Every month from now on, we’ll discuss the unique process of making music for video games, based on the investigation we published in February. This month, we dive into the musical universe of composer Cris Velasco, who’s behind the soundtracks of Fortnite, Darksiders 3, Resident Evil 7, Bloodborne, Mass Effect 3, Borderlands 2 and God of War III.
How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score?
It’s different with every project. I’ve had to wrap up entire scores (composing, revising, recording, mixing) in a week. That’s rare though. I’m normally brought in fairly early. I’ll have anywhere from two months to a year on some projects.
What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score?
I’m very inspired by visuals, so I like to at least get concept art and screenshots if they’re available. A video of gameplay is even better. Best case scenario though is when the developer can send me a working build of the game. Then I can experience it for myself. I feel like my best scores are written this way.
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 very often actually. Sometimes, when the audio director is also the one doing the SFX, we’ll have discussions about how to achieve a solid balance. That’s why it’s nice for me to play a build of the game though. Even if the SFX isn’t implemented yet, I can make an educated guess at how they’ll function. A good “trick” is to make sure the music has its ebbs and flows. That will create natural space so you’re not at risk of stepping on each other’s toes.
What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
I think it’s much more difficult to write a game score than TV or film. There are many reasons why, but I’ll give you one main one. In a game, you’re very likely to hear the same piece of music for an extended amount of time. Sometimes that same music will be repeated throughout the game if they need to fill in some spaces. So how do you write music that serves the game, sounds great, but doesn’t get annoying? That’s the biggest challenge in writing for games I think. My own way to test this out is through unfocused attention. When I finish a cue, I’ll play it on a loop in my studio for ten to 15 minutes while I do other things. It becomes background music to whatever else I’m doing. If something starts to stick out and call attention to itself (in a bad way), I get rid of it.
Does your approach differ between writing for a triple-A title vs an indie game?
My approach is always to just write the best music I can for whatever project I’m working on. The only real difference I’ve noticed is that triple-A titles tend to feel more ‘Hollywood’. And that’s not a bad thing! I adore movies and film scores. Indie titles seem to be more open to experimentation. This can be a breath of fresh air actually after working on a bigger title.
Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores? If not, why this difference?
If they did, we’d at least see our own category for the Grammys. I’m not complaining though. Game music has a huge following. Our fans are extraordinary and extremely passionate about this music. I’ve participated in sold out concerts of game music all over the world. Games tend to be seen as “something for kids” still though. At least for most people. This unfortunately puts the scores further down the totem pole in terms of recognition. I have no doubt this will change over time though.
“Too much micromanaging is what can turn a project from an exciting creative endeavour into a ‘job’.”
What was the most inspiring game world you worked on, which aspect did you most want to bring into your score and how did you reflect that?
One of my latest projects, Darksiders 3, was a very satisfying and inspiring game. The antagonists are all based on each of the seven deadly sins. Back when I was studying music in college, I always had aspirations to write a symphonic work based on the seven sins. It never came to pass though. Darksiders gave me the opportunity to realise my dream and at the same time I got to work on this very cool franchise. Win-win!
Do you have any tips on how can developers best help composers to make music for their game?
Too much micromanaging is what can turn a project from an exciting creative endeavour into a “job”. I absolutely encourage and expect feedback though. What’s helpful for me though is of a broader nature. “This should be scarier” or “we need a sense of urgency here” is better for me than getting too specific. That always runs the risk of a piece feeling contrived after all is said and done.
Want to read more about the process of making music for games? Read our in-depth investigation here.