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ARTICLE

Mass Effect 3: Scoring the End

A trio of musicians came together to chart the musical accompaniment to the world's end and conclude a five-year sci-fi trilogy.

No pressure then.

Joining us to talk scoring Mass Effect are Sam Hulick, who's been with the series since the start, and the duo of Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan, who've signed on from Mass Effect 2.

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The composers: Cris Velasco [left], Sam Hulick [middle]and Sascha Dikiciyan [right].

Can you tell us how you all got involved in the Mass Effect project?

Sascha & Cris: Last year, we had already written music for two of the ME2 DLCs, Kasumi's Stolen Memory and Arrival. So the Bioware guys were very familiar with our work. In the late fall of 2011, we got "the call" to see if we wanted to work on ME3. We were very happy to be involved!

Sam: It was kind of an interesting turn of events, involving Jack Wall recommending me to BioWare for the first Mass Effect because he was too busy at the time, but then he actually wound up getting the gig, and he and BioWare liked my music and felt it fit well in the Mass Effect universe so I was hired to contribute.

Sam, you've been involved since the first game - how does it feel collaborating with multiple composers as the series has evolved, and what's your thoughts looking back at the music as a whole?

Sam: Mass Effect has always been a huge game with a staggering amount of music, so having a team of composers made it possible to create a ton of music in a relatively short amount of time. It's a process that has been refined much since the first Mass Effect.

Jack Wall and I started out composing a big chunk of the score, adding on Richard Jacques and David Kates later to help wrap up. We worked on tracks in sort of a random method of assignment. Mass Effect 2 was more organized in that we each tackled entire levels (so I worked on the Jack acquisition level, Jimmy Hinson worked on the stuff for Samara, etc). We used this same level assignment process in Mass Effect 3 since it works so well.

Throughout the trilogy, as the stakes have gotten higher, the music has evolved to reflect that. We started off with this almost experimental sound in Mass Effect 1, and it's grown into something much bigger over the past two games.

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Can you talk about the musical arc between the three games? By the time we got to the second you must have known a third was assured: did you plan out pieces ahead of time?

Sam: It's almost impossible to plan these things out ahead of time. People get the impression that the composer just swoops in and writes what they want, but it's a highly collaborative process between the composers and the project director and/or audio lead. You can't really plan things ahead of time too much because you never know what the story is going to be like until they call you up and give you the details.

The game ties together a lot of themes and returning characters - did you have to return to previous games to make sure you got the correct musical motifs for each?

Sam: A lot of memorable themes and motifs are introduced in Mass Effect 1. Some of these are "root themes" which are very heavily tied to the story, and I reference some of them in the third game. They were still pretty firmly planted in my head so I didn't really have to go back to the previous games to recall them.

Cris & Sascha: We were only asked to briefly quote Legion's theme at one point. ME3 was really designed to be not only a sequel, but also a standalone experience for people that were new to the series. BioWare mostly had us concentrate on all new material for this one.

Scoring this must have meant an emotional investment - for both you and the studio, as you've all lived with these characters, this universe. Was it as much a collaborative project between studio and yourselves as it was between composers?

Cris & Sascha: We were the only ones to actually work collaboratively as composers on this project. But we've been doing that for years, not to mention Kasumi's Stolen Memory and Arrival. However, you're correct in saying that it was collaborative between us and BioWare. Rob and Mike definitely had a vision of how the music should play out to end the trilogy. Everyone's learned a lot from the last two games (and DLC) and we all feel like this culminated in the best score for the series!

Sam: It was a big emotional investment for sure. It felt like the stakes were the highest, working on the end of the trilogy, and everything we wrote mattered that much more. It was very much a collaboration between the composers and BioWare, but not so much among the composers themselves. I worked independently of the others and vice-versa, except for Cris and Sascha who often work together as a team.

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Mass Effect 3 is a heavily doom-laden story, with an element of hope running throughout Shepard's last mission: in effect, do you have to follow a similar path with the music and subtly inject melodies and pieces that give a element of hope?

Sam: Yeah, I definitely incorporated hints of melancholy with a lot of the material. Even from the very beginning at the main menu, the Victory Theme is subdued and has mixed emotions in it. The romance theme also has elements of longing and sadness intertwined within.

Cris & Sascha: Yes, that's exactly how a lot of the music went. There are just way too many spoilers to get specific at this point, but basically we tried to walk that fine line of supporting the gameplay + acknowledging loss and desperation + hope for saving humanity. It was a cool juggling act!

How long has it been since you've finished the soundtrack?

Sascha & Cris: I think we finished some last minute pickups around January, maybe 10 minutes or so of cinematics that weren't quite ready until then. We wrapped up everything else though, around 80 or 90 minutes of music, before Christmas of last year.

Sam: I wrapped up in January.

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How do you write an ending theme that encompasses not just this journey, but the past half-decade?

Sam: It's tough. It took a lot of collaboration between myself, Rob Blake and Casey Hudson, to nail down the right feel for the ending. I had to slip the main theme in there too; I couldn't see ending the trilogy and not coming full circle without some variation of the main theme. I like the way it turned out in the end.

Did you have any frame of reference for crafting this soundtrack, or was it re-framing the Mass Effect sound?

Sam: By this point Mass Effect has a pretty unique musical signature, so we mostly just referenced previous material as inspiration. It's funny, because in Mass Effect 1 BioWare gave us reference tracks from Tangerine Dream, Blade Runner, etc., and for Mass Effect 3 we actually had reference tracks from the previous Mass Effect games.

Cris & Sascha: Yes, it was very nice to be able to use the previous two games as a reference and style guide. Too often, we're asked to replicate a "flavor of the month" sound from some movie. With ME3, Rob and Mike gave us all the freedom we could ask for as long as we kept the music consistent with the overall Mass Effect sound.

We are expecting a soundtrack album - but obviously this will be a small cut of all the hours of music during the game. Two questions arise from this: how do you decide what should be on that CD, and like Mass Effect 2, could you envision multiple releases themed by style?

Sascha: Actually, we had little input with regards to the current CE soundtrack.

Sam: The composers were responsible for writing the music for the game, but assembling and releasing the soundtrack is really up to BioWare and EA. We had a little bit of input, mostly asking to include a couple things, but that was about it.

Given the prevalence of live performances of game music, could you see at the possibility of performing a Mass Effect-only concert?

Cris & Sascha: That's a great idea!

Sam: I'd say there's definitely enough musical content in the Mass Effect franchise to have a concert that maybe spanned all three in chronological order. Cool idea! Pardon me while I make some phone calls.

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Can we ask you each what your favourite piece of music has been from this game and why?

Sascha: Mine is the Character Creation screen, simply because it started originally out as a combat cue and then totally changed within a few days to something that to me, embodies everything I like about the ME music.

Cris: I'm still really digging Reaper Chase. It's super epic and the scene it goes with is mind-blowing!

Sam: I think I'd have to go with the romance theme "I Was Lost Without You". It's something I really enjoyed writing and it really strikes an emotional chord in me.

Now you've tracked your last piece for Mass Effect (at least for the near future), what next for you all?

Sam: I have some stuff coming up that I'm really excited about. Too early to talk about just yet, but hopefully soon!

Sascha & Cris: We have a few major things lined up. However, as per usual, we cannot talk about any of them just yet.

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