We recently had the chance to sit down and chat with the composer for the newest title in Ubisoft's long-running juggernaut of a series, Assassin's Creed. Joe Henson and Alexis Smith, known as The Flight, have lent their talents to many titles prior to this, including Horizon: Zero Dawn, Alien: Isolation, and even previous Assassin's Creed titles. We talked about what a massive undertaking scoring Odyssey really was, as well as tidbits about the process. Let's leap of faith right in!
Push Square: How did it feel to return to Assassin’s Creed, and did your experience differ in any significant ways from your prior gaming experiences? Particularly in ways you maybe weren’t expecting it to?
The Flight: It was fantastic to return to the Assassin’s Creed world. On Black Flag we wrote the music for the multiplayer part of the game, but on Odyssey we were commissioned to compose the entire score. With gameplay of around 100 hours, it was a very different proposition.
There were some similarities, and some differences. The major difference was probably the sheer volume of music that we had to compose, a lot more than we had ever written for a single game before. To begin with that was quite intimidating, and there wasn’t a huge amount of time for us to do it in, but in the end we relished the challenge.
Creatively, there was also the historical setting of Ancient Greece, something we had never encountered before. Although Ubisoft still wanted the score to sound contemporary, we enjoyed researching this time period and what their music might have sounded like, using this as a key influence in our music.
Did you look back on the many prior instalments of the series to craft your music for the title? Did you actively try to craft something entirely different from what had come previously? Or was it more of a hybrid, maybe looking for spots that might suit reprises better when the time came?
We are both fans of the franchise, so were aware of the previous scores, but we were also determined to do our own thing, so we did not refer back much. An exception to this was when Ubisoft asked us to do an Odyssey-flavored version of Ezio’s Family [from Assassin’s Creed II] which appears as “Assassin’s Creed” on the soundtrack. We did go back and listen to everyone else’s take on this well-loved piece; from Jesper Kyd’s original to Sarah Schachner’s version for Origins. Mainly this was to make sure we got the notes right, but also to make sure that we went in a different direction than had been done already!
What did you use as other sources of inspiration when crafting the sound for the game? Shows, films, books, you name it! Where did the creative outpouring stem from?
We vibe off visual stimuli, so we always try and gather as much as we can from the concept artists and designers at the developer. Anything can trigger a new conversation, even a colour or the smallest detail in an image. We also listen to a lot of music; film scores, new bands, whatever. While working on Odyssey we listened to a lot of Greek and Mediterranean folk music.
In what ways does the collaborative process change the way you approach making music? In what ways do you feel it improved things? Did it ever get in the way?
We‘ve always collaborated when making music, it was the way that both of us learned our trade. On some projects, it is just the two of us, but on larger ones such as Odyssey, we have more scope to bring in others as well. Two people we worked with closely were Mike Georgiades, who played on most of the tracks as well as composing additional pieces, and Emma Rohan, who provided vocals as well as lyrics for some of the diegetic music in the game.
Another reason we love writing for games is the collaboration with the development team itself. When composing for film or TV you usually come on at the end of the project, when everything else is pretty much fixed. With games, you are engaged from very early on and as a result feel much more involved in the whole creative process of the title.
You mentioned the intrigue of the historical setting earlier. In what ways did you lean into the setting of the game and its globe-trotting ways to sell the location? The types of instruments? The way you utilised vocals?
As mentioned before, we began by doing a lot of research into what historians believe the music and instruments of the period sounded like. We then tried to find instruments that were as similar as possible to what was available then; their descendants, if you like. We bought dulcimers, Lyres, panpipes, a bouzouki and lots of percussion and used these throughout the score, giving it a strong geographical stamp. We love buying new instruments for new projects, and get great inspiration from learning to play them!
This game, as many AAA titles, has a lot of music. How did the balancing act of creating so much music for a single project go for you? How did you keep it interesting and engaging through the creative process?
There is a lot of music in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and there needs to be for the length and depth of the game. One of the ways we kept fresh and inspired was actually to constrain ourselves - as the map was split into ‘biomes’ we decided to give each one a distinctly different music feel. We achieved this though the instrumental palette, the modes and keys to use, and overall emotional feeling. For instance, for the Athenians and their homeland we decided to use the Lyre and Dulcimer playing homophonic melodies, and have a ‘stately’ feel, suiting their role as the seat of learning, the birthplace of democracy.
Another was through the use of melodic themes for each of the main characters, so that when they appeared in the cinematics, or quests, or fights, we had a start as to how that piece needed to sound.
Were there any particular standout pieces you found tricky to get where you wanted, or something that just wasn’t quite coming together in the way that you had hoped? And on the flip-side, did anything click much quicker than you had expected when the idea began to foment?
Once we had got ourselves in sync with Jerome Angelot, the music supervisor, none of the music was that tricky, as he always supplied us with very detailed and inspiring briefs. One of the more challenging pieces was the music for the epic battles (“On The Battlefield”, from the soundtrack), as we wanted to make something that could build up in intensity whilst still sounding like it could have started from musicians in the actual army. It also had to be heard over the sound of 150 warriors fighting and shouting!
In contrast, our main theme piece, “Legend of the Eagle Bearer”, came together very quickly. We started jamming with Mike one morning and an hour later it was pretty much written. Those are the magic moments we do this for.
And finally, something I always like to end with for first interviews, I’d like to get a firsthand account of what brought you to the game industry. How’d you get into games? Is it something you knew you wanted to do, or did it just sort of happen?
We both come from the record industry, and had been working together for a few years on various production and songwriting projects. We got interested in composing for games, and luckily Joe met a promo video director, who kindly introduced him to Lydia Andrew. She was at EA Games at the time, and gave us our first pitch for a video game project. We won it, and worked together on a few more before she moved to Ubisoft. We get on really well with her and luckily she kept in touch… Lydia gave us the opportunity of pitching for Odyssey and the rest is history!
And there we have it! A deeper look into the process of creating the music for Ubisoft’s beloved series. The soundtrack really is great and you can find it on all the usual platforms, as well as here, on Ubisoft’s dedicated YouTube music channel, Ubiloud. And we’d like to thank The Flight again for chatting with us!