Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Wilbert Roget, who’s behind the soundtracks of Mortal Kombat 11, Call of Duty: WWII, Star Wars: The Old Republic and more
Can you tell us more about your approach when you work on a game’s score?
Each project varies drastically in the timing of when they bring in a composer, and in the creative decisions that have already been made before then. On Mortal Kombat 11, I started composing in the final months of development for a title within a 27-year-old game franchise, so there were already well-established boundaries. Conversely, I began scoring Anew: The Distant Light, an indie original IP with a team of only two developers, within a year of its inception.
But in either case, I always begin a score by immersing myself in the story and art direction, and then spending as much time as possible in ‘pre-composition’, which is my musical take on a pre-production phase. I’ll do research on many different musical genres, watch genre-relevant films and take notes on their scores. Frequently I’ll even transcribe music in genres that I think might be relevant to the eventual score (for instance, transcribing taiko performances before scoring Mortal Kombat 11, or John Williams pieces before working on a Star Wars game title). I also keep a brainstorming document that I populate with any ideas I might have about the score – things as specific as melodies and chord progressions, or as vague as colour or instrument names. Throughout the entire scoring process, I’ll continue to update this document with fresh ideas, and highlight the more successful concepts that have already begun to define the music direction.
How closely do you work with the sound designer(s) when you write music for a game and how important is this for you?
It’s vitally important to make sure that music is structured to fit within the mix, and so I greatly value early collaboration with the audio team. Before writing a single note on Call of Duty: WWII, I met with the audio director and senior sound designer. They mentioned how difficult it was to mix previous games in the series due to music and SFX taking up similar frequency bands, and having conflicting timbres, so I decided early on to structure my instrumentation to avoid these conflicts. As a result, my score didn’t use any high woodwinds or brass, nor any snare drums or mallet percussion, in order to make sure that the music didn’t conflict with our authentic WWII weapon sounds. Whenever I would finish writing a cue, I’d test it against a level with busy sound design – if elements from my music were either obscured by sound design or stood out unattractively, I’d simply remove them.
I also incorporated sound design within the musical soundscape as well – our audio director sent me some of the game’s authentic WWII vehicle and weapon sounds, which I then processed and used as a part of the orchestra, taking the place of traditional percussion instruments like cymbals and tam-tams. This “musique concrète” technique helped give the score a unique texture, closely identifiable with the setting.
What are your typical challenges when writing music for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?
Game scores are inherently unpredictable; in-game music can be interrupted at any point by gameplay events, which can last for a completely unknown duration. Interactive music often requires non-linear composition methods, for example organising music cues into stems with instrument groups separated and triggered dynamically, or split into segments that can play seamlessly in any order, or some combination of both. Additionally, each cue in a game score has a form that’s dictated by the composer, similar to a piece of art music – whereas in a film score, the form is generally structured by the edit and the pacing of the scene. Lastly, music that’s meant to loop indefinitely has certain implied restrictions to the content itself – the goal is to loop seamlessly and imperceptibly, so composers must avoid individual moments that stand out too much.
Do you feel like your work as a composer impacts the design of the games you work on? If so, can you provide examples?
The more involved I am with the game’s music implementation, the more my music has an impact on the players’ experience. For example, on Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, we developed a generalised puzzle music system where designers could put in musical ‘hints’ whenever players reached checkpoints in a complicated puzzle. It was created as a function within the game engine’s visual scripting tool, and easily implemented by designers. Additionally, because I had access to the Lara Croft builds throughout development, I would regularly play through the game and take note of areas where I would get stuck in difficult combat or puzzle areas. I’d then write additional unique music cues for those moments, so that players would be encouraged by my subconscious hint that these areas were intended to be difficult.
How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio?
I always enjoy experimenting with new ideas and concepts as much as possible, but it usually depends on how much time we have in the schedule, and so it varies greatly. On Mortal Kombat 11, I had a great deal of freedom as the character-based score needed so much sonic diversity. And on Anew: The Distant Light, I joined the project early enough that we could try lots of unusual sounds and 20th century art music influences not typically heard in a game score. Lastly, on Call of Duty: WWII, we allowed a generous amount of time at the start of production for iteration on the main theme, establishing a solid direction to base the rest of the score upon.
Do you have any tips on how can developers best help composers to make music for their game?
It’s a great idea to bring in composers as soon as the story is well-developed and a solid plan for gameplay is established! Let us be a part of the process of developing a style and mood for the game as a whole, working harmoniously with the art direction and allowing ample time and resources for implementation and tuning. It’s also a good idea to establish early on which moments should be music-heavy vs. sound design-heavy, so that the two components don’t have to fight each other. Lastly, I advocate against constant music throughout narrative games, and instead prefer a more varied experience with moments of silence.
Mortal Kombat 11 was your first fighting game score, how did you approach this genre?
I was already quite familiar with the Mortal Kombat franchise, having been a fan since the very first game. I knew the game would feature the franchise’s signature over-the-top violence, which informed my harmonic language as well as my use of hard-cutting analog synthesizers and aggressive percussion. The heart of the score, however, was in the characters and their development and relationships, so I crafted leitmotifs for every character and faction. And because the personas were so diverse, the music needed to be diverse as well, so I worked with instrumentalists and vocalists from four different continents to create unique signature sounds for each.
What was the most inspiring game world you worked on?
It’s very difficult to pick just one game in particular. I loved scoring Call of Duty: WWII because of the challenge of writing for historical fiction – its real-world setting and harrowing subject matter required a different approach than usual, embracing a minimalist aesthetic that’s both gritty and personal. On Mortal Kombat 11, I was scoring for characters that I’d known and loved for decades, which was a rare privilege. And for my upcoming score to Anew: The Distant Light, the world is alien and unusual but also has incredible depth and consistency, which inspired me to create perhaps my most unique-sounding score yet!