Shortly before he won Best Score in the Video Game category at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards I got the chance to talk with composer Austin Wintory about his score for one of the most popular games of the recent years: Assassin’s Creed. To be precise Austin was responsible for the light-footed over three hours long soundtrack of its latest release, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
For everyone not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed franchise here’s the official E3 Cinematic trailer created by the insanely talented folks at DIGIC Pictures featuring In The Heat Of The Moment (Toydrum Remix) by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds:
According to Austin he was approached a little over a year ago by Ubisoft’s Audio Director Lydia Andrew. Since most information was still protected under NDA he didn’t get much information to work with but still had some essential elements of the storyline: Austin was told that they were interested in his take on an Assassin’s Creed taking place in Victorian London. Additionally he learned that the main characters would be two twins, Jacob and Evie Frye, who lost their father and try to build a legacy. Therefore both would go into London and pry it from the clutches of the Templars.
Surprise us: What chamber music and assassins have in common
“We want to try something new. We want to hear something that surprises us,” they told Austin and he held them to their word: Based in Victorian London, Austin decided to go for a very unusual chamber music approach and using waltzes to reflect the assassins’ nimble movement. Here’s how it all came about:
I had a pretty immediate reaction of imagining this neo 19th century chamber music approach. The thrust of it was: What happens if I put a nine-piece chamber ensemble with two soloists in the game that’s meant to be very lean and mean like an Assassin? Something that can move very quickly, can turn corners sharply and dance on the head of a pin. It felt like a good way to capture the deadly precision that the Assassins are able to move with.
A giant orchestra is just this behemoth that can create a huge amount of power but it’s not exactly nimble. Not in the way that I wanted it. Chamber music really was nimble in the way that I was imagining and also of course this chamber music vibe is very compatible with Victorian London as an aesthetic, they gel together very well. I didn’t honestly think they were gonna go for it because it was such a departure from the previous AC games. But to my astonishment they did go for it, they loved it. To their credit and specifically to Lydia, they didn’t want to play it safe, they really wanted to shake things up and I was delighted to be the guy help them do that.
His whole approach he regarded as “Neo-Mendelssohn” on Reddit as well as in an interview on Nerd Reactor before. Therefore I was curious to hear a bit more about it. He told me how he tried to capture Mendelssohn’s “very specific and wonderful way of writing and in particular regard with chamber music”; but with a modern twist as it’s not trying to be a period score.
Below you can watch a Behind-the-Scenes video, produced by Austin and featuring the piece Top Hats and Sword Canes, to understand his idea better:
I wanted to choose a piece that contains the main theme. [Also what] I think is probably most representative of the score as an action score is the waltzes: I score combat throughout the game with this dancing music. That particular piece was the most effective single demonstration of that.
What stands out for Austin in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was the dynamic between the twins as one of the biggest differences to any prior Assassins Creed. He liked very much that it was about immediately learning the character and just going straight in compared to some earlier games of the series like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as well as the first and third part where the story was a lot about someone becoming an assassin. He added that also that both, Jacob’s and Evie’s, characters were inherently interesting to him and so he wanted to write “something that came from the perspective of their struggles and their thinking.”
Delving deeper into the score’s origin, it was important for Austin to mention that he doesn’t think a score’s job is to channel the time and place of the era a game takes place:
Capturing London was not the first priority of the score. I think that a score should be primarily focussed on the characters and of the ideas being presented by a game and trying to figure out the subtext of those. If it manages to wink towards the era while doing those things then great. But I don’t think it’s necessary to build the score around the time period as the starting position because the game already gives you that.
In this case the game is already telling you it’s Victorian London and so you don’t need to reinforce that through the score. If you end up reinforcing it through the score then great. But I don’t think it should be a starting point for the same reason that if you’re making a game that takes place in ancient Persia you don’t need to just assume that the music should sound Persian or if the game takes place in Appalachia you don’t suddenly need to have a bunch of backwoods fiddle music and jug bands. Those elements are made clear by the game itself.
Flesh out London: About the songs in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
We also got to talk about the songs included in the soundtrack. Austin is not only a master of his craft when it comes to composing for the orchestra, soloists and small ensembles but also truly gifted when it comes to writing songs for games. In the past he was responsible for songs like I was Born for This on his first-ever Grammy-nominated videogame score for Journey, all the Viking Folk Songs in The Banner Saga as well as the end credit song called Onward and the end credit song for Monaco called Can’t Resist.
So it was right up his street when Audio Director Lydia Andrew approached Austin with the idea of embedding recorded hymn tunes and folk songs in the game. The plan was to “flesh out London” through singers and instrumentalists performing these ingame to really make it feel real. So Lydia asked Austin what he thought about writing original songs in this specific style of the period but to let the lyrics actually be about Jacob and Evie as well as the characters they are assassinating.
This is how Austin got the idea for the lyrics in pieces like the wonderful Too Dreadful a Practice for this Open Air which are drawn from Nahum Tate’s libretto of Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas: “I love that opera and I wanted to use the text. So I took the libretto, the lyrics from the opera and set them to my own music.”
Apart from these pieces there are also six songs with lyrics written by Australian musical comedy trio Tripod. Here is how they got involved in the creation of the soundtrack:
The idea was that some anonymous composer somewhere is observing that two mysterious figures are manipulating London and playing with the balance of power. So he starts writing songs about it. I had just done this show called This Game Live which is a full evening length, two hour long show of original music that I had written with Tripod. We had spent about a year and premiered the show in April. That was about the time when Lydia asked me what I thought of this idea. I told her that I loved the idea and that I would love to do this.
I’ve written a lot of songs for games that I’ve done and so this was familiar territory for me and I always like to team up with a lyricist. Tripod are extraordinary lyricists and so I said I’d love to hire them to write the lyrics. But they are also extraordinary songwriters in general and so very quickly they started throwing ideas my way about melodies for example Very quickly it became a much more collaborative effort; not just that I wrote the music and they wrote the lyrics.
Their fingerprints are all over the music itself and in fact one of the songs I didn’t even contribute to: They sent me an idea of theirs just to see what I thought and we were gonna chip away with it and collaborate from there. But when I heard Jokes, Jokes, Jokes I only said: “It’s perfect. I don’t wanna ruin it. Anything I do is just gonna mess it up.” It was a wonderful collaboration, they are great people, wonderful human beings, and also spectacular talents.
Underground: The personal background to the creative process
This also leads us now to the song Underground which was nominated at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in the Category “Song – Video Game” alongside Paul McCartney’s winning title Hope for the Future (Destiny) and Inon Zur‘s The Path of Destiny (Sword Coast Legends). While Austin agreed on every project being personal on the degree already because composing music is a pretty personal act and so “it’s no shock that everything ends up crawling inside your brain and your heart in a meaningful way.”
But he had mentioned in an interview with Gaming Cypher that the score for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate When I asked him if he could elaborate on this he told me that while working on Assassin’s Creed he lost two very important people in his life. Because he encouraged me to mention it as it was the “most direct and honest look at the process” since it was all part of the creative process, I will end my article about Austin Wintory’s score for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate with how the specifically tragic events in his private life turned the scores he was working on in the pasts months in the ones they ended up to be:
While I was working on the Assassin’s Creed Syndicate I lost two very important people in my life. One at the very beginning and one when I was very nearly finished and so the project had to be written during periods of pretty intense personal grief and feelings of loss. It realigns your creative impulses in unexpected ways to be composing while in that mindset and while also knowing that you have to work because you don’t have time to take a week off and go mourn. I was forced to try to do my mourning and my grieving in my writing and try to let the music be the outlet by which I expressed it. Which is how you get a song like Underground and there are other moments in the score that are extremely direct expressions of that. All the rest of it is essentially just an indirect expression of that. Any project is going to be personal but this one was sitting right on top of one of the most difficult periods of my entire life and so there’s just no avoiding of that impact it’s gonna have on the writing. Assassin’s Creed would have never been anything resembling what it is if I weren’t dealing with the things that I’ve been dealing with during it.
One of the two people was the wife of my best friends and she was also a very close friend of mine. Her husband is a filmmaker and he happened to be shooting a movie while I was scoring Assassin’s Creed and so the job I went straight out of Assassin’s Creed was his movie. We tried to make the movie like a tribute to her because it was the project we were working on straight away after she died. So I ended up being able to continue this process of letting the music be a way in which I express these things that I’m dealing with. And then I went straight from that into The Banner Saga 2 which also deals with themes like this. I noticed that this score got a lot darker and more dissonant than in the first game. Whereas the film was this attempt to make something really beautiful as a tribute to this wonderful person, The Banner Saga 2 ended up becoming more like a look head-on at the grief and the kind of anger itself. She died in her 30s from cancer and so it’s hard not to build up a lot of anger and something like this. Hence I find that the writing on The Banner Saga 2 may have been influenced by that in the score and it’s actually quite a bit heavier than the previous game.
You can find more information about Austin on his official website as well as he is active on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Soundcloud. Austin Wintory also mentioned some tips for young composers which you find in another article. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is available on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, Youtube and Spotify featuring acclaimed instrumentalists Sandy Cameron and Tina Guo.