Titanfall: Stephen Barton Discusses Online-Only Music Composition
Stephen Barton, the composer behind 2014’s biggest first-person shooter, discusses composition for a multiplayer environment.
When playing the first-person shooters of this past generation—the Battlefields, Call of Duties, and Halos—online, you didn't often hear music. It’s an odd thing if you think about it. Most gamers purchased these titles to play them online for hundreds of hours, with only a dozen or so hours devoted to their respective single-player campaigns. And yet it's the campaign which has the massive, memorable soundtracks composed by talented individuals. Of course, music during online matches may have distracted players from hyper-competitive shooting more than anything, so it's understandable that these scores were restricted to campaigns and other story-driven modes.
However, what would happen if 2014's biggest first-person shooter only had online multiplayer?
Titanfall, out in March for PC and Xbox One, doesn't have a campaign. No single-player, period. Where does the music fit in? Well, Stephen Barton, a composer with an extensive discography rooted mostly in film, and the man behind Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's soundtrack, has been tasked with answering that question. Some of Barton's ideas forTitanfall's score has already been revealed. For instance, it's known that music will play during the online matches much like it would in a campaign as Titanfall's online multiplayer matches have narrative. Furthermore, the two playable factions in the game will feature music that differentiates both sides from one another. I wanted to know more; however, so I got in touch with Stephen Barton to ask a few more questions about Titanfall's soundtrack.
You've scored the soundtracks for many films, but (correct me if I'm wrong) only one other video game. How do you find composition for games when compared to films?
Two other games actually—but one was a very different genre! I wrote the score for the game of How To Train Your Dragon for Activision, which came about partly from working on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but also from having worked on a number of Dreamworks Animation’s movies. Writing music for games is much the same compositionally—you’re trying to find the heart of the story and use music to shade and counterpoint that arc. Structurally it’s always very different—unless a movie gets really chewed up at the edit (and that can happen), you essentially know what the story line is, and the spotting of where music is placed is usually fairly ingrained. With a game, I’ve found it’s often much more of an evolutionary process where both the music, and the structure of it and where it goes, develops a great deal over time, and it’s a lot of fun seeing in what direction it takes you.
As Titanfall is entirely multiplayer, will we see dynamic music? In other words, how does the music react to the player and team's actions in an online-only environment?
To some extent during the rounds, yes. There are moments, such as the beginning and ends of maps, where the timing of events is obviously known, but even some of those depend a great deal on other factors. Obviously if your side wins, there’s a different tone we want to take than when you lose – but it’s definitely more complex than just that. If you lose a round in Titanfall, your side has to escape to a dropship – and the other team can pick these escaping players off; so there’s two entirely different emotions just in that moment alone, the outcome of the round and also the tension ratcheting up in the last few seconds of the round. The main challenge of Titanfall musically was supporting and shading this constant ebb and flow of tension and motion that is central to the game, and the musical tension ratchets up and down depending on the complexity of the firefight. Unlike the Call of Duty gameplay though, where you could be much stealthier and there were periods of quiet – the action in Titanfall really never ever lets up and the pace is much, much faster here, with things coming at you from all directions. It’s pretty intense.
You've previously said neither of the two factions in Titanfall plays the archetypal heroic or villainous role, but each side has its own characterizing music. Would you be able to elaborate on how the music behind either side differs? Different influences, emphasized instruments, etc?
With the instrumentation choices we wanted to create a sound world that was distinctive for each side, but there are some unifying elements. There’s an orchestral presence for both sides, which is always useful as a framework, being such a broadband and expressive toolkit – and each side employs slightly different orchestral resources. The backbone of the score though is the featured elements, which is where things really differ depending on your side choice. The Militia side is driven percussively by a more organic sound, taikos and frame drums, and there are numerous ethnic elements ranging from the Bangladeshi Ektara (a one-stringed instrument that sounds particularly great when mangled with guitar pedals) to Paul Cartwright’s fabulous electric violin tone.
The IMC side is propelled predominantly by synthetic and enhanced elements – where there is a particularly organic sound, there’s likely some way it has been treated to set it apart from sounding too “natural”. The IMC side has a particular signature sound that crops up a lot, which was dubbed early on “the fuzzy wall of distortion”. Erik Kraber, the audio lead and Steve Fukuda, the game director came up with this term – we were looking for a distortion sound that wasn’t angry, dirty and gnarly in the way a typical guitar distortion is when pushed, but weightier, fuzzier – a powerful sound that almost sounds like it is overpowering the mechanism making it, a sound at the very limits of stability. There’s different ways we achieve it, but there’s places where I designed an analog synthetic lead sound to lock in and blend with an organic element – perhaps with a line being played by eight French horns, or a string part. You can’t really separate the two sounds when you hear them, it just sounds like an organic part that has been somehow fattened and made larger than life, which seemed appropriate for the technology-driven IMC and Hammond Robotics.
In terms of what those instruments are doing though – I was trying to consciously avoid for either side leaning towards melodic or harmonic progressions that immediately bring “evil” to mind, in the vein of Darth Vader’s theme or Night on a Bald Mountain. Especially with the IMC, as the archetypal “big” corporation that might be considered villainous by default – there’s a mysteriousness and ambiguity to them, but whether they’re villains or not really depends on your perspective! So in that instance I was looking for musical ideas that share that tonal ambiguity and leave it up to the player and the listener to decide.