With the recent release of SEGA‘s Company of Heroes 2, Sumthing.com blogger Geno takes some time to sit down with the game’s composer Cris Velasco to discuss the making of its profound wartime soundtrack. The soundtrack is available now! Preview tracks and purchase the digital album right here on Sumthing.com!
Geno: When I first started listening to your score for Company Of Heroes 2, I was struck as to how effortlessly it managed to turn my surroundings in Austin, Texas from summer drought to crackling arctic tundra. I was overcome by the trudging weight of the snow slurry and the impediment of a drowning mistral. It becomes clear that the make-up of these compositions are not for those with weak leg muscles; it puts you directly into the shoes of that cursing, broken commander of the Soviet Red Army. Tell me, how did you transplant, distance yourself from Los Angeles to a decimated Leningrad for this project?
Wow, thanks for that! This is a game based around an actual conflict. The battles that are portrayed in Company of Heroes 2 are ones that actually happened. The score really needed to lend a sense of weight and realism to that I think. And it can be difficult, living in Los Angeles tucked away in my studio with views of the mountains and gorgeous weather, to try to put yourself in the shoes of those soldiers…impossible really. But I had plenty of amazing artwork from the game and lots of descriptions of gameplay from the guys at Relic. I just inundated myself with these and did the best I could to imagine what it must have been like. The score is meant to be more of a personal soundtrack for these soldiers in their mindset as they marched through the snow or threw themselves into battle. This is what I tried to capture.
Geno: Company Of Heroes 2 as a musical compendium does something rather remarkable and largely does it in a class of its own in that while most pieces of music for the medium of video games come at the player from the sword of the hero, COH 2 comes straight down the barrel through the eyes of 1941’s most tenuous U.S. ally. You’re still going to cheer when the mortar rounds plunder their targets, but it gets more difficult in those quiet moments, sitting by a dying fire: men huddled together with ratty, thinly-lined coats. They are the heroes, but perhaps not in the conventional sense. But by the time the score hits forward assault with “March Into Hell”, I am not only on my feet, I’m screaming for their adversaries’ blood. Your music makes them universal, celebrated warriors. Was it more or less difficult to compose from such an alternate perspective? Did you have to custom-tailor any of your various methods to reach that final take?
It was refreshing actually to have the chance to compose something from their point of view. The music was never supposed to be a “cheerleader” for the gamer. It wasn’t meant to be some overbearing score whose purpose is to hit the player over the head at all times by telling them, “This is a fun game”! I always wanted the music to be part of the storytelling process…the emotional backbone of the game. These men were heroes in their own right. I wanted the music to take their perspective and help take the player on a journey through their lives.
Geno: There is a distinct and wildly individual footprint on this score. While the motions and gears of software based on actual military skirmishes tend to focus on the highest part of the hill, the victory march, COH 2 prefers to detail the many arduous struggles to take that distant peak. It gives the player time to identify, emote with the many desperate threads of war. “We Toil With No Respite”, “A Prayer For My Company” make highly verbal the debilitating personal consequences of battle while “Shadows In The Mist” and “Frostbite” create the singular sound of nerves collapsing from an encroaching, fortified enemy. It gives a full range of motion and chooses not to strike the same loud gong over a gamers’ head. Were there particular strains involved in conflict, vignettes you wanted players to experience? How did you create this overwhelming feeling of intimacy? I know these guys in the trenches, seen their sweetheart lockets, read their letters to a frazzled mother. It’s uncanny!
Intimacy is a good word for what I was going for. I felt it was very important to write a lot of the music from the viewpoint of a single soldier. While yes, they all feel a sense of camaraderie, each of them is still an individual. I was imagining that while there might be a sense of comfort in knowing your squad was at your back, watching out for you, that ultimately being at war is a very personal experience. You’re in your own head, experiencing horrific things through your own eyes, knowing your last moments will be experienced alone as the other troops march on. I wanted the music to play for each individual soldier, acknowledging that feeling.
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Geno: “Sneak Attack” and “The Struggle Remains” have such predatory movement: that inching from behind, those careful measured steps. You can picture these men on tip-toes, not breathing, holding their arms stringently at their sides. It must be difficult to create that kind of illusion these days, what with unlimited ammo and the ability to reset. Still your pieces here remind me that I never want to press the wrong button, that my life and defeat are always but one minuscule hair away from death. Where do you go to find that sound of blood? That tormented choice?
Yes, even though a lot games today do somewhat remove that sense of “consequence” I do think it’s a bit different in an RTS. There are no checkpoints to start over at. Also, just because you technically can just replay a certain scene again doesn’t mean that the music shouldn’t at least try to convey a sense of urgency. You got the mood exactly as I intended for those tracks though. They’re definitely meant to keep you on the edge of your seat as you carefully make your way towards the enemy camp, where one misstep will result in the death of your whole squad.
Geno: While I have made much of the more introspective pieces you have here…Your stomping, the tearing of bullet through bone, the actual taking of the cities, as your opponent kneels to boot, is completely, utterly visceral. “A Red Army Rising” and “Onward To Victory” detail those final moments as tanks storm ruined bunkers and ranking officers flee from their tents with only what they can carry. It’s fantastic! How did you strike that balance between showcasing the muted human condition and the slam of that mammoth incisor to an unprepared army, the ones about to be taken over?
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that if you’re far enough into the campaign, at some point you’ll be seeing the successful defeat of the Germans. It’s only natural that the soundtrack will start to take on a slightly more triumphant tone. These cues still needed to have an element of brutality to them, but I also wanted to incorporate some of that Red Army nationalism without overdoing it too much.
Geno: I have to say that Company Of Heroes 2’s “Main Theme” is absolutely gorgeous. The violin suite and choral arrangement are heartbreaking. Could I ask for an extended cut? As with most scores there is much left unseen by the general public. Did you have to eliminate any of your compositions from the final pressing? Anything you wish you could have added? I am primed for the seven-disc set you know!
The soundtrack is almost a complete release. There are only a few miscellaneous tracks that aren’t on the CD…material that didn’t make sense to put on because they were too short. I’m glad so many people seem to be enjoying the Main Theme though. That was probably the hardest one to write. It was the first thing I did and I tried hard to set the tone of the whole game with that piece. If I could go back and add one thing though it would be an extended version of “A Prayer For My Company”. I love the cello performance and I want to hear more of it!
Geno: Typically how long does it take to amass the ideas and working design of a score this size? Are you working alone for that initial period of gestation? About what stage do you bring in collaborators and when does the coordination of a symphony come into play? You must not sleep all that much once you hit a certain point, nor is there time to say…eat. How do you keep your universe in alignment?
As I mentioned, the Main Theme is always the toughest (and longest) to come up with. We had plenty of time to start out with so I got to really focus on making that theme just right. I had numerous other versions that I’d run by the Audio Lead, David Renn. He really helped me focus in on what the Main Theme should be accomplishing for this game. After the theme was locked down, I then had a nice chunk of time to flesh out the rest of the score. I managed to stay a bit ahead of the curve on this one and didn’t see too much crunch time. It definitely never got into the “no-sleep” schedule for which I am very thankful! Hiring the orchestra, doing the orchestrations, and making the travel arrangements all came at the very end. It can get a bit stressful trying to coordinate everything so that all the music, musicians, engineers, and us arrive at the recording studio at the same time. I’ve been working with live orchestras on game scores for many years though. I have a team in place that helps me take care of everything and it all goes like clockwork.
Geno: I remember never wanting to ever play God Of War, but then just by chance I stumbled across “Wrath Divide” a song you did for that particular game…I mean….Who in their right mind doesn’t want to play that game after hearing that? It turned the tide for me, I am proud to say I have now played all of the titles in the series, thanks to about less than three minutes of music. I also wanted to tell you that your contribution to Mass Effect 2 the music for “Kasumi’s Stolen Memories”, are of great necessity to me in the final miles of my daily morning runs. It’s strange though because the songs described from God Of War and Mass Effect 2 are polar opposites. You adapt to your musical surroundings seemingly in the instant they change. Can you attribute this to anything from your past like playing in rock bands in high school, or learning piano at an early age?
“Wrath Divine” was my favorite track to write for God of War. I’m so glad to hear it inspired you to actually play the game! The guys at Sony liked it too and let me do a new take on it for each of the three games. It appears as “Phoenix Rising” in God of War 2 and as “Brothers of Blood” in God of War 3. Although I did play guitar in a band (death metal!) during high school and college, I don’t think that this had much influence on being able to switch gears between projects. That’s what any composer has to be able to do. Obviously, music that suits God of War will not be a good fit for Mass Effect. It’s been great to have so many different styles I’ve been able to explore over the years. It keeps me growing as a composer and prevents things from ever getting dull.
Geno: Company Of Heroes 2, as I have stated earlier in this interview, feels rather personal. You definitely have messages encoded within the rhythm and drum. It makes the desperation more palpable; the sleet of the Kremlin more tactile, and the shots fired more enveloped in panic. Did you serve in the military or perhaps know someone who has? My own grandfather died in World War II, and the pictures I have of him perhaps don’t tell the whole story, but I certainly can find the seeds in those photographs to inspire something quite real within myself. Is it different to work on scores revolving around something that has a factual basis, knowing you can go to a history book and flip open to the cease-fire or the opening shot? Do you feel that weight of expectation more heavily?
No, I was never in the military. I’ve known people that served but it was nothing that really personally affected me or has had an influence in my writing. As I mentioned earlier, part of being a good composer is to try and put yourself in that mindset though. To create the fiction in your head of actually being there and then trying to capture those feelings through music. Working on a game like this that’s based on a real historical event does put extra pressure on you. I feel that games (and music) like this will be scrutinized more carefully. I worked hard on this score and I hope the gamers will feel that I’ve done the game justice!
Geno: The ability to distance yourself, to stand back after a project is done is great after what must be months of sitting in a booth, tense over endless re-writes and missed-takes. With Company Of Heroes 2 ‘s score just about to be released, can you point to any one piece you could unequivocally call your favorite? I have quite a few!
I have a real fondness for the Main Theme. To me, it really encapsulates the whole experience of the game. I also got to record two of my favorite players in LA, Nicole Garcia on violin and Cameron Stone on cello. They brought a ton of emotion into that track. Out of the more combat-like tracks I do have a few favorites also. If I have to narrow it down to one I’d probably go with “Blitzkrieg”.
Geno: After you’re done with recording, the minute you know everything is final, and the distributor has those reels in hand, ready to press? What’s your immediate reaction? What do you do to celebrate? Looking at your body of work, I gather that the time in-between projects are more akin to long-weekends than a full month at the spa.
When a project is completely over there are generally two simultaneous reactions that I have. The first is one of immense happiness and relief. To see a project from inception to completion is extremely rewarding. The other feeling is often there is a bit of a void. To live through an amazing experience like that and then just be suddenly…done. You definitely miss it. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate enough to usually have something else that requires my immediate attention so I get to immerse myself in a brand new project. But yes, time off over the last few years has been measured in long weekends here and there. I did manage to fit in 10 days in Vienna and Salzburg right after the recording sessions for Company of Heroes 2. Since we recorded in The Czech Republic it would have been a crime not to have done some local visiting!
Soundtrack available now!
Geno: Do you have a favorite old or current gaming soundtrack? I am partial to the first Mega Man and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and currently Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 and Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom Ultimate All-Stars.
One of my favorite old soundtracks is Outcast. It’s actually the score that put me on the path of writing music for games.
Geno: What are you currently working on? Anything you could share with us today?
My lips are sealed! I wish I could! There’s some really cool stuff in the works. One of the only things I can really mention is that I’ve just finished a new fantasy MMO. The music is a very melodic orchestral score with some Chinese elements. You’ll be seeing my name on some other games this year too. Maybe even a film or two as well… 😉
Geno: Cris, we at Sumthing.com are incredibly grateful for you taking the time to sit down with us today, your unwritten future scores are indeed the stuff of revolution. Anything else you would like to add before leaving us today?
Thanks so much for the great interview! If anyone would like to get updates from me on what I’m working on or just my sporadic rambling from time to time, you can follow me on Twitter. My screen name is @monarchaudio.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.