After having a conversation with composer Wilbert Roget II a couple of years back about his work scoring Call of Duty: WWII, we're pleased to welcome him back for a new interview. The topic of conversation this time out is centred on his work for one of the longest standing, and much beloved, fighting series in the industry. Mortal Kombat 11 launched earlier this year, and landed the series its best launch in history. Read on as we chat with Wilbert about what instruments he used to define certain characters, how he created the sound for MK11, and of course, who his favourite character is.
Push Square: Many of the most iconic things from the series come from its audio, be it the music, or just lines of dialogue. Was there anything you specifically wanted to do in service to that legacy?
Wilbert: The Mortal Kombat franchise has a long history with many different eras of both 2D and 3D games, titles outside the traditional fighting genre, and of course, both feature and short films. I had a vast array of scores to draw from, but because of the story dealing primarily with classic characters from the original game trilogy, I drew the most inspiration from Mortal Kombat 2 and 3. Those scores featured a subtle orchestral background with heavy use of world instruments, electronics, and eastern percussion, drawing influence from Stravinsky and other 20th century composers in their use of syncopation and octatonic harmony. I also was inspired by the Mortal Kombat film, as well as the 3D era games, particularly in their occasional use of metal guitars and drums – those sounds were particularly useful.
What was your approach when it came to the tone of the music? Mortal Kombat is a series with a bit of a goofy feel to it even when it plays everything straight. Did that create any havoc when it came to crafting the sound for the newest title? And what core element of the title did you latch onto as a figurative "patient zero" for crafting the sound?
It was clear from the start that playing it straight was the correct approach, and that the music had to have a sense of ferocity on its own in order to support the story, characters and world. So, I embraced aggression in the articulation, use of percussion, and even harmony throughout the score – there is even a primary leitmotif, a dissonant three-note rising melodic figure that’s presented as the main theme and used countless dozens of times throughout the score to convey this intensity.
Was there a specific era of the series that you paid extra attention to when it came time to craft the sound of the game? And by extension, what external sources would you say influenced the music in Mortal Kombat 11?
In addition to the aforementioned Mortal Kombat 2 and 3 scores, and the iconic Mortal Kombat film, I also drew heavy inspiration from other 1980s-90s action movies – films like Stargate, Predator, Conan the Barbarian, and so on. This era of filmmaking featured very extroverted orchestral music, which seemed more appropriate for Mortal Kombat 11’s epic storytelling than the more subdued action scores common today.
World music was a major influence as well, particularly for Raiden, Liu Kang, and Kung Lao’s East Asian characterisations, and for Kronika’s Arabic "sands of time" vibe. I researched and transcribed taiko drum and other East Asian percussion ensemble performances as part of my pre-composition process, just as I’d done with Middle-Eastern music in my Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris score, to make sure that my writing felt authentic and nuanced. I hired a traditionally-trained guzheng [sometimes also called a Chinese Zither] player, Qianqian Jin, to perform on the main theme and provide improvised textures for the rest of the score. I also brought back the kemenche player I’d hired on Lara Croft, Stelios Varveris, to perform the Middle-Eastern influenced melodies that I associated with Kronika’s character. And lastly, for the elder goddess Cetrion, I wrote a leitmotif that uses nearly the same notes as Raiden’s theme but in 3/4-time signature and performed by a Scandinavian “kulning” vocalist. This vocal idiom was traditionally used to shepherd cattle in the Norwegian forests, and has an ethereal yodel-like quality, so it felt perfect for a goddess responsible for guiding mortals towards virtue and balance; similarly, the 3/4-time signature was a reference to the concept of “perfect time” in Renaissance music.
The roster in a Mortal Kombat title is usually on the large side, so creating fully developed themes is a bit more than could reasonably be expected, but are there any characters you’d really like to give themes of their own? And is this something you wanted to incorporate into the campaign itself? Or was the development of the soundtrack more plot driven?
My Mortal Kombat 11 score is actually entirely character-based, with practically every persona and faction having a theme, a brief leitmotif, or signature sound. The story has dozens of characters spread across three different realms and two time periods, so the leitmotifs were effective in giving each character a unique identity, and in highlighting their development over the course of the narrative. I was even able to use leitmotifs as a hint that certain characters were being manipulated by others, or to demonstrate their allegiances and motivations. [Delightfully devilish! - Ed]
You’re no stranger to scoring bigger titles, such as Call of Duty. How does scoring a fighting title differ from something such as COD: WW2? Or did it differ? Was anything easier on your end for a title like this? Harder?
Because it was a work of historical fiction, Call of Duty: WWII was a particularly difficult challenge – the music struck a delicate balance between the gravity of the subject matter and the needs of the action-packed gameplay. The score also needed to convey the historical setting while staying relatable and modern, and so our music direction was rather precise in order to ensure this balance throughout. Mortal Kombat 11’s music direction was much broader due to the diversity of the characters, which allowed for more stylistic freedom and sonic diversity. This presented a new challenge in that it was more difficult to bring all these elements together into a unique, cohesive, and easily identifiable whole.
Were there any "out there" instruments or sounds that you experimented with that you ultimately ended up discarding?
Because of the diversity of the cast, the score used several unusual sounds to differentiate their sonic signatures – for example, bowed mandolin, Latin and Sanskrit whispers and other vocal chants, pipe organ, and even harpsichord for the blood-mage Skarlet. Ultimately the score was delivered in stems, with the instrumentation split among several files so that the mix engineers had more control over the sound, and so occasionally some elements were eventually cut or greatly attenuated in order to preserve clarity in the mix.
How did the opportunity to score MK11 come about? This is your first dalliance with the series, so how did those stars cross?
I’d been a fan of the series for decades, but Mortal Kombat 9 and Mortal Kombat X particularly impressed me with their sound design and storytelling. Shortly after finishing work on Destiny 2: Forsaken, I asked a friend of mine, one of the Call of Duty: WWII sound designers who’d previously worked on Mortal Kombat X, to put me in touch with the NetherRealm Studios Director of Audio, Rich Carle. It turned out that Rich was familiar with my music already and had attended a Game Developers Conference lecture I gave years before on my Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris score, so he was interested in bringing me on for Mortal Kombat 11. The studio sent me a PDF with info on the game’s story, and I wrote a 4-minute demo piece to illustrate it as best I could – I was then hired to write the cinematic score, and my demo ended up being the main theme, “A Matter of Time”.
When it comes to fighters, everyone always has a preference. Who is your favourite character in MK11, and then generally throughout the whole series? Mine is and always will be Noob Saibot!
I used to be a complete Sub-Zero fanboy, but after working on this game, it’s much tougher to pick a favourite! Kitana and Jade were my favourite characters to compose for. Kitana’s rise to power was reflected in a gradual evolution of her theme from a "hint" in Chapter 2 to the epic guitars during the climactic battles and finally the ending credits theme. And Jade’s relationship with Kotal Kahn was a rare treat to underscore as well; who would’ve thought this game would need a love theme! Lastly, some characters that I previously didn’t care for were portrayed incredibly well in this entry – Scorpion had a great stylish visual design and is my favourite character to play, Noob Saibot and Johnny Cage both had hilarious dialogue during in-game interactions, and Jax’s dramatic arc and character development were my favourite in the story.
We’d like to thank Wilbert for once again spending some time talking about his work with us. While the soundtrack didn’t release right alongside the game at launch, it did release in late June and is available on most platforms. Go give it a listen and let us know what you think in the comments below.