Say what you want about Mass Effect 3 (unless it's that you should be able to check a box and turn your gay crew mates straight, in which case screw you)—but we haven't heard anyone argue that the game's music is anything but fantastic.
We caught up with three of the game's composers to chat about their inspirations, their triumphs, and bringing the series' music back to its Mass Effect 1 roots. Sam Hulick's been creating tracks for the series since the beginning, while Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco started their Mass Effect work with the second's game's DLC, "Kasumi: Stolen Memory." All three contributed to making Mass Effect 3's score the wonderful electronic soundscape that it is. Here's what they had to say:
(And yes, we really did hear someone say that there should be an option to turn gay characters straight in Mass Effect 3. Idiots.)
Complex: Several composers worked on the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack. How did that work?
Sascha Dikiciyan & Cris Velasco: Well each composer (or team) were allocated specific areas to work on. Cinematics, gameplay and what not. Mass Effect 3 is a massive game that required more than one composer to get the job done on time. As for our part, we scored a large bulk of the game, clocking in at over 90 minutes.
Sam Hulick: [Mass Effect 3 Producer] Casey Hudson and [Audio Lead] Rob Blake effectively served as music directors and defined the overall tone of the score, and assigned different sections of levels to each of us.
Hulick's been working on the series since the beginning. Dikiciyan and Velasco started with Mass Effect 2 DLC. What did you bring to Mass Effect 3 from those experiences?
Sascha & Cris: Our first experience was scoring ME2: Kasumi's Stolen Memory. Musically, we strayed slightly away from the well known Mass Effect sound. Kasumi’s Stolen Memory was a bit of an odd character and it felt like her music should be a bit "colder" than the other Mass Effect music. However, when we worked on the ME2: Arrival DLC it became obvious that the music needed to harken back to something closer to the ME1 style. This carried over into ME3 as well. Of course, we did put our own style and personalities into the score. Overall, a few people commented that the score sounds like ME1 but "newer". That was our goal.
Sam: There was a definite aim to return to the sound of ME1 to some extent. After the second game I noticed some of the Mass Effect fans were longing for the more classic and synth heavy sound of ME1. I was glad to find out when I was brought on board for Mass Effect 3 that BioWare was on the same page for reviving the ME1 sound. The ME3 score is a great balance of ME1 and ME2 and Cris & Sascha's work on the ME2 DLCs.
What else have you worked on besides Mass Effect? How have those experiences differed from this one?
Sascha: Well, before we jumped onto ME3, Cris and I had just wrapped up the Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine for Relic/THQ. It was a huge gig with over 2 hours of music that we were able to record live orchestra for.
Cris: I also wrote a ton of music for a MMO called TERA this summer. It was a lot of fun to write a sweeping, fantasy styled score. Also, I was asked to contribute a few tracks to Soulcalibur V. That was a really interesting project. I even got to write a mini piano concerto for it!
Sam: I had recently come off of Red Orchestra 2, which is pretty far off from the musical style of Mass Effect. Ninety minutes of both intense and somber music, in the flavor of classical German and Russian music.
What are your influences? What do you listen to, say, in your car?
Cris: My influences are all over the map. For big orchestral stuff though I really like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Beethoven, etc. None of this really came through in the ME3 score though :-) For Mass Effect, I was really just inspired by the game. It's such an epic experience that the music just flowed naturally on this one. In my car, I'm usually a bit music'd out actually. I like to catch up on the news on NPR actually. Either that or something very aggressive like Slipknot or Five Finger Death Punch. It really helps deal with the traffic in LA!
Sascha: Well growing up in Germany, classical music always played a huge part in my life. However, once I discovered electronic music in the mid 80s, it totally blew my mind. Since then, I have been influenced by great composers and artists like Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, New Order, NIN to mention a few. All these influences helped greatly to shape the sound of ME3. While we do have a lot of orchestra in our score, it never was supposed to sound like your typical symphonic score. Today, while I always listen to electronic music I do enjoy MUSE, Amon Tobin, Puscifer, also a lot of hard rock/metal, Sevendust, Slipknot to name a few.
Sam: I actually don't like to listen to music while I'm working on a project, I feel like it helps me to maintain a clearer head if I don't have outside musical influences at the time. I need to keep the current game's themes circulating in my mind. In my down time, I enjoy Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, Ray Lynch, Adem, Guster, as well as the occasional film or game score.
What's the process like? How much access do you have to the game when you're composing? Obviously it's much different from, say, scoring a film.
Sascha & Cris: Yes, a lot is left to our imaginations usually. Games are usually not far enough along while we're writing to allow us to play them. However, on ME3, Rob Blake and Mike Kent were really good about giving us video playthroughs on every level we scored. This really helped in the composition process. The music definitely feels different if you're indoors or outdoors, if you're fighting soldiers or some mutated being, if it's dark or well lit, etc. It's nice to work with a team that understands this and strives to make sure we're in the loop on everything!
Sam: BioWare basically sends us video files of level play-throughs to watch, so we can get a sense of what's going on in a particular level. It's also handy because we can run the video footage while our music plays to make sure it has the right feel. Cinematics are often incomplete, rough renders, so we have to use our imaginations a bit there.
How did you incorporate the series' established themes with new musical avenues?
Cris & Sascha: There were only two instances when we used any of the established themes. We were asked to incorporate Legion's theme during a cinematic. Also, we snuck in a variation on our ME2: Arrival (DLC) theme into a big battle cue where it felt appropriate.
Sam: I brought back a few major themes of mine from Mass Effect 1, namely the Main Theme, the Victory Theme, Sovereign's Theme, and of course Uncharted Worlds makes a return for the third time. The Victory Theme is more subdued this time around, tinged with a bit of melancholy to foreshadow the story's development towards its climax.
What was your favorite specific moment—cut scene, location, fight, etc.—to score?
Cris: I don't want to get too specific since there would probably be spoilers, but one of my favorite scenes to write for definitely includes fighting a Reaper.
Sascha: I always like when the Illusive man shows up. Kinda reminds me how cool it always was when the ‘Marlboro man” in X-Files showed up. :)
Sam: If I had to choose just one, it would probably be the part where a certain close friend dies. It was such a heart-wrenching scene.
What were the most difficult moments to score? Were there any you struggled to find the right mood for?
Cris: There were a few levels that had a definite horror vibe to them. Writing horror music that also maintains the ME characteristics was a bit of a challenge. A fun challenge though! There were also some very emotional scenes. It took a bit of tweaking to make sure the music was emotional without going too over the top.
Sam: The big climactic end cinematic was the most challenging for me. There were a lot of expectations from BioWare with the closing of the entire trilogy, so it took a bit of sculpting and whittling away to get the exact right timing and feel.
To what degree does the music change dynamically with gameplay? How much control do you have over designing that?
Cris & Sascha: For nearly every combat track we also supplied them with "medium" and "light" versions. These could all interchange with each other completely seamlessly in order to better complement the gameplay. Hopefully, this will make the experience feel quite dynamic.
Sam: Typically with Mass Effect we deliver what are called "stems" which are separated layers of a piece of music. So based on the intensity of what's currently going on in the player's experience, the audio engine can activate or deactivate different stems to boost or lower intensity. This is mostly used in combat sequences.
What's your favorite Mass Effect song, by you or by another composer?
Cris: From the official soundtrack, I really like Reaper Chase and The Scientists. There's also one (not included on the Collector’s Edition soundtrack) that we're calling The Sanctuary that I'm pretty fond of. I know that's three tracks but it's hard to narrow it down to one!
Sascha: Yes, The Scientists is a pretty epic track. I also really dig the romantic theme by Sam. Oh and there’s another exclusive track not on the CE soundtrack, called “Legions of Doom.” It’s very minimal in a way but sounds very ME.
Sam: I couldn't possibly narrow it down to just one, or even two or three, especially if we're talking about the whole trilogy. There's so much amazing music written by everyone who was involved. I am particularly proud of my work on "I Was Lost Without You" (romance theme), but I wouldn't necessarily call it my single most favorite.
A big thanks to Cris, Sam and Sascha! Give us your thoughts and opinions in the comments or on Twitter.