitter (@boddling) and also check out his portfolio at