Checking the Score: Interview with Darksiders III Composer Cris Valesco

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

A post-apocalyptic world where angels and demons fight for control of the world awaits us in the Darksiders series. After one of the four-horsemen of the apocalypse, War, is unfairly blamed for starting the celestial battle, a series of events leads us to uncovering the true culprits behind the conflict. With the first game in the series having released in 2010, and the second released in 2012, fans waited patiently for the third installment. An epic battle between Heaven and Hell requires a godly soundtrack that veteran Cris Valesco brings to the table. With major credits for Bloodborne, the original God of War trilogy and Darksiders under his belt, he returns to Darksiders III with a fierce soundtrack for protagonist Fury’s story. Utilizing an orchestra with choral pieces in his composition, Cris’ experience with gothic worlds leaves an impression as we play through Darksiders III. Hardcore Gamer had the privilege to interview Cris about his latest work with Darksiders III.

[Hardcore Gamer] You have such an amazing track record with variety, from credits for Overwatch to Bloodborne, you even worked on the original Darksiders OST, what made you want to come back for Darksiders III?

[Cris Valesco] I’ve always wanted to come back to the franchise. There’s so much to love about it and so many creative opportunities in a series like Darksiders. Plus, I really love working with Gunfire Games. I’m hoping that we’ll be collaborating often now.

Where the previous Darksiders installments have us playing as War and Death, Darksiders III has players controlling Fury. Known as the most unpredictable Horesman, Fury has an arsenal of whips, flails and magic at her disposal. She is sent to Earth to save the last remnants of humanity and send them to Heaven. While on her quest, she must defeat each of the Seven Deadly Sins in bloodthirsty combat. With Cris Valesco having worked on the first Darksiders, he definitely has an idea of how to portray the world and its characters. “Fury’s Theme” plays on both the dark and gritty world and Fury’s unpredictable power. Hard percussion and the use of a chorus bring together themes of battle with the ethereal quality of celestial beings. Because Darksiders has so many main characters, Cris knew that each one needed a specific sound.

[HG] Darksiders has so many key characters, what was your process for coming up with unique themes for each?

[CV] I spent a lot of time with this game and with each character. It was important to me that each boss or main character got their own theme and/or sound. Off the top of my head, I can count 11 different character themes I composed for Darksiders 3. That’s way more than any other project I’ve worked on.

Each key player in Darksiders III does have its own unique theme. Everyone from protagonists to enemies have a theme to set them apart. Valesco’s composition is thoughtful in thinking of how characters add to the story and how they are perceived by players. Take the “Lust” theme as an example of fleshing out characters in the story. As one of the deadly sins, it’s necessary to set Lust apart from other regular enemies. The theme takes into account what “lust” means, and utilizes strings, vocals and percussion for an almost “romantic” feeling. Strings and vocals accentuate the softer side of Lust, but hard percussion and brassy instruments also show us Lust’s thirst for power. Lust isn’t always about romance, as one can covet power as well.

With each theme representing celestial beings of some kind, one feature that is seen throughout all of Cris’ composition is the use of a chorus. A chorus, used correctly, can help elevate a piece of music to add an ethereal quality. If we take religious music as an example, we can hear the use of vocals across many religious cultures. It’s often been attributed as a way to become closer to higher beings, like deities. We can hear vocals peppered throughout Valesco’s pieces, especially in the “Heaven City” theme. Light vocals help create an angelic feeling alongside string accompaniment. Cris’ use of vocals are thoughtful and key to creating emotional themes. The understanding of source material helps flesh out the world of Darksiders III. 

[HG] How did you come to a specific decision to utilize a chorus (or vocals) as central components to your composition?

[CV] Choir is just another color in the orchestral palette. I think it’s best used sparingly, though. That makes it special when you do get to utilize it. The same goes for a solo vocalist. I invited one of my favorite singers, Azam Ali, to be the musical voice of Fury. When there’s a specific moment in the narrative that features Fury, you’ll most likely also hear Azam in my music. Even if she’s not singing the melody, it’s nice to reinforce that specific orchestration for the character.

While Cris Valesco has had previous Darksiders experience, he knew that Darksiders III needed to have its own unique composition. While there’s cohesion between his previous Darksiders work, there are differences in themes. With the first Darksiders being about the Horseman War, we hear harder percussion and vocals in that soundtrack. It feels as if it’s a more consuming presence than Fury, for example. With his vast experience, Valesco has learned to channel his overall emotions about a project into its creation.

[HG] What lessons have you taken from previous works that assists you in the creative process of current works?

[CV] I think every composer starts a new project with a profound sense of panic. Staring at that blank canvas can be extremely daunting. You really feel the burden of being the sole person responsible for all the music for the project. Having worked on so many projects before helps lesson these overwhelming feelings. I know that it’ll all come together in the end, and will become a fun experience. That’s what I often take from previous works. I’ve learned to enjoy the process and just have fun writing the music.

[HG] Could you tell us your overall feeling (or emotion) after finishing the project? What are usually your favorite moments from your work experiences?

[CV] After each project, I almost always get a bit depressed. Especially if I’ve been on the project for a long time. In the case of Darksiders 3, I was working with these guys for over a year. You get quite close to everyone over that time. There’s no big celebration once I’m done either. My part is done, but almost everyone else is still working to get the game out the door. So it’s a big build up to the finish line that usually ends with no pomp or circumstance. On the other hand, I’ve turned in something that I’m extremely proud of. It’s such a relief to know that I’ve successfully completed another project that the entire development team is happy with. It’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment. So…two very conflicting messages all at once. A sense of happiness and a bit of sadness that you won’t be talking to your new friends every day.

 

Cris Valesco’s humanity and courage shines through his composition. His thoughtful creation of themes helps the creation of characters and world building in each massive title he’s worked on. By devoting hands-on time to a project, he learns the ins and outs of games he creates music for. In Darksiders III, we get to hear the epic battle between Heaven and Hell over control for the world. Beautiful strings and vocals with percussion and brass instruments create that perfect mix of heavenly quality with dark themes of the underworld. With all his experiences guiding his composition, it’s no wonder Cris Valesco was chosen to create the backdrop for Fury’s adventure.