Bring the Noize: A chat with River City Girls composer Megan McDuffee

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Sing-a-Song of Slugfests

Much like another of WayForward’s top franchises, Shantae, River City Girls understands that the key to connecting with an audience is to imbue your characters and worlds with life, personality, and charisma. This can be achieved through storytelling, script, visuals, and, of course, music. For Kyoko, Misako, their allies, and their enemies, music plays an essential part in setting the scene, with pulse-pounding beats, retro-electro, and dramatic vocals scoring the duo’s fast ‘n’ furious town tear-up.

River City Girls’ distinct sound was meticulously composed by Washington-based musician Megan McDuffee. McDuffee’s work brings life and dynamism to RCG, affording its 2D visuals fullness of character, springing the game’s heroes, villains, and locales to life. Now preparing to return for the upcoming River City Girls 2, we spoke with the award-winning composer about their sound, their influences, and their thoughts on River City’s most dangerous rockstar, NOIZE.

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Destructoid: Hi Megan, and thanks for sitting down with us! I guess it’d be best to start at the beginning, which I’ve heard is a very good place to start. How did you get started in music? And, for those yet to hear your music, how would you personally define your unique, eclectic sound?

Megan: There was never a time when I was not in music — it’s been part of my life since day one. I always knew I’d have a musically focused career. I’m an amalgamation of all the things I listened to both growing up and as a young adult. Rock, jazz, classical, pop, and electronic were on regular rotation in my collection. And while my sound varies between projects, the underlying thread is my electronic production and highly melodic sensibility. I’d say for my own personal artist releases, my style is best described as dark electropop with triphop influences.

Destructoid: I love the darkness in your music, melodically, lyrically, and aesthetically. Now, River City Girls was not your first venture into “music for media”, as your work has been previously featured in a variety of films and TV series. How did you get into composing music for the screen, and how would you say the process differs from recording, say, an album? Are you at the behest of a lot of requests, or are you still able to maintain creative freedom?

Megan: I had a bit of an epiphany during my undergraduate studies while taking a film music course; I wasn’t totally satisfied with my vocal major, so I switched to Film Scoring. I always loved film soundtracks, and the lightbulb went off in my head to pursue that path. The process is pretty different between the two in the role that music plays. When scoring to picture, it’s most often about supporting the emotional threads of the film, and enhancing what’s on screen.

When composing an album, there’s far more creative freedom in what you want your “message” to be. Film music plays a supporting role, while an album is the story. My personal creative leeway varies greatly from project to project — some directors/developers have a well-fleshed-out vision of their needs, and some want me to just go nuts!

Destructoid: How were you approached by WayForward to compose the soundtrack for the first River City Girls release? What do you think it is about your previous work that the team thought would be a snug fit for Kunio-kun — a Japanese video game series about rebellious schoolyard scrappers?

Megan: I call this my “networking miracle”. A fellow member of the Materia Collective (a group of video game music arrangers, singers, producers, composers, enthusiasts, etc.) was friends with one of the directors at WayForward, and recommended me when he heard they were potentially looking for a composer with a “synthpop” vibe. WayForward reached out to me after hearing some of my other work and the rest is history. I think they were enchanted by my ’80s-yet-modern style, and were definitely hooked when they found out I was also a vocalist.

Destructoid: River City Girls differs from many games in that much of the soundtrack contains fully lyricised songs with a regular song structure. This is one area in which the RCG soundtrack differs from the typical musical composition of most games. Was the choice to feature vocalized music made by yourself or the development team?

Megan: The idea to have a few fully-vocal synthpop songs was pitched by the game’s director; he really liked my voice, and thought it might be a cool idea to incorporate some vocals. I think it was a great choice. The fact that it ties into rockstar baddie NOIZE is such a fun little detail that I haven’t really seen in other games before!

Destructoid: How far along in the game’s development do you begin your songwriting process? Do you have a lot of recon materials to work with, or do you essentially have the unenviable task of writing your soundtrack based purely on some basic narrative ideas, character art, and very little else?

Megan: For the first RCG, I was brought into the development process pretty early, from what I can tell. I was given artwork of some of the characters, a general description of each area, and some musical style/genre references. I didn’t see any gameplay until the game was basically finished. One recent project I worked with was the complete opposite, where I provided the final touches and was able to work with fully rendered gameplay. It depends on the project, really.

Destructoid: How pleased are you personally with the finished score of RCG? What emotions were invoked in you when you first saw the finished game, with your music punctuating its charming but hard-hitting and chaotic action?

Megan: It was a dream come true to have finished such an enormous soundtrack, and one I was super excited about. I’m extremely pleased with the final result! Listening back now I hear a bunch of production issues I would do differently, but all in all, I’m still stoked with it. Oh man, seeing it in action for the first time was totally surreal! It was during a visit to the WayForward office, where I got to play a bit of the game on the couch with the dev team… What a trip.

Destructoid: So, come release day, River City Girls received much critical and fan acclaim, with many reviewers and players citing your music as one of the key elements in regard to delivering character, charisma, and style to Kyoko and Misako’s adventure. While you’re already a successful recording artist already, did you find that RCG introduced a plethora of new fans to your other work?

Megan: One hundred and twelve percent. At the time, RCG was the biggest project I had worked on in terms of scope and visibility, so that brought a lot of people my way. I’d say a good three-quarters of people who follow me have found me through that soundtrack. I’m infinitely grateful for the ongoing exposure. I know without a doubt my first major artist release (“Inner Demons“) would not have found the success it had without having worked on RCG.

Destructoid: I’m very happy to have found your work through the continuing RCG saga. Has your experience with the first game helped with the design process of the sequel? Is RCG 2 a “difficult second album”, or has your previous work with the franchise helped you immensely with the compositional process?

Megan: Thank you! I’m extremely excited as well. In regards to the process of writing the new score, I have essentially just continued where the first game left off. I had some slightly different references to work with, as well as some “genre-blending” challenges this time around. But this has kept things evolving and kept me out of a composition rut.

Destructoid: I believe that your personal work on the sequel has now wrapped, yes? Now that RCG 2 is in the books, what future projects do you have lined up?

Megan: Yes, I recently wrapped all the RCG 2 soundtrack production, and I have no shortage of other projects in the works. I’m continuing to work alongside Atari for their “Recharged” series. I’m crafting gnarly horror-cyberpunk tunes for the indie game Evolutis. I perform spooky narration for the CreepyPod podcast. I’m recording vocals for other producers, including a co-production with ALEX and an exciting collab with RichaadEB. I’m producing a bunch of music for a hugely popular MMO (that I can’t divulge yet)… I’m beginning production on another vocal artist release…

Destructoid: Yikes! That’s a hefty inbox, but I’m glad to see that you’re staying in demand! This also brings about an interesting question: If you could choose to score an entry in any video game franchise, which would you choose?

Megan: This is a tough one! I have so many favorites. I’d love to score something that could use an epic score with an electro edge… like Mass Effect… or BioShock.

And, since I love horror, maybe Dead Space or DOOM!

Destructoid: Thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with me today, Megan. It’s been awesome learning a little about your history and the process in which you create these charismatic and resonant soundtracks. It would be outrageous for us to conclude this interview without referencing River City Girls’ very own electro diva: NOIZE.

You personally portray this, somewhat misunderstood, River City Superstar, who takes on Kyoko and Misako during a particularly creative boss battle. How does it feel to see your music literally personified as a character?

Megan: Again, it’s totally surreal. I think of it as my “Jack Skellington” career moment, where I produced the soundtrack and also personified a memorable character! So insanely cool!

Destructoid: She’s certainly a fiery musician! Is that the only way that you and NOIZE are alike in character, or are you two very different? It feels as if she has a deeper story to tell, and fans would love to see her again. So… will she return to the stage in the continuing saga of River City?

Megan: I might not be as bitter as NOIZE, but I definitely have her energy! In real life, I probably would have hugged Kyoko, instead of fighting her. Perhaps one day I’ll have my own crazed fans rocking out at sold-out shows, haha! Also, although I’ve colored my hair almost every shade of the rainbow, I’ve never had fully green locks. I should probably try that sometime! As for NOIZE’s return, I’ll err on the side of caution and say you may, or may not, be seeing her again…

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Megan McDuffee’s newest single “Villain” is available to purchase now on Bandcamp, alongside the album “Inner Demons“, cyberpunkish EP “Barely Covered“, and other works. For all news and updates on upcoming projects, follow Megan over on Twitter, Instagram, and her official website.

River City Girls 2 is currently in development for PlayStation, PC, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch.

Chris Moyse
Senior Editor - Chris has been playing video games since the 1980s. Former Saturday Night Slam Master. Graduated from Galaxy High with honors. Twitter: @ChrisxMoyse