Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
2012’s XCOM:Enemy Unknown introduced a decades-old franchise to a new generation of gamers and was one of the best-received and most popular turn-based strategy games of recent years. XCOM 2 has had a similarly positive reception, with even more praise for its visuals and moody sound design. XCOM 2′s composer, Timothy Michael Wynn, is a veteran of the television, film and video game industry, recently responsible for scores for Red Faction:Guerrilla, Dungeon Siege III, and The Darkness 2. Each of these wildly different projects demanded a unique compositional approach, and when it came to scoring XCOM 2, Wynn had to balance not only the demands of the game but integrate the tonal palette inherited from XCOM‘s composer, Michael McCann. “From the beginning, we focused on the sound of XCOM 2 evolving rather than changing, ” Wynn said. “The two scores needed to be related. I did some experimenting with guitars and electric cello, but after a few attempts we ended up going with a more electronic vibe. I did try to go more epic and that I think is part of the evolution.”
According to Wynn, the sci-fi elements of both XCOM games suggested “a much more electronic flavor. The futuristic and sci-fi aspects of XCOM call for heavy use of synths. With The Darkness II, and Dungeon Siege III, there was more need for an orchestral score. Ultimately it’s about what tools fit best for each project.” With the emphasis on synths and electronic timbres, the majority of sounds were sampled and processed instruments. “The score is 99% sampled instruments. I bowed some out-of-tune cimbalom and dulcimers but since I processed them too, they just sound like part of the ambiance.”
Listening to the XCOM 2 score, one notices an emphasis on rhythm, texture, timbre and repeated patterns rather than melody. According to Wynn, this was entirely by design. “The battle music tended to be like that out of necessity. There are always two battle tracks playing at the same time in combat. Depending on whose turn it is, determines the mix blend between XCOM and Advent. There are subtle themes being used during the cut scenes but often times they didn’t have a chance to come back. Writing melodies are my favorite things to compose but I am happy with how the XCOM 2 score turned out. I think it fits the game and enhances the overall experience.”
The process of crafting music for XCOM 2 — as it is for most games — was a dance of collaboration between the composer and the rest of the development team. “When I started scoring XCOM 2, I had a conference call with Firaxis and 2K about my ideas for the direction of the score. We all discussed different approaches we could take and I took it from there. As far as the placement, I believe I composed more than 60 cut scenes, so those cues were synced to picture. I then tackled the menu music and some mission specific cues. The battle cues were written last and Firaxis did all of the implementing. I think they did a perfect job placing the battle cues.”
Wynn, like many of his composer colleagues, creates music for all types of visual media, moving seamlessly between film, television, and games. “I like going back and forth. They each have their own challenges and composing for all three genres keeps me from getting stagnant creatively.” And, like most game composers, he appreciates the work of others in the medium. What were some of his favorite scores of 2015? “It’s so hard to answer that since there were so many good scores last year. But if I had to name a couple I would say Fallout 4 and Ori and the Blind Forest.”
Wynn’s score for XCOM 2 can be found on iTunes and there is even recent double-album release on vinyl.