Scoring Escape the Shattered Plains VR

John Luker at Musikvergnuegen

I’m really happy to share my thoughts on scoring The Way of Kings, Escape the Shattered Plains VR Experience. As the composer for this project, it was my job to compose and produce all of the music underscore as well as the Parshendi battle cry which required me to come up with a language for the Parshendi to sing and speak for the experience. This all began for me with an email from Arcturus. We had worked with them before and they said they were working on a new VR experience and when I read the description of this new VR experience I was very excited indeed.

For my part, I think for a score to be successful, it is imperative to gain an understanding of the approach that the creatives are going for and get on the same page as early in the process as possible. And I knew from our earliest talks that they wanted the music to feel very cinematic and not very unlike we were making a motion picture and I was very much in agreement with this approach.

Now composing music for a VR experience does differ from that of composing a score to a film in that a movie is of fixed length, so no matter how many times you watch it, the experience plays out in exactly the same way. Not so with an interactive experience such as this. While some parts of the experience are of fixed length, others are of varied or indefinite length requiring the music in those sections to loop or repeat again and again until an objective is reached, allowing the music to move on to the next part of the score.

For Way Of Kings, there is plenty to get inspired from because this is a well known and beloved property. However, my first glimpse of this world was a brief of about seven pages that described the VR experience and included some concept art and a lot of words I’d never seen before like “spren,” “lashing,” and “high storm.”

So without knowing a tremendous amount about the world of Roshar, I took this brief home on a weekend and began playing around with ideas for different parts of the experience. The first things that really crystallized for me was the chasm fiend theme. I knew this was going to be a game and this was like the “boss” level and I had some cool concept art of what it was going to look like. So I came up with this menacing low brass theme. Next was the basis of what would be the fight with the Parshendi. Soon after, I picked up a copy of the book and began to understand more fully what was going on in this world.

A rare occasion: Ewan Johnson with the Musikvergnuegen team.

Now Musikvergnuegen, (that’s the music company) and Arcturus and the rest of the creative team are nowhere near each other. (MusikV is in Los Angeles, and Ewan in San Francisco and the developers in Canada.) So we would meet weekly via video conference to discuss our progress. We would send some detailed notes back and forth via email, and Ewan and I got into some pretty lengthy discussions by phone about the nature of spren, what Lashing should sound like and so forth. So that was our working process. Most of the time I was composing to Ewan’s descriptions of what was going on. So he’d explain “ok, so this happens and it goes on for like thirty seconds and then this happens, then Kaladin is doing this, and that will be a two minute loop,” etc. and I’m just trying to make sure that what I’m coming up with jibes with what I’m reading in the book, which has become my litmus test. I do that a lot as I’m reading the book. If there’s a battle going on with the Parshendi in the book and I can hear what I wrote for the Parshendi battle in the experience, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah! this is going to work!’ So then as I started getting screen grab movies of the experience with the music and FX laid in, I had to adjust timings here and there but we’ve pretty much been on the same page about what we’re going for from the start so there were no big surprises.

I’ve been asked if the success of other fantasy adaptations like “Lord Of The Rings” and “Game Of Thrones” have influenced the scoring of Way Of Kings. I have to say that “Way Of Kings” is really nothing like “The Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones”. It is a wholly unique world unto its own, so there was never any temptation to emulate them in any way. Combine this, with my personal ideas about how music applies to the world of fantasy and science fiction and it is sure to sound quite different.

So for our score, I’ve drawn inspiration from a wide variety of sources from the last three hundred years or so of classical literature and film music. One can hear Debussy and Ravel as you lash your way out of the canyon, Ligeti and Stravinsky as you battle the chasm fiend, and Vaughan Williams as you make a truce with the Parshendi and claim the gem heart. Fantasy as a genre I might add is a very well trod genre at this point in literature and in film and it is challenging to do something that feels fresh. But Way Of Kings itself is such a wellspring of cool and original ideas, I always felt inspired to do something I hadn’t heard done in other films or games. For instance, the Parshendi are known for singing in tight harmony as they do battle, even if they are far apart from one another. So in the game, you can hear the Parshendi singing their battle song inside the score as we do battle with them as Kaladin.

Scoring Escape the Shattered Plains has been a tremendous challenge but it has also been incredibly rewarding. I couldn’t have asked for a more positive and responsive interaction with the creative team. This has been a dream project for everyone involved and you see it in the experience, in the level of detail and devotion to the source material. I hope that the people that experience it take away a piece of the world of Roshar that’s as big in scope, and feels as real as what they had imagined while reading The Way Of Kings.

Austin Hagen and John Luker at Musikvergnuegen