Call of Duty: World War II is a 2017 return to the roots of the original 2003 Call of Duty. Back to World War II, back to traditional movement — no Infinite Warfare double-jumps and wall-running — and back to an orchestral score evoking the grit and mud and blood of that pan-global conflict. But it's a modern take on the orchestra, with drums and percussion replaced with explosions, tank treads and other period-accurate historical elements.
We shot a few questions over to CoD: WWII's composer Wilbert Roget, II, who's worked on and won awards for the music in dozens of titles, including Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Dead Island 2 and Monkey Island 2: Lechuck's Revenge to understand the process and see what inspiration goes into building a soundtrack for a game that's finally returning to its roots after 14 years.
What were your influences in putting together the Call of Duty: WWII soundtrack? Did you draw from any previous Call of Duty titles? How do you build a soundtrack for a modern blockbuster CoD game — the next in a series that was just in space — back to its roots as a World War 2 shooter?
It was an incredible honor not just to be a part of the Call of Duty franchise, but in particular to have the opportunity to work with Sledgehammer Games on this highly-anticipated release.
Games set during World War II were popular when I was a college student studying orchestral music, and I paid particular attention to Michael Giacchino’s groundbreaking score to the original Call of Duty. This setting is particularly fruitful for composers because it allows for intense action music, emotional and melodic moments, and a sincerity that’s only possible with historical conflicts of this nature.
But although I did draw some inspiration from Giacchino’s original score, we certainly took a different and more modern direction with Call of Duty: WWII.
We quickly realized that while we needed to convey the World War II setting, we also needed a contemporary sound in order to match the presentation of the game, and to be as personal and relatable as we could. In fact, in regard to the main theme of the game, studio head and co-founder Glen Schofield advised me not to limit myself too much within the setting of the game, but instead embrace a more timeless and universal concept.
Do you think there are distinctive elements familiar to World War 2 movie/TV/game soundtracks — backing strings, solo piano, trumpet flourishes and so on? Have we been conditioned by the Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryans over the past years to expect these things?
There certainly are elements that can easily evoke this setting, especially considering its rich musical history in film and video games — heroic trumpets representing the bravery of the soldier, snare drums for military action, melodic solo violin describing the fear and agony of civilians caught in this horrific conflict.
These sounds have become iconic with our cinematic representations of the war for decades, long before video games ever depicted it.
For Call of Duty: WWII, however, we were tasked with scoring to a much more personal, character-driven story. The characters aren’t super-soldiers as in recent titles in the series, but instead they’re real people with real motivations and vulnerabilities.
While I didn’t avoid all the genre’s typical elements, many of them seemed a bit too distant, historical and impersonal for our story. So I tried to create new ways to connect to the setting – for example, I avoided typical orchestral percussion, and instead used period-accurate sound sources like steam trains, historical tanks, explosion debris, and other elements that I’d edit and mangle to work as percussive sounds within the score.
I also created several variations on a "fog of war" signature sound, using aleatoric playing techniques on brass, strings and electric guitar and running them through various echo effects to underscore the soft, filmic art direction of the game. And lastly, I used blurred, arrhythmic horn calls with similar echo effects to represent the "memory of war", an important concept in the story.
That said, I did use a traditional approach to melody, with themes that develop and recur in a style reminiscent of classic film. The Allies’ theme is presented in the "A Brotherhood of Heroes", and is used several times in dramatic moments throughout the score. And because the game explores the human side of the protagonists, I could write pieces like "Home" and "A Long Way from Texas" that underscore this depth, using solo strings and dulcimer to represent the characters.
As a composer, how do you go about putting together an orchestral score and seeing it committed to audio? How involved was the team at Sledgehammer and Activision in the process — were you given significant creative freedom, or was it a hands-on process from start to finish?
Our audio director at Sledgehammer, David Swenson, was very closely involved, overseeing every single cue and giving tons of useful feedback. We also worked closely with the music team at Sony Interactive Entertainment, who handled music supervision, editing, mixing, and implementation. They had previously worked with Sarah Schachner on her score to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and it was tremendously helpful and inspiring to use their resources and expertise.
As far as my process, I’m actually quite traditional. Nearly all my work starts with a paper sketch, once I have a good impression of what the mood and vibe of the piece should be.
Eventually I’ll produce synthesized mockups of the music to show to the Sledgehammer and Sony teams for approval, but I try not to involve the computer until I have a strong idea of what each piece will sound like already. Our music supervisor and audio director both had very acute musical ears, and would give extensive and insightful feedback on every cue.
I had such close collaboration with the team, but there are such high stakes writing for this franchise — this made me feel more at liberty to try things out and experiment. I figured, if an idea could make it through the talented guys at Sledgehammer, that means it probably worked!
Call of Duty: WWII is out tomorrow in Australia.