Eric ‘ConcernedApe‘ Barone is a musician disguised as a game developer. He’s best known as the creator of indie hit Stardew Valley, a farming life simulator where millions of players have whittled away the seasons growing crops, tending to animals, and throwing diamonds at townspeople to romance them.
Yet Stardew Valley’s soundtrack, which was Barone’s one-person project like the rest of the game, can’t be overlooked. The score is one of Stardew‘s best bits – a soaring celebration of the seasons, from upbeat spring ballads and snappy summer instrumentals to melancholy Autumn tracks complete with the sound of wind whooshing through dry leaves. Stardew Valley’s music has racked up millions of plays on Spotify, while next year’s live orchestral tour sold out so quickly that new dates have been added across the globe.
“Before I ever considered making a video game, I always wanted to be a musician,” Barone tells NME over Zoom, raindrops trickling down the cosy greenhouse background behind him. “That was my dream.”
Barone has been playing music since his parents brought home a “cheap” keyboard, and was a member of several bands growing up. “The first was a nu-metal band, and it sounded awful,” he says, laughing. “Then I briefly played in a kind-of-screamo band, and in college, I was in… well, it was also embarrassing. It was experimental pop music.”
Even Barone’s first-ever game, which he doesn’t want anyone to see because it’s “cringe,” was a LucasArts-style point-and-click game made for his pop band’s album. Though Barone was always “huge” on games growing up, he never considered they would become his career – he nonchalantly studied computer science at college because his local college happened to offer courses, and only made games on the side to get better at programming. Yet as he explored his creative side, his future began to take shape.
“Because I knew how to do music, and would doodle around with art and stuff, I had some really amateur skills to be able to put together in a video game,” shared Barone. “And then it just kind of grew from there.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. Barone’s breakout hit Stardew Valley, which tasks players with turning a run-down inheritance into a bustling farm in a cosy rural town, has sold over 20million copies. It’s a must-play for many reasons, including the game’s wholesome sense of community, endearing characters, and compelling just-one-more-day farming formula. But to Barone, one of the game’s finest qualities is its music.
“I actually think it’s an underappreciated soundtrack actually, in terms of video games,” he says. “I always say to myself, ‘the fact Stardew Valley became so popular means people will finally listen to my music!’”
Like much of Barone’s style, the game’s score was “intuitive,” inspired by classical music and ‘90s role-playing game soundtracks. During development, he took a “somewhat recreational” approach to scoring the game. He would often make a “bunch” of tracks and then retrospectively try to fit them into scenes he’d made, though found it difficult to create songs with a specific use in mind.
“The best thing is when I’m just making music, I’m not even thinking about what it’s for, and it gives me ideas for the game,” says Barone. “It will make me think of a particular scenario or environment, and then I really envision it through the music and put that into the game. That’s my favourite way to develop, actually.”
Barone refers to it as “music-guided game development,” and has never heard of another developer working in the same way. To him, it’s instinctive a way of getting in toucher with creativity at its purest. “Music is direct. It’s language,” he explains. “The way you normally think about things through an inner dialogue or symbolic representation? It’s removed. Music is somehow pure, you don’t think of it in terms of symbols. It just exists, it’s like magic. It feels like a way you can almost directly interface with the transcendental or divine.”
Recently, Barone has been working with Tokyo-based music company SOHO Live to create live orchestra performances of Stardew Valley’s music. The tour, which will span Europe, Asia and America, was announced back in October. Today (November 29), even more stops have been added due to overwhelming popularity.
It was an idea that Barone had in the back of his mind, but was too busy to act on until SOHO Live reached out. Though he can’t read music, he’s been composing and providing feedback through MIDI files, using adages like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to place notes. Nearly eight years after Stardew Valley launched, Barone finds it “touching” that there are enough fans to justify things like a concert tour.
“I’m really glad that people love the game so much,” says Barone. “It resonated with so many people. I never expected that.”
Looking ahead, Barone is currently working on Haunted Chocolatier, a “life-affirming” RPG about ghosts and chocolate. Barone, who occasionally felt musically “constrained” by Stardew Valley’s countryside vibes, says his next soundtrack will be more authentic to the electronic music he usually makes.
“I plan on going more experimental with it,” he says. “In Haunted Chocolatier, the whole idea of the game is that it’s more exploring these weird, transcendental ideas and scenarios with ghosts and weird stuff. I feel like I can go weirder with the music, and do things that I couldn’t do with Stardew Valley, so it’s kind of freeing and interesting.”
Barone has drawn inspiration from from a number of places, ranging from “old-school PlayStation One” RPGs like Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy, to his own electronic music tastes. “When I started working on Haunted Chocolatier, I was listening to a lot of vaporwave music and stuff,” he explains. “There’s a little bit of that influence, but I’d call it almost a post-vaporwave influence.”
“But it’s not like [Haunted Chocolatier] has a vaporwave soundtrack,” he clarified. “But I keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in weird, underground music circles, and a little bit of that will always make it in.”
Barone is also keen to work in more moments like Stardew Valley’s ‘Dance Of The Moonlight Jellies’ festival, when townspeople gather at the beach to watch the glow of passing jellyfish. Their migration marks the end of summer, and it’s an emotional cutscene brought to life by its chiming, melancholy music – you can listen to Barone playing it below.
“My whole goal as a game creator is to create these moments where I want people to feel something, like actually feel this connection to something deeper than you would normally feel like in a video game. I want to go deeper, and connect with people in a real way that’s memorable, that they’ll take with them for the rest of their life. I think music is integral to that. I’m really excited with Haunted Chocolatier to create more of these special musical moments that will really touch people.”
Seeing these moments brought to life in concert is something Barone is particularly excited about. Years after Stardew Valley changed his life, Barone admits he’s often “numb” to how surreal his life has become since becoming an indie celebrity. Yet once he’s sat in a venue, watching one of next year’s orchestral performances, he suspects the shock will hit him once again.
“It feels like my life has been worthwhile because of Stardew Valley, even if I were to die tomorrow,” he says. “It feels good to see it manifest in new ways, and see people appreciate it.”
You can check out the new dates for Stardew Valley: Festival Of Seasons here