But if you listen to any of Undertale’s short, catchy tracks, you’re probably not thinking how they might sound in jazzy, expanded form with a heavy helping of smooth saxophone. Yet that’s exactly what Japanese composer Norihiko Hibino delivers on Prescription for Sleep: Undertale, a new album coming from Scarlet Moon Records next month. You’ve never heard the game sound quite like this before.
Since its release last September, Toby Fox’s Undertale — a classically-styled RPG about a human child journeying through a land of monsters that flips the conventions of the genre on its head — has received no small number of accolades. While the lion’s share of attention came from how the game’s Earthbound-esque narrative allowed players to choose peaceful reconciliation with every enemy in the game (and in general how it echoes life’s disinterest in the consequences of your mistakes), its soundtrack, which Fox wrote, was praised too.
As it turns out, Hibino, probably best known in the west for his work on Metal Gear Solid (including MGS3’s “Snake Eater” and MGS2’s laid-back, in-game work opposite Harry Gregson-Williams’ blockbuster cutscene scoring), has been working in the field of therapeutic sound research since 2009; after finishing up MGS4, he started the Hibino Sound Therapy Lab, drawing equal inspiration and ideas from science and spirituality to help people through the therapy of music.
It’s no wonder — if transposing MGS2’s military-industrial character into the velvet crush of a low-key lounge was a good indicator of Hibino’s compositional sensibilities (as I learned back in 2001), it seems fitting that he would want to use his incredible talent to bring people a measure of inner peace. The Undertale album is merely the latest example and reflects on why Hibino set down a philanthropic path the first place.
“I decided to start Hibino Sound Therapy Lab after a difficult period spending time with a friend who was dying of cancer,” Hibino tells me over email. “She was in her forties, divorced, had two children, and very little money, so I wanted to bring her some music to give her comfort in her final days.”
Prescription for Sleep is actually borrowed from HSTL’s first release, an iOS app of the same name that featured a variety of relaxing music. Since then, Scarlet Moon has produced multiple albums in the series, featuring Hibino and his longtime musical partner Ayaki on piano, playing off each other in soulful, playful interpretations of beloved video game tracks.
As to what originally drew Hibino to Prescription for Sleep as a concept, he isn’t sure.
“Honestly, I can’t even recall. I just felt it was necessary,” he says of the idea. “Perhaps God gave me some insight into what I should do next. I can’t really explain how it was so successful by any other explanation, as it didn’t receive a lot of promotion.”
As luck would have it, when Scarlet Moon founder Jayson Napolitano initially reached out to Hibino about making Prescription for Sleep’s first album in 2014, his designs on where to take Scarlet Moon beyond work as a publisher and PR body for game soundtracks and composers, respectively, meshed nicely with Hibino’s history with HSTL.
“I was thinking about arrangers and performers, and it didn’t take long for me to consider GENTLE LOVE [Hibino and Ayaki’s performing name] since I was already familiar with [their work as a] duo,” says Napolitano, who wrote about game music for Destructoid before starting Scarlet Moon. “I thought it would be a brilliant way to bridge the gap between Hibino-san’s mission to help people with music and his history in the video game industry — he was immediately interested in taking part.”
The name was originally going to be a nod to Metal Gear, as well.
“The first enemy you encounter Metal Gear famously says, ‘I feel asleep!’ I wanted to somehow work that in as a fun reference given Hibino-san’s ties to the game industry,” Napolitano says. “I was discussing with the name ‘I Feel Asleep: Game Music Lullabies’ with a friend. He said, ‘Why don’t you ask Hibino-san to use the Prescription for Sleep brand since it’s already established?’ The rest is history.”
Napolitano chose Undertale as the next album to pursue the publishing rights for, then collaborated with Hibino and Ayaki on the musical direction. The lo-fi nature of the original tracks is something the album benefits from. As accomplished jazz musicians, you can sense the fun Hibino and Ayaki had in stretching out the sub two-minute tracks into breezy, five- to seven-minute extrapolations and improvisations of Fox’s original melodies.
As Hibino puts it, it’s about exploring what’s already written.
“Because 8-bit-style music has minimum texture, it gave us lots of freedom to use our imaginations when it came to how the arrangements should sound, kind of like reading a child’s picture book versus viewing a 3D game image,” he writes in the album’s digital liner notes. “Toby Fox demonstrates some real genius in his ability to create these emotions using a minimum number of notes, and thereby using the space between notes to good effect.”
Hibino sees Fox’s music as the conduit to Undertale itself, perhaps mirroring his own reactions to the game.
“I think he must see the ending visual image through his music first, he writes. “He is a real creative guy.”
While Hibino hasn’t played Undertale himself, he finds its themes evoke the right feelings to make for a calming interpretation of its soundtrack.
“I’ve only seen videos of people playing it,” he says. “I really like the idea of a human being trapped in the underworld with a strong hope to reach home. It may be just a game, but yet it is very spiritually meaningful.”
You can check out a quick preview of Hibino and Ayaki’s handiwork below, with an exclusive excerpt of the track “Home.” Whether you’ve played Undertale or not, this is an album worth keeping your eye on.
Prescription for Sleep: Undertale is currently available for pre-order in both digital and physical editions via Bandcamp. The album releases on December 1.