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What it was like composing the Nazi-killing music for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

November 14 2017, 11:55 AM EST By Brian Leak


The Wolfenstein series has been a part of video game culture for the better part of four decades, and the most recent franchise installments have truly upped the fictional WWII action. With technology's steady advancement since the series' 1981 debut, the look and feel of the Wolfenstein universe has improved exponentially. And with great graphic capabilities comes more improved musical capabilities, as well. The franchise's newest entry, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, (out now on PS4, Xbox One and PC from MachineGames and Bethesda Softworks) contains some of the strongest, most epic musical contributions heard this year. 

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AP spoke with The New Colossus' composers, Martin Stig Andersen (LIMBO, INSIDE) and Mick Gordon (Wolfenstein: The New Order, DOOM), about the video game scoring process and what went into creating the soundtrack to Captain William Joseph Blazkowicz's newest Nazi-killing journey.

Before even getting to Wolfenstein, can you tell me a bit about how you originally got into composing music for video games and where that interest stemmed from?
MARTIN STIG ANDERSEN: The first game I worked on was LIMBO. Before that I had already been working as a composer for about a decade, mostly in the field of contemporary and electro-acoustic music. Along the way, I got more into cross disciplinary work, such as theater performance, installation and video art. What has interested me ever since working with visual media is the kind of magic that occurs when you combine sound and image—the way in which our perception will always try to glue the two together to form a single impression. Before working on LIMBO, I had done a couple of experimental short films, and my experience with sound installation work meant that I already had an understanding of the nonlinear nature of games.

MICK GORDON: I was really into games as a kid. I lived in a small remote town in Central Queensland, and there was a pub with a few arcade machines. For me, these machines were gateways into other worlds, other universes. But, my big passion as a kid was music, and I guess as I got older, I looked for ways to combine these two interests.

So how did the two of you end up coming together to compose the score for Wolfenstein II?
GORDON: Martin, Nicholas Raynor [MachineGames' audio director] and myself met in a top-floor hotel bar in San Francisco, the type of place where you sit on low chairs and they serve Scotch with a tiny straw and a slice of lime. We looked out across the San Francisco skyline and talked about war, oppression, diesel-powered robot-dogs and Nazis in the USA—the world of The New Colossus.

Would you consider yourselves to be avid gamers? And do you think being well-versed in video games would give you any advantage in composing the music for one?
ANDERSEN: I wish I could call myself an avid gamer. I love games, and I check out as many as I can. But unfortunately these days it’s very rare that I have 20 hours available to complete a game. But I do believe that it’s crucial to play games in order to understand their nature. You have to know how it feels when you’re stuck in a game while a repetitive melody is driving you mad, or respawning again and again causing the same cue to play over and over. As a composer, unless you’re aware of such pitfalls, you could be ruining the player experience. The best way to stay aware is to actually keep playing games yourself.

How did you two approach this particular score as separate composers working together with one goal? Did you have separate workloads or was it all collaborative?
ANDERSEN: Most of the collaboration happened on a conceptual level, while in the actual compositional process we worked more individually. When we got started on the project, around summer 2016, we got together with Nicholas Raynor in Uppsala and worked for about a week, going through the entire game in progress and roughly dividing the workload between the two of us. While Mick largely had the resistance themes covered, my task was mainly to work with portraying the Nazis, including Frau Engel and their environments, such as Area 52 and the facility on Venus. As I consider both Mick and myself as each having a strong, unique voice in terms of aesthetics, initially I wondered if by splitting the work between us the score might end up being too variegated. However, as we got started and the music was implemented into the game, I began to get the feeling that our respective styles were actually complementing each other.

GORDON: [Raynor] really directed us through that maze. He and the team had solid ideas on what they’d like us each to focus on. We didn’t work directly on a piece of music together, but instead our music was inspired by what each other was doing.

How much freedom do you have creatively on a project like this? Are there very specific notes on what is needed for the game, or do you mostly get to create freely and adjust to their liking?
ANDERSEN: I always like to believe that I have an unlimited amount of freedom, but ultimately, of course, that’s not true. But as long as you’re keeping your collaborators happy, it certainly appears to be so. In order to give my very best, I give myself unlimited freedom and then, fingers crossed, hopefully the developer likes what I’m doing. I don’t really expect people to tell me what to do; my job is to go out and find answers. When joining a project like this, I obviously ask a lot of questions and gather as much information as I can in order to understand it as much as possible and respect the work other people have put into it. The brief I was given for this project was “oppressive marches of the machines,” and that was enough to get me started. Any feedback I received was very productive and only helped me to improve my work.

GORDON: I’ve been very lucky on all projects I’ve worked on with Bethesda Softworks, MachineGames, id Software, Arkane [Studios], etc. in that they afford me a lot of trust and creative freedom. Of course, such trust comes with a big responsibility, and you’ve gotta ensure you deep dive into every project and develop a unique sound that fits the world. On every project, there’s always a lot of discussion and back-and-forth, but most conversations center on helping us all understand the essence of the game itself.

Do you play the game yourselves beforehand to get a feel for the tone and such in order to compose the score, or do you watch gameplay footage to accomplish that?
ANDERSEN: As we were not allowed to take game builds outside MachineGames’ premises, a lot of work was done watching gameplay footage. While visuals are still very rough, I take most inspiration from concept art, which serves to set pointers for the development of visual style and mood of the game. Playing the game or watching gameplay footage at that stage of development is more about understanding the gameplay and how it’ll affect the playback of the music. Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to go to MachineGames each time I was about to finish a cue and start working on a new one. I would work with [Raynor] on implementing the music I had done and experience how it worked in the game, while taking notes for any revisions to be made.

GORDON: It’s so important to get a solid feel on the game’s direction from the people making it. You can’t do that over email. Visiting MachineGames is wonderful. They have a beautiful office that looks over Uppsala, and the team is full of creative, yet humble, geniuses. [Raynor] had visually mapped out the entire game from start to finish on a giant board. It looked like an FBI map from a spy movie. Leaving the studio, you’re always full of great ideas and the next stage of the process becomes illustrating those ideas in a musical way.

How do you get into the right mindset creatively for a game like this? How do you get inspired to create music that fits an action-packed video game filled with gunfire, explosions, Nazi-killing and more?
ANDERSEN: In the very beginning of the process, it’s very experimental, trial-and-error. I’ll make a selection of sounds that I believe might work in the game’s universe, and then I’ll basically just play them back randomly on top of gameplay footage. This process only serves to give me information about what potentially works for me and what doesn’t. I’m also doing a bit of conceptual work, such as asking myself how I can do a fresh take on combat music, something that would feel unique to Wolfenstein. Early on, I experimented with creating extremely slow rhythms for combat to represent the oppressing, relentless “marches of the machines,” like a heartbeat remaining slow and calm, totally in control and indifferent to you as a player. I also consider where the music eventually will sit in the mix. Being a shooter, I know there’s a lot of noise already, so instead of just composing something that sounds cool on its own, I try to do something that sounds cooler when there’s random gunfire and explosions on top.

GORDON: B.J. Blazkowicz (Wolfenstein's protagonist) has this swagger that I try to get into a lot of tracks. It’s a vibe. It’s motor oil-soaked denims with holes in the pockets. It’s half-smoked, stamped-out cigarettes, '70s biker movies and cold bourbon on a hot Texas morning. It’s drums that rattle the windows, bass that rattles the snare and amps that dim the lights when they’re turned up too loud. It’s recorded to dusty tape with all the hiss, pops, clicks and flutters that real music makes. It’s nostalgic, but not tired. It’s loyal like an old dog, always there for you when you need it the most.

For you, Mick, you did the music for The New Order and The Old Blood. Do you think that made it a smoother process diving into the music for this one?
GORDON: Yeah, totally. I’m a huge fan of themes. It’s all about melody for me. Getting the chance to bring across themes from The New Order into The New Colossus is fantastic. It helps make the whole franchise and story a coherent whole. When the player boots up the game and sits on the main menu, I want them to snap back into the Wolfenstein universe, and music is a great way to do that. A few themes from the original Wolfenstein 3D make an appearance, too—probably most notably in a cutscene later in the game, where the Resistance fighters throw a surprise party for B.J.’s birthday. There’s a crazy sequence where they’re all partying and getting drunk, and the music reflects every move they make, but the music itself is based on “Get Them” from Bobby Prince’s original Wolfenstein 3D score.

Can you tell me about some of the instrumentation and musicians used and the way this score was recorded?
ANDERSEN: For this score, I opted for working with nonconventional musical sources and instruments, aiming for a more industrial quality. With the core concept of “the marches of the machines” in mind, initially I went to sound effects recordist Ann Kroeber (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway) and acquired some industrial sound recordings. By means of analog processing, I created something that sounded like massive brass textures from her fog horn recording and slow beats from various machinery recordings. I also blended in quite a few of her animal recordings to make the score more intimidating. [But] I also needed some elements that sounded somewhat more orchestral, and I got in touch with sound designer and Foley artist Nicolas Becker (Gravity, Arrival), who became my main provider of sound sources for the score. Most of what he delivered was various kinds of metal sounds—containers, sheets, cymbals etc.being mangled in different ways. I also had sound artist Katrine Amsler and assistant composer Andreas Frostholm Røeboe working frequently in my studio, generating and managing materials for the project. As for sound processing, I mostly worked with analog gear. For turning metal sounds into something that sounded in-between brass textures and airplanes, I used an AKG BX15 spring reverb; and for more severe distortion, I printed source materials onto vinyl and recorded it back on a ‘60s record player. As a result, the score generally sounds very bleak, which was something I wanted in order to represent the “decaying empire.”

GORDON: I grew up on music of the ‘60s, and I love these Wolfenstein games because they afford me the opportunity to explore the musical production techniques of that era. Music recording engineers were incredibly creative during that period. They had this great burning desire to find and create new sounds. They’d do things like manipulate tape machines to create echoes and flanging effects. They’d plug guitars straight into the mixing console and overdrive the pre-amp to create gnarly fuzz tones. They’d send signals through speakers in rooms with mics at the other end to create reverb effects. They’d use springs and plates and other bits and pieces to create different reverb effects. They’d record to tape, flip the tape, then record back off the tape to create reversed effects. They were incredibly inventive, and it was fun playing around with these techniques in 2017 for The New Colossus.

Do you ever play the game once it's released to see how your music fits into the final product?
ANDERSEN: On my previous games where I worked in-house, I probably played the games hundreds of times while implementing the music, so when they were finally released, I was already done with them. For example, I haven’t played INSIDE after it was released last year. For Wolfenstein 2, I was also involved in the implementation of the music, but I actually haven’t had the chance to play the game from start to finish. So I’m very much looking forward to that.

GORDON: I do check out the game, sure. For me, it’s a chance to see what I could have done better. It’s an important part of the process. You pour so much energy into these projects over a long period of time, and it’s important to judge the final product to evaluate what to do better next time. Of course, being involved with the project means you’re never going to experience it the same way as a player would for the first time, but the joy of seeing it all come together—all the long hours that everyone at MachineGames poured into the game—is incredible.

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