Composer Jack Wall certainly has an impressive resume. In addition to composing music for the Myst and Mass Effect series, he is also the co-founder of the Video Games Live concert series. Most recently, Wall worked on Call of Duty: Black Ops II. We chatted with Wall recently to discuss his past, present, and future projects.
How did you get your start in the game music-making field?
I started working in games in 1996 with a company called Postlinear Entertainment; great name for a game company. They gave me my start by asking me to work on their first three or four titles. I was fairly close to the people there and learned a lot about making games and got the opportunity to experiment quite a bit with different techniques for making the interactivity work with music.
For years, especially in the early to mid-2000s, there seemed to be a big push from many in the industry to have the music change based on what the player did, but I didn’t see it that way. I always felt that music should fit the mood of what the player was feeling rather than fit their specific actions. Of course, that largely depends on what type of game it is, but for the more story-based games I was working on, that worked better than say, having the music change simply because the guy is walking up the hill as opposed to going down it.
You won your first award for the OST of Myst III: Exile. Tell us one or two things about the development of the game's music that you haven't shared before.
I think the reaction of the production team to our scoring the Main Theme from Myst III: Exile was pretty special. They heard it and were blown away. Of course, they were at the recording session and witnessed it. I remember coming down from the podium after we recorded that particular piece and the producers and developers walked into the room with these huge smiles.
They were clearly moved by the experience of watching all of the players perform it. The team had heard the piece mocked up with orchestra samples, but listening to the real thing changed them and their perception of the music fundamentally from that day on. I wish everyone could experience that.
You also won awards for your work on Jade Empire and Mass Effect's score. Would it be safe to say that composing vast tunes for large-scale adventures is your specialty?
I really don’t know what my specialty is other than helping to tell a story through music. I push myself to try new things whenever opportunities arise. When I did Jade Empire, I’d never done anything like it. Mass Effect was the same. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is again brand new territory for me. I’m very experienced at producing music. I always feel that writing music for a new game, film or album is a new challenge every time. The palette I choose and the way I get it all done seems to vary with each project. That’s how I endeavor to keep it fresh.
What made you pick Call of Duty: Black Ops 2? Was this sort of a throwback to your days when working on Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow's music?
I had the privilege of auditioning for Call of Duty: Black Ops II. It wasn’t something I was actively seeking. I don’t think you pick your projects so much as you take advantage of some opportunities that come into your sphere. Brian Tuey, the audio director at Treyarch, was a fan of the Mass Effect scores I’d done and asked me if I’d like to audition. They told me they were looking for a fresh approach to Call of Duty.
This was to be the ninth game in the series. That’s an amazing run by any standard. To Treyarch’s credit, they endeavored from the start to outdo themselves in every discipline necessary to make a great game. They seemed to respond well to my ideas so I got the job. Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow was a totally different experience. I really believe that every project is completely different.
The only mainstay is that melody is important, yet really hard to do well in games. You need to pick your spots for it and they need to be both important to the story, and they need to occur in areas or moments in the game where you can let the music take over. It’s always an important challenge for me to find those spots.
What was the inspiration for Black Ops 2's music?
The first thing I did was play through Black Ops and make my notes on what worked well. The Black Ops wing of Call of Duty, at the time, was the biggest selling game in game history. I didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. There was a certain kind of darkness to that score that worked well and we needed to retain that.
However, the mandate from Treyarch on Black Ops II was that the story and characters in the single player campaign needed to be much more memorable. Music was to help in that regard as much as possible. The inspiration for me came from the script in the single player campaign and watching a lot of the gameplay portions.
What were the primary tools used for composing Black Ops 2's music?
Brian Tuey and I came up with a music design that had a more orchestral and acoustic palette in the 1980s era of the game and then a more electronic hybrid for the 2025 levels of the game. I also felt that an intimacy to the score could be achieved with solo instruments and vocals. My assistant and I created a library of sounds that I could use in Black Ops II. We did a few days of field recordings and then designed some banks of sounds in Battery 3 that I could load in my Black Ops II template for the project.
Concerning the theme of the heroes and villain, could you take us through a step-by-step process on how you came up with them?
"The Hero’s Theme" was born when I was scoring a scene where Anderson rescues David Mason and his group in Los Angeles in 2025. I wrote it and the team really loved it. I began using it whenever the team resolves a big part of the story including the scene at the very end of the game when Woods and David Mason are at a grave site.
For the main villain Raul Menendez, his theme was written specifically to demonstrate that he was a multi-faceted antagonist of the story in the single player campaign; not a one-dimensional bad guy. There was a scene in the script where he was sitting on a bed with his sister who was obviously infirm or sick. I imagined that he was singing a traditional Nicaraguan lullaby to her--something that their mother sang to them before she died.
I researched Nicaraguan lullabies and found “Niño Precioso”. I rearranged that song to work as a theme of sorts for Raul Menendez. It appears in numerous places in the score including the opening fight in Angola, Guerra Precioso on the USS Barack Obama and several other places. I also recorded a purely orchestral version of it with a vocalist, Rudy Cardenas for the credit roll in the style of Michel Legrand in a ‘70s film.
Do you believe that music in military-themed first person shooters can go beyond orchestras? Or do you think that it's a genre staple?
I think you have to use what works for the project you are on. The orchestra gets used a lot because it’s such a versatile sound. You can get a tremendous amount of variation in performance and orchestration; the possibilities are almost endless. But I really enjoy mixing the live orchestra with synth and other solo elements to create a more intimate or electronic sound.
It really just depends on the cue I’m writing at any particular point. I also get a lot of inspiration by creating sounds from found objects. That is something I want to do more of as time goes on. But mixing all of that with an orchestra can certainly move your emotions. That is what music does, so any way I can get that I will. I know that some people just don’t like that sound happening all the time, and I quite agree with that. You have to use it properly. All this said, I think that you can do a lot of great music without an orchestra as well.
I understand that you will be composing Lost Planet 3's music. What can gamers expect in that game's OST?
Yes, I’m very excited by that game as well. About 50 percent of the score I call “country, alien twang”. It goes really well with the story while at the same time making the sci-fi setting more accessible and believable. We’re just wrapping this one up and I can’t wait to see what gamers will think of it. It’s quite a departure from the first two games and I think it’s going to do really well. The acting, the story, and the plot lines are great. The game is fun and if I can get into the studio with some great musicians and bang out tunes that are "alien twang", I’m all for it any day.
Say you were assigned to work on a Japanese-made franchise (Dark Souls, Final Fantasy, etc.). Which series would you like to work on?
Well actually I haven’t played many Japanese games, but I’m certainly familiar with a lot of the music. I know that there are some truly artistic and wonderful titles out there. I’d just do what I always do. I’d do a deep study of what came before and try to bring my voice and my point of view to the franchise. That is what is most fulfilling to me as an artist. I always figure that the best way to do my job is to bring my particular point of view to the party.