We caught up with composer Chance Thomas to chat about his score for Warhammer: Chaosbane and what’s changed with video games composition over the course of his 20+ years in the industry.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
It would be a gross understatement to say that video games have changed a bit since composer Chance Thomas scored his first title back in 1996, Sierra’s action RPG/adventure Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire.
Since then, we’ve seen game graphics get as near as damn it both to photo realism and to the fidelity and impact of Hollywood CGI. We play in vast, beautifully drawn open worlds, the scope of which draws the breath. Since the mid-’90s, audio has gone from chiptune, general MIDI, and simple disc-based stereo audio to complex interactive music systems and 7.1 surround audio. Developers are able to immerse players in virtual realities unimaginable just two decades ago.
As a composer for media since 1990, Thomas has successfully weathered this change whilst honing the fundamentals of music-making and soundtrack implementation. His credits span across film, TV, adverts, and games, but it was a love of music that came first: “long before I played my first video game, I was writing songs on the piano. I loved the magic of sitting down in front of 88 keys and conjuring up a new creation: pop songs at first; then rock songs for my high school band.”
His musical and technical chops make him one of the best-regarded composers in the field — the ‘composer’s composer’, if you like. He literally wrote the book on game scoring with 2016’s Composing Music For Games: The Art, Technology and Business of Video Game Scoring, and continues to speak at universities and conferences all over the US.
Further, fans of video game music probably owe him a debt of gratitude for work done within and without the industry to increase the recognition and reputation of the medium. He helped lead the charge to bring VGM to the GRAMMY Awards, resulting in Christopher Tin’s win in 2011 for Civilization IV theme song “Baba Yetu” and Austin Wintory’s nomination for Journey in 2012.
Thomas helped found the Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.) in 2002, and served on the Audio Advisory Board for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) for seven years before making way for new blood. He’s also held senior music and audio positions at major publishers, giving him a broad perspective of how music fits into games.
He kindly took the time to chat with us about his latest score, his thoughtful approach to scoring different fictional universes, and how he sees the art of soundtracking video games developing.
Developed by Eko Software and published by Bigben Interactive, Warhammer: Chaosbane is a hack’n’slash dungeon crawler in the mould of Diablo. The soundtrack is available via Laced Records across all major digital music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon, and more.
...is this just fantasy?
Thomas has worked within the largest fantasy universes in pop culture, including Avatar, X-Men, King Kong, Marvel, Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Wars.
It would not be unfair to say that his Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (2007-present) score is his most celebrated. As with any creator worth their salt that works on a Tolkien-y project, Thomas dove headfirst into the lore in order to create music beloved by fans of the MMO. Years of poring over the epic book cycle in his spare time meant that he was bringing the kind of attention to detail and passion to the game that one associates with filmmaker Peter Jackson and co. To quote Thomas’ website biography, he “painstakingly crafted instrumental palettes, [researched] vocal ranges, stylistic tendencies, and [conjured emotions] based on direct references/inferences scattered throughout the text.”
Says Thomas: “I always go to the original source material to soak up the DNA of whatever fictional world I’m scoring. Then I look to whatever is unique about the current project — important time period, unusual geography, a stylistic flair that may be a distinct departure from the normal cannon — whatever it is that puts that particular chapter in its own space. Like various planets orbiting around the Sun, all part of the same solar system, but unique in their own way.”
Thomas’ orchestration is often densely detailed and always carefully crafted, helping him distinguish his games scores from the respective film scores of such huge franchises; it’s this skill and deftness that made him an appropriate fit for the Warhammer universe.
On the Laced blog, we’ve explored varying degrees of interactivity in music implementation: Joris de Man talked about faking it (to some extent) with Killzone 3; Jim Fowler and Joe Thwaites did some exciting things with VR game Blood & Truth; Inon Zur envisages a future where machine learning enables a player-centric predictive/preferential music system.
Thomas has pretty much seen and done it all, explaining: “We used several proven implementation techniques in Chaosbane. We employed stingers, tags, layered loops, stems, cinematics, and progressive music suites in building the score for this game. These are familiar tools by now, but when I started inventing some of this stuff back in 1996 with Quest for Glory V, it was groundbreaking.”
Here’s an excerpt from Thomas’ book, explaining the technique of layering music stems to intensify a score:
“When speaking of music layers, game composers are describing a group of synchronized music tracks that play back simultaneously, with one or more sounding while all others are muted. Music layering creates a stack of music cues rather than a series of music cues. Or to put it another way, music layering stacks the succession of emotional states in the dramatic arc on top of one another. This takes advantage of both the x-axis and the y-axis. The x-axis still represents a timeline, just as in traditional music scoring. But the y-axis allows for successive parts of the music score to be stacked for instant transitioning.” Composing Music For Games: The Art, Technology and Business of Video Game Scoring, pg 110-111
He continues: “Today’s groundbreaking work is mostly happening in universities and laboratories, in virtual reality audio groups, and sometimes, though with much less frequency, at actual game development studios. Most don’t have the stomach (read: money) for the high risk experimentation involved in complex, generative, AI-based music implementation.
“But, every once in a while, a dev team gets some budget and has the ambition, and cool things still happen here and there across the industry. I’m working on one such project right now for Ubisoft that will be out next year.”
Pointing out an example that impressed him, he adds: “I am always more impressed with game music that lights me up and draws me into the experience, rather than a music system with lots of bells and whistles that falls flat emotionally or artistically. The work that Peter Scaturro and Joel Corelitz did on The Unfinished Swan a few years ago remains a terrific example of a sophisticated implementation that delivered an emotionally and artistically superior experience.”
Thomas’ approach to scoring involves plenty of research into appropriate musical palettes — not just how things should sound, but also plenty of questions about why and what.
“I work very hard to find what I believe is the authentic voice or heart of each score I create. Warhammer: Chaosbane has a ton of fighting in it. But why? What’s the story? What’s the lore? Anyone can crank out big percussion, driving strings, and bombastic brass. Without a theme that is somehow connected to the fiction though, you might as well license tracks from a music library.”
Musicians from the Utah Film Orchestra record Warhammer: Chaosbane.
When it comes to orchestral music, composers can draw on centuries of innovation of musical textures and palettes. That’s not to say that all orchestral soundtrack music derives from classical, but a lot of ground has been covered in terms of what one can coax out of an orchestra.
Thomas makes a point of clearly “staking out his own voice” in each project, as well as looking at “what kinds of musical textures work with particular stories, time periods, or fictional genres.” He’s also quick to credit past masters of the medium. “All composers owe a great debt of gratitude to the generations of music-makers who have preceded us. Where would we be without them? I certainly have my own list of heroes: James Horner, James Newton Howard, John Williams, Loreena McKennitt, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Kerry Livgren… My own musical voice has been inspired and shaped by these giants.”
The track that closes the soundtrack album for Chaosbane, “For Fallen Kin and Country”, is bookended with a tragically beautiful violin melody that, to our ears, wouldn’t be out of place in Williams’ score for Schindler’s List (itself influenced by various types of Jewish music and the likes of Messiaen); with a pulse-pounding middle section evocative of Horner’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Horner being an admirer of Britten, Prokofiev and Tallis.)
Thomas explains: “‘For Fallen Kin and Country’ is the track I wrote to expose the heart of this story. This song became a lament and a legend... a lament for warriors who conquer or perish, each forging his own legendary fate on the seething battlefield. The haunting solo violin, performed brilliantly by Aaron Ashton, mourns for the fallen, opening the piece.
“Orchestra and choir take up the broader story [around 0:35]: a revolt against tyranny, a defense against oppression, loyalty and honor to family and country without counting the cost. When the orchestra finally winds down, a solitary violin picks up again in noble mourning for the lost souls, the untold tales, the abbreviated lives cut far too short... in memory of fallen kin and redeemed country.”
It almost goes without saying that we’re on well-trodden ground with the dark fantasy aesthetics of Warhammer; almost as well-trodden as the tropes of the fantasy genre at large. Having worked across DOTA, Lord of the Rings, and Dungeons & Dragons, a challenge Thomas has to face is how to sonically distinguish his work from one grimey fantasy world to the next.
In the face of this, he’s nonetheless found plenty of opportunities to try different things musically-speaking, and find subtly different hues among the browns, greys, and black shadows of the fantasy genre’s dank, torchlit dungeons: “One of the things I did with Chaosbane was to develop an unusual new instrument, which fits beguilingly into the classical orchestral palette. I started with an Aplenhorn, then mixed and blended other secret elements. I then processed the resulting instrument extensively. The new instrument has a reedy, guttural resonance that is both organic and other-worldly. It adds a very cool element to the score.”
This specially-designed instrument can be heard in the “Main Title” tracks, underpinning the choir. It can be heard most clearly at 1:25 playing the main motif of the score:
(Not) new to the game
Thomas doesn’t discriminate in terms of which genre/area/platform of video games will see the next fantastic score: “Great music can spring up from any genre. Get a bunch of creatives together, give them enough time and money to really commit themselves to a project, and incredible things can happen!
“We have covered a lot of ground since the early days of scoring video games. But many of the techniques that my peers and I invented in the 1990s are still used today. And there are new approaches popping up all the time. Part of the textbook I wrote outlines a number of adaptive music scoring techniques that anyone serious about scoring games should understand thoroughly.”
In this time of horror stories emerging from across games development, it’s refreshing to hear that, far from being a dungeon-dwelling studio recluse, Thomas avoids cabin fever and creative brain drain by living life to the fullest: exploring nature, living spiritually, seeing and supporting friends and family, working with vulnerable people and convicts, and chasing (clean-fun) adrenaline highs through outdoor sports and activities. “There is so much life to experience — inspiration comes from all of it.”