Chris Tilton & Sarah Schachner: Composing Assassin’s Creed

The right music can make or break a game. Paul chats to the composers behind the latest Assassin's Creed to find out how they make it work.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has long been heralded for its distinctive soundtracks, with each subsequent game in the series providing its own immersive blend of classical orchestration and contemporary composition. Following the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, Paul Weedon sat down for a chat with composers Chris Tilton and Sarah Schachner to discuss their contributions to the latest entry in the long-running franchise.

The Assassin’s Creed scores pride themselves in their ability to merge traditional instrumentation with modern technology. How do you set about striking that balance between old and new to reflect the time period in which the game is set?

Tilton: That was a request from the outset – to do a blend of electronic with live instruments. And I think they wanted to put a little more focus on the fact that the game as a whole is a blend of genres. It’s a sci-fi story, but it’s also heavily historical and [Ubisoft] wanted to meld those sounds into a singular sound. That was the initial idea. We went in a variety of directions, but as far as the main story goes, I think we stayed true to that sort of blend of electronic and live instrumentation.

Schachner: Totally. That’s what makes it so fun. You don’t have to stay fully locked in the period or concern yourself with being 100% stylistically accurate at all times since you’re only virtually visiting the time period. You have the freedom to drift in and out harmonically and open up the instrumentation to include electronic sounds as long as it’s generally rooted in the period. Historic action music, electronic music, and analogue/modular synths are some of my favourite things anyway, so combining them feels natural.

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What are your respective backgrounds as composers?

Tilton: I moved out to LA straight out of college, and back in 2001, I started working for the composer Michael Giacchino, who was doing a lot of video game scores at the time. I heard his music in the Medal of Honor games, so I started out as an assistant of his. He eventually went on to do TV and film work, so I hung around and assisted on several of those projects. In fact, it was because of him that I was able to take over doing Fringe. That was a huge opportunity and was probably the biggest project that I had worked on at that time. I did some game work before Fringe, but that was very all consuming, so this was kind of the first game I’ve done in a long time, especially a more dramatic game like this.

Schachner: I’ve played in bands and composed music my entire life, so pursuing a career in music for visual media was a natural progression. Once in LA, I got the opportunity to do some work for Brian Tyler on games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3Far Cry 3, and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag where I realized how much I loved composing for games.

And when did you guys initially start work on Assassins Creed Unity?

Tilton: It was at the beginning of this year. Myself, Sarah, and Ryan [Amon] all flew to Montreal to get the 101 on the whole game. They talked to us about what their plan was in terms of implementing the music and what our roles would be and then we sort of just went about executing that. A lot of these games feature moments where you write a piece of music and then you separate the elements out so the person making the game can make variations or lower intensity versions, so we did a lot of that.

How much interaction did you have with one another during the composing process?

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Schachner: Surprisingly, none really. Ubisoft had specific plans for what they wanted each of us to do, so there wasn’t too much crossover. I mainly focused on the systemic combat, co-op, and multiplayer missions. They wanted us to do our own thing.

Tilton: Outside our initial meeting, we were left to our own devices because we were working on very distinct sections of the game. Ryan’s music heavily focuses on a lot of the modern components of the game, and I was tasked with doing the music that’s tied to the main character – Arno’s story in Paris, France during the revolution – as well as also writing the main theme that encompasses the game as a whole. So my focus was really on the single-player story.

Sarah did a lot of pieces that are not just co-op story missions, but also just the general world. Say I’m just going to go and wander around and mess around in the world – all those systems that the game has, from AI to music to sound, that also has to react to you, and she worked a lot on that. She plays a lot of really cool old acoustic instruments as well, so she brought a lot of historically accurate, intimate kind of sound to the game, which compliments that stuff I did, which focuses on the story, which is a bit larger in scope and a bit more cinematic, whereas a lot of her pieces get right down to the nitty gritty of it.

Working on a franchise like Assassin’s Creed, where the score is integral to the game world, how difficult is it to avoid repetition?

Schachner: It’s not that difficult because of the fact that each game is set in a unique historical era with its own story. Paris in the late 18th century isn’t going to have the same musical language as the 12th, 13th, or 16th centuries in Revelations, or have drunken sea shanties like Black Flag. While the historical time period does dictate the overall vibe you have to work with, there needs to be some familiar ground across the franchise so you don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel.

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Tilton: I think one of the good things across the board for Assassin’s Creed is the fact that they’re constantly bringing in new people to have new takes on the material. But at the same time, they’re presenting me with a game that’s doing a lot of new things, especially with regards to the single-player story, which is what I’m most excited about in games. That’s what draws me in to playing games, let alone scoring them as well.

How much freedom do you have on a project like this? The series has its own distinctive sound that’s fairly well established. Are you generally left to do your own thing or is it a more collaborative process than that?

Schachner: It depends on the game studio. Ubisoft Montreal is great to work with because there is a fair amount of freedom in the process. There’s a way to stay true to the Assassin’s Creed brand while still giving it your own voice, and they allow for that. I can’t speak for the others, but in my case, having worked on Black Flag and playing some of the same instruments in Unity, it was more a question of “what can we do that will really give this a distinctly French sound even though it takes place somewhat chronologically close to Black Flag?”

Once everyone is happy and on the same page with the direction, the back and forth is more about systemic functionality more than anything, especially now that game music is more interactive than ever. Since the game is being made while the music is being composed, there has to be a lot of communication about function, as there often won’t be anything to look at or score to. The actual implementation of the music into the game still bewilders me. It’s madness.

Tilton: I think all three of us were given similar general guidelines of the direction they’d like to go, but as far as our interpretation of that, I think we all gave different but interesting takes on those ideas, which is why they decided to hire all three of us. I got connected to the story because I approached the general early ideas with that kind of idea in mind. And blending electronic and orchestra is something that I sort of had to do when I started Fringe just because of the nature of that show and where that started out.

Presumably you get to play the game without score during production, which must give you a very different perspective on the game as a whole?

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Tilton: It’s less playing the game and more understanding the footage of the missions as they are work in progress, then I’ll get newer versions of cinematics. But yeah, it is kind of a little bit like working with unfinished visual effects. And at this point, no one has any hair or something, or no faces – stuff like that. But you get used to using your imagination and also, having played all the games, I know what it’s like to play them. That’s helped a little bit, too.

In recent years, there’s been a noticeable change in terms of video game score emulating blockbuster films. The likes of Mass Effect spring to mind, but there are many others. What are your thoughts on this?

Schachner: That’s definitely true and it’s because games have become so advanced and complex, the divide between games and film is closing. Not to mention how common it’s become for blockbuster film composers to score games. There’s still that lingering attitude that games and their music are inferior and not to be taken as seriously, from the older generations mainly, but I think it’s only a matter of time before that is eradicated. While I’m glad to see expectations, standards, and budgets for game soundtracks on par with Hollywood blockbuster films, I’d hate to see it ultimately dampen the creativity and willingness to take risks that has led to this point.

With games grossing even more than film franchises, there’s increasing pressure from big studios to stick to a formula and less freedom for the actual creators to experiment and make choices that push boundaries artistically. This will always be the struggle when art must also make money, but I hope the gaming industry chooses a different path than the studio film industry.

Tilton: I feel like you’re right that the early 2000s saw a kind of blanket approach, and not just music but in a lot of places – “let’s just do what Hollywood does because we can start to do that now,” and I think that was probably a natural thing to try to do. I think the games industry is finally starting to figure out the balance in between doing what the movies do and taking the lessons that movies have spent 100 years learning and applying them in ways that make sense in the context of the game. I think we’re finally starting to see that, especially with the explosion of indie games.

And I think music is doing that too – where you’re getting all types of different perspectives and it’s not just the big games that have some mandate that it needs to sound like this big Hollywood movie because we’re making a game in that genre. You saw that a lot, and it was requested a lot to varying degrees of success. I think those requests are still there and will be, but I think now we have a lot more options. I don’t think Mass Effect could have existed in the early 2000s. They probably would have wanted something even more ‘Hollywoody’ than that, if that came out in 2001.

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It’s great and we’re only seeing this because the industry is being supported like that. Before you had to have at least a zillion bucks to release a game that more than a few people would see, and now it can just be one person. I think this is the most exciting time in the games industry, personally – the fact that we can have Assassin’s Creed Unity and also have a game that one person made… Like, Slender got released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 – that was just a joke that was born off a message board. That’s crazy.

How do you see the composing landscape evolving in the next ten years?

Tilton: I hate to try to predict trends, but I think the days of just knowing how to do one thing are kind of over now in this industry. This applies to composers. You need to do one or two things really well and also know how to do a few other things. I would encourage all composers to learn about the process of making games and as much as they can about telling stories. Those two things will make you a better composer. I think working on Fringe made me a much better composer. It forces you to really focus and learn about story. And especially working for Bad Robot – they’re very particular about how music works and how it should be helping to tell stories. That was a good thing for me because it helped me in all the other projects I worked on – including Assassin’s Creed.

Schachner: It’s hard to say since the gaming experience will probably be pretty different in 10 years as technology continues to advance at warp velocity. What won’t change is the fact that film music shapes the viewer’s emotions as they react, but are unable to influence the journey of the characters they see. Video game music shapes a player’s journey so that they become the character. Humans by nature will always respond strongest emotionally to melody and ambience. I think memorable themes and unique, non-traditional sonic worlds will become even more important as the gaming experience approaches full sensory immersion. I hope so at least. Graphics may become so good they are indistinguishable from reality, but they will never trigger emotion like music does.

Sarah Schachner, Chris Tilton, thank you very much.

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