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[Disclosure: A digital soundtrack for the game was provided for the contents of this interview]
The soundtrack for a game can sometimes define its historical value; games with awesome soundtracks stand in the arcades of legendary titles where you could listen to the music all day long, falling in love with every note and instrument. It's not easy finding your way into the hall of fame of video game music; but we've seen a strong trend lately from composers constantly pushing the barrier in quality and creativity when it comes to game soundtracks, and Sarah Schachner's score for Assassin's Creed Unity is right up there with the best of them.
Assassin's Creed Unity is set during the period of the French Revolution in the 18th century. For the score, Schachner – who previously worked with Brian Tyler on projects such as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Far Cry 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (to name a few) – managed to tap into a unique mixture of Baroque-classical, synth and electronic themes to bring Unity to life. Gaming Blend had the opportunity to toss a few questions Schachner's way, and here's what she had to say about the creative process for one of the biggest multiplatform games of the year.
Gaming Blend: I was informed that Assassin's Creed Unity's score would be Baroque themed. My interest was instantly piqued because we don't often get to hear the harpsichord used in games. It's a rare treat. I was curious if you had originally planned to base the soundtrack around the Baroque-classical themes during that period or if it was something that was suggested by the creative design team?
Schachner: As soon as I found out it was the French Revolution, I knew it would musically fall within the early Classical period, but they wanted something more distinctive and French than just “classical.” Incorporating some of the Baroque flavors from the previous era worked well for parts of the game taking place at Versailles etc. I wrote a Baroque-inspired combat piece in my initial demo so it was something I was thinking about just by nature of the time period.
Gaming Blend: Were you a fan of the Baroque-classical genre before signing on to score Unity, and were there any specific Baroque artists that you used as inspiration or reference to help fill out the tone or musical style for the game?
Schachner: I grew up playing classical music as well as jazz and rock, so I've been a lifelong appreciator. I've always enjoyed counterpoint composition as well. Bach's Invention #15 in B Minor is one of my favorite pieces to play on the piano. In terms of instrumentation, Jordi Savall's works for viola da gamba inspired me to use a bowed dulcimer, which has a similar sound.
Gaming Blend: The tracks Dark Slayer (track 4) and A Seditious Act (track 9) feel as if there's some similitude to Batman in there. Dark Slayer also really reminded me a lot of Tron and Assassin's Creed II. Were you going for a mixture of those kind of sounds – based on the elements represented in those properties – or was that something that just kind of naturally happened given Assassin's Creed's tendency to fuse sci-fi and vigilantism?
Schachner: Yeah, actually for “Dark Slayer,” they wanted a little bit of that Batman vibe. It's a core fight suite for a certain part of the story that has darker undertones. You're also right about the overall sci-fi/vigilantism theme that carries across the whole series, although the assassins are generally a bit more subdued than super-heroes.
Gaming Blend: Having worked on Assassin's Creed IV, did it help in any way to shape the musical direction of Assassin's Creed Unity?
Schachner: Working previously with Ubisoft on Black Flag and Far Cry 3, it helped in knowing their process and workflow already, but stylistically it didn't affect it much. Black Flag is a pirate adventure in the Caribbean, Unity is in Paris avenging a father's murder and aiding in the revolution along the way - so the musical tones and influences were different even though they both took place in the late 18th century.
Gaming Blend: One of the things I'm usually very curious about is how themes and melodies are handled in some of the big AAA franchise sequels. In mentioning that the track Dark Slayer draws back some melodies from the “Ezio's Family” track in Assassin's Creed II, are you allowed to sort of deviate from certain traditions in the franchise and develop your own melodic structures for the characters or certain scenarios, or is there a guideline to follow when composing music for a long-running series like Assassin's Creed?
Schachner You are correct. There hasn't been much carry-over of themes within the series, but there is a brief reprise of “Ezio's Family” in “Dark Slayer.” Ubisoft wanted us to incorporate that melody. It was a nice way to give a subtle nod to Jesper's theme that the fans love so much. Other than that, there is quite a bit of freedom to come up with your own themes as long as you stay true to the overall Assassin's Creed vibe - that hybrid of accurate period music and sci-fi elements.
Gaming Blend: With the game set around the turbulent time of the French Revolution, and the cultural shift that was taking place with the effacing of the aristocracy, was there ever a tendency to sway one way or the other during the creative process to focus more on a war-themed score or to lean on the opposite end of the pendulum and focus the music more-so on the articulate aspects of French culture?
Schachner: Definitely. I wanted to capture both of those aspects at different times. Like the architecture, Baroque music was ornate and heavily ornamented - characteristics which have no place in war, revolt, or poverty. Taking that vibe, and putting it in a combative, action-music context mocks its very essence. There's something a bit humorous and twisted about killing douche-bag aristocrats to aggressive trills and stealthy harpsichord arpeggios. On the other end of the spectrum, a track like “Rather Death Than Slavery” with La Marseillaise echoing over somber synth lines, speaks more to the struggle and revolt of the French people against that culture.
Gaming Blend: Without going too much into spoiler territory, do you have a favorite moment or sequence from the game where the action and the soundtrack meld together in a way that make you especially proud?
Schachner: While most of the systemic combat suites are scored away from picture and not to any specific scene, there was one particular mission I really enjoyed where you infiltrate a lavish party at Versailles and battle it out in a giant ballroom while a string quartet is on-screen playing. I wrote a fugue-style “combat Invention” for harpsichord and viola (Ballroom Fight [Invention No.13 in D Minor]) which sort of takes over from the period music the quartet is heard playing. I had a lot of fun with that one.
Gaming Blend: Have you already moved on to your next project or are you still planning on sticking around with the Assassin's Creed property for a while?
Schachner You'll have to ask Ubisoft! Outside of video games, I have a sci-fi horror film called Lazarus due out January 2015 starring Olivia Wilde and some dead animals. I'm also working on an electronic side project and will be releasing an EP in the near future.
(Huge thanks to Sarah Schachner for taking time out to answer the questions. You can learn more about her work over on her official website. Assassin's Creed Unity' s soundtrack is also available right now.)