Whether you’re a fan of video games or not, chances are that the Call Of Duty franchise is one that requires little introduction. Now entering its thirteenth year, Activision’s first person shooter franchise continues to go from strength to strength, with annual releases proudly amassing the kind of absurd sale figures that most sectors of the entertainment industry can only dream of. In addition to being a phenomenally lucrative franchise, the series also has enviable pedigree when it comes to its scores, with the likes of Michael Giacchino and Hans Zimmer, among others, putting their names to the series. Each game in the series sees composers bringing their own unique style and approach to scoring a first person shooter - a genre that, for all its various iterations and incarnations, could quite easily (and unfairly) be pigeonholed for its derivative approach to music.
The release of Black Ops III in 2015 marked the second collaboration between composer Jack Wall and Treyarch, the games’ developer. With an impressive list of credits, including entries in the Myst and Splinter Cell franchises, not to mention his extensive work with legendary developer Bioware on the Mass Effect series, Wall’s contribution to video games over the course of the past two decades has been nothing short of prolific.
Paul Weedon recently caught up with him to discuss his approach to scoring for science fiction, how he seeks to keep things fresh and his work on Bioware’s cult favourite, Jade Empire.
Black Ops III marked the second time you’ve scored a game in the Call of Duty franchise. I’m interested to know a little bit about the pitching process on a series like this. How do you go about approaching that on a project like this?
I did have to pitch on Black Ops II. I had worked with Treyarch’s audio director, Brian Tuey, about 13 years ago at a small developer called Gigawatt. We had lost touch but he contacted me after learning I’d scored the Mass Effect series as the guys at Treyarch were fans of that game and the score. I did about five or six minutes of music based on a brief that they gave me and won the audition. For Black Ops III, I was not required to pitch.
The franchise has phenomenal pedigree – Michael Giacchino, Graeme Revell, Hans Zimmer, and yourself, to name just a few. How intimidating is it approaching an established franchise like this where the bar has already been set enormously high? How do you go about making your own mark?
I really enjoy the fact that music is important to the developer. The culture at Treyarch is very much about the team. From the beginning, they made me feel that I was a part of the team and gave me a lot of room. They let me know that they chose me because they wanted to work with me - knowing that I would give the music for their title my full attention. Brian would say something to the effect of “just know when you’re feeling the pressure, so are we with everything we do. We’re all in this together”.
Brian is one of the best audio directors I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Everything is collaborative and the level of trust he places in me allows me to do my best work and bring my own musical point of view.
Obviously your sci-fi credentials were a great fit for the series. Were the team at Treyarch quite prescriptive about the sort of sound they wanted for this game, or were you afforded a fair bit of freedom?
We started out with the idea that this score for Black Ops III would be more electronic with less orchestra than Black Ops II. That ended up being true. But when I wrote the first big orchestra piece they wanted more of it than we originally planned. But there ended up being plenty of electronic and hybrid pieces as well. The process is organic and fluid. We just react to the process of making the game as it goes along and give the game what we think it needs.
The first person shooter, perhaps more so than any other genre, is one that comes with its own fair share of tropes and clichés. How do you go about avoiding genre fatigue when working on a game series like this?
That’s a really great question! This was really important to me and Treyarch. To that end, they asked me to write and produce big band jazz for the Zombie mode. Who does that? It was about as much fun as I’ve ever had writing music for anything! Also, the perk soda jingles. Man, that was different but great.
In the single player campaign, there is an artificial intelligence that takes center stage in the story. There are two full levels of gameplay that take place in a memory. Instead of being literal with the music, I decided to go really ethereal and dreamy working with people like Azam Ali, who sings these otherworldly melismatic phrases, and Loga Ramin Torkian, who plays the bowed guitarviol. Using dreamlike sounds to create a whole other ambiance to the score in those places. In a lot of places, the score doesn’t sound like a shooter.
Is there anything creatively prohibitive that you find particularly frustrating about working in the first person genre?
Not with Treyarch. They like my wacky ideas and let me run free. I’m looking for ways to make it more interesting - at least to me. I’m lucky they like what I do I suppose!
I’m interested to know a little more about your relationship with the guys at Bioware. You were responsible for the score for Jade Empire, which remains one of their most unique projects. What are your memories of working on that?
I remember the first few pieces of music being tough but after that it was really easy and fluid. I worked with a Chinese musician named Zhiming Han who served as a sort of consultant. He was connected with tons of authentic Chinese musicians in Los Angeles where I live and so it was a relatively simple task for me to find authentic Chinese instrumentation and marry that with my orchestral scoring ideas. I worked with a Taiko ensemble as well as a percussionist named Irwin who did some great things for the score. The idea was East meets West. I couldn’t go purebred Chinese or it wouldn’t sound dramatic. But adding those flavors to the score made the score what it is.
On the same subject, the music of Mass Effect has attained an iconic status all of its own and a lot of that is down to the groundwork laid by yourself, Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, and David Kates. How has it been to watch the popularity of that series grow over time?
Mass Effect is still one of my favorite games of all time. I just really enjoyed the immersive story and gameplay surrounding that story. Very unique really. I’m proud of my work on the series and credit much of my current success to those games but writing it was a real journey.
Looking back, which of your game projects do you feel most proud of?
Besides Call of Duty Black Ops II and III, I would say Mass Effect 1 and 2, Jade Empire and Myst III and IV are my personal favorites, because I was so responsible for each one and was able to give them my all.
Finally, as technology continues to change the way people make music, what are some of your favourite challenges as a video game composer?
Making sure I take into account everything a player might consider doing in the course of playing a given level. That is really hard. It hurts my brain. But it’s really important specifically to games and all that they entail. Also, because games are so unique apart from say, film, they allow an enormous creative freedom. So pushing boundaries of what can be done for a game is a whole lot of fun.
Jack Wall, thank you very much.