Interview: Olivier Deriviere, composer of Remember Me and Assassins Creed IV: Freedom Cry
Remember Me may not have won critics over when it released last year, but one thing was almost universally praised: its soundtrack. Oliver Deriviere's evolving score reflects the journey of Nilin, a heroine who must recover her lost memories.
In addition to Capcom's brawler, Deriviere most recently worked on the soundtrack to Freedom Cry, the single-player DLC expansion for Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. We had a chance to talk with Deriviere about his versatile work, ranging from techno orchestral to traditional Haitian music.
When did your involvement with music begin?
At the age of 5, but my first passion was video games. I fell in love with games since I could watch a pixel move on a screen and this is when I first experienced a game called Shadow of the Beast on the Commodore Amiga. At the same time I became fascinated by music for games. Since then I wanted to be a part of this great medium and the most accessible way for me was to merge my musical education with my passion for games.
Could you explain the process of creating the music in the game?
For years I have been trying to push the creative process to deliver a truly interactive score for each game I work on. Generally I start by capturing the main vision of the game but what is truly interesting and singular in music for games is how the music can help the player's experience with feedback and rewards based on his or her actions. In my opinion the best way to provide a great game score is to experience it... by playing the game itself. Just think of John Williams scoring Star Wars without having seen the movie, it's possible but the result might be way different. However there is no standard process to create music for games which is why it is so exciting!
Were there any difficulties or challenges you faced while scoring?
The most difficult part was to avoid normalization. Mainly it can happen on two aspects. The first is the music composition itself. I try every time to create a sound that is unique to the game so it will add a true identity and add another dimension to the experience. The second is how the music works with the game, how it is integrated. I want to support the progression of the player as much as I can, therefore I need to compose a music structure that is always progressing, otherwise the effect of normalization starts. It is tough since a game is generally 10 hours long and you can't score the whole game with wall-to-wall music. You need to make decisions on strategic points and features to feel fresh every time it is needed for the player.
How did you get involved with Remember Me?
It was after an anonymous pitching process. I knew the project would be hard to win so I took the risk and sent them something completely crazy, a form of electronic music with a lot of modern sounds. To my great surprise they selected me!
What was your approach to writing Remember Me theme?
Ironically it is the first track on the soundtrack, though it should really be the last. Remember Me tells the story of Nilin, a memory hunter, who lost all of her memory and struggles to get it back. This main theme is thread throughout the entire game in various stages as she recovers her memory step-by-step. Therefore this cue only plays in its full form at the end of the game. Also, to reflect the idea of digitized memories, our approach was very unique since we went to record a live orchestra at Air Studios in London to process it with electronic manipulation.
Do you prefer to record the music live or are you open to doing it all by computer?
I love live music and I think it is a great way to express emotions but I don't recommend scoring a game with live music only. A game production is an iterative process where you try and fail many times. It means that you may need to adapt your music as many times as needed and to be dependent on recording only live music doesn't give you much flexibility. That's why I write a lot of temporary music on computer and when we know the game is advanced enough I go record it live. But never the whole score, just some parts that are dramatically improved by a live performance.
How does your music for Freedom Cry standout in the Assassin's Creed franchise?
I would start by saying that the game itself stands out in the franchise. For once it's not a plot about assassins and Templers but it's about a former slave named Adéwalé who became an assassin and gets stranded on Haiti after his ship is sunk. At first he just wants to leave but then he discovers how deep he was affected by the struggle of his own people being enslaved. The music is then much more centered on his journey. Also what I really wanted to try was to blend two cultures in the music, the traditional music from that time and my own score. This is meant to reflect what is happening with Adéwalé; the more he stays on the island, the more the roots of his people, including their music, comes back to him. Also, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is used to featuring solo female singers and to follow this legacy we applied a similar concept, except that we used a solo male voice as it fit much better with the main character.
Was the fusion of traditional Haitian music and your own original score a challenge?
It was a major challenge. First of all, because I had such a short period of time to write the score but mostly because Haitian music is quite challenging for a European composer. When we were first recording the traditional songs with La Troupe Makandal it was an unfamiliar style of composition, counter to my western musical heritage, so I had to think with a different mindset and learn to find the rhythm patterns, the down beat and the upbeat. I had to really understand their ways of musical expression since my goal was to create my score on top of theirs. Once I figured that out I could see how deep the possibilities were. But the highlight was to watch the faces of the string players of The Brussels Philharmonic when they first read the score; they looked at me like I wanted them to do a marathon but in the end they loved it, all the way to the finish line!
Did the character of Adéwalé, an escaped slave, have an effect on any of your music direction?
He was the direction. I felt really happy when I first had contact with the game because Adéwalé is a strong character with a lot of personality and a profound history. The music follows his progression, not only his actions but also his reactions to his surroundings. At first he doesn't seem much affected by what is happening in Haiti but the more he stays, the more his roots come back to him and the more he wants to help. The music had to reflect this progression and the more you play, the more the African roots influenced the strings. I think it's quite effective.
Deriviere worked on the soundtrack to Remember Me (pictured)
Black Flag tells a difficult story about slaves