Music can show us the heart of a game without requiring us to press a single button or shoot a single bullet. For Overwatch, making a score that fit all of the team-based shooter’s themes was a big challenge.
Neal Acree is a video game composer that has faced this task. He composed many of the cinematics for Blizzard’s newest game, which has become a big hit for the company since it released in May for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Acree has also done work for World of Warcraft, so Blizzard obviously enjoys working him enough to keep bringing him back for more projects.
GamesBeat interviewed Acree about how he got involved with Blizzard, the challenges of composing for Overwatch, and a couple of awards he recently won.
GamesBeat: How did you get involved in composing for video games?
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Neal Acree: I’d been working on film and TV for a few years. I had a chance opportunity to score the opening cinematic for [World of Warcraft’s second expansion] Burning Crusade. Just one of those right place, right time moments. My agent got me an audition to do it. I didn’t have any prior game experience, but I ended up scoring that. That led to a continuing relationship with Blizzard. It’s been really fantastic.
GamesBeat: You did the opening for The Burning Crusade? That’s one of my favorite.
Acree: Yeah. Actually, all the WoW cinematics since.
GamesBeat: Did you play a lot of games before working for Blizzard?
Acree: I grew up on the Atari 2600. I played a lot of StarCraft back in the day. I didn’t realize at the time that I would find my way into scoring games as well, but I’ve always played games.
GamesBeat: When you’re composing a cinematic or a game like Overwatch, what do you have to work with? Do you have concept art or details on the story, or do you have to create your own context?
Acree: It depends. If it’s a cinematic, I’m working to pictures. The music is dictated by the story. It’s like scoring a movie. There’s a linear story you have to follow, all the beats for that. Style-wise, in the specific case of WoW, especially on Burning Crusade, I always try to make it fit the context of the existing game.
With the in-game music for WoW, it’s a lot more exploratory, looking at concept art and story and what kind of ideas they’re going for within the particular zones. And then in the case of a new franchise like Overwatch, you don’t have material, existing themes, to build on. Everything is brand new. There are concepts and discussions about the story and the overall style it’s going for, but — the most exciting ones are the ones where you’re starting from scratch and building a new world from nothing.
GamesBeat: With World of Warcraft, even if you don’t know too much about it, you at least know it’s high fantasy, which gives you some ideas. With Overwatch, it’s kind of superhero-ish, it’s kind of sci-fi, it’s kind of military. How do you find a voice for that?
Acree: That was the challenge. I have to give credit to Derek Duke, who was the music supervisor and lead composer on the project. There were a lot of discussions about looking for a hopeful future. It’s not something you see as much in movies these days. Usually there’s this dark — everything is bad and falling apart in the future. There’s an element of that in Overwatch, but Overwatch represents a hopeful, more positive vibe. So there’s that. There’s a bit of a military vibe to the group itself. You want it to be futuristic without being completely reliant on electronics, so a combination of orchestra and electronics as well.
GamesBeat: So it is a collaborative process with multiple composers. How does that work? Do you work together on songs, or do you have your own tracks or levels that you work on independently?
Acree: Derek was overseeing everything and inviting a few others. There was another composer, Sam Cardon, as well as Cris Velasco. The three of us contributed themes and Derek had written themes. What happened was, the opening cinematic, the teaser they used to announce it at BlizzCon, I had scored the cinematic using themes other people had written, as well as a couple of my own.
A lot of the game’s themes came from that, the initial period where people were contributing themes. Then Derek wrote a lot of the level music — the Dorado theme, all the different areas. And then the victory theme was taken from — it was the theme I wrote for the moment in the Overwatch cinematic towards the end of the piece, when Winston — Reaper smashes his glasses and Winston gets angry and starts to fight back, the victorious moment of the cinematic. That became the victory theme in the game.
GamesBeat: What other tracks did you create for Overwatch?
Acree: The victory theme was the main one. I did some arrangements of Sam’s — Sam had done the fanfare. I did some arrangements of that. But for the in-game music itself it was mainly the victory theme. But then we had done the cinematics. There was what’s called the cinematic teaser, which is also called “We Are Overwatch,” what they used to announce the — it played before the Star Wars movie.
And then the one called “Are You With Us,” that happens at the beginning when you first play the game. It’s the little opening cinematic for the game. And then we did the animated shorts, which — there’s one called “Dragons” I did and one called “Hero.” They’ve built on the lore and the backstory of the game, because the game itself — there’s no story mode. You just go in and start fighting. The characters are very colorful and vivid, but there’s no specific story in the game. So they’ve been doing these cinematics, essentially short animated films, to tell some of the backstory of the characters. I scored some of those.
GamesBeat: Cinematics definitely seem like your niche.
Acree: Yeah. Less so in the case of WoW — I’ve done a lot of in-game stuff there — but with Overwatch it’s been more the cinematic side.
GamesBeat: Do you prefer composing cinematics to in-game music?
Acree: I like both. Doing both — they’re such contrasting experiences. Cinematics have a very big scale. Working with visuals like that, it helps — it takes the guesswork out of it. There’s no staring at a blank page feeling. You know exactly what needs to happen. Not to say that it doesn’t have challenges of its own, but to contrast, the in-game music is the chance to do something smaller, more intimate, more personal. Also, there’s a lot more freedom to explore something that isn’t being dictated directly from the — the in-game music is a chance to explore and experiment a little with the music, whereas the cinematics might be a little more like, you have to follow the story very specifically.
GamesBeat: I understand you just recently won a couple of awards. Can you talk about that?
Acree: I won two. One was the — there’s this website called BSO Spirit, a Spanish website, and a festival called the Movie Score Malaga Festival. They have the Jerry Goldsmith awards, named after the composer. Earlier I found out that I had won the Jerry Goldsmith award for best score in a video game for a game I did called Revelation Online, a Chinese game.
Then, when I got there and was presented with that award, they also told me I’d won composer of the year. It was really exciting, and great to be there in Spain at this film score festival. They had some really great film composers there as well. It was cool to be there representing games, and that the guy who won for game scoring also won for composer of the year over the film and short film people there.
GamesBeat: It’s funny that they call it the Jerry Goldsmith award. Talking about the mix of heroic and military and sci-fi in Overwatch, the only thing that kind of comes to mind is Star Trek. You get a little bit of that Jerry Goldsmith feeling in the score.
Acree: Yeah, I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. I worked for his son for many years. I consider him a mentor, Joel Goldsmith.
GamesBeat: What other projects are you working on now?
Acree: As I mentioned, there’s this game called Revelation Online, a Chinese fantasy MMO. I’ve been working on it off and on for the last couple years. It’s going to be released in Europe later this year, and North America early next year. That game — being a Chinese fantasy score, it allowed me to — they wanted me to write Chinese music. I had done something like that with [the World of Warcraft expansion] Mists of Pandaria. This was a chance to explore that further and go a little deeper. Doing that led to a few more games for the Chinese market.
What’s cool about this is that they — we just recently released on Verese Saraband records, which is predominantly a film score label. This is only the second game soundtrack to be released on that label, and the first in something like 15 years. It’s cool to see that game soundtracks are being accepted by film score fans. They’re starting to gain acceptance in that market, which didn’t previously see them on the same level as film scores.
GamesBeat: Having your music in Blizzard’s games seems like a big success. Is it cool to have that much exposure and that many people listening to your music?
Acree: It’s incredible. I’ve gotten to conduct some of the music in different countries on four continents now. Every time I do that, getting to see the worldwide acceptance and popularity of game music is incredible. I try not to think about it too much, because you drive yourself crazy if you write something thinking about how many millions of people are going to listen to it and scrutinize and pay attention to every note. All I do is try to write music that moves me emotionally, and I hope that it has the same effect on people listening to it.
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