For their World War II strategy game Company Of Heroes 2, the good people at Relic Entertainment brought in composer Cris Velasco to do the score. Which isn’t that big of a deal until you realize that Velasco’s impressive resume — which features such games as Mass Effect 3 and God Of War II — does not include the original Company. We spoke to Cris about his work on a sequel that isn’t his.
EGM: Lets’ start at the beginning. How did you first start writing music for video games and what was the first game you worked on?
Cris Velasco: I’ve been an avid gamer since Space Invaders hit Atari in 1980. However, I never really considered writing music for games as a career until right before I graduated from the music composition program at UCLA. I was always interested in writing the kind of epic orchestral scores that I fell in love with from the movies, though I hadn’t really heard anything in games that led me to believe that this was a viable path. But a few months before I finished school, I heard the score to Outcast by my now good friend Lennie Moore, and I realized that games could offer me the creative outlet that I was looking for. With the game industry leaning towards more narrative storytelling, I was able to really fulfill my dream as a composer. Not only do I get to write the kind of music that inspires me, but I also get to record with amazing orchestras and choirs around the world. [2003’s] Battlestar Galactica was the game that gave me my first glimpse of this.
EGM: Looking back at that experience, what’s the biggest thing you learned about scoring a game from doing that first one?
CV: On Battlestar Galactica, the audio director was a guy named Tom Zhender. He unknowingly became a mentor of sorts to me during that game. I think there’s a tendency for some young composers to say, “that’s good enough.” I was guilty of it myself a few times during that first project. But Tom would always come back with his notes. I dreaded them. But I also always agreed with them. It really installed a terrific work ethic in me to always do my best no matter what the project is. To this day, I will torture myself to make sure that I’m writing every track to my full potential. I treat every game as if it’s the most important job.
EGM: And what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since that you wish you knew when doing that first game?
CV: To enjoy any time off between gigs and not stress out.
EGM: You are doing the score for Company Of Heroes 2, but you didn’t do the score for the first one. When you started to work on the game, did you go back and listen to the first one’s score to use it as a starting point?
CV: No, I didn’t. It’s a brand new game focusing on an entirely new aspect of the war. I really didn’t want to be influenced by the previous scores. I’ll admit I was tempted to, because the fans seem to really love those earlier soundtracks. In the end, though, I decided that I wanted an unbiased approach to Company 2, and wanted the game to have a score from me that was original and not influenced in any way from the previous ones.
EGM: Company Of Heroes 2 is set during the second World War. Did you listen to any orchestral music from the ’30s or ’40s to get a sense of what classical composers did back then?
CV: I did listen to a lot of classical music from that era. Lots of Russian composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Rachmaninov, etc. I really wanted to get a sense of that Russian sound in my ears. The music is all very much in my style, but with a slight Russian edge to it.
EGM: The game is, of course, a real-time strategy game. Does the genre of a game make a difference in how you write music for it?
CV: I guess it influenced the writing a little bit. First of all, there’s no track that’s shorter than three minutes. This is much longer than most looping game music, at least in my experience. I also tried to make the fighting music more dynamic than what a typical combat track might sound like. I approached the score more like a concert piece. The music has natural ebbs and flows to it. This makes it easier on the ears during gameplay as it loops. Also, the music is actually playing all the time under the game. The engine decides when to start fading a combat track. This means that it could happen at any time during the loop. This concept was actually thought up by Dave Renn, the audio lead for Company Of Heroes 2. It works surprisingly well to keep the music sounding fresh.
EGM: But I assume the setting of a game would influence what you do, right? You wouldn’t do the same kind of music for a sci-fi game set in the future as a World War II game or one set in ancient Sparta.
CV: I wouldn’t. This game in particular is based on such a grim time in our history. The music needs to reflect that and address it in a way that’s respectful. The great thing about writing an orchestral score like this is that it doesn’t immediately date itself. To me, the orchestra is timeless. Can you imagine how lame this game would sound five years from now if it was loaded with any contemporary rock songs or dubstep?
EGM: True. But is the fact that Company Of Heroes 2 is set in Eastern Europe the only reason you used orchestra musicians and choir singers from the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia?
CV: Well…that was one reason. The fact is, it can be much more cost effective to record overseas sometimes. I wanted a very large orchestra and choir for this project, and going to the Czech Republic became a good solution for us. I had also been talking with conductor Petr Pololanik for some time about recording with him and the Capellen Orchestra in Zlin. This just turned into the perfect opportunity to do so. The choir was also able to sing in Russian, which was a huge bonus as well.
EGM: Company Of Heroes 2 was originally going to be published by THQ. But after THQ fell apart, the game went to Sega. I’m assuming not, but did that impact you in any way?
CV: No, it didn’t affect me at all. The music was already written, recorded, mixed, and implemented by the time Sega took over. Though I’ve heard that they really like the score, too.
EGM: Game soundtracks are now often being issued on CD, and Company Of Heroes 2 is just the latest. I assume, and correct me if I’m wrong, that this doesn’t influence how you do the music for the game, but in readying the soundtrack, do you just take what you’ve done and put it on the disc, or do you edit the pieces or rework things to make them more listenable outside the context of the game?
CV: Normally, yes, I’d re-edit a piece from the game to make a more cohesive soundtrack. But since these tracks are already a nice length, there’s really no editing to be done. I am currently going through the entire soundtrack and making sure there’s a nice flow to it, though. I put out an informal poll online a couple weeks ago asking if people would rather have a soundtrack with ten to fifteen tracks that made an enjoyable listening experience, or if they’d rather have a complete score. I’d say about 95% of people wanted a complete score. So that’s what I’m aiming to give them.