Recently, we got the chance to sit down with long-standing game composer Cris Velasco, who has worked on big series like Mass Effect, God of War, and even previous Darksiders titles. We spoke with him about his work on the recently released Darksiders III, his approach to writing themes for the seven deadly sins, and the high points of his career. Let's slash our way in.
Push Square: You have created a lot of game music over the years. Are there any particular standout moments through those years that you are especially fond of? And by extension of that, in what regard do you hold your work for the Darksiders titles when looking back on everything you’ve made?
Cris Velasco: I have many standout moments actually. One big one is getting to work on the first God of War. That absolutely helped launch my career. People just really recognised that title for a long time. Another one is Dark Messiah. This was recorded live in Prague, and was the first opportunity I had to travel internationally. Since then, travel has become a huge passion of mine. I’m sure I would have eventually made the overseas leap, but that project forced me to get a passport and experience a new country and culture. It was literally life-changing. Finally, scoring Clive Barker’s Jericho was another milestone for me. I hold Clive in the highest regards. He’s been a guiding light for me creatively for the majority of my life. Getting to know him and collaborate together has been one of the joys of my life.
Those are all experiences that I’ve benefited from personally and professionally. They’re not necessarily my favourite scores though. Musically, the scores I’m most fond or proud of are probably Company of Heroes 2, The Invisible Hours, the Hulu TV series Dimension 404, Bloodborne, Dauntless, and God of War 3. And in complete honesty, I’d rank Darksiders III as one of my favourites as well.
You contributed music to the first Darksiders title, but then sat out Darksiders II, before returning with the third title. How did it feel to return to a series you’d been away from for so long?
I absolutely loved it. I really feel like this score is a great representation of who I am as a composer now, at least in this genre. There are always things you wish you could go back and do slightly differently, but I’m very happy with the overall score.
In what ways did you refer to / reprise the music of the previous titles in the series? Did you even want to do that? Or were you more interested in ensuring that the new title had a sound all its own?
The only bit of music that gets a reprise is War’s Theme from Darksiders 1. It goes by pretty fast too, but I thought it would be a fun musical Easter egg. Everything else is all original and unique to Darksiders III. This was my opportunity to really infuse Darksiders with my own style.
The horsemen, like with past games, have their own themes in this game. What efforts did you take to ensure that these themes stood out or differentiated themselves from one another?
Each Horseman gets their own theme for each game. We have War, Death, and now Fury. I think that by specifically writing for a new Horseman each game, focusing on what makes them unique, you’ll presumably explore something that expresses that particular character. For Fury, I started the piece out with col legno strings (hitting the strings with the back of the bow) in a 7/8 rhythm. This is a very percussive sound that, to me, combined with an unsettling rhythm, was the embodiment of Fury’s rage starting to grow. I also used one of my favourite singers, Azam Ali, to be the musical voice of Fury. Azam is one of the most formidable singers I know, so she’s naturally perfect to lend her talents to Fury!
While each separate Horseman has always had their own theme, one thing we’ve never had is an overall theme representing the Horsemen as a collective. That’s one of the big themes I tackled early on. I wanted this one to be somewhat simplistic, but memorable. I also needed it to be very versatile for different moments within the game. Powerful, brave, scary... It’s a theme that I hope will be reoccurring in any future Darksiders games.
The Darksiders titles have a decidedly “epic” sound to their music. Is that a sound you consciously strove for? Or did the sound and feel for the game develop more naturally. Did you have a specific sound you wanted to achieve right out of the gate?
Scores usually develop naturally. Obviously, we wanted an ‘epic’ feel for a lot of this game. It’s the gameplay and the artwork that takes me there though. When I’m writing for the physical embodiment of the seven deadly sins, things are probably going to get cranked up to 11 at some point! I didn’t start with any preconceived notions about the music for any of the sins though. For example, I wrote the music for Pride after we had already recorded the choir. Pride is represented by an angel in Darksiders III, so choir seemed like a natural fit. But since I was trying to avoid using sampled choir if possible, Kenneth Bassham (Senior Sound Designer) and I thought that pipe organ might be a cool substitute. Mostly because it’s something you’d hear in a religious setting. I had a lot of fun on this one by also incorporating a bit of a Baroque style fugue. This is something I’ve rarely done since I was studying Bach’s music in school.
Were there any instruments used while scoring Darksiders III that wouldn’t immediately seem like they’d be the kind of thing you’d hear in a game like this? And likewise, are there any songs themselves that come off that way initially?
Besides the pipe organ I mentioned, I also used a lot of ethnic strings in the score. Although, I feel like there was a bit of a precedent from the original Darksiders to use a touch of world music. These were all played by Loga Torkian. I also had Azam Ali singing most of the solo vocals. Her style can be aggressive, longing, or mysterious, sometimes all at once! She was definitely the perfect musical representation of Fury.
I feel like the score, while being varied, all feels very cohesive. The only track that still kind of catches me off guard is for Lust. It’s a waltz, but in a very modern orchestra-meets-NIN sort of way. When I added in the melody & moans and sighs by the vocalist, Laura Intravia, it became one of my favourites.
How did your experience scoring Darksiders III differ from previous games you’ve contributed to? In what ways was it similar? And lastly, surprising?
Many projects are pretty similar really. You get the call, you get excited to take on this new challenge, you’re paralysed with fear that you’ll never be good enough to pull it off, you finally get in the groove and have fun with it, and you wrap the project but are sad to see it end. This is pretty standard for all my gigs. What was special about Darksiders III though is the support and encouragement I got from Kenneth Bassham and Jeremy Robins (Audio Director) at Gunfire. They couldn’t have been nicer or bigger fans of what I was doing. Having a team that appreciates what you do is the best feeling and produces the best work I think. I also have to give props to Reinhard Pollice (Darksiders Executive Director) at THQ Nordic for supporting us in recording this score live. It made such a huge difference and the score is immensely better for it.
And finally, how did you find yourself composing music for video games? Did you just sort of stumble into it, or was it a goal you actively sought out. What brought you to the best entertainment medium in the world?
I’ve always loved playing games, since Space Invaders hit Atari in 1980. When I was studying music in college, I felt that my career would eventually lead to film. At the time, I hadn’t really heard anything in games that led me to believe there was a future in writing music for them. But before I graduated, I heard the music to Outcast. It had a full orchestral score and was exactly the kind of music I was hoping to do myself. With a game industry that started leaning towards more narrative storytelling, I was able to really fulfil my dream as a composer. Not only do I get to write the kind of music that inspires me, but I also get to record with amazing orchestras and choirs around the world. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on so many amazing games.
And there we have it. A smattering of the tracks from Cris' score are scattered throughout the interview. The theme for Lust that was mentioned is a particular standout so check it out! We'd like to thank Cris for taking the time to answer our questions.