Music For Saving The World: Sarah Schachner And The Soundtrack Of Video Games
“I imagined her alone, millions of miles away, making little observations and going, ‘Is anyone out here?’ but also asking the humans who made her to not forget her.”
Sarah Schachner is talking about Cassini, a NASA spacecraft which was launched in 1997. Spending twenty years exploring across millions of miles, the pilotless Cassini researched, documented and sent back countless amounts of extraordinary data about our Solar System. In the blackness of deep space between our neighbouring planets, the bus-sized spacecraft made discoveries that nobody expected and traversed parts of space that humans had never even seen before.
Based in Los Angeles, the classically-trained Schachner is a composer whose work is already familiar to anyone who plays video games. Composing the soundtrack for Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Assassin’s Creed: Origins has placed her work in the forefront of the biggest franchises in this industry.
As the twenty-year mark of Cassini’s deep space journey was approaching, NASA contacted Schachner personally. They were looking for a piece of music befitting the lonely but inspiring adventures of the spacecraft and her contributions to humanity’s journey into the stars. Schachner was already a self-described “super-nerd” for all things outer space, so she jumped at the chance.
“An incredibly talented artist named Joby Harris over at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab reached out to me one day out of the blue”, Schachner tells me. “Things escalated quickly after I started showing up to JPL every day like a deranged super-fan. Joby made custom music videos for each of the three songs composed. My piece is from Cassini’s point of view if she were sentient and floating around Saturn’s rings for the last time.”
Schachner’s piece is entitled ‘Kanna’, which means ‘to explore’ in Icelandic.
“I can’t expect other people to have an emotional reaction to my music if it didn’t come from something that emotionally resonated with me. It’s a goal that I strive for, but it also tends to happen naturally whenever I’m in a flow state. Getting to that state every single day is not always easy, so sometimes I’ll put on inspiring visual footage in the background that helps me get to the particular emotion I’m trying to convey a little quicker, or I’ll just improvise on an instrument for a while.
“The shower and the car also seem to be universally inspiring places, of course when you’re nowhere near a computer. I have many embarrassing voice memos on my phone.”
From Iron Man 3 To ‘Legion Of Dawn’
Schachner’s career has ranged from creating additional compositions on Iron Man 3 and The Expendables movies to complete solo works for the 2015 horror film The Lazarus Effect and the Netflix series The Chef’s Table. As a result, taking audiences on a diverse and emotional journey is something which Schachner has focused on with every project.
In 2019, Schachner’s work has become even more prominent in video games when she was hired to compose the soundtrack for Bioware’s Anthem. Hours of tense, colossal and hopeful music was written and recorded by Schachner using a range of classical instruments and electronic tools in her Los Angeles studio.
In amongst more than 20 released tracks, ‘Legion Of Dawn’, which plays on the game’s title menu, has easily become the most recognisable piece of music. Thanks to a live performance at last year’s Game Awards, the Anthem beta earlier this year and the subsequent full release in February, the distinct metallic melody has served to become the theme of Anthem. Although, despite the emotional resonance of the track being steeped in Anthem lore, this wasn’t always the plan.
“That piece actually stemmed out of an older discarded piece. We eventually realised it didn’t make sense to have a fully fleshed out piece of music for the Shapers since so little was understood about them and their intentions. ‘Legion of Dawn’ is an ode to General Helena Tarsis and The Legion of Dawn, who were the heroic predecessors to the Freelancers in the Anthem lore. They were the first to create these super-human javelins and I thought the half human, half robotic voice was a cool fit.”
People who have spent any time playing Anthem would immediately know what Schachner means by ‘robotic voice’. Resembling a lost lullaby that somehow emerged from hundreds of years in the future, the haunting track is immediately gripping.
“I was singing with a vocoder and a midi controller,” she says. “You hear the vocalisations and syllables exactly as I sung them, but the notes are dictated by what’s played on the midi controller. The vocoder analyses the voice and re-synthesises it which is what gives it that robotic but oddly human quality. I recorded and stacked many layers of different harmonies and textures to make it sound really big.”
After working on several Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed titles, in addition to Far Cry 3, Need For Speed: The Run and Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, Schachner was ready to start with something new. As Anthem was a brand new world which required a brand new sound, developers Bioware gave her brief ideas but then left Schachner to run free with how she saw the universe of Anthem through her own eyes.
In the fluid universe of a video game, there’s more space to grow. New galaxies to explore, aliens to encounter and reasons to spark an audience’s imagination beyond what they see every day.
“They were clear from the start that they wanted the music to feel somewhere between Avengers and Middle Earth. We talked about the duality of the ancient and futuristic feel of the world and the need for the music to have a sense of wonder and positivity. Not just darkness and danger. Outside of that, I was free to explore and it was really exciting to define the sound of a new IP. People are hearing this stuff with a clean mental slate, so to speak.”
The Possibilities Of Games
With experience throughout different entertainment mediums under her belt, Schachner has felt natural restrictions of composing music for film and television. Due to their inherent structure, the straightforward progression of storytelling doesn’t present the necessary room to experiment as much as a composer might desire.
This is where the possibilities began to open up. In the fluid universe of a video game, there’s more space to grow. New galaxies to explore, aliens to encounter and reasons to spark an audience’s imagination beyond what they see every day. On a personal level, Schachner says, that’s what she has experienced in games.
“The game developers I’ve worked with have all had a general idea of what they want but have been flexible in how it was approached and open to experimentation. Game composing can feel more creatively freeing because there are more sonic possibilities when creating vibes and energy states versus supporting a nuanced, linear narrative. However, there are a lot of technical demands specific to games that can sometimes result in creative compromise, so it’s all a balance. Also without constant visual guidance, you have to rely much more on your imagination when scoring a game. You can put a lot of your personal identity into it which I love.”
“In my experiences, game developers have focused on my gender the least and have been the most willing to take chances.”
Despite her proven track record of the biggest games in the business, Schachner’s start in solo lead work was unusual. It happened not just thanks to her talent, but thanks to a situation which circumvented the traditional process and opened the playing field. A field that has been traditionally dominated by men since the first video game was created.
“After years of doing ghostwriting and additional music, I got my first lead composer game credit when a fantastic music supervisor had everyone listen to the demos blind. I was surprised to experience that again during another game demo process, something that I’ve never seen happen in film or TV. In my experiences, game developers have focused on my gender the least and have been the most willing to take chances.”
The Ongoing Problem Of Gender Bias
In all video games, big or small, someone has to create the music. But unfortunately, a lot of composer’s work goes either completely unnoticed or their credit is inadvertently buried. Unless it’s a big celebrity musician doing the work, the majority of game soundtracks, and the people who created them, simply aren’t visible before or after release. Let alone part of the marketing cycle.
Following launch, if the original music within a video game experience is somehow good enough to strike a chord with the player, sometimes it becomes a journey of detailed investigation to even discover the names of the people who created it. Despite some games being immediately recognised and forever remembered by their music, if their work isn’t readily available on Spotify or iTunes, some composers can lose vital recognition for this extremely niche yet amazingly passionate career that they have chosen.
For women composing video game music, this problem is tenfold — exacerbated by the staggering imbalance of gender representation in this relatively small industry. Of the credited composers in the calendar year of 2018, a total of 292 people worked to create music across more than 190 games on PC, mobile and consoles. Within that total, 17 of them were women. When you discount remakes, re-releases and collaborations, that number drops to nine. And three of those women worked on the same game.
Schachner’s rise to the top of the triple-A video game crop is no accident. She has put in the work again and again. Yet the problem of inherent bias remains and will take some serious time and conscious effort across the entire industry to unravel.
“Gender has no bearing on the quality of someone’s work, so hiring, or not hiring someone because of it, is unfortunate and the focus should always be on the music. One way to help level the playing field is to make sure women and minorities are more frequently included in the selection and demo pool to have a fair chance at all types of projects. Especially higher profile ones that have historically been off limits to women as well as genres that typically skew male.
“It’s hard to overcome biases and this isn’t something that can be changed quickly, but I’m thankful that things are starting to shift and it’s become an open conversation.”
Choosing Sounds By Emotion
The preferable state for video games, and science-fiction in general, is to be one without restrictions. Either when creating a totally new world with countless alien species or leaving the shackles of industry tradition in the past.
Artists like Schachner can’t help but be inspired by the overwhelming possibilities of outer space and the limitless potential it presents. To transmit these emotions to an audience, you need the have the correct tools at hand all the time.
“I have quite a bit in my studio but I have to have everything plugged in and ready to go at all times so I can experiment and throw down ideas quickly. If I have to drag something out of a closet and set it up, I’ll probably lose the inspiration in those few minutes, so that keeps my gear hoarding in check to some degree. I typically have all of my acoustic string instruments precariously scattered around me and nothing is really off limits. I choose sounds based purely on emotion and if it conveys the right feeling. There are only twelve notes, but there are endless ways to shape a sound and I really enjoy that process of finding unique sounds for each project.”
In striking different tones in her music and conveying the emotional journey of hope and discovery throughout so much of her work, she has always strived to push forward into the unknown.
In September 2017, low on fuel and well beyond her use-by date, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was steered into Saturn’s atmosphere and disappeared. Approximately 45 seconds after her last transmission, it was estimated that Cassini burned up in the planet’s atmosphere. “We got to go to the Jet Propulsion Lab when Cassini’s final descent happened which was so amazing,” Schachner tells me.
As a result of the final leg of her journey and travelling between the rings and the planet, NASA collated the penultimate data and in January of 2019, learned two new pieces of information: The precise length of a day on Saturn is 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds, and its rings are estimated to have formed at the same time dinosaurs walked on planet Earth.
In recent years, and no doubt into the future, Schachner’s journey has been an incremental but vital one. In striking different tones in her music and conveying the emotional journey of hope and discovery throughout so much of her work, she has always strived to push forward into the unknown.
As a species, humans can’t know where we’re headed or what we will discover in the future. But the potential of breaking free of limitations, either in space exploration or creating art, is too important and exciting to ignore. Because chances are, we’ll understand ourselves better as we discover new paths together. And maybe there, we’ll be able to see past the limits that humans have set upon themselves and see the possibilities of worlds beyond ours.
David Rayfield writes good things in good places like Gamespot, Kotaku, Medium and…elsewhere. Tweet him at @raygunbrown