Creating the music of ForspokenWe speak to composer Garry Schyman about finding the right sound for Athia, collaborating with Bear McCreary, and the challenges of producing the soundtrack in the midst of a pandemic.
Forspoken’s land of Athia is beautiful, and we’re not just talking about its sweeping vistas. The game is blessed with a superb soundtrack (which is available for purchase today) - a collaboration between composers Garry Schyman (Bioshock) and Bear McCreary (God of War).
We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Schyman to discuss his amazing work on Forspoken, the inspirations for the distinctive soundtrack, and much more. We also have two tracks from the game to showcase, along with Garry’s insight, so be sure to listen!
Hi Garry. How did you get involved with Forspoken?
Luminous Productions reached out to my agent, and said they were interested in both me and Bear McCreary.
Serendipitously, Bear and I’d had a conversation within the previous year about possibly working together. We’ve been friends a long time and the idea of doing a doing a project together - particularly a game - was very interesting to both of us.
So when Forspoken came to our attention, we felt it was an ideal one to do together. Luminous and Square Enix were very receptive to the idea - and that’s how it all got started!
So, what was it about Forspoken that made you want to be involved?
Before we signed on, they sent us the story outline. It was great - very intriguing. Particularly the transition from the city of New York to this fantasy world provided an option to almost bifurcate the score.
Although most of the time players’ time is spent in Athia, we thought that idea was musically quite interesting and fun.
Plus we knew we’d have resources like recording with an orchestra, so it was all the things a composer wants to hear - a great story from a talented developer and an amazing publisher. It didn’t take much to persuade us to join - all the pieces were on the table, and it made sense.
As a brand-new title, Forspoken must have been a blank canvas musically. Does that make it more challenging to find the sound than working on an established IP?
I mean, it’s always a challenge. Finding the musical vocabulary is always the hardest part of any particular project.
I don’t know if it was any more difficult, or any less difficult having a blank page. Bear and I had discussions and found a style. Composers have wonderful technologies these days that permit us to mock things up so it sounds like an orchestra right out of our computers, so we were able to provide demos and go back and forth until we found our style for the game.
How did you find the right ‘sound’ for the game?
There’s a joke that a composer can write anything they want as long as the people they’re working for like it. That’s the deal (laughs).
But the process whatever the project is usually the same. You’re sending them musical ideas recorded on your computer and going, “What do you think of this?”
Obviously, you're also reacting to what the game is about, to the script and an information from meetings. You put all that information into your… let’s call it a creative quiver, and then you start shooting.
Bear and I were constantly bouncing ideas back and forth and having discussions. We would play things for each other, and go, “Yeah, that’s really cool, but what if you added a little of this too?” With that, and all the information provided, we found the sound of the game pretty quickly!
So, how would you describe that sound to someone new to Forspoken?
For the sound itself, our toolkit was synth and samples, but also a fantastic orchestra and choir. And, of course, we had a soloist, India Carney, who’s musically sort of the voice of Frey for our solos.
I would call it a fantasy score, or in that neighborhood - but I’ve tried to add really interesting complexity to it. So, it’s a tonal score - for the musicians out there (laughs) - but at time it can get quite dissonant when she’s having these epic battles. It is within the tradition of orchestral fantasy music, but with its own unique twist.
Ugh, ‘unique fantasy music with a twist’ is like someone in PR would say (laughs). I’ll let listeners judge it for themselves!
So the team was on board with the musical direction pretty much from the start?
Yes, and most of the time throughout the process my intuition was right, and pieces would be approved on the first pass. Of course, there were times it wasn’t, and I’d get feedback from the team to that effect on certain pieces.
That’s really valuable - I trust the development team very much because they’ve been living with this game for years before I was even brought on. They know instinctively what’s right and what’s not working, so I took their feedback very seriously.
Some of the best tracks I’ve written for Forspoken were cues like that - the first approach wasn’t quite right, and by getting the deeper insight from the team, I was able to make music that really fit the situation.
What inspirations did you look at when composing this soundtrack?
I think the main inspirations came from the game itself. That said, obviously, we’re informed by all our writing and composing experiences - all the music we’ve heard, from the pop music world to the most wonderful classic music. That all comes out in your style or composer brand.
I have been listening to music my whole life. So, among others, there's probably the Planets from Gustav Holst - that’s one of the greatest fantasy scores of all time. And, of course, there’s even hip-hop influences when we’re in New York and most of the beginning of the game.
But I’m a very intuitive composer. When I was composing this score, there wasn’t really any logical reason for what I came up with - it was more a gut feeling or intuition. Of course, we bounced everything off the team, and they loved it, so that felt cool.
And then when you record the orchestra, and the choir and soloist, that’s just the icing on the cake!
How would you describe your experience working on the game?
I had a ball writing the music! It was really fun! The cool thing is that there’s loads of combat, and I wrote a ton of music for it - more for this game than I’ve ever scored before. But there were also these opportunities - when Frey is exploring the world - to write some beautiful music.
That was also intriguing, inviting and exciting for me, because often in videogames - especially ‘triple A’ video games - there’s a lot of tense, driving action music. So, when you have a chance to do something that’s emotional and beautiful, it’s a real treat for me.
What was the most challenging thing about this project?
There's a lot of action and combat in the game - you’re fighting the Tantas, and all these different monsters, and I had to write a lot of combat music. Even though each situation is different, you’re still writing all this action music, and I desperately don’t want to repeat myself.
It felt a bit like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who pushed a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again. Every morning, I had to write another combat theme and make it fresh (laughs).
That was a challenge, especially towards the end - but I didn’t hear any feedback from the team that the music sounded like stuff I’d submitted earlier, so I think I achieved it! Hopefully the players and people who listen to the score agree!
This score was written and produced during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. How did that affect things?
When we recorded the score, COVID was still an issue for sure. We recorded some of it in Nashville, which had less strict restrictions than California. There were some - everyone had to wear masks and the musicians had to be separated by six feet, but at least the players were able to perform together.
People may or may not know that Nashville has become quite the place to record. They have worked very hard to make it one of the best places to record videogame scores. If you’re performing music for a videogame, TV or movies, you need to be a really good reader.
You may be fantastic at playing Beethoven and Brahms, but it’s another thing to walk into a studio, sit down with your instrument, read some often very complex parts and perform it so that it sounds polished and beautiful.
There’re many orchestras that can’t do that, and a number that can. Nashville has developed that skill, so I was pleased we could record there - we were careful, and nobody got sick.
The choir was recorded in Los Angeles at a stage in Warner Bros Studios. That was tricky because the singers had to be separated. That’s not ideal - you do want a choir together so they can hear each other, rather than separated by what looked like see-through shower curtains. My engineer looked at that and just went, “oh crap” (laughs).
Fortunately, they actually had headphones so they could hear other, and sounded great. It would have been more ideal to have them clustered together, but I felt that the singers in LA were just so good that this was the place to record, despite the restrictions.
Garry was also kind enough to allow us to present two of the incredible pieces from Forspoken and share his thoughts on them. Take a listen:
Cipal, the Last Bastion
This is a great example of one of those times when the first track I turned in was the wrong direction - I think it was much darker and more foreboding than the team was expecting. I got useful feedback, which inspired to write the track you hear now.
Cipal is a city in… well, deep doo doo (laughs). It’s in great danger of being overwhelmed by these dark forces that surround it. But it’s also a city that has this rich history to it, and there’s a nobleness.
So, I tried to write something these aspects of the city. I wanted to give players the sense that this was something to care about.
There’s a number of music cues that play while you’re exploring Athia and seeing these very inspiring vistas. In “Vagabond,” you also hear the beautiful vocals of India Carney, which I think really represents the feel of the area in which it plays.
Like “Cipal, the Last Bastion,” it’s a very tonal track. Game composers don’t always get as many opportunities to write beautiful music as we’d like - at least for me, I’m speaking for myself.
I like the variety of music that games provide - everything from dark, scary, dissonant music to tracks that are beautiful and quite inspiring. That’s one of the things that I think players will like about Forspoken.
Many thanks to Garry for sharing his thoughts. You can hear his amazing soundtrack in Forspoken - out now for PS5 and PC:
The full Forspoken Official Soundtrack is also available to purchase now via the Square Enix Store.
To learn more about Garry Schyman, and listen to more tracks from his many works beyond Forspoken, visit his website:
Finally, to stay up to date with news and information about Forspoken, be sure to follow the team on social media: