Music has always been a crucial aspect to consider when building the atmosphere of a video game. Whether it is a part of a blockbuster or an indie game, music adds texture and feeling that makes them feel complete. Cris Velasco has had an extensive career in scoring games, and has worked on titles both big and small, including the God of War trilogy, Mass Effect, and Darksiders. He spoke to OnlySP about his career in games and delved into some of his work more specifically also.
Unlike a lot of musicians who start their musical journeys at a very early age, Velasco only really started to get involved in music in his college days, when suddenly it appealed to him in a way nothing else did. “I had just started going to my local community college where I grew up, not knowing what I wanted to do or study. I was taking a variety of classes and one of these classes was a music appreciation course. It just sounded fun and easy honestly, and one day in class when we were studying the classical era and the professor played Mozart’s 40th symphony. I had this epiphany in class and I instantly realised that’s what I wanted to do.”
He had, however, a long way to go before that dream could become a reality.
“It was kind of crazy because I couldn’t read music, I had no formal music training at all,” Velasco said. “I had played electric guitar in a death metal band, but this Mozart symphony just evoked so many feelings and it moved me, so I stayed on at that school for another year, only taking music courses. Theory, ear training, history. I took piano lessons and learned to read music, and then I put a portfolio together of some short symphonic work that I had written during that time and wound up going to UCLA on their composition programme. That’s how I got my start in music, but it wasn’t until my mid twenties really.”
Coming to love music so comparatively late is definitely unusual for career composers like Velasco, but that passion led him to pick it up exceptionally quickly. Having initially fallen in love with Mozart, Velasco soon found another love: soundtracks.
“Even when I wasn’t studying music, I’ve always loved the film scores of John Williams, especially Star Wars, growing up. A New Hope was the first LP that I ever bought. Actually, when I was learning classical music and getting my foundation in that, I did listen to a lot of film scores and I leaned more on the horror side. The score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a big influence on me, as well as Chris Young’s Hellraiser music. Those definitely pushed me towards feeling like I might want to write music for some sort of visual media.”
At first, like a lot of composers, that media seemed like it should be film, and Velasco proceeded accordingly, scoring student films while at college. They were not the satisfying creative experiences that he wanted, though, and he soon realised he could explore the musical themes he wanted to in the world of video games, even if his memories of games in his childhood did not support that view, at least initially.
“I grew up playing games as a kid, as far back as the early Atari days. When I went away to school I didn’t have much time for it so I set games aside for a few years. When I did, the music was still not great in terms of quality, or implementation.
“In the short time I took off playing games, they seemed to have really evolved. It was from that moment on that I knew that I wanted to score games. I had been thinking more of film scores, so I had done the typical route of scoring student films, and trying to find a director that paired well with my music and personality, but I just couldn’t find it while I was in school. It was a bit frustrating because I wanted to write these big epic orchestral sagas and that just wasn’t needed in the time I was at school.”
That transition was not a smooth one though, and neither was the transition to full-time work in music. Again, Velasco’s route was perhaps unusual when compared to his counterparts.
“You hear about a lot of composers that instantly found their market within the first six months, and are immediately doing amazing projects, but for me it was a really long, tough road. I graduated and then it took me around seven years to land my first project,” Velasco explained. “I had to have a number of horrible day jobs. I did everything. Every restaurant job, I roofed houses, I actually went out to a forest and was cleaning wells. I was lowered down into a well and I was pulling boulders out! That was horrible!
“I worked at a women’s clothing store for one day until I quit. My final, final job was maybe the worst of all. I was a telemarketer, and…I was maybe the world’s worst telemarketer because I just didn’t care. I knew what a drag it was to get harassed by these guys on the phone, so I would call up and basically ask if they wanted the thing, and if they said no I would just tell them to have a good day and I’d be out, so there was no hard sell from me! While I was doing that, I had an opportunity to pitch for a game based on Battlestar Galactica. It was my first real pitch opportunity that I’ve had in my entire life, and it was actually due that day! That was kind of unheard of and the situation has never happened to me since.”
That bolt out of the blue was a long time coming, and Velasco knew it was a shot he had to take.
“I’m not exactly sure what the backstory was on that but I assume I came in quite late on the project. I called work up that morning, they knew I wanted to be a composer, and I told them that I had this opportunity, that this was my chance, and that I’d need the day off. They said no, so I just quit. I was sure I could find another horrible job, but I am quite sure that I wouldn’t have found another opportunity to pitch on an awesome video game project.
“The game was based more on the original show from the ’70s, not the reboot. So I listened to the old Stu Phillips scores again a little bit, then I wrote some music and turned it in, and about 30 minutes later the company called me. It was Vivendi Universal, and they told me that they loved my pitch but unfortunately they had already just hired somebody about an hour ago. It was crushing to say the least. I decided then that I had had enough. After seven years of chasing this carrot, I had my shot, I didn’t get it, and I was just tired.”
At that point, hopes of a career in music may have had to fall by the wayside.
“I needed something else,” Velasco explained. “I thought I would continue to do music as a hobby, but I was done as far as the professional arena was concerned. I was going to go to culinary school; during that time I had learned that I loved to cook. The very next day though, these guys called me back and said that they were listening to my pitch again and that they heard the passion behind it and did really love it and wanted to give me a shot. So they gave me one cinematic to do. It was maybe a three-minute piece of music, and from that one piece I was suddenly able to pay my rent and my bills for the entire month. Just with that one piece of music. I felt like I had made it!”
Suddenly, victory was snatched from the jaws of resignation, and Velasco was able to start to build the career he had wanted since his college days. His work started to snowball from there.
“That was my goal all along. When I could pay my bills writing music, that’s when I would feel like I’d made it and was successful. So I was totally overjoyed. I wrote that music, and I gave it my absolute best effort. Turned it in. They loved it and gave me another one to do, and then they just kept sending me tracks to do, they were loving them.
“After a couple of months, they told me that they had just let their original composer go and asked if I could step in as the lead composer on it. That really transformed my life. From that moment on I have been a professional composer non-stop. I have had almost no downtime since that first game.”
THE BALL STARTS ROLLING
His career so far is a remarkable story, and not that much later Velasco became involved in a project to match it: God of War.
“I think I worked on four projects total for Vivendi after that. Following those four, I had spent all these years trying to network and make friends in the industry, and that is still true to this day, that most of the work comes from people that I’ve met and worked with over the years, so it’s so important to continue to network.
“I had met a guy a few years prior to that who ended up working at Sony as the head of audio. He invited me over for lunch and was talking about a new IP that they were just starting. He couldn’t say what it was, but he thought it would be right up my alley and told me he would love for me to pitch on it. That turned out to be God of War and that was my first legit triple-A project. It really helped launch my career.”
Once the ball started rolling for Velasco, he was just going to gain traction from there. All he needed was that first massive project. Working on something as huge as God of War was a new experience, but it did not feel any different for him.
“At the time we didn’t know it was going to be huge. It was only later when it came out that it became crazy, but at the time it was just my next project. Nothing particularly special about it in that sense, other than knowing that it looked really cool and that I got to finally write in this big, bombastic style that I’d been wanting to. Ever since then I don’t know that any projects have ever felt different to me. No matter if it’s something huge like Mass Effect or Borderlands, or I just recently worked on a bunch of music for Fortnite, they’re enormous franchises but they’re just my next project that has my attention. I don’t treat something that costs $100m to make any differently than I would an indie project.”
This idea speaks to Velasco’s process, which is the same no matter what he is working on, no matter the budget.
“I’m not necessarily even seeing that much from the game when I’m working on it. I just spend as much time with the project as possible. If it’s early on and there’s not even any gameplay I can see, I will just ask for tonnes of art, whether it’s in-game or just concept, and I just really learn as much about it as I can, see as much as I can and then I imagine what the experience will be and just go from there. I start hashing out some thematic ideas or just textural ideas and figure out what the sound of the score is. In the beginning, if I have a lot of time, I’ll really take it and not rush into it. It’s just a case of wrapping my head around the project and making it sound different from what I’ve done before and different from other games that might be in the same genre.”
A franchise such as God of War has a strong sense of identity, both in terms of its setting and time period, but that does not necessarily have an effect on Velasco’s thought process when coming up with a score. Indeed, a lot of aspects of the game remain unknown for large parts of the process.
“The setting and time can affect the score, but sometimes we’ll make a conscious effort to go against the grain and do something unexpected,” he said. “That either works nicely or is a trainwreck, so then you go back to the drawing board. Often I have to write some of the score before I’ve seen how the game might play. It’s a daunting task but I’ve worked on so many games at this point now that it’s really muscle memory. It’s very second nature. After talking to the audio director about the scope of the game I can pretty well imagine how it’s going to play out. It’s not totally overwhelming to try to write without seeing picture anymore.
“I am often asked if I want the script and usually I don’t really care to get it because…I’m much more of a visual person. If I’m reading a book I don’t necessarily hear…I don’t start composing a score to it in my head, I’m just fully engaged by the story, but if I’m watching something that doesn’t have a score in it or even if it does sometimes, I find that my brain is actively trying to compose to it. So the script to me is…I’d rather just get the main beats, I don’t need to read all the dialogue choices between every character. That just bogs down my process, it’s a little too much information.
“I did a project last year I think called The Invisible Hours, and that one is all story. There are these seven intertwining stories, kind of this murder mystery, Agatha Christie thing, but it’s so fascinating and there’s no way to understand the game without reading the script, and each character had their own script so there were 7 of them. That absolutely blew my mind. That was the first time I’ve enjoyed reading a script for a game. It was expertly done.”
CONTINUED SUCCESS AND GENRE BENDING
Around the time Velasco was working on God of War III, a new franchise came along, something else with an equally massive scope: Darksiders.
“I had heard of Darksiders and saw some of the covers on game magazines, so I knew about it and I had tried to pitch for it. The audio director, funnily enough, happened to be the same guy that got me in on God of War. He had switched over to THQ and was head of audio there. So I knew about it but the developer had an in-house guy and told me it was all being taken care of internally. They told me they’d get me in on something else, but I thought that Darksiders looked super cool and I really wanted to do it.
“I don’t know exactly what happened but that composer wound up getting let go from the company, and it turned out that they were also unhappy with a lot of the score, so I got brought in to do a replacement. It did feel like it could be the next big God of War type franchise.”
Since the franchise came along at the same time as Velasco was continuing to work on God of War, whether the two overlapped in his mind was interesting to hear about.
“I think having two scores that I worked on, probably not simultaneously but in close proximity, meant trying to come up with something that felt unique to one, instead of just a knockoff. Honestly, I’m not really sure how well that was pulled off for Darksiders because a lot of the references were God of War. Even today I’ll write something that uses that big, epic, orchestral, choir, pounding percussion aesthetic and even though to me personally it doesn’t sound anything like God of War, I’ll still get comments out there going ‘This sounds like God of War!’
“You kind of just shrug it off like The Dude in Big Lebowski. ‘That’s just, like, your opinion man.’”
Velasco then returned to the franchise for last November’s Darksiders III, and since the early days the sound has evolved, and branched out.
“For Darksiders III, I did want the sound to evolve from what I had done on the first one. I didn’t do the second but I know, while it was still orchestral, it had some more hybrid moments that the first didn’t have at all. So I wanted the third game to be, in my mind, kind of a mix of the two, and an exploration of how that sound would be carried forward. Still very orchestral, but there’s a lot more synth work in it.”
This decision had little to do with the story itself, but was an artistic decision to bring a different mood to the game, apart from one small nod.
“There was one small reference to the first Darksiders score,” Velasco explained. “There’s a cinematic early in the game where you see War all chained up, and Mike Reagan and I had co-composed War’s theme for the first one. It never makes an appearance again as far as I know, so I did give it a little hint to the theme right there, but other than it’s all brand new material. Nothing from the first two.”
Those are not the only major franchises that Velasco has worked on, however. He was also part of the team who worked on the Mass Effect 2 DLC ‘Arrival’, before going on to work on Mass Effect 3 and a handful of its DLCs.
“I first came in on the second game. I did way more for the third game but on 2 there was…I think I worked on two DLCs. I didn’t work on the main game. Again though it was a matter of the composer being let go for whatever reason, and the audio director at the time was someone I had worked with previously at Ubisoft. He just called me out of the blue and said that they were in trouble and needed a new composer because they had this DLC coming out. He asked me to do it, and those are my favourite gigs, where I don’t have to pitch and instead they just ask. It’s just a no-brainer. Do I want to work on the biggest franchise at the time? Absolutely I want to.”
A certain sound and aesthetic is associated with science fiction games like Mass Effect, but Velasco insisted that he tries to steer clear of genre conventions when writing for a specific project.
“At least from a compositional standpoint, I don’t treat games differently no matter what the genre of the game is. I just try to write the best music that I personally can for the specific project. It’s all about the colours and the timbres of the game though. With sci-fi we tend to want to go 80s retro. Mass Effect kind of brought that back and it’s stuck. These synths playing arpeggios in a Tangerine Dream way for some reason, in our collective brains, sounds like sci-fi. If you play it for someone who hasn’t played video games or ever seen Blade Runner…what does it sound like? Something completely different.”
Horror is another genre synonymous with certain sounds, and Resident Evil is a franchise with its own storied musical history, but Velasco’s work on Resident Evil 7 was more influenced by a musical movement called musique concrete rather than the genre itself. He explained what that meant, and how it affected his score.
“There was a Japanese composer named Takemitsu who was famous for his music concrete scores. Basically, if you recorded a bunch of different sounds to tape and then cut them up and edited all these different bits of tape into one piece…so there might suddenly be a female vocal which gets interrupted by static or an animal noise and then some percussion maybe…then you can layer all that on top of each other. What they did was also reverse the tape so everything is played in reverse, or you can stretch the tape out and then play it back slower and then record it slower.
“Basically, we used all these avant-garde techniques that are just trying to be different, but did it in a way that’s very cool, that’s what they wanted with Resident Evil. I had only briefly studied that back in school, and I didn’t care for it back then, like a lot of experiments in the 60s it just wasn’t for me musically. So I had to reacquaint myself with that, and now listening to it all these years later I could understand the beauty in it and also how that could be extremely effective in a horror score. So that’s what we did. I had to learn how. Before a single note of the score was written I went in to the studio and recorded tonnes and tonnes of string effects. Then we created our own software sampler to play these back and we had a sound design guy that did things like record a beehive that was swarming with bees, and all kinds of really cool sound effects, and then I recorded a couple of vocalists as well, not doing anything melodic, just doing vocalisations, just sound effects. Then we took all of that stuff, the string effects, the bees, the vocalisations and then in a puzzle sort of assembled this musique concrete score.”
This process certainly seems like a very interesting and innovative method for formulating a horror score, while managing to capture the unease and tension that is often required of music in games of that ilk.
“It feels both dissonant and really engrossing and gripping at the same time,” Velasco added. “Especially when you’re in the game, it really makes it worse or better depending on your perspective!”
That unique style meant that Velasco did not take any influences from other horror media, just letting the method do the work instead, and add to the immersive experience.
“For me it was its own thing. There are some melodic moments, and typically I prefer a horror score that has melodic moments in it, but on that game it was really supposed to just be more visceral and scary. No melody to hang your hat on, you know. Just hit that fear centre in the brain. Especially with the game’s VR capability. Lots of people that haven’t tried it, but I implore them to try it because it’s just taking gaming to the next level and it is amazing how within five seconds your brain accepts that this is your new reality. I guess gaming is more of a passive participation, in VR it’s full-on active participation. Not something I would do before bed!”
Quite apart from all of Velasco’s talent as a composer, he put down his eventual success in the industry to one thing in particular: networking. The relationships he has built in his career are what has allowed him to continue to get roles on interesting projects that he would want to work on.
“My number one rule that I recommend to everybody is ‘don’t be an asshole’. It seems like a no-brainer but you would be surprised. When I was at BioWare for Mass Effect, I had a new guy to work with called Rob Blake. I got to know him really well and he wound up leaving for a new start-up called Phoenix Labs and two years later when they were ready to get the ball rolling he called and asked me if I would do the score to their new game Dauntless. I’ve worked on that with them on that for three years.
“It goes to show that the community is so small, at least in audio. The original developer or publisher is that fresh dandelion, and then you blow on it and all the spores scatter out. If you’ve made strong personal connections with a handful of those spores, you’re gonna probably wind up working with them again. Then your own network just grows tremendously over the years. It definitely helps me sleep at night knowing that I’ve made all these friends that are doing amazing stuff and that there’s a better than average chance that I’ll get to work with them.”
Darksiders III is out now, as well as the first DLC for the game, entitled ‘The Crucible’. Velasco has also worked on a VR title for TequilaWorks entitled Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son, for which no release date has yet been announced.