The vast deserts and maze like ruins of Ancient Egypt make for an intriguingly unique setting that demands an equally unique soundtrack – and Sarah Schachner, composer of Assassin’s Creed Origins, is up to the challenge. Having previously contributed to the soundtracks of Assassin’s Creed Unity, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Far Cry 3, Schachner has a history of composing evocative music for open-world games. To find out more about her work on Assassin’s Creed Origins, we hit her up with a few questions about her experience working on the game and finding the right sounds to help breathe life into its Ancient Egyptian setting.
How did you initially get involved in helming the soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed Origins?
Since I had worked on those previous titles, when the time came to find a composer for Origins, Ubisoft Montreal reached out and wanted to hear what my take on Ancient Egypt would be. Luckily we were on the same page and we went from there! I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the setting and I knew it was going to be a special project, especially with the Black Flag team back together. I’m just so excited for everyone to experience the game and I hope they enjoy it as much as we loved making it!
Your work on the soundtracks for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed Unity felt very appropriate to their 18th century settings. Black Flag’s music had this fantastic high-seas adventure feel, while some of your music for Unity had a distinct baroque flavor. What’s your thematic goal with Origins’ music? What kind of atmosphere does it capture or evoke?
Deserts are such crazy environments. They are beautiful and serene, yet so harsh and unforgiving at the same time. You could be observing the most gorgeous sunrise you’ve ever seen, or losing your mind hallucinating from dehydration stumbling through a violent sandstorm. I wanted the music to reflect this duality. It has this otherworldly feeling of beauty and mystery but is also harsh, raw and alive, always reminding you of the desert’s power.
There’s a foundation of ambient desert textures and this raw guttural bowed instrument, but there’s also a theme for Egypt and the historical context we find ourselves in with Bayek’s story. I wanted Bayek to have a simple motif that was instantly recognizable so players could connect to him emotionally anytime they hear it throughout the game. It cracked me up to see people referring to it phonetically as “too do too do do” from some of the E3 and gameplay demos. So anytime you hear that, you’re reminded of his strength and will to fight.
What were some of your inspirations in creating the soundtrack for Origins? Are you drawing from any of the instruments or musical styles of Ancient Egypt?
From the beginning, the Montreal audio team and I agreed about not wanting to do something too stereotypically Middle Eastern. Creating a sound for the desert is totally subjective anyway so I felt pretty free to explore sonically. You’ll definitely hear instruments that would have been played at the time like short-necked lutes, winds, rattles, bells, animal hide drums, etc. but it’s also somewhat ambiguous with prominent sci-fi influences.
Unlike the past Assassin’s Creed games I’ve worked on, where we have a very good idea or know exactly what the music of the time sounded like, we don’t totally know what BCE Egyptian music would have been outside of academic opinions and knowledge of instruments and later periods, so this was an opportunity to explore ancient Egypt through my own imagination. This was a culture that believed in animal-headed gods and underworlds, so I wanted to create a soundtrack that had a mythical air, not completely grounded in reality.
What are some of the most significant challenges you’ve faced in creating music for something as big and dynamic as an open-world game? For example, where do you begin with a project like this?
So many challenges. I’d say the biggest one is just the sheer volume of work you have to produce. It’s hours and hours of music and I was working on this for two years straight. There are hundreds and hundreds of specific scenarios in an open-world game that need music to do a certain thing and meet certain technical requirements to work in the system they’ve designed. You have to deliver on all that while still creating something you personally enjoy. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges with being a composer for visual media in general. The time and effort it takes to create work that you are completely satisfied with unfortunately doesn’t always fit on a timeline with crazy deadlines and constraints, especially when we’re all our own worst critics. Having said that, it’s great fun, too, and making a game is always a roller coaster of an experience and I wouldn’t give it up for anything!
On a game like this, the very first thing is to establish the sound palette and tone, which you do right away in your demos. After that, we usually just dive right in. I think we started out with general combat stuff, but jumped around a lot over the two years, as priorities constantly shift depending on what [developers] need and when.
Does the scope of Origins feel different from your work on previous ACs?
It does feel different. The physical world of Origins is so much bigger, and the sound is moodier and more mysterious than the previous scores, but it still has its fair share of action. That mysterious and understated vibe is something I appreciated about Jesper Kyd’s work on the early games, and I wanted to go back to that approach. That, to me, is the essence of Assassin’s Creed and was most fitting for Bayek’s personality and maturity. However, I do typically perform all my own instruments and vocals, so people will of course draw comparisons to my work on Black Flag and Unity simply because it’s the same person playing. The way I play is as much a part of my sound as the compositions themselves.
Without getting into spoilers, do you have a favorite moment for which you composed music, in this or any previous Assassin’s Creed game?
Maybe because I didn’t get to do as much of it on the past games, but my favorite part by far was composing the ambient exploration music for the different regions. I only wish I could have done more of it! I feel like that’s where you really get to express the emotion and soul of the game. Subtle music is not always easy to pull off in action games, but I really treasure the moments where I get to do it.
Assassin’s Creed Origins will launch on October 27 for Xbox One, PC, and PS4. For more, check out our previous Assassin’s Creed coverage.