Video games that pit intergalactic military forces against hostile aliens are a dime a dozen. 2K Games, however, asks a rarely explored question with the latest entry in the “XCOM” PC game series: What if the aliens won?
“XCOM 2” begins in the aftermath of “Enemy Within,” with humans defeated, banding together in small rebel squads, determined to save mankind from extinction at the hands of the ever-increasing alien hordes.
Providing the musical accompaniment to what is surely an exercise in futility is accomplished multi-instrumentalist Tim Wynn, who has made his mark in film, television and video games on such projects as “Supernatural,” “Warhawk,” “Gun,” and the “Command & Conquer” series. He studied at USC School of Music under the tutelage of composing legends Elmer Bernstein (“Ghostbusters,” “The Ten Commandments”), Christopher Young (“Hellraiser,” “Spider-Man 3”), Buddy Baker (“The Fox and the Hound,” “The Apple Dumpling Gang”) and Jerry Goldsmith (“Alien,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”). Through this experience, Wynn has developed skills and a work ethic that allows him to push boundaries and create deeply-textured soundscapes whose adventurously emotional impact can rival Hollywood heavyweights.
Read on, as Tim Wynn discusses his cinematic approach to composing the memorable music for “XCOM 2.”
Mark Morton: What was special, or different, about working on “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” that made you want to explore more of this world?
Tim Wynn: Working on “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” was my first experience composing for a turn-based strategy game. Having grown up playing strategy games, I was excited to get a chance to finally score one. When I was asked to score “XCOM 2,” I was excited to revisit the XCOM universe. I started to think of ideas to evolve the sound and create a new direction for “XCOM 2.”
MM: Are there advantages to scoring a PC-only game that you do not have with a cross-platform production? Or does it present its own batch of challenges?
TW: There are differences from the implementation of the music engine I imagine, but it’s almost identical from the composing standpoint. I try to approach each project the same way – what can I do to help tell the story? Where can I heighten the emotion? Those don’t change too much from platform to platform.
MM: Does having a defined plot to follow make it easier to score a game, or does it bring challenges not present in an open-ended/non-linear game?
TW: I can see where it might. There are always variables in games you have to account for. For “XCOM 2,” I needed to write the battle tracks that had elements from both XCOM and Advent that play at the same time. Depending on whose turn it was, the focus of the music would shift. If it’s your turn, the more XCOM-themed music would play and vice versa for the Advent. It is quite effective.
MM: There seems to be an intangible, but palpable, “faith in humanity” vibe that courses between the notes of the score. Was that the intention, and how were you able to keep that thread prevalent through all the mayhem?
TW: Thanks for the comment. That was 100% my intention. I like to highlight the emotional storylines that take place in video games. The more I can heighten the player’s intensity in gameplay, the better. It is subtle in the “XCOM 2” score but still there. I tried to bring it out in the theme and variations that evolve over the course of the game.
MM: There is also a sense of relatability within the score. The player gets the sensation that “I could be that guy” or “I AM that guy!” Is immersion second nature to you at this stage of your composing career, or is it something you constantly have to work on?
TW: That’s great to hear. You write the music with certain intentions and it’s quite satisfying when you can pull it off.
I am always looking for ways to improve. With writing music there are always new things to learn and try. The relatability of the score is a big goal for me. If I can make the player, through the music, feel a part of the game, then I have done my job.
MM: The quality of work you bring to the gaming realm has definitely helped to shrink that “cultural relevance” barrier that somehow dwells between video game and film scores. Do you ever see this as a struggle? And what do you think it will take for the masses to see both types of music on equal footing?
TW: I think the lines have been blurred dramatically, as many film composers have been asked to work in games. There are so many games that are made from films that the blurring of the lines is inevitable. My first game score was Marvel’s “The Punisher.” I have been told many times that people enjoy the game score, which I wrote along with Chris Lennertz [Marvel’s “Agent Carter”], much better than the score to the film.
MM: You seem to have also mastered a type of hybridized sound, where you sometimes cannot tell what is an organic instrument and what is a purely electronic device. How were you able to maintain that balance while imbuing the “XCOM 2” score with a sense of warmth and continuity?
TW: Thanks, I am not sure if I have mastered it yet! I am always trying to refine my sound. It takes a lot of work to get the blend just right. I try to find ways to take organic sounds and combine them in synths to create custom sounds. For “XCOM 2,” I spent the first month or so experimenting with different instruments and harmonies. I quickly learned that cello wasn’t going to work for “XCOM.” I came up with a few ideas that worked well for the announce trailer and started there. I think the warmth and even humanity came from using more orchestral elements for “XCOM 2.”
MM: So many advancements in technology and creativity have taken the world of video game scoring to new heights in a rather short period of time. In your opinion, are there any worlds left to conquer?
TW: I think there are always new places for music to go. It will require game developers, publishers and composers to work together and push for it. I have been asked to demo for games where they say the music needs to be something that has never been heard before. You try to give it to them, but it’s impossible to do that in a 5-day demo. It takes time and lots of experimenting to pull that off. The funny thing is that when the game comes out, the music isn’t anything like what they asked for in the demo.
MM: The track ‘Unification Day’ has a very introspective, meditative quality to it, as brief as it is. Is it ever a challenge to pack so much emotive energy into such a short piece of music, or are these simply happy accidents?
TW: That was the first piece of music I wrote for “XCOM 2” with the Advent theme. It was for an in-game movie and that’s why it was so short. I think the second half of the piece could be described as “alien meditation”. The look and feel of “XCOM 2” reminded me of the movies “Logan’s Run” or “Blade Runner” when I first saw it. So I guess I could have had some 80’s Vangelis sounds rattling around my head…so maybe a planned happy accident?
MM: With so many “military vs aliens” games out in the world today, how do you go about finding fresh, new things to not only say but contribute musically in a realm so heavily trodden? Is there ever a danger of tripping over someone else’s work? Or, since this is more or less a genre piece, are you compelled to play by the rules of the genre?
TW: I tried to steer clear of much of the military vs. aliens music. For whatever reason, I didn’t play many of those FPS titles. Besides “XCOM: Enemy Unknown,” the only other scores I have done that might be similar are “Red Faction Guerilla” and “Tiberium.” But those stories had a different focus that makes the music unique. It really comes down to what “XCOM 2” needs. The sound had to relate to “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” but evolve and expand on it. I tried to stay away from some clichés but embraced others.
MM: The XCOM 2 score feels more like a life-experience than simple background music. What is your intention when creating a score like this – to do right by the game’s visual/playable content, create a memory-reference point for the gaming experience, or to offer something that can live beyond the game itself?
TW: Again thanks, that’s a huge compliment for me. Creating a score that has its own life and can live by itself, is the goal from the outset. If you can do that and still serve the game, you have done your job. For me, the most important thing is to help tell the story. I want the player to have a visceral reaction to what’s happening in the game and music is best at doing that.
Keep up with Tim Wynn on Facebook and at his official website.
2K Games’ release of the “XCOM 2” soundtrack is currently available at iTunes and Amazon Digital.
A special 2-LP vinyl release of the “XCOM 2” soundtrack is available for preorder at IAm8Bit.com.