This month 21 years ago, Blizzard Games launched what is now one of the most well-known video game series of all time: Diablo. A roguelike dungeon crawler RPG with strong horror elements, the game went on to become a multi-million copy seller and spawned two sequels as well as several expansion packs, allowing players to take on the role of warriors, sorcerers, rogues, necromancers, and more, all in an effort to face the greatest evil the land of Sanctuary.
While the game undoubtedly set the stage for many titles to come in the years that followed, one of the most appreciated and notable aspects that made the original stand out was its music, courtesy of composer Matt Uelmen, whose sole credit beforehand was the Sega/SNES Acclaim superhero fighter Justice League Task Force. The man behind the first and second game in the series, Uelmen’s music has been recognized as some of the most important and memorable in video game history.
Today, we are thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with Uelmen where we discuss his musical past, his memories of working on Diablo and specifically the fan favorite track “Tristram”, his work on this year’s Hob, and more.
Read on for the interview and make sure to follow Matt on Twitter.
Dread Central: From what I’ve read, you’re a largely self-taught musician. What were the ways that you challenged yourself musically to become a composer?
Matt Uelmen: My lessons from age 6 or so to 12 with a local piano teacher, Lenée Bilski, were very formative, and I’m not sure if I would have ended up a composer without them. I consistently tried to expose myself to new genres and keep a little bit of grinding on aspects where my musicianship was relatively weak, usually involving musical literacy, through my teen years and since, and those are good habits for any composer.
DC: While recent gamers will know your music from the Torchlight series, older games will have spent countless hours hearing your melodies in the first two Diablo games. Can you tell me a bit about how you came aboard that project?
MU: I found the development crew for what became the Diablo team when they were known as Condor through Matt Householder, who I found by coldcalling numbers of developers on an old Nintendo document. We ended up working together later, when Dave Brevik and the Schaefers brought him on as a producer. I had a demo designed around the technical specs they were developing for, at the end of the SNES/Genesis cycle, and bugged them over a few months before getting the gig.
DC: Often listed as one of the greatest video game themes of all time, Diablo‘s “Tristram” has enchanted and bewitched listeners for over two decades. Did you ever expect that theme to have such an impact on not only the gamer community but also the music community as a whole?
MU: No, we had no idea that Diablo would take off in quite the way it did, in terms of the soundtrack or the game as a whole. In retrospect, I can see why it was successful in terms of our timing on the platforms we were on, and the state of gaming and the fantasy genre in general at the time, but as a group of kids still in their 20s, we didn’t, as a development crew, expect the reception to be quite as big as it was.
DC: I’d like to focus a little more on “Tristram” by asking if you can tell me a bit about the composition process for that piece? What went into making a theme that was such a wonderful blend of sinister beauty and ethereal hope?
MU: I think the main thing I was hoping to get was the “medieval” vibe that the best folk rock of the early 70s had, like on Led Zeppelin III and IV. That and some Latin American influences all had a role. It also helped that I had played the main roguelike that inspired Diablo along with Dave Brevik, so I had some natural sense of what the ideal vibe would be for a safety/shopping/quest zone.
DC: Last question about “Tristram”, I promise! When you think about the piece, 20 years later, what are the thoughts to come to your mind?
MU: I’m happy that I was so lucky to be in the right place at the right time, given that even a track with bad production values, which the original Tristram most definitely had, could get over and be really effective by virtue of originality and solid writing. Still, I don’t know quite who the 22 year old is who wrote it, he’s a familiar but still very distant person to whatever I am now.
DC: You’ve basically stated that you were composing music for Diablo III prior to your leaving Blizzard. What can you tell us about those pieces?
MU: The public has heard almost all of it, much of it went into World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, while “Hydra” and “Lord” were released as promo tracks when Diablo 3 shipped.
DC: Hob, which comes from Runic Games, is your latest soundtrack. It wonderfully blends digital and analog instruments into something quite sublime. What was your approach heading into scoring this game?
MU: Thanks! My main goal was to try to create a hybrid lead instrument out of three different instruments that had common properties and all were a little outside the usual mid 2010’s soundtrack pallet: Moog guitar, fretless bass and pedal steel. I ended up working pretty hard just to feel like I had decent chops on all three, and was fairly satisfied when those elements came together in the soundtrack. I felt like that composite voice basically did what I hoped it would, gave a signature sound that matched the loneliness and exotic aspect of the game’s player character.
DC: As the years have passed, the technological capabilities of video game music have evolved quite dramatically. How has your own composition style changed over the years with these new advancements?
MU: I would hope it has evolved! I love being able to spend time with a project to make a “custom fit” atmosphere, so I’ll always bend in the direction of whatever a given project needs. My twin goals are keeping my less-used skills, like traditional orchestration, from rotting while trying to keep an intellectually curious aspect alive in my music. I know that my fantasy-ish stuff has a trademark sound, which is absolutely key to my career, but I don’t want to fall into a trap of too much self-reference. It is always a balance.
DC: In an interesting turn of events, video games went from trying to push graphical and technological barriers to easing back and embracing a certain amount of “retro” nostalgia. How has this trend affected your work?
MU: Well, I definitely enjoyed the fact that “Stranger Things” made the big, wet sawtooth synth sound cool again, but, honestly, I try to be truly Catholic in the non-religious sense with all kinds of instrumental textures. I never fell out of love with the sound of wah-wah guitar or the Geffen-label country rock textures from my childhood, and feel that way about all the Linn and Roland drum sounds of the 80s, as well as the big brass sounds of the German Romantic tradition. I try to love the flavor of the textures themselves outside of the particular fashion-related baggage the sounds carry.
DC: You’re known for taking some time in between projects as Hob is the first new video game soundtrack we’ve gotten from you in several years. What’s next on your plate and how can people continue to support you?
MU: Thanks! My next project is already very much in motion, and should hopefully be public next calendar year. I look forward to helping hype it, and am greatly enjoying working on it now. The team is a great mix of vets and exciting younger talent.