Interview: Cris Velasco Talks Embracing Horror With ZombiU
ZombiU is the hot new game from Ubisoft, exclusively for Nintendo's recently launched next-generation console the Wii U. The first-person shooter takes a few liberties in exploring the first-person horror-shooter with brand new concepts, including perma-death, real-time puzzles where taking too long will see you getting turned into mince meat, and the ability to traverse through London while the whole town goes to zombie hell. We had a chance to throw around a few questions with the game's composer, Cris Velasco, one-half of the team that put together amazing soundtracks to games like Mass Effect 3 and Tron: Evolution, as well as composing iconic and memorable scores for games like Warhammer 40,000: Space Marines and the God of War trilogy. Check out what he had to say about ZombiU below.
Gaming Blend: ZombiU is already being hailed as the biggest launch title for the Wii U. It was a show stealer at E3 and there's a lot riding on the game's success. Going into the project, did you know that you would be writing music for such a highly anticipated game, and did Ubisoft make it known that this was going to be a high-priority title?
Cris Velasco: I had no idea! I completely underestimated what the WiiU would be capable of. Initially I thought the "two screens" technology was somewhat of a gimmick. It's such an integral part of ZombiU though that now I see the amazing potential it has. Ubisoft also did such a great job creating a zombie game that feels fresh. This is a genre for me that was beginning to feel a bit stale. I think that Ubisoft has given zombies a new lease of "life".
Gaming Blend: You've worked on a few other horror titles. Did the experience of working on games like Hellgate: London and Clive Barker's Jericho play a part in how you approached scoring ZombiU or did you take an entirely different approach to crafting the score for the game?
Cris Velasco: ZombiU needed an entirely different approach. Hellgate: London (composed with Sascha Dikiciyan) and Clive Barker's Jericho were both fairly melodic scores. ZombiU, while definitely featuring a melodic theme, is mostly an exercise in pure horror. String clusters, distorted guitars, arrhythmical drums, music box, detuned carnival organs...these are just some of the ingredients that went into this recipe for terror.
Gaming Blend: Ubisoft went a very original route with the way players progress and die in ZombiU. For a lot of big budget titles usually there's a recurring theme for main characters or a sort of general anthem to follow, but since any character can die in ZombiU and there doesn't appear to be a single main protagonist, did that affect the way you wrote the music for the game’s characters or was it just business as usual?
Cris Velasco: It definitely did. As you mentioned, your character can die at any time...for good. The only other time that particular character will be in gameplay is as another zombie. Right up until you blow its head off and collect your old loot. It's a very interesting approach I think. All the "main characters" are essentially glorified extras. To write a theme for one would be a bit like naming a cow that you know will just be a fillet mignon in the near future. There is a theme for the game, however, I feel like it’s a theme for you, the actual player. There is also a motif for The Prepper. He's your guide through the game. His theme is more of a sound design effect though. It's still very recognizable and you'll instantly know if he's around.
Gaming Blend: With the game set in London, did this open up a different set of opportunities to explore various sounds chiefly associated with Great Britain or was it more-so about exploring musical cues that related to the apocalyptic, zombie setting?
Cris Velasco: Mostly, the music is zombie-centric. I did get to play around with a few British-isms though. For instance, I played with the Big Ben melody in one scene. The notes become stretched out and pitch shifted over time and it creates a pretty unsettling atmosphere. I also used the “God Save the Queen” melody once. It starts out as a fairly traditional brass arrangement. On its own that would sound out of place in ZombiU so it quickly degenerates into an atonal cluster. Sort of a de-composition if you will. :-)
Gaming Blend: Listening through the samples I couldn't help but draw comparisons to John Murphy's 28 Weeks Later soundtrack. Were there any particular movies, games, comic books or other works that helped inspire the soundtrack for ZombiU?
Cris Velasco: I’ve actually yet to see (or hear) 28 Weeks Later, however I really enjoyed 28 Days Later! But no, there was nothing that was a specific inspiration for the score. The audio director, Manu Bachet, had a very firm vision of how the music should be. I went solely off of his direction for setting the tone of the music. I do have some great, dark art in my studio that really helps me get in the mood on games like this. Guys like Clive Barker, Chet Zar, Richard Kirk, and Dariusz Zawadzki are huge artistic inspirations to me. They’ve set the creative bar so high and it pushes me to do my own best work every day.
Gaming Blend: What was one of the biggest challenges tackling the soundtrack for ZombiU and was it more or less challenging than working on established brands like Mass Effect, Tron and Warhammer?
Cris Velasco: Every project feels challenging at the beginning. Whether it’s something established like Mass Effect or brand new like ZombiU, that initial blank canvas before I’ve written a single note can feel quite daunting. There was a pretty quick turnaround on this score so there was no time for second-guessing! Plus, Manu was so great about communicating exactly what each scene needed. Even with the developer being based in France and me in Los Angeles, it felt like there was never a time I couldn’t reach out to someone with a question and get immediate feedback. We must have all been working long hours!
I guess that the most challenging part for me was to keep the intensity up in a lot of the music. There’s definitely some creepy “mood setting” pieces, but the majority of what I wrote was intended to be intense and chaotic. Writing a lot of action music, especially over a shorter amount of time, can be tough. However, I’m quite happy with how the whole score came out. We decided early on to use elements like prepared piano and col legno (hitting the strings with the wood of the bow) to form the foundation of the rhythm section, which gave the score a unique sound. I also got to record all the strings live with violinist Nicole Garcia and her “Apocalypse Ensemble”. They tortured their poor instruments and brought a level of intensity and horror to the music that I could have never pulled off without them.
Huge thanks go out to Cris for answering our questions. You can look for ZombiU on store shelves right now for the Wii U. For more info feel free to visit the Official Website.
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