Mass Effect: A Space Odyssey

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BioWare’s Mass Effect was not just one of the most (deservedly) hyped games of 2007, but perhaps the biggest sci-fi epic to ever grace the medium, with an equally impressive soundtrack comparable to the classic scores of Star Wars or Blade Runner. A tall statement, to be sure, but few games in recent memory have been able to evoke both the feeling of atmospheric wonder and impending danger of outer space that composer Jack Wall and his team have created. We spoke with Wall about his involvement in the first installment of the Mass Effect trilogy.

XLR8R: What were your goals for Mass Effect?

Jack Wall: Since Mass Effect is an original title, not based on any pre-existing license, my goal was to create a musical signature for the game that would take it through many years of sequels and expansions. So the challenge was to create something unique and interesting that would really add to the experience and become one with the title over a long period of time.

The music captures the spirit of late ’70s/early ’80s sci-fi films, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, or even John Carpenter. Did these artists influence you?

Yes, they did. In fact, this was the vision for the score put forth by Casey Hudson, the Project Director on Mass Effect. He had a very clear idea of what the music should be. My job, at least initially, was to come up with a sound to match these influences, but also to make something unique and that could stand on its own. Other influences were the Cliff Martinez score to the remake of Solaris and some other ’80s films with more heroic influences.

Has music achieved a respectable status in gaming?

I think it’s maturing nicely over time. I’ve been totally into the score to Halo 3, where Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori took a very counter-pastoral approach. It ends up highlighting the artwork and gameplay as a more visceral or even spiritual experience. The music is beautiful, which sort of runs counter to what’s happening in the game, but works really well. I see that as a sign of maturity–something film music has done for decades.

What tools did you use to create Mass Effect’s haunting soundscapes?

As with almost all composers nowadays, I use computers to make the music. Since we were basing the score on the ’70s/’80s electronic masters, I used Moog synths, the [Yamaha] CS-80, etcetera, and I equipped myself with the Arturia soft-synth remakes of all of those instruments. I also use Reason, Reaktor, Absynth, Albino, Atmosphere, Trilogy, Stylus RMX, Sonik Synth 2, and the state-of-the-art orchestral- and ethnic-instrument libraries. I want to mention that although I am the lead composer on Mass Effect, I worked with three others on this score–Sam Hulick [was] my co-composer, with Richard Jacques and David Kates providing additional music.

What other games have you worked on? Any other current projects?

I worked on the Myst series for many years, Splinter Cell, Jade Empire, and many other titles–around 30 in all. Right now, I’m focused on Video Games Live with my partner Tommy Tallarico. We’re traveling all over the world performing the greatest hits of videogaming with a full orchestra and choir, synchronized to game footage and a moving light show. It’s really a lot of fun and the demand for it has been increasing at a rapid pace.

Were you a fan of sci-fi before Mass Effect?

Yes! I love the newer, more mysterious side of sci-fi, like the stories in Event Horizon, Solaris, and the much more recent Sunshine. Mass Effect really works well for me since the story starts only a few years in the future with a discovery on Mars. Since, in reality, humans are planning to go to Mars right now, you can sort of extrapolate how the Mass Effect story could actually happen. I think the best sci-fi stories are all firmly grounded in reality. You have to be able to see how they relate to real life. That’s why I’m happy about the direction of the music for Mass Effect–it has the futuristic sound from the electronics mixed with more organic sounds. Machine-meets-man–very cool stuff.

Mass Effects Audio Clips
Listen to audio clips from the soundtrack to BioWare’s Mass Effect.

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