The Music of War – An Interview With Composer Wilbert Roget

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  • Wilbert Roget II literally broke into the world of composing. He’d been hired out of school to work at LucasArts, where he’d be assisting in the music department. In his interview he was told directly that he would never write a note of music at LucasArts. And then he overheard a conversation he was not supposed to overhear.

    “The music supervisor and audio director were talking about the game,” Roget tells me, regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic. “They said we need an additional seven hours of music for this game and we need to hire an additional composer. I wasn’t supposed to hear that conversation but I did. So I was on the bus ride home and scribbling little stuff in a notebook and putting it in the computer when I got home. I showed up the next morning and handed music to the music supervisor. And the rest is history.”

    Roget invited himself into one of the best Star Wars game of all time and kickstarted his career through sheer force of will. What they thought would amount to thirty minutes of cues for the game became more than an hour of live orchestration. “I was in the right place at the right time,” Roget says. “I stood up to say ‘Here I am.’”

    Now, at only 34 years of age, “Will” has scored some of the biggest franchises in gaming with his unique takes on regional instrumentations and complicated themes. But Roget’s arc is a bit of advice that everyone can learn from: just keep building relationships until people can’t ignore you any longer.

    I ask Roget how one goes about getting a job scoring Call of Duty, in case, you know, someone else might want to get that gig. “I just emailed them,” he tells me. Well, there’s that.

    While Roget has done the score for the forthcoming Dead Island 2, he’s currently doing a victory lap in celebration of scoring Call of Duty: WWII. Being 34 and having scored the top selling videogame franchise of all time is nothing to scoff at. And that’s why it is winning awards.

    But how do you bring something new to the sound of World War II? “You want to set a theme as early as possible, which sets what your game is about,” Roget says. “I was familiar with all the previous Call of Duty scores, but the way we built the game was to keep it from being overtly classic or overtly modern. So I decided: there would be an iconic melodic theme and that would be set to a signature sound. Everything in the game is set to a signature sound.” Roget created two main ideas. The first is a “memory of war” in which a trumpet theme and a melody which recalls the distant memory of war; the heroism of what war used to mean. Secondly, he created the “haze of war” which pulls hues from the visuals and adds to a confusion and panic. He orchestrated the entire game and then pulled time period sound effects to create the percussion. The cymbals are all steam trains with sound effects and time period artillery became the drums. Roget kept giving each track a pass until he felt like he’d made the score as dense as possible.

    I ask Roget how one goes about getting a job scoring Call of Duty, in case, you know, someone else might want to get that gig. “I just emailed them,” he tells me. Well, there’s that.

    The long answer is that a fellow Bay Area audio director had befriended Roget while he was still at LucasArts, and they’d kept in touch after LucasArts became no more. Roget kept the friendship going and then one day, over a Facebook post, this led to Roget being brought into discussion about a forthcoming Tomb Raider title. Roget wound up doing the score for Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, one of the shockingly good isometric co-op games in the franchise. Roget became obsessed with learning regional instruments and using them in way that other composers don’t.

    “We were talking about how to use music or how to build entire levels devoid of music,” Roget says, “because Tomb Raider was trying to do that and I was trying to do the same thing in The Force Unleashed 2. And beyond that, there’s all these world instruments specific to where this game was set that I wanted to explore. Most composers just look at a new instrument and write around the range of notes the instrument has. I dig in and do research. Hundreds of pages of research. Because other cultures use instruments, not just for their tones, but for different meanings.”

    It’s that kind of dedication to the craft that allows people to hire Roget without the oversight they’d normally apply to a new hire. “For Guild Wars: Path of Fire, they gave me some cool production art,” Roget says, “and then instead of the normal reference tracks they just asked if I could do the exact same thing I did for Temple of Osiris.” That’s how you know you’ve created a signature sound. “Guild Wars has this rich musical tradition, but my expansion was set in a non-Egypt? A fantasy version of Egypt. So we brainstormed how to make that happen with an orchestra, a choir, and a couple soloists who are just incredible at their instrument.”

    So how does one apply that same sourcing of instruments and time to build one of the best Call of Duty soundtracks ever? “I watched a lot of WWII films,” Roget says, “but also films from that time period that had nothing to do with the war. And then films like Zero Dark Thirty that share the DNA of war.” And then Roget opens the notebook file on his computer and just begins writing every single idea he has. “One text file is the biggest tool I have. Gigantic text files that include the combination of small ideas like “we should combine bass clarinets and electric guitars!” Or it can be as abstract as a concept like my “haze of war” that became the most important idea in my Call of Duty score.”

    The Hurt Locker was a breakthrough for me,” Roget says. “The score to that, you could throw into a horror movie and it would work. It is score — not to the events — but to the psychology of the characters. That’s where I came up the idea of scoring Call of Duty to the first person instead of the third person. My game score exists within you, instead of within what other people see. That’s a twist and it is perfect for the protagonist.”

    With Roget’s history of globetrotting scores, I close by asking what his dream Call of Duty games is; given the option of any time or place. “The Eastern Front in WWII,” Roget says. “Let me do the Japanese conflict. Or really anything. It’s Call of Duty, I’m not going to say no to anything.

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