“It’s quite a stunning world that [the developers] created, so it gave me an opportunity to write some very beautiful music,” says Forspoken co-composer Garry Schyman. “It really was an opportunity to write something that’s not just combat and not just dark; it was an opportunity to write melodies.”
Forspoken is the latest fantasy epic from Square Enix, following a young woman named Frey who finds herself transported from modern day New York to the strange world of Athia. Composers Garry Schyman (the BioShock series, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and more) and Bear McCreary (God of War Ragnarök, and Amazon’s Rings of Power series) took on the job together of writing music for Frey’s adventure.
But how do you create the sound of a fantasy world through music? And what is the musical voice of Frey?
Forspoken | Launch Trailer
It begins with melody. “I love writing melody, and you know what, I think the audience loves melody,” says Schyman.
“And games often provide the opportunity to write melody, which I love. There are a lot of films with terrific scores, but they’re pretty ambient, they’re pretty sound design-y shall we say, for lack of a better word. And there’s nothing to recall, really.
“So that is a very dominant style right now in film and television, and games too. Games don’t escape this.”
He adds: “[The developers] really wanted something in a way traditional, but the score also, I think, has some very unique elements as well.”
Schyman and McCreary shared responsibility for the score, composing a number of themes between them that Schyman elaborated on for the in-game music. Schyman picks out Frey’s theme and the theme for central city Cipal as key pieces: the latter features long musical phrases tinged with dissonance over harp accompaniment to really add to the mystical vibe.
“I went more with a mysterious fantasy, action and combat music,” explains Schyman. “It was triadic but with lots of added dissonance…to give the harmonies rich vocabulary.” Essentially, rather than just basic three-note chords, extra notes are added outside of the home key for a more complex harmonic sound. One such dissonant interval Schyman used is the tritone, which is as far away as two notes can be within the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale – it was known as ‘diabolus in musica’ (the Devil in music) from the 18th century onwards.
Forspoken co-composer Garry Schyman
Adding to the fantasy sound is the use of unusual and primitive instruments, such as the viola d’amore – a six-stringed Baroque viola – as well as choir and synthesiser. What’s more, Schyman experimented with hip-hop beats along with traditional orchestral scoring to reflect Frey’s journey from modern day New York to Athia.
That’s certainly apparent in Frey’s theme, characterised by a yearning vocal melody sung over lush accompaniment and a synthesised drum beat.
The vocalist is Black singer India Carney, whose singing becomes a sort of human anchor within the music.
“India has a beautiful voice, she was a great discovery for both Bear and myself,” says Schyman. “She sort of became the voice of Frey, the main character. And she just did a fabulous [job]. She’s not in every cue, I didn’t use her all the time, but in certain cues, she just really brought it to life. I loved working with her.”
He adds: “She does everything, she’s amazing”, regarding her versatile vocal that alternates between a sort of gospel vibe and more choral sound. It’s this versatility Schyman was keen to utilise.
“Besides singing what I’d written for her, I said ‘if you have any ideas, if you want to improvise…’. And she did some really beautiful improvisations over what I had written,” he says. “It added so much character. When I was done, actually, I was almost sorry that I hadn’t added more of her, because she just adds this whole uniqueness to everything she sang on.”
You can certainly hear that in Frey’s theme, where the initial, somewhat mournful, melody is almost restrained before Carney unleashes some impressive vocal runs later on.
Frey, lead character in Forspoken
Carney’s voice also fits with Frey as a character. “It just sounded right as soon as we heard her. She’s a young Black woman, and so was Frey, and [her voice] just seemed to beautifully represent the character,” says Schyman. “We wanted her to sing what her authentic sound was and it just seemed to fit. It’s like, when we found her and she started doing it, ‘yeah, that just works’. It’s an intuitive thing.”
Were there any particular challenges with creating music for an open world game?
“The hardest part almost always is at the beginning, when you’re developing themes and a musical style that fits that particular project,” says Schyman. “Once you’ve developed that, and [the developers are] happy with it, and they’re on board with all that, then I know the style and know what I and Bear have created. And now I’m going to write music within that world, based upon what they’ve given me, provided as inspiration, or to show me what is going on visually.”
There’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of give and take between composer and developers, to ensure the exact tone is struck. Yet Schyman has only praise for his time working with Luminous Games and Square Enix.
“They were determined to make something really beautiful and really special,” he says. “And so that was influential to me. They cared, and I love that, that inspires me to do my best work.
“And of course, you have a beautiful world. And there were these opportunities to write beautiful music. I’ve certainly written a tonne of scary music in my life, but I love writing beautiful melodies. “It could be intense and beautiful as well. So some of the combat music has that opportunity as well, where the characters get heroic. That is really fun.
“And it inspired me and I wrote some of the best music I’ve ever written, I think, for this game.”