From Danny Elfman’s dark yet uplifting score for Tim Burton’s Batman to Hanz Zimmer’s epic theme to the Dark Knight trilogy, Gotham’s favorite hero has a serious musical tradition – and the video games are no different. Batman: Arkham Origins, out October 25, features a methodical and moody soundtrack composed by Christopher Drake (stream his track “Assassins” here), an artist with a superhero pedigree perfect for any Batman project.
How did you get started composing?
It was my fourth or fifth birthday, and I got a record player and two records. One was John Williams’ original score to Star Wars and one was a Batman story. I used to sit and watch the Adam West show as a kid – I’d find a safety pin and a blue towel and start jumping off sofas pretending to be him.
How did you break into the business?
I was just shmuck at a call center getting paid nothing. I was living in Arizona and moved to California to try and live the dream. That was kind of the foundation. I got my big break from Guillermo Del Toro. Basically, he heard some music I had made for a Halloween party. A mutual friend introduced us, and he was like, “You did that shit? We must fucking work together!” He gave me my first video game with Hellboy: The Science of Evil.
Since then you’ve done a lot of super hero cartoon soundtracks. Is there a rule for scoring superheroes?
I think back to John Williams’ Superman theme – it has to give you a chill down your spine and raise the hair on your arms. A choir instantly makes anything epic, and you should just get stoked and excited for the main title. I’ve loved Batman since I was a little boy so I’m writing these for my seven-year-old self.
Did you examine the score for Arkham City and Arkham Asylum before starting?
I played the previous games, but my main first question was one of continuity. This is a prequel Batman who’s a lot younger. He makes more mistakes. He’s a bit more pissed off. We wanted the music to represent that. When you’re a composer for Batman there’s kind of a dress code. It has a certain sound to it. Whatever I do there’s a DNA to Batman music. But because it’s a prequel, I had a little more freedom. The previous soundtrack had a much more elegant, traditional orchestral score. For Origins, I wanted it to be more electronic.
Arkham Origins definitely has some Hans Zimmer-style BWAAAAAANH. Is that something we should just expect from dramatic movie and video game scores?
Hanz is a genius at what he does. It works in so many places because it’s the kind of music that doesn’t draw conclusions. That Batman material, you could put that into anything! You can put that in a dog food commercial and it would be epic. It doesn’t draw conclusions. But as brilliant as Hanz is, there’s an overuse of that style, because from a technical standpoint, it’s very easy. It just works. It’s a modern sound. That’s just what’s happening. You have to have a director willing to take a risk or do something new. Like The Social Network for Trent Reznor. It was so different sounding – it’s new, it’s not an orchestra. But it all evolves until it burns out and something new takes its place or something old comes around again.
Technically speaking, how is the music integrated into the game?
Most of it is in cinematics, and that’s traditional scoring like I would do in a movie. But then there’s the actual in-game music, and that’s really fascinating. Let’s say Batman is walking into Blackgate. . . the music is done in layers. One layer is the moody layer of walking in to the prison, but then Batman is being stealthy, so there’s another layer that gets activated – what we call a tactical layer – and that might sound like synth pulse to give it some excitement. Then, if you’re in a fight, there’s a third fight layer that gets added. The fourth layer is an all-out combat layer with drums and orchestra. Every layer can all be subtracted or added.
Do you get to see the gameplay before starting the score?
I’m based in Burbank and the game team is in Montreal. We have a computer program where I watch a video in real time over the phone with the director and we have a conversation. Is this a scary scene? A dramatic scene? For the in-game, that gets interesting, because music is all about the timing – I know a scene is two minutes. The music needs to address that time. But with the gameplay, a guy who sucks could take an hour. Someone else could blast through it in 15 minutes. So you don’t want the music to be tedious. It has to be Batman music it has to be exciting.