The Halo series has become synonymous with large-scale battles, expansive lore, intense multiplayer battles and, of course, iconic music that’s been with us every step of the way. Halo Wars 2, the next exciting chapter of the Halo saga, will be arriving on Xbox One and Windows 10 PC on Feb. 21, 2017. As Creative Assembly and 343 Industries continue to refine the technical aspects of the game before release, we had a chance to talk with the team behind the music.
Composers Gordy Haab and Finishing Move (comprised of Brian Lee White and Brian Trifon), as well as Halo Wars 2 Audio Director Paul Lipson, shared with us their creative approach, the importance of honoring Halo musical legacy, and how they are developing a soundtrack to match the ebb and flow of RTS battle.
Walk us through your approach in designing a soundtrack for a video game. Do you have a pre-defined expectation, draw inspiration from other composers, etc.? What’s that like?
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: The starting place with any soundtrack is to research and uncover what is sonically appropriate for the specific game without too many pre-defined expectations. We do this by reading early design/level documents and scripts, studying concept art, and watching screen captures of early builds of the game. During this process you come to understand the characters, their motivations, and the overall story arc and use those narrative and emotional aspects to inform the musical style and instrumental choices. With Halo Wars 2, we wanted to bring back stylistic elements that are traditional to other Halo scores, such as large orchestra and choir with a blend of electronic musical styles, but also push the envelope into new musical territory.
Also, with the introduction of new characters to the Halo world, alongside the return of past characters, we decided to take a traditional leit motif approach – by composing melodic themes for each hero, villain or group of characters, each of which you’ll hear recurring throughout the score.
Paul Lipson: An essential step in the process was to make sure Gordy and the Finishing Move Team had clear aesthetic guidance and direction around the goals of the score; including the interactive systems, and the high-level aspirations that our teams at 343 Industries and Creative Assembly held for Halo Wars 2. Since the Brians and I had much success on previous Halo outings, bringing Gordy’s unique voice into the project was a truly enjoyable process. I’m amazed at the stunning results that this team was able to achieve together and feel it’s a groundbreaking addition to the canon.
What tends to be the most challenging aspect of composing music for a game of this magnitude, knowing that the Halo brand itself is one of the most-recognized in the gaming world today? Do you feel the weight and magnitude of it all, or do you see it more as an opportunity for your music to begin telling a new story in the franchise?
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: There is always the weight of the Halo brand in the back of our minds, but it’s not a burden; it’s a foundation and opportunity to build on the Halo tradition and make a new musical statement that expresses the struggles, triumphs and complexities of the UNSC and the Banished.
Having worked in the franchise previously, we definitely understand the high expectations fans have for Halo music, but I think we’d ultimately be doing the fans a disservice if we didn’t try to break new ground with some aspects of the score. The story has evolved, there are new characters and they should have new themes and soundscapes – we think we’ve done a great job of maintaining the essence of Halo music while adding our own touches to a canon of great scores.
What instruments, structures, or sections are you using to convey the various heroes, villains, and units we’ll meet in Halo Wars 2?
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: It ended up being less about the use of specific instruments or sections, than specific melodies associated with each character. This allowed us the flexibility to pass the themes around the orchestra in order to get various emotional effects from an individual melody. For example, Isabel’s theme is initially stated as a cello solo combined with English horn. But the reprise of her theme is played by the French horn section combined with the viola section for added weight and nobility. This approach was applied to all of the leit motifs used throughout the score. With Atriox however, 80 percent of the time his theme is in the lower sections of the orchestra. Basses, celli, trombones, tuba, men’s choir, etc.
Halo Wars 2 is a grand strategy game that will have an ebb and flow during the battle. How do you account for that when designing your composition?
Paul Lipson: We spent lots of time in pre-production at 343 Industries and designed a very adaptive interactive music system that offered total emotional support to the story. Our music team took to the systems immediately, and we worked out a number of ways to extend and adapt key themes and compositional moments across the gameplay experience. Players can enjoy a score that adapts to tactical situations on the fly, from the calmest moments to the largest battles.
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: The music was written with different intensity levels in mind. A good portion of the game is spent building up your base and enacting strategy; it’s not action all the time! We wrote several pieces of ambient music that are thematic in texture and less so in overt melody. These textural pieces set the emotional tone of the level and open the player up to feeling emotion and tension, but in a restrained way. As you engage in battle the music gets more intense, percussive and thematic to really bring out the adrenaline and emotion.
Because this is a strategy game, we not only want to be highlighting key moments in a battle with score, but also be thinking about preventing repetitive music fatigue in sections where you might be spending a lot of time. The interactive music system and structures we put together are quite extensive in this title; much thought and design was put into balancing different sets of cues to compliment gameplay and work well with the dialog and SFX systems.
What sections or pieces are you most proud of to come away with from the soundtrack for Halo Wars 2?
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: I think we’re all pretty stoked on the whole thing actually. The cinematics with the live orchestra and choir look and sound absolutely incredible; there were moments when we were recording at Fox where we were just speechless and in awe, even though we had heard the virtualized versions of the cues hundreds of times. But in in addition to the big orchestral pieces, I think players will also find some ambient gems buried in long stretches of gameplay that showcase some truly elevated musical sound design, which are quite stunning in their own special way.
Do you have any fun stories to share from the creative process? Like, were any pieces retrieved from trash cans at the 11th hour?
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: So we actually all work in different DAWs, Gordy and his team are on DP and Cubase while the Finishing Move crew writes in Logic and finishes in Pro Tools. Normally this wasn’t an issue during collaboration because we’d just share a combo of audio stems and MIDI, but there were a couple of cinematic cues that ended up getting re-conformed an insane number of times during the writing process, due to changes in the cut, creative changes, etc. We’d be on the phone saying things like, “make sure to start this audio stem exactly at 01:02:45:22” or some random timecode location. We ended up having to separate sections into different parts for the recording session and piece them back together on the other end after everything was mixed.
It all depends on your idea of fun; a few people went to the hospital during the production of this score, but I’ll leave it at that!
Is there anything in particular in the Halo Wars 2 soundtrack that we should keep our ears out for?
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: Listen out for character themes woven throughout all aspects of the score, recurring in many different permutations. For example, even though Isabel’s theme is predominantly emotional and triumphant, fragments of her theme can also be heard scattered throughout bombastic action music – often times as a subtle counter-melody to a larger battle theme.
There is even a short moment in the soundtrack where Isabel’s, Cutter’s, Atriox’s, and the UNSC’s theme all converge for a total of about five seconds to create an emotional texture that underscores a pivotal moment in the story. On first listen most may miss it. But it was included as an Easter egg for the most diehard soundtrack aficionados to seek out.
So, picture this: it is launch day for Halo Wars 2. Fans are sitting down on their couches and starting the game for the first time, when the soundtrack begins. What are the sensations or emotions you’re hoping to elicit from those hearing your work for the first time?
Paul Lipson: I’m hopeful that fans are awed and thrilled by the quality, artistry, and passion poured into this score – and that we have elevated Halo music for old and new fans alike. The Halo Universe is an emotive and inspiring place to be, and we think this score sets a new benchmark for Halo and for RTS experiences across any platform.
Gordy Haab and Finishing Move: I hope people experience and enjoy the soundtrack and gameplay all the way through before muting everything in favor of their typical go-to favorite playlist on Spotify, it’s really good, you’ll like it!