God of War Ragnarök

On a spring afternoon in 2016, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles during the E3 videogame event, I crossed the stage between a packed house and a symphonic orchestra, to conduct an original theme I had written that had never been heard publicly. Even before the game’s title was revealed, the audience experienced a sweeping, symphonic score featuring Nordic folk instruments, choir, and strong, melodic themes. After my overture, the curtains parted and a vision of an older Kratos stepped out of the shadows, announcing that a new entry in Sony Playstation’s blockbuster God of War series was on the horizon, one which aged the character and promised a more mature narrative. The game launched in 2018 to universal critical acclaim and fan enthusiasm, cementing the vengeful god Kratos and his son Atreus a place amongst the most beloved videogame characters of all time.

In the spring of 2019, I found myself again in the offices of Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, for creative discussions regarding the game’s sequel, God of War Ragnarök. Here the game’s previous director, Cory Barlog, introduced me to this new game’s director, Eric Williams. Cory and Eric have worked together for years on this franchise, and I immediately sensed Eric’s shared passion for the material and depth of experience. Having read the script, the scale of God of War Ragnarök became clear. This ambitious sequel’s story expanded upon the intimate character drama between Kratos and his son Atreus by introducing at least a dozen new characters, across all nine realms of Nordic mythology. The set pieces and action scenes were even more bombastic, and yet, the dramatic arcs were every bit as poignant as those from the first story. In order to musically support this ambitious new narrative, I would need to fill God of War Ragnarök with new musical themes. At the same time, they would need to be interwoven with my material from God of War (2018).

For that original game, I had jumped into the score with enthusiastic abandon, ready to completely reinvent the sound of the franchise to fit this entry’s more sophisticated tone. However, this time, I felt the pressure of writing music in the shadow of my own previous work.  Gamers the world over had forged emotional connections to my musical themes, and my work had won several major videogame industry awards. The thought of expanding on these ideas –  and daring to think I might improve upon them – exhilarated and terrified me.

I began composing God of War Ragnarök in the summer of 2019, fully aware that I was at the onset of a journey that would be among the most creatively challenging of my career.

WRITING THEMES OF CHILDHOOD

MODERATE SPOILERS AHEAD: In God of War (2018), Atreus struggles to understand his own identity, as he comes to learn truths about both his deceased mother and his emotionally distant father. I represented this internal conflict with two distinct musical themes: the Kratos Theme and the Faye Theme (“God of War” and “Memories of Mother” on the previous soundtrack album, respectively). These two themes were at odds in the last game, with Atreus caught in a musical tug-of-war between them. The narrative conflict at the heart of God of War (2018) was elegant and simple, so this musical duality was all that was needed to tell Atreus’ story. Representing Atreus’ character with two conflicting themes for his mother and father surprisingly meant that he never ended up with one of his own.

God of War Ragnarök is a more layered story. The emotional tug-of-war is no longer a straight line, with Atreus being pulled between mother and father. Now, the narrative struggle is like a triangle. Atreus, now a teenager, wants to stretch out, to become his own person. He clashes with the notion of fate and does not feel compelled to follow the path of either his mother or father. In order to communicate this story of a young person finding his own identity, I knew Atreus must have his own theme. Atreus is now older, more experienced, and yet still scrappy and daring. The themes for his mother and father would still be useful, but I knew that three musical themes were required to represent this conflict.

THEME: ATREUS
I wrote Atreus a theme (“A Son’s Path” on the new soundtrack album) that forgoes his father’s low brass and choral singers in exchange for urgently chugging Nordic folk instruments, such as nyckelharpa, Hardanger fiddle, and hammered dulcimer. Everything in his music feels more spry, youthful, and dashing. Within the opening seconds, I wanted players to understand this was no longer his father’s music, nor his mother’s music. His theme tells us that Atreus is growing into his own, rebellious, person.

Atreus’ Theme begins with an urgent, chugging ostinato played by a small string ensemble, supported by nyckelharpa. This riff bursts with adolescent energy, and the smaller orchestra size makes every instrument feel closer and scratchier. It almost feels like rock and roll.

The most significant component of the Atreus Theme is his adventurous melody, which is frequently played on nyckelharpa and Hardanger fiddle.

Though Atreus often stands in defiance of his parents, especially his father, he still has their DNA in his music. The harmonic progression of his theme, especially the B-Section in the middle, are very evocative of the music of The Giants and his mother’s theme, representing that half of his heritage.

Atreus’ musical connection to his father is even more overt. I hid two retrograde statements of Kratos’ theme in plain sight, in the first two phrases of Atreus’ Theme. Where Kratos’ Theme begins with an upward minor scale, for example C-D-Eb, Atreus’ theme bursts out of the gate with two statements of a descending minor scale, Eb-D-C, then a G, then Eb-D-C again. Even the shape of Atreus’ of melody is a backwards statement of his father’s, with a pair of downward three note minor scales separated by a lower note, where his father’s melody is a pair of upward three note minor scales separated by a lower note.

No matter how hard Atreus tries to run away from his legacy, his melody reenforces that he is his father’s son. The iconic phrases of his theme are literally quoting his father’s theme backwards!

When I first presented my Atreus Theme mock-up demo to Eric and Cory, I warned them I was aiming for a piece of music that would feel small compared to Kratos’ Theme. We played my mock-up through the thunderous speakers at Santa Monica Studio’s world-class mixing facility, and as the final climax shook the floor, I turned to see their reaction. Eric was overwhelmed with emotion, his eyes watering. Cory, in contrast, laughed aloud and burst out, “I love that something this epic is what you describe as ‘small!’” At that moment, I knew we were heading down the right path.

THEME: ANGRBODA
Atreus was not the only child character who would need a theme in this game. Many of my early conversations with Eric and Cory were focused on Atreus’ relationship with a young Jötnar named Angrboda, who he meets in the warm, sunlit areas of Jötunheim, a realm we only glimpsed in the last game. Ensuring that her character, and their relationship, worked was one of my top musical priorities.

Like Atreus, Angrboda defines herself by her relationship to fate, but where Atreus rises against it, Angrboda accepts it. To reflect this contrast, I wanted to write for her a theme that offered peace, tranquility, and beauty.

Her theme rests upon an ostinato built from spritely dulcimer and mandolin, above which the violins and viola dance delicately on parallel moving triads, played with gentle sul tasto brush strokes.

These playful ideas are colored by light wooden percussion, an Irish Bodhrán frame drum, and gentle Tibetan prayer bowls. The prayer bowls serve as musical connection to the score to God of War (2018), where these instruments were featured in the theme for the long-lost Giants (“Lullaby of the Giants” from that soundtrack album). Combined, these musical colors offer the Angrboda Theme a youthful, feminine energy, one that simultaneously stands out as a new color in the God of War franchise and evokes memories of The Giants.

Angrboda’s ostinato is the motor that energizes her melody. Angrboda’s melody is most often featured on a penny whistle or Asian flute, instruments of relatively simple construction that provide a breathy, childlike quality. Her melody begins with playful phrases that ripple upward.

To underscore her connection Atreus, I built her opening phrase from the exact same notes as Atreus’ theme (for example G-C-D-Eb, then moving down to D). This subtle connection reminds the audience that these two share a deep connection, though they have opposing directions of musical contour. Atreus’ melody moves downward, while Angrboda’s moves upward. This contrast implies they have opposite worldviews.

NEW THEMES FOR NEW FAMILIES

God of War Ragnarök is a story of fractured families struggling to reform. To support that story, I needed two additional themes to represent families that Kratos and Atreus would encounter on their journey.

THEME: HULDRA BROTHERS
The Huldra brothers, Dwarves Brok and Sindri, were supporting characters in the last game. They provided support for Kratos’ weapons as well as delightful comedic relief, and a heartwarming story of estranged brothers who reunite. Their role in Ragnarök was greatly expanded, and now gamers travel to their realm of origin, Svartalfheim. I needed to craft them their own theme, one which could also tell us something of Dwarven culture.

The Brok and Sindri Theme begins with a jaunty oom-pah ostinato performed on viola da gamba and nyckelharpa.

The jovial nature of the theme is colored by a signature rhythmic meter, 7/4, that provides an asymmetrical imbalance. The groove is bouncy, but also becomes increasingly heavy as their theme evolves

The true charm for “Huldra Brothers” comes from the melody, featured prominently by a hurdy gurdy solo. (I am the credited performer of this solo, though I personally like to think we are hearing a character named Ræb playing their theme. More on him later.) Their melody weaves around the asymmetrical meter with satisfying repeating patterns, featuring a “Scotch snap,” a frequent rhythm found in Scottish folk music.

The Huldra Brothers’ emotional B-Theme middle section implies there is more emotion to their story beyond mere comedic relief. And indeed, this theme evolves over the course of the story perhaps more than any other. At the end of their track, we hear their theme one last time, in a dark, melancholy cello solo – a shocking departure from the jovial tone at the beginning. Near the end of the soundtrack album, “Ræb’s Lament” is built around hurdy gurdy and orchestral variations of this melody. I will not spoil the narrative here, but suffice to say that if I did my job right, this comedic jaunty little tune will break your heart before final credits roll on God of War Ragnarök.

THEME: RAGNARÖK
The last primary new theme I composed for this game was for another family, representing the antagonists from Asgard, Thor, his father Odin, as well as the impending prophesied event of Ragnarök itself. To create a musical force that could threaten Kratos was a mighty task, because his theme begins with powerful low male vocals that radiate menace and strength. To attempt a villainous theme that might dwarf Kratos’ in terms of strength and raw power was a fool’s errand. So, I looked to the script for inspiration.

Odin, as portrayed by Richard Schiff in God of War Ragnarök, defies audience expectations. Eric Williams described him as a snake in the grass. He has a slight frame, and his vast power is most often implied. He is unafraid to use force, but would rather use psychological means to achieve his ends. Furthermore, I thought about the ominous impending doom of Ragnarök itself, which looms over the story’s horizon like a storm cloud. These ideas inspired me to energize the Ragnarök Theme with a slithering, dangerous, yet subdued ostinato. I wanted this string pattern to imply power and menace with a relentless triplet rhythm, one that rolls across the soundtrack like distant thunder.

This ostinato gets louder and louder as the story progresses. Above it, the main melody of the Ragnarök Theme offers a dark nobility and ominous foreboding, often sung by male choirs with an Old Norse text.

I spent about half a year sketching themes for this game, constantly tweaking based on conversations with my creative partners at Santa Monica Studio. A few of these themes came easily, but several went through five or six drafts before I landed on something promising. I struggled especially with the Atreus Theme, as I found I was initially crippled by the intense pressure to write a theme that could measure up to my two most iconic melodies from God of War (2018). By the end, however, I was confident that my new themes for Atreus, Angrboda, the Huldra Brothers, and Ragnarök, would measure up to the melodies I had written for the last game.

NEW PERSPECTIVES ON FAMILIAR THEMES

Not all the themes would be new, of course. A significant part of the narrative in God of War Ragnarök would be underscored with returning themes, including The Giants Theme (“Lullaby of the Giants”), and my themes for Helheim, Alfheim, Dragons, and Valkyries, among others. However, the returning themes that do most of the heavy lifting in the sequel are the Freya Theme, the Faye Theme, and the Kratos Theme.

From my first days on God of War Ragnarök I made clear my intention to adapt and evolve the musical themes from God of War (2018). I always prefer film sequel scores that put a new spin on their predecessor’s theme, including Nino Rota’s The Godfather Part II, Danny Elfman’s Batman Returns, and Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As a composer and creator, I have embraced the philosophy that my job in scoring a sequel is to give fans both what they want and what they don’t yet know they want. Applying this philosophy to a God of War sequel, I respected that fans wanted more of the same. But, what they actually needed was expansion and development of familiar material. I revisited all my previous themes with this philosophy in mind. I felt certain that if I preserved the soul of each theme, and gave fans exactly what they wanted in key moments, then I would earn their goodwill and be free to expand on the ideas with musical variations that support this new story.

THEME: FREYA
The Freya Theme (on the previous soundtrack album as “Witch of the Woods”) developed throughout the last game, from a mysterious ambient melody, to one of the game’s defining character melodies, as she formed a bond with Kratos. Their fellowship is broken when, at that game’s climax, Kratos kills her son Baldur, in order to save her life. It is from this fractured relationship that the events of the sequel begin, with Freya ruthlessly hunting Kratos and Atreus down in search of vengeance. Now, her mysterious theme pulsates with brass power.

Later in the sequel, gamers travel to her home realm of Vanaheim. Here, her theme ripples across the action like a gust of wind, and floats across the calmer moments with a beautiful new harmonic progression, suggesting that she has discovered newfound peace by returning to her home from which she had been cruelly banished. Her theme climaxes with the introspective and heartfelt “To Forgive or To Kill,” where her melody is re-harmonized even further to offer resolve and strength. Freya’s musical and emotional arc across both games is among my favorite aspects of the saga.

THEME: FAYE
Just as in the last game, the theme for Atreus’ mother, Faye’s Theme, once again weaves its way throughout the story in God of War Ragnarök.

Featured on the previous soundtrack album as “Memories of Mother,” this melody has become the musical voice for a character who remains unseen for the majority of the story, but who floats like a ghost over the narrative. Faye’s musical voice is often represented literally because her theme is frequently sung by Faorese singer Eivør Pálsdóttir.

The significance of Faye’s Theme to God of War Ragnarök is instantly apparent, as it radiates across the story, from the game’s mournful and solitary opening scene to lyrical orchestral statements in Atreus’ final cinematic scene in the game.

THEME: KRATOS
Of course, the most important theme to return from the previous game is Kratos’ Theme..

This theme underwent crucial changes for God of War Ragnarök. I had composed the theme for the 2018 game to represent Kratos’ power, stoicism, and brutality. Yet, his theme could not be simply transplanted to this new game because we witnessed him undergo an emotional maturation during that story. He is a different man now, no longer the isolated figure we met in the last entry. His family has left an indelible mark on him.

To reflect these changes, I began his theme for the sequel with more restrained statement of his iconic three note ostinato.

His track builds more gradually this time and has more space and width. It feels less aggressive, reflecting a warrior with more wisdom. The most obvious change occurs about halfway through when his charging three-note ostinato is suddenly joined by fragments of both the Faye Theme and the Atreus Theme, respectively. I wanted the listener to understand that it is now impossible to separate Kratos from his wife and son. They have left a permanent mark on him, as clear to the ears as his iconic red slash down his face is to the eyes.

This interweaving of familial themes into Kratos’ melody is probably my favorite innovation in the entire God of War Ragnarök score. Altering a franchise’s main theme in this way is a daring move, risking fan ire. I am grateful to everyone at Santa Monica Studio and Sony for trusting me with this idea, and to all the fans around the world who have embraced this soundtrack, and especially the ones who commented approvingly on this moment in particular.

MUSIC FOR THE NINE REALMS

Unlike the last game, the story of this sequel would take players to all nine realms of Norse mythology, after being able to explore only five in the previous game. I strove to craft a musical identity for each realm.

These realm compositions were significantly associated with the adaptive music that permeates gameplay: exploration, small skirmishes, and large-scale combat. Though I often emphasize the importance of character themes to narrative structure, the fact remains that 99% of the player’s time is spent in one of these adaptive music scenarios. The audio team and I wanted to ensure that the adaptive music for this new game lived up to the promise of the 2018 game, but also reflected the new nine realms explored in God of War Ragnarök.

REALM: SVARTALFHEIM
A major portion of the game takes place in Svartalfheim, the realm of the Dwarves, so I spent considerable energy ensuring this realm had a distinct sound. Instantly, the music’s 7/4 meter and oom-pah rhythm reminds gamers of Brok and Sindri. Indeed, portions of the track even directly quote their theme. I wanted gamers to understand that they are in the place from which these two beloved characters originate. Other Dwarven colors permeate the music of this realm, including jaunty hurdy gurdy, recorder, viola da gamba, and Eivør Pálsdóttir’s grunting, percussive vocalizations.

The main melody for the Svartalfheim combat cues is a folk-inspired melody that I like to think of as rooted in a fictional Dwarven folk music culture. The melody occurs in softer moments in a dark, brooding male choir presentation, and in larger skirmishes with bombastic full choir rendition, complete with Eivør belting out the top line. I hope that when gamers hear the melody, they feel like they’re hearing an organic melody that has echoed throughout the realm for hundreds of years.

REALM: JÖTUNHEIM
Though players experienced a small glimpse of Jötunheim in the climax of the last game, it remains one of the most mysterious realms, one intertwined with the fate of The Giants, the people of Atreus’ mother. In this game, we experience this realm through Angrboda, so I wanted to ensure that music for this environment and the character were inexorably linked. Here, the adaptive music features Angrboda’s brisk playful ostinato. Dulcimers, mandolin, Tibetan prayer bowls, and small percussion remind us of Angrboda’s youthful wisdom. Fragments of the Angrboda melody and Atreus melody weave throughout the musical layers, helping to underscore their relationship.

REALM: VANAHEIM
No realm allowed me to push the musical boundaries of God of War further than Vanaheim, the realm of Freya and the Vanir Gods. The instant I saw the lush jungles, shaded glades, and exotic flora and fauna, I immediately imagined South American percussion and woodwinds. Small hide drums provide a bouncing 6/8 groove, above which woodwinds such as the quena, ocarina, and pan pipes offer punctuating phrases. (I was almost certain I was going to be fired when I proposed using pan pipes in God of War! Thankfully, Santa Monica Studio let me get away with it.)

The music of Vanaheim contains a signature, magical chord progression that occurs at key moments. (Listen for it in the first thirty seconds of the soundtrack album track, for example.) I love these lush, impressionistic harmonies, as they remind me of my favorite French composers, Debussy and Ravel. This chordal passage stands out from the rest of the score, with exotic suspensions and voicings outside the musical palette for this franchise.

The most crucial musical element for Vanaheim is the presence of many variations of Freya’s Theme, reminding gamers that we are in her territory.

REALM: ASGARD
Though we spend relatively little time in Asgard, significant events unfold here, in the realm of the Aesir gods, and Odin himself. Unsurprisingly, the adaptive music I composed for this realm is built from subtle variations of the Ragnarök Theme that I wrote to represent Odin and his family. I strove to give all the music in Asgard a surprising restraint. Inspired by the visual design of Asgard, I wanted the music to feel subdued, with the might of the realm suggested in understated phrases instead of grand, brassy gestures. This way, gamers experience the Ragnarök theme as an ever-growing threat, and never really hear it blasting in its mightiest variations until the end of the game.

REALM: MIDGARD
Gamers also return to the five realms they explored in the previous game. The game opens in Midgard, the realm most closely associated with our own Earth. In the last game, this realm functioned as a ‘hub world,’ from which players traveled to other realms. I wanted music for Midgard in this game to feel familiar. However, now Fimbulwinter has set in, blanketing the landscape with ice and snow. So, the music of Midgard is imbued with glassy, icy tension, featuring long scraping tones on folk string instruments, and crackling hammered dulcimer textures. Distinct musical signifiers permeate the score here, including Eivør’s unique guttural throat chanting, chugging nyckelharpa, and powerful proclamations of Kratos’ iconic three note ostinato.

REALM: ALFHEIM
The story returns once more to Alfheim, and this time I rearranged the Alfheim Theme from the last game, giving it even more urgency and tension. The music of Alfheim has always pulsated with brisk, tremolo string phrases that are meant to emulate the fluttering of the insectoid wings of the Dark Elves that infest the environment. Here, I moved the fluttering tremolos to the forefront, and stated the Alfheim with more declarative phrasing in the choir. This was a fun opportunity to take another spin at a track from the last game, almost like doing my own ‘re-mix.’

REALM: HELHEIM
The music for Helheim was perhaps the most disturbing music I composed for God of War (2018), and I was excited for the chance to put a new spin on it for the sequel. The realm’s iconic choir clusters and eerie metallic percussion return, but are now energized with an even more propulsive percussion and orchestral backbone. The realm’s urgent marcato string ostinatos are cranked up and performed furiously.

REALM: MUSPELHEIM AND NIFLHEIM
This story once again gives players the option to explore both Niflheim, the realm of mist, and Muspelheim, the home of the Fire Giants.

In Norse mythology, these two are related, considered primordial realms, and their functions in both games are similar. For this reason, I composed a single theme that could work in both realms. I composed a mournful dirge-like vocal melody, accompanied by increasingly aggressive orchestration, and a mysterious pipe organ chorale. I created multiple variations of the theme, and generally strove to represent the eerie mists of Niflheim with high female singers on the melody, and the arid heat of Muspelheim with low male singers on the melody.

RECORDING THE SCORE

I composed new themes in 2019, and moved right into writing the adaptive music. I was in the midst of this work when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March of 2020. Production on God of War Ragnarök ground to a halt. In those early days of lockdown, I found great personal comfort in composing this music. I put thousands of images of concept art up on my screens as I composed. I wrote music that helped me escape the uneasy reality around me and allowed me to travel to the jungles of Vanaheim, or to the warm sunset glow of Jötunheim, in my musical imagination.

Because writing God of War became a coping mechanism for my mental health, I had not realized how much music I had generated. I just kept writing until the Sony audio team politely begged me to stop, because I had sent over hours of original of music they had not yet had time to listen to! The beleaguered Sony audio team had been forced to pause work on the game, move their entire apparatus to their homes, and build a new secure workflow for the foreseeable future. Working alone in my studio, I had unwittingly written beyond my contractual limits by at least an hour or more of score.

Eventually, the dust settled and the audio team was able to catch up with all the music I had created in lockdown. At last, with several hours of original score ready to go, we moved into the first round of music production, recording and mixing. For the next two years, writing, recording, producing, editing, and mixing, would all take place simultaneously in some form or another in order to finish the massive score, and deliver it to the audio team to implement it into the game.

In 2017, I had personally flown to London and Iceland for the last game, to conduct orchestra and choir – a wonderful, memorable experience.  For the sequel I found myself huddled over desk at home, in my sweatpants, with headphones, producing the sessions from afar while other conductors worked with my music. I was fortunate in this regard to have the brilliant Cliff Masterson, Gavin Greenaway, Hördur Askelsson, and Ben Parry conducting on this project. Everyone at Sony’s Santa Monica Studio and my own Sparks & Shadows had to overhaul workflows and learn to work remotely, a difficult adjustment, but one that would continue serve us all well in the coming years. 

I was thrilled to work with many of my favorite musicians returning from the score to the last game, including the brilliant and iconic vocalist Eivør Pálsdóttir, as well as Malachai Komanoff Bandy on viola da gamba, Eric Rigler on bagpipes, Bruce Carver on bodhrán frame drum, Ben Jacobson on violin, Jonathan Moerschel on viola, and Eric Byers on cello. I also began working with new musicians with whom I had never collaborated before, who infused my score with newfound energy, including Erik Rydvall on nyckelharpa and moraharpa, Sandra Marteleur on hardanger fiddle, Kristine West on recorder, Joshua Messick on hammered dulcimer, Johannes Geworkian on additional hurdy gurdy solos, and percussionist Greg Ellis.

I was delighted to hear all these unique soloists put their own personal stamp on my melodies and musical ideas, and I was thrilled even more to give each musician stretches of time over which they could improvise. Several of the scores most compelling performances originate from these improvisatory sections.

BECOMING RÆB

Scoring God of War Ragnarök was an expansion of everything that I had done in God of War (2018), culminating in one of the biggest orchestral scores of my career to date. However, my contributions to the game would go beyond the music.

Back in the spring of 2019, Eric Williams and Cory Barlog ended our first creative meeting about the project by showing me concept art. I was dumbstruck when I saw, at the bottom of the stack, a stout Dwarven fellow holding a beautiful hurdy gurdy, with a familiar, and perhaps even dashingly handsome face! At first, I thought the game’s brilliant art director Raf Grassetti had drafted a sketch of me as a Dwarf as a gift. I was further dumbstruck when Eric and Cory told me this image was no joke – this is a character named Ræb (read his name backwards!), who they intended to put into the game as a character that Kratos and Atreus would encounter in their journey. They intended me to perform the motion capture and provide voice acting for him!

Over two years later, in the summer of 2021, I stepped into Sony’s Santa Monica Studio not as a composer, but as an actor.  I arrived at the motion capture stage, and the crew put little sensors all over my body and on my hurdy gurdy. I learned that my body movements were being captured by these sensors and instantly converted into animation data for my digital avatar.

Walking on to the stage, I was struck by how barren it looked – like an industrial warehouse with high tech equipment gathered around the edges of an empty, center space. Screens adorned the periphery, and in them I saw the real magic: a digital fantasy environment representing the tavern in Svartalfheim. Walking into the digital tavern, I noticed Ræb, and quickly realized he was walking because I was walking! I stopped in my tracks, delighted like a kid playing with new toys, and started jumping around and flinging my arms, watching my digital avatar recreate my every movement in real time. It was like looking at a freaky fun house mirror where I saw a digital dwarf reflection of myself! I giggled uncontrollably as I moved my body and Ræb mimicked me.

To be an actor in a videogame, one must capture their motion, or do a “mo-cap” session. The crew told me that, typically, one or two sensors are placed on the hands to capture the motion of the arms, but that all detailed finger movement is typically animated later. However, because so much of my motion-capture work involved playing a musical instrument, they decided to try placing sensors on all of my fingers. They had never done this before! Sure enough, once they were done, I played hurdy gurdy and watched onscreen as the digital Ræb’s fingers rippled across his own hurdy gurdy keys, following my exact movements.

Recording the hurdy gurdy performance turned out to be the easy part. I also had to pretend to be in a crowded tavern environment, and to mimic the physical mannerisms that result from various interactions with Kratos and Atreus. I threw myself into the moment, and had as much fun as I possibly could, trying not to think about the potentially awkward reality that I was wearing skin-tight pajamas, covered in dots, pretending to be a dwarf holding a hurdy gurdy, in the middle of a room with people staring at me.

I loved the physicality of performing the motion capture. However, as fun as that was, it did not prepare me for the thrill of recording Ræb’s dialog a few weeks later. I worked with writer Matt Sophos, at a small recording studio in Los Angeles, and he directed me through the vocal performance. Though I had never properly acted before, I found that my creative process as an actor working with Matt was the same as working as a composer with a director or producer when scoring narrative. In both cases, our shared goal is to make an audience feel something specific about what they’re experiencing. When I am a composer, I use notes, chords, and rhythms to achieve that goal. I quickly discovered that the only difference when I am an actor is that I use vocal rhythm, inflection, and tone to achieve the same goal.

I felt an electric thrill creating Ræb for God of War Ragnarök. The more I worked through the lines with Matt, the more I understood Ræb’s situation and in particular his feelings about Kratos’ companion Mimir. As I drove home from the recording studio, I was giddy, and my heart was pounding in my chest. I can safely say the few hours I spent recording Ræb’s dialog rank among the most exhilarating creative experiences of my life. While I don’t think I’ll quit my day job anytime soon, I would love the chance to explore this art form further!

BLOOD UPON THE SNOW

With the score nearly complete, and my motion capture turn as Ræb recorded, I was nearly done with my contributions to God of War Ragnarök – or so I thought. To my delight there arose the opportunity to collaborate on a theme song for the videogame. I was honored to co-write and co-produce “Blood Upon the Snow,” with prolific Irish singer/songwriter Hozier (Andrew Hozier Byrne).

Ever since he burst onto the pop music scene, I have always admired Andrew’s captivating lyrical sensibilities and rich, velvety tenor vocal tone. Andrew was the perfect creative partner for God of War Ragnarök, because he wanted to dig deep into the material. He spent hours talking through the story with Eric Williams, who encouraged us both to explore lyrical meaning pertaining to the game’s symbolic bear and wolf.

With a strong sense of the story, Andrew crafted a profound lyric. He came over to my studio, where we hammered away at the music, shaping it together into a verse melody that fit his intimate performance, and a chorus that allowed him to open up his powerful voice, evoking the might of the game’s titular character. This duality, between power and vulnerability, rage and love, lies at the core of God of War, and I believe that our song, “Blood Upon the Snow,” captures this full emotional range. I was thrilled at how effectively our musical voices, instincts, and experiences blended together.

My last day recording God of War Ragnarök was spent in the studio co-producing lead vocals with Hozier. Listening to Andrew lay down take after take of chilling vocal lines was the perfect conclusion to an epic project that had occupied more than three years of my life.

LAUNCHING THE GAME

With the music fully complete by the end of summer 2022, I focused my efforts on helping to launch the game in the fall. After Sony and Santa Monica Studio threw a lavish launch party for the entire development team in early November, they hosted an event specific to the release of my soundtrack album. Dubbed a ‘listening party,’ the event featured myself and game director Eric Williams, hosted by composer and online music personality Alex Moukala.

(L-R: Alex Moukala, Eric Williams at the Listening Party. With Christopher Judge at the launch party, photo courtesy of @BlueOwlzMedic.)

My journey scoring this game has been a long and rewarding one, so it was fitting then that it would end at The Game Awards, in December. I was thrilled to perform “Blood Upon the Snow” with Hozier at the event, shredding on the hurdy gurdy, supporting Hozier’s gorgeous vocal performance.

The orchestra, under the baton of the prolific composer and conductor Lorne Balfe, sounded amazing. And the show’s production team built an incredible set around us, complete with winter trees. My favorite moment of the performance was when the team created an actual flurry of snowfall for the final chorus!

2022 was a historically great year for videogame music, and I was honored to be nominated amongst some of the best music of the year. I assumed that performing with Hozier would be the highlight of my evening, but I was pleasantly surprised when God of War Ragnarök won The Game Award for Best Score and Music.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was that the award for music was presented by Animal, from The Muppets! I never thought I’d get the chance to tell him in person he was my favorite drummer growing up, but I suddenly found myself able to do so on stage!

(L-R: With Hozier at the red carpet, with composer and conductor Lorne Balfe backstage, with influencer and voice actor Yong Yea at the afterparty.)

After The Game Awards, I wandered over to the afterparty where fans, cast members, and game developers alike were hanging out to celebrate. I caught up with many old friends with whom I have collaborated for nearly a decade now on the God of War franchise, and met many other team members for the first time, marking the first time our paths have crossed in person.

(Snowfall in rehearsal!)

The most unforgettable moment of the night for me was meeting one fan in particular at the afterparty. I never caught his name, but he enthusiastically asked me to sign his copy of the game. I struggled to find a spot on the cover, which was crowded with signatures. We exchanged smiles, and a fist bump, and just as our brief interaction was coming to a close, I realized he was deaf. God of War Ragnarök had won the Innovation In Accessibility Award that night, and for good reason: the game boasts over seventy features designed to make the game accessible to as many people as possible. Even if the only aspect of my music this fan felt was my thundering bass frequencies, I was still honored I could be a part of this experience that had moved him so deeply.

RAGNARÖK IS HERE

Bringing this music to life required a huge team effort, a close collaboration between everyone at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Audio and Music team, and my production team at Sparks & Shadows. Special thanks are due to Sony’s supportive music producers, especially Chuck Doud, Pete Scaturro, and Keith Leary, as well as music production lead Sonia Coronado, manager of music affairs Justin Fields, and director of A&R Alex Hackford, who spearheaded the game’s end title song.

This score sounds as great as it does thanks to recording engineers Nick Wollage, Steve McLaughlin, and Nick Spezia, music scoring mixers Jason LaRocca and Kellogg Boynton, and song mixer F. Reid Shippen. This music could never have been completed without the logistical and emotional support from my crew at Sparks & Shadows, notably Joe Augustine, Marisa Gunzenhauser, Bailey Gordon, Brian Claeys, Pierre-Andre Rigoll, Jacob Moss, Hannah Lustine, and Kelsey Woods. I would also like to thank everyone at Kraft Engel Management, especially Sarah Kovacs and Richard Kraft.

I also owe a huge thanks to S&S’ Sam Ewing and Omer Ben-Zvi, for composing brilliant additional music as the mighty deadline loomed. Thanks are also owed to my orchestrators at Tutti Music Partners, led by Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson and Jonathan Beard, and to all the other orchestrators, contractors, copyists, and engineers who toiled to bring this score to life.

I want to send a big thank you to everyone at Santa Monica Studio, especially Eric Williams, Cory Barlog, and Yumi Yang, for always making me feel welcome. And lastly, I want to thank the talented cast, especially Christopher Judge, Sunny Suljic, Danielle Nicole Bisutti, Laya DeLeon Hayes, Robert Craighead, Adam John Harrington, Ryan Hurst, Richard Schiff, Brett Dalton, and everyone else in the cast, for bringing heartbreaking performances to this story that instantly inspired musical ideas.

While I initially struggled to compose in the long shadow cast by my own score to God of War (2018), I feel that I actually managed to write an even better score for God of War Ragnarök. All the familiar themes have returned, filtered through a new narrative lens, and the expanded roster of characters pushed me to write several new themes that hold their own against my earlier work. Writing this score made me a better composer than I was before I began it. I learned lessons scoring this game that are evident in my epic fantasy television scores that immediately followed, Masters of the Universe: Revelation and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

I have worked on this franchise for the last eight years, and I still struggle to believe that after all the work on this sequel, this game is now finally out, being played by millions of people around the world. I hope that when you play God of War Ragnarök, you will feel the joy, passion, and toil that went into every note of this score. And please stop by the tavern in Svartalfheim on your travels, and say hello to Ræb!

-Bear McCreary
December, 2022

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