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Release Date: October 30, 2012

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Developer Chat: Assassin’s Creed III & Skylanders Giants Composer Lorne Balfe

Posted on December 16, 2012 AT 12:40pm

Sonic Assassin

Looking at them, you wouldn’t think Assassin’s Creed III and Skylanders Giants have anything in common. And, for the most part, you’d be right. But not completely. Both games were actually scored by Lorne Balfe, who’s also done music for Crysis 2, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and a couple movies about this guy who dressed up like a Bat.

EGM: One of the first games you worked on was 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but you’ve done a ton since. Looking back on the work you did on that game, how has your approach changed when it comes to scoring games? 

LB: Well, the music no matter what has to help the player immerse themselves into the game, so to me, I don’t think there is a difference. I approach a game the same as films but with games, I will tend to write a lot of music. In games and films, the job of the composer is to tell a story and that’s what I try to do.

EGM: You’ve also worked on stuff in different genres. For instance, your two game soundtracks this year are the historical action game Assassin’s Creed III and the cartoonish Skylanders Giants. Obviously, the genre impacts the music itself, but does it also impact how you make that music?

LB: Games have complicated story lines that didn’t exist in the past. So when I begin, just like with a film, I look at the visuals and the story and find the ways that the music will best get the player into character and into the world.

EGM: How about who you’ll get to record the music? Are there some orchestras who are better when it comes to serious game music, as opposed to stuff that’s a bit more playful?

LB: I sure haven’t come across the difference. I will use the same orchestra whether the project is a comedy or action-based.

EGM: Did you do the scores for Assassin’s Creed III and Skylanders Giants at the same time? Because I’m wondering how often you write a piece of music for one game but then realize it might be better for another you’re working on?

LB: No, there were a few months difference between the projects. I don’t cross music ideas into other projects. If something sounds familiar then it is just my harmonic structure. It would be pretty hard, I think, to use some music from Skylanders into Assassin’s Creed. The drum and bass wouldn’t quite work in Assassin’s.

EGM: Along the same lines, did you do anything to get yourself in the proper headspace, like play the game or maybe watch cartoons before working on Skylanders but watch some History Channel show on The Revolutionary War before working on Assassin’s Creed III?

LB: For Assassin’s Creed, going to Montreal was the greatest research trip. Going to Ubisoft’s offices was so impressive. The amount of research the designers had done was overwhelming. During the whole music process, the music team would send us musical examples of what was giving the design team inspiration when creating the different levels. The world of Assassin’s Creed had to be something that hadn’t existed before. We wanted hints of all of the nationalities that were coming to America and making it their home. In regards to Skylanders, I didn’t watch cartoons. I wanted to make music that wasn’t childish. It can be fun but not necessary to be aimed for young children.

EGM: Is there a kind of game — and I’m referring here to the genre not the series — that’s easier for you to do? Like, are you more inclined towards cartoonish stuff like Skylanders or high-energy action games, like Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?

LB: They all have the shame complexities. There is no such thing as an easy composing job. Having come from the world of commercials, I could easily spend weeks on a 38 second ad campaign. Cartoon music is just as hard as action music. What I like is to not work in one genre constantly. To be able to compose for different styles keeps the excitement alive.

EGM: Speaking of Modern Warfare 2, you did that music with Hans Zimmer, with whom you’ve also worked on such games as Crysis 2 and Skylanders: Spyro Adventure as well as The Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes movies. He, of course, had a long history of movie scores before he moved into games. Whose idea was it, did you suggest he try his hand at games or is he a big gamer and wanted to do it so he could get free games?

LB: Games are becoming movies. It is a natural progression to move into the medium. I can’t speak for Hans on why he choose to start in games, but I know I wanted to work in games because they are another platform of media to be able to write for. The cinematics for games can add up to the same length of a film, so the work processes are very alike.

EGM: So which of you is better at games? And be honest. We can always check your gamer score if need be.

LB: We have not yet had an evening of gaming so I don’t know who is better. Though due to the fact I seem to not get past the first level on most games I can hedge my bets and say he would be better than me.

EGM: How much has your work on games impacted your work on movie scores, and vice versa? For instance, have you gotten any movie work because of a game score you did, or game work because of a film you scored? Or worse, has anyone ever rejected you for a film because you’ve worked on games?

LB: Working on a film helps me bring new musical ideas to a game, and vice versa. I can’t tell you if I haven’t gotten work from working in games. I don’t think there is that divide any longer, unlike what there used to be. There used to be even a separation between film and TV composers a few years ago, but now A-list composers are also writing for television as well as for games. The snobbery for certain mediums is disappearing.

EGM: Recently, Trent Reznor of nine inch nails did the theme song for Call Of Duty: Black Ops II. Now, he’s no stranger to soundtracks, game or otherwise, but I’m still wondering, do you look at someone like him, a rock star, doing a game soundtrack as an interloper on your turf, or validation of the work you’ve done?

LB: There are no turfs in music. There have always been musicians and composers crossing into other genres. Quincy Jones, John Barry, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name from a few, crossed into the world of film having come from popular and theatrical music.

EGM: Finally, if you could score any game, what would it be? 

LB: I’m lucky enough to say that I have had the privilege to work on games that I have wanted to work on. Game companies are constatntly wanting to push their boundaries with visuals and game play, and this allows the composers to face each project with new challenges.

Paul Semel, Contributor
Paul has been writing about movies, music, video games, books, TV, toys, celebrities, and other fun stuff since the early-’90s. A regular contributor to EGM since 2004, he's also written for Entertainment Weekly, Bikini, Maxim, Raygun, Walmart GameCenter, Rides, and Emmy, among others. Please follow him on Twitter at @paulsemel. Or don't. Whatever.

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