Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, web dive into the musical universe of Sarah Schachner, who’s behind the soundtracks of Anthem, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed Origins
What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score?
The developers will send any rough gameplay capture available, script, artwork, and/or plenty of story/lore info to get started. Being in the same city as the developer is always a plus. It’s great to be able to visit in person and see the game developing and experience how the music is working in action. The best part is getting to play through early builds at the studio with ‘God Mode’ enabled so you’re invincible.
Do you work closely with the sound designer(s) of the game, to ensure there’s cohesion between the score and the sound effects?
Not on every project, but on Anthem, that was a pretty big thing. Since we were creating a whole new fantasy world, we wanted there to be a cohesive sonic language between score, sound design, and even user interface sounds. I flew up to Edmonton early on in the process and Bioware had a full on cymatics presentation prepared to inspire people in all departments. It was so cool! As the process evolved, the sound designers and I would share sounds and discuss ideas. They’d give me any raw stuff they recorded and I’d give them some of my long modular synth improv explorations to pull from. I had used a didgeridoo in one of the main themes and they were also using that instrument as a sound source for the world itself. I even manipulated a bunch of cypher dialogue in the game using my vocoder chain from Legion of Dawn. Close collaboration like that is really exciting.
What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
Writing interactive game music is like writing in multiple dimensions, in that a lot of attention goes into the vertical layers of the music and different combinations of those layers that will be playing for undefined amounts of time. Interactive music systems are very dynamic: if the player is wandering in open world exploration, one variation of a piece will play conveying what’s happening – perhaps some calm scenery and a feeling of curiosity and wonder. If an unexpected skirmish begins, more active layers are brought in on top of that to create a frenetic energy or anxiety for as long as the encounter lasts. I don’t think there is any other medium where you’d have to make sure that your track conveys multiple, often contrasting moods when different combinations of layers are playing together, and still sound interesting and intentional when half of the parts are muted. Finding a balance between musicality and function within those confines is a unique challenge to video games.
I’m a big proponent of writing longer free-form musical suites and then editing down or building out specific assets from those key ideas. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds with all the technical requirements of a game. The most important thing for me is to get the creativity flowing naturally and create something meaningful that goes beyond layers and function. As with music for any visual medium, the goal is to connect with people emotionally and tell a story.
Does your approach differ between writing for a multiplayer title as opposed to a single player narrative-driven game?
Online multiplayers tend to have less music than single player because they are not usually focused on story. When there is music, it’s notifying players of a specific gameplay event, whether that’s a match beginning, character theme, a victory, or some other state change. As you can imagine, that typically means a lot of shorter pieces with specific singular functions.
When working on single player story mode, the focus is on creating a dynamic and immersive experience, bringing an emotional depth to the narrative wherever possible. In the case of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the multiplayer and co-op modes actually feel like an extension of the single player campaign, so there is a unified musical vision across all modes.
Gris composer Marco Albano has said the studio saw him as a designer as much as a composer as his music changed the game’s approach – does this reflect your experience?
I love that. As technology has improved, the role of a composer has certainly evolved to include producer, arranger, and mixer, and not just simply writing music. On a conceptual indie game with a smaller dev team, the composer can have a lot more input on how the music functions as the interactive system is taking shape, or maybe in some cases they are also designing the system. It’s a little different on a big franchise AAA title that already has an established formula. The games are just so big and the studios pretty much have their integrative systems down to a science. I have enjoyed the times I’ve been able to brainstorm with the audio team and work together to figure out ways we can push the music system even further and I hope that kind of thing continues!
How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio?
Very free! That’s what’s so enjoyable about scoring games. I’m thankful that the dev teams I’ve worked with have all been super open to experimenting and I think at this point, they’ve come to expect that with me. It’s good to surprise people with something a little strange and then maybe have to reign it in a bit vs just doing what you know will work right away. Because of the longer timelines, I’ve been able to do all sorts of experimental recording sessions throughout the scoring process as the sound evolves. One of my most recent sessions for Modern Warfare was with a percussionist who was free-form jamming while I was tweaking distortion and filter settings that he was hearing and reacting to in real time. We had so much fun!
Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores?
If you mean from film/TV centric award shows and critics, then no, but it’s a generational thing and will definitely change over time. For instance, look how far the TV industry has come! Some of the best stuff is coming from television (streaming) right now. The passion for game music from the fans is like none other. The games industry is still relatively new in comparison and rapidly evolving. It used to be a rare thing for a game composer to score a film or TV project and vice versa, but now those lines are blurred. Anyone can do anything. I’m seeing composers who’ve only worked in film or TV now choosing to do game projects. It’s a really exciting industry and you can’t ignore the fact that it’s by far the most profitable.
What was the most inspiring game world you worked on and which aspect did you most want to bring into your score and how did you reflect that?
It’s hard to pick just one as each has been so unique and enjoyable, but Assassin’s Creed Origins is definitely near the top as the historical era was already so inspiring. Getting to play within Ancient Egypt but get to mold it into my own sound was so cool. I wanted to blend authentic historical instruments with sci-fi textures and really bring out the mysticism of the era.
After the fantasy alien world of Anthem, creating music for the hyper realistic and grounded Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was a refreshing change, albeit a bit emotionally taxing due to the heavy subject matter.
Do you have any tips on how can developers best help composers to make music for their game?
Great ideas come from trust, curiosity, and excitement. Developers should find someone they trust and give the composer a period of time to explore and do some broad-stroke composing before getting too nitty-gritty about individual tracks and assets. If you’re building a ship, you don’t start with the thread of the sails, you lay down a solid foundation first and the rest falls into place. I call it “toothpick mode” whenever you’re crazy zoomed in on something small and technical, but maybe missing the bigger picture.
Good communication is so important. The audio director and systems designers should have direct and open dialogue with the composer and not have too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s important to remember that you’re collaborating and bringing to life a vision that’s not just your own.