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Composer Sarah Schachner on what it is like to write music for video games

We talk to the composer behind the music of Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty and Need for Speed to find out how she created such immersive soundworlds for players at home

Published: January 17, 2022 at 2:19 pm
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The late instalment in the action role-playing game series, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, is set in 873 AD, with players controlling raider Eivor in the Viking invasion of Britain. Sarah Schachner was the composer behind its dynamic score. She's also written scores for video games including Call of Duty and Need for Speed, and has worked as an arranger on films such as Now You See Me and Iron Man 3.

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How did you choose the particular instrumentation in Assassin's Creed Valhalla?

I wanted the atmosphere of the score to instantly transport the player to another time and place, filled with mystery and uncertainty. There are Norse instruments, but they are used in a more modern way. The score not only represents Eivor’s journey, but also the Vikings’ hope for a better life as they move south into the Anglo-Saxon regions.

With this series, it seems to be very much about setting the mood of the time and place. How are you bringing a ‘historical’-sounding dimension to this soundtrack?

Some of the settings are so far back in history that we don’t totally know what the music of the time would have sounded like, outside of educated guesses and some knowledge of regional instruments. For Valhalla, I used a variety of Scandinavian folk instruments like the tagelharpa and lyre. After Einar Selvik sang on the main theme that I co-wrote with Jesper Kyd, I had him sing on some other tracks I was working on for that authentic Norse sound he brings.

You wrote the music for the Modern Warfare and Infinite Warfare instalments of the first-person shooter Call of Duty. How does it compare?

Call of Duty is cut together like an action film. The story campaign has clear-cut objectives and moves forward steadily in a fairly linear fashion. In an open-world role-playing game like Assassin’s Creed, the player has much more agency over what they do when and there are a wider variety of scenarios that need music. There’s a bigger emphasis on immersion over linear storytelling.

Any Assassin’s Creed highlights?

Some of my favourite parts of the game to score are the ‘Reach High Point’ moments. If the player has taken the time to explore and climb up a large building or structure for instance, I get to reward them with a special piece of music as they take in the beautiful view from the top. Getting to punctuate moments like that and deepen the emotional experience is rewarding in itself.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is now available for Xbox, PlayStation and more.

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