“Upping the Ante with Ballads & Shanties: Writing Songs for Video Games” – Post-Panel Interview with Jack Wall and Austin Wintory

Austin Wintory moderated a panel at this year’s ASCAP Expo to discuss songs in video games. The panel featured Jack Wall (Wall of Sound), Cindy Shapiro (Wall of Sound), Darren Korb (supergiantgames), and Lydia Andrew (Ubisoft). We got more insight about writing songs for games from Austin and Jack.


EL: When are composers typically brought into the process of creating a song? Are you often involved in the creation of the lyrics, or are you given lyrics to write to?

JW: Usually it’s sometime after they’ve realized they need a song (as opposed to score), but normally it’s at a point that gives us plenty of time to work it out. Since it’s a song, they need lyrics. I imagine it’s different for every project and song idea – They might have some lyrics but need more, or the writers of the game write the lyrics. For me and Black Ops, it’s typically just, “please write a song about x”. At that point, I bring Cindy in to handle the lyrics as that is more her wheelhouse. But because we’ve done this a number of times, Treyarch will just ask for both of us to write.

AW: It really varies on the project; I can’t say I’ve seen anything consistent about it. On Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, I was hired for the score and then sort of ‘surprised’ with the assignment for the murder ballads a month or two later. They were pure source music so it wasn’t as complex as something needing animation built around it. For something like that, certainly they’d want to start earlier. I also years ago did the remake of the 1987 Leisure Suit Larry and there was a scene in a casino night club, with a stand-up comic on stage. I called the director and said “oooh oooh can I write an old Vegas-style torch song as an alterante to this scene???” and they agreed. So that ended up coming in late in the process.
I prefer to collaborate with lyricists; I can’t seem to write them myself for anything! There have been occasions where I had to use some provided but mostly we make something fresh. On Syndicate I collaborated with the Australian composer/songwriter trio “Tripod” for the lyrics. They are BRILLIANT.

EL: Do you often find yourselves re-utilizing themes that are created for other parts of the game to tie together the world?

JW: That hasn’t been the case in general. They just want something special for a particular moment or Easter egg in the game. There was one song that was sort of written for a trailer the year before and they wanted to bring that song back. It was only 2 minutes and they wanted to make a longer song with more of a song structure, so we wrote extra material for that one, but essentially the chorus was the same as the trailer’s.

AW: Very rarely though it depends. An end credits sort of ‘summary’ song is different from in-game source. For the former it’s always wonderful to thread something in. If you consider “I Was Born For This” a song (from JOURNEY), then its chorus is built entirely on the game’s main theme. Whereas the final song from Syndicate, “Underground,” only has simple allusions to the theme.

EL: With audiences spanning all over the world, do you ever factor in localization in your lyrical/melodic choices? IE: Lyrics don’t necessarily translate cleanly from one language to another, and syllables may not be emphasized the way you want musically – is that on you to fix or is that another person’s job?
JW: Yes, typically that’s someone else’s job – and it would typically involve subtitles I believe. However, Cindy and I did write a “song” where the lead singer was a greek choir. We had that methodically translated from English to Latin.

AW: I don’t think any of my songs have ever been re-recorded and localized. That’s probably very rare and mostly something that entirely re-dubbed projects would do. It’s honestly never factored into my decisions.

EL: There are people that are vocal (pun intended?) against the use of songs or lyrics of any kind in games. Where do you feel there may be a disconnect between the instrumental school of thought and the vocal school of thought? How has the gap been bridged over the last few years?

JW: Well I’m not really sure who those people are to be honest. I think using a song has a really different connotation than underscore or instrumental work. It’s all about why you’re putting the song in. I’m seeing more songs in games now than ever before. It’s very similar to a TV show where they use songs instead of underscore. It’s generally when you require a more focused emotional context and it’s usually with either no or less dialog.

AW: Who on earth are against songs or lyrics? I’ve never encountered that and can’t imagine any sort of argument that would be compelling. Vocals (whether in song form or not) are one of the most powerful colors in our arsenal!

EL: When selecting a vocalist to sing your music, what are some of the main focal points that drive you to choose that specific performance?

JW: We cast every song we do for the games and get the team’s buy-in. It’s a collaboration in that regard as I might suggest a duet with a man and woman because I think that’s a good idea. They’ll either agree or have their own ideas. We go back and forth but it’s typically what will work given the context or time period that the song is supposed to be done in. Then we have a number of people send their demos. I usually like to hear something in the same vein as the song I’m writing.

AW: Obviously the basics of color and range, but also that hard-to-define sense of style. It’s like casting an actor. You need a personality that matches. On JOURNEY the song was sung by Lisbeth Scott, who’s basically the queen of that mystical, religioso vibe. She had done so many solos I adored and just knew it had to be her. For Syndicate, the in-game more ‘operatic’ bits were all sung by Holly Sedillos, who could easily manage the power they required yet also with a purity, like a boy soprano. On Leisure Suit Larry the torch song was Melora Hardin, who had sung Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” in The Rocketeer and has this jazz cabaret voice as if she was born 80 years ago. It’s all about casting!

EL: Do you have any additional words of wisdom or encouragement for up-and-coming songwriters?
JW: It’s tough because writing songs is about 1% of all of the music I write for games. I do think it’s another outlet for songwriters and increasingly so.
AW: Like anything else, let songwriting be an extension of who you are on every level. Embrace all the eccentricities that make you you, and let them flood into your writing.

EL: How about for up-and-coming vocalists?

JW: Again, it’s more of just another usage for songs. Be open to anything having to do with games. They tend to be pretty fun!

AW: It’s actually the same answer. The singers I work with aren’t chosen because of technical prowess (that’s a given, anyway). It’s because they have a personality that lets them express something truly unique to themselves. That is always far more exciting than someone who can simply hit the notes…