For a horror soundtrack junkie like myself, 2012 has been a pretty rewarding year for horror game music... in fact, some of the creepiest scores I've heard this year were written for games. It's also been a noteworthy year in horror gaming overall, including a fair amount of buzz about ZombiU, the first zombie survival horror game for Nintendo's Wii U and GamePad (check out our game review here). Accompanying this unique spin on zombie game tech is a wild, breathtaking score by acclaimed composer Cris Velasco, who recently added IGN's Best Overall Music nomination for Mass Effect 3 to his resume – which is itself quite packed with horror and dark fantasy titles, including Darksiders, Dark Messiah and Clive Barker's Jericho. I recently had a cool Q&A with Cris about his involvement in ZombiU...
FEARnet: First of all, congrats on the nomination for Mass Effect 3.
CRIS: Thanks! Working on Mass Effect has been an amazing opportunity. I’m so thrilled that the fans seem to be liking the music.
ZombiU has some new twists when it comes to action scenes. How did you address that musically?
There are three layers of distinct music, depending on how nasty things are getting. We called them Proximity, Danger, and Urgency. The Proximity layer is mostly made up of tense atmospheric sounds and our string quintet playing a sort of rhythmic pulse... something that tells you the zombies are near and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The Danger layer is made up of more arrhythmical tones; that layer plays on top of the Proximity layer and really ramps up the tension. This plays when the zombies have spotted you and are coming your way. The final layer, Urgency, plays when you are being swarmed. It takes the previous two layers and then adds insanity. There are lots more percussion, distortion, and even human screams. If you hear this layer, the chances are rather grim for you!
Were there new creative challenges involved in scoring a game designed for the Wii U?
Writing for the Wii U was just like writing for any other platform or console; it was the audio team at Ubisoft who were responsible for the implementation. I delivered musical stems to them for every piece... once I’ve written a whole cue, I’ll then separate it out as strings, brass, FX, percussion, guitars, etc. They can then mix and match the different layers to better fit the action on the screen. This can be very cool, because they’ll often come up with new ways of combining my music that I’d never thought of. They did a brilliant job.
Did you write any specific themes or motifs?
There is an overall theme, although it’s not attributed to any particular character. It’s designed to be used in many instances throughout the game. At times it’s almost heroic as you struggle to escape from a rooftop, other times it’s quiet and eerie and just helps to set the mood. There is a motif for the Prepper, but it’s more sound design than melody. It’s also very recognizable... whenever you hear it, you’ll know the the Prepper is lurking about.
There's no central “hero” motif, since the characters are kind of disposable...
Yes, the majority of players are going to go through a lot of different characters to get through the game, so it didn’t seem right to have a theme for someone that might only last thirty seconds!
Your main quintet of musicians call themselves the "Apocalypse Ensemble." Were you involved in the formation of that group?
Most of them are all musicians I’ve worked with many times before, but Nicole Garcia hand-selected them all for this occasion. Calling them the Apocalypse Ensemble on this project was my idea. On a game like this, how could you not name it that?
Good point! What was Nicole's involvement on this project?
I’ve known Nicole for over twenty years. She even played on my first orchestral piece I wrote while at UCLA called Iconoclasm. Whenever I have a score that needs violin, Nicole is always the first person I call. Her quintet added the perfect texture to this score; I wanted a sound that was very raw and more in-your-face, and a large string ensemble would have smoothed out the sound too much. The Apocalypse Ensemble really gave the score that aggressive sound that I was looking for. In a game about the undead, they were able to step in and add some life.
How did you create some of those bizarre percussion effects?
A lot of the percussion was made by combining col legno [hitting the strings of violin, cello, etc. with the wood of the bow] and prepared piano. You can get some very cool sounds with both of these techniques, especially the piano. Depending on how you prepare the strings, and what objects you place on or between the strings, like paper clips, forks, marbles, paper, etc., the piano can sound like everything from a dull thud to a wind chime or a tolling bell... it essentially turns a piano into an 88-key drum kit. All of this, combined with more typical percussion instruments, formed the backbone of the score.
I also dig the way you integrate guitar into these cues; it reminds me of Goblin in many ways.
Do you come from a guitar background?
Actually, before everyone knew me as a classically trained composer, I had long hair and played in a death metal band! It’s always fun to have the chance to pick up some of my electric guitars and make lots of noise in the studio.
You've got some major horror games to your credit. Do you feel like horror gives you more room to explore and experiment?
Horror definitely gives me a wider canvas to work with. You can get away with just about anything in a score like this. If you tried to place extreme dissonance, or a detuned calliope, or guitars coupled with horrific screaming into a fantasy or action game, I think it would turn people off. In a horror game, the music can be experimental or unsettling because the gameplay itself is already affecting you on such a primal level. The fight or flight syndrome is kicking in, and the music is only enhancing that.
What's the story behind that final retro-style track “Zombi '80s?”
Ubisoft’s very first game was Zombi – that came out in 1986, I believe – and we wanted to do a quirky homage to it. It was a lot of fun to take the ZombiU theme and work it into an old 8-bit style!
Did '80s horror scores influence your approach to writing ZombiU?
I love ‘80s horror scores, but I wasn’t influenced by anything in particular other than the gameplay of ZombiU itself. They wanted a very aggressive and chaotic score, so that’s what I strove for. It's a much more contemporary sound.
So what's on your plate for 2013?
I’m currently working with Sascha Dikiciyan again on a new Mass Effect 3 DLC. We’re also wrapping up another game that I can’t mention quite yet. I also have a huge title coming out next year that I’ve just recorded a large orchestra and choir for. I think we’ll be announcing this one in January!