Give a listen to ASCAP composer Jack Wall's music for the new Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Forget what you know about gaming; ignore the fact that the game itself grossed more than $500 million worldwide in its first 24 hours on the shelves, making it the biggest entertainment launch of all time. Fact is, Wall's score is as immersive and creative as any big-budget film score, one of the many reasons it was recently nominated for Best Original Score at the Spike TV Video Game Awards. And one of the many reasons we wanted to talk to him about it.
The soundtrack to Call of Duty: Black Ops II is massive. How many minutes of score overall did you compose, and what was your timeline like?
Yes it is! There's about 140 minutes of music in the game. I signed on in November of 2011. I started planning the score right away. The bulk of the writing happened between March and August of 2012 in bursts.
How closely did you work with Treyarch/Activision in conceiving your score?
I collaborated with [Treyarch Audio Director] Brian Tuey and some of the others on the sound team at Treyarch on an almost daily basis. Additionally, I would go into their offices every two to three weeks to look at new levels and begin planning how to write for them. In general, Brian and I would look at a video playthrough and "spot" the level. I would then create a Google doc spreadsheet that outlined all of the music with notes on tonality and purpose, approximate length and function of each piece. Then, I would set about writing those cues - to the same picture Brian and I would spot to. We have a pretty good system.
The game contains two storylines separated by some 50 years. How did you distinguish between the two musically? Were there any throughlines?
In a general sense, the 1980s were musically more acoustic and orchestral, while 2025 was more electronic, utilizing orchestra as well. I used a few different themes throughout. The first one I wrote was the "Raul Menendez Theme," which was derived from a traditional Nicaraguan lullaby called "Niño Precioso." You hear this in "Guerra Precioso" and "Savimbi's Pride" and in various cinematics throughout the game. "Hero's Theme" was another one that you hear whenever your black ops teammates are doing something well.
This is the first Call of Duty game to include branching storylines driven by player choice. Did that present any interesting challenges for you?
Not really - I'm used to that! Actually, I score games similar to the way one might score a movie. I just have to understand where the branches are and make sure that if something important is happening musically, it's covered. I suppose that's why I end up writing so much music.
There are also so many different countries traversed in the game, many of which you represent musically. Did you have to do any research on the ethnic instruments and sounds of Panama, Yemen, Myanmar, Afghanistan, etc.?
I really love ethnic world music. I've studied various elements of it for years. I think the trick for me is to do something that is in the world but doesn't take it over. It's a challenge to make sure that it works. You don't want it always to be like, "Okay, we're in the middle east. Cue the middle eastern music." It has to feel real, but keep the proper mood and also keep one foot in the actual throughline of the score and story. Sometimes being too literal with your location musically can take you out of that.
You're known for your use of live orchestra. Why was it important that you recorded actual instruments for such a sound design-intensive score?
I think on this one I felt it was more important to use individual soloists - both vocalists and instrumentalists - while mixing those with orchestra and sound design-type elements. I wanted to convey a sense that "a few take on the world." Soloists really work well in that way I think. The orchestra was used for power, passion and the overall quality of the sound. Orchestra can be gratuitous, but when mixed with the right elements, it can make a score sound powerful and emotional. Music is supposed to serve the emotion of the story. I'm really proud of the sound of this score as well as the composition.
You've spent so much of your professional composing career writing music for video games and being an advocate for the video game music community. What is unique about composers that do a lot of video game work?
I think good composers can write for anything. Games might be a bit more challenging because it's always a difficult prospect to understand what the gameplay will be like from start to finish. With film or TV, you score to a final cut and you can watch the whole thing from beginning to end and immediately understand where the arc of the story is. I'll have entire days devoted to trying to understand the storylines of a game and what the player will feel at any particular point. I used to get really stressed about the fact that I wasn't writing during those days, but now I just give into it. I end up writing better, more appropriate music if I truly get what the player is going through. And I think that's better for the game.
The Call of Duty: Black Ops II soundtrack is now available. Pick it up on iTunes or Amazon .
ABOUT JACK WALL: Jack Wall's distinguished musical career includes producing and engineering album recordings, film soundtracks, original scores for blockbuster franchises and live concert performances, while working with the world's top orchestras. Best known for his rich, cinematic scores for popular franchises such as Mass Effect, Myst, Splinter Cell and Jade Empire, Wall's repertoire encompasses a diverse range of musical styles and influences; from ethereal ambience, choral crescendos and heavy tribal orchestra to traditional Asian, Middle-Eastern, Eastern European instrumentation and futuristic electronic soundscapes.
In addition to his composing achievements, Wall co-created Video Games Live and served as its Music Director/Conductor from 2005 through 2010, performing with more than 50 of the world's finest orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and London Philharmonia Orchestra. Wall was co-founder of The Game Audio Network Guild and is a frequent speaker at various educational institutions such as USC, UCLA, Expressions Center for New Media and The Los Angeles Recording School. He currently serves as online faculty member of Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Now focusing full-time on his composing career, Wall's current projects include Lost Planet 3 for Capcom. He also recently released Quirky Orchestral, his debut album for publisher West One Music in the UK.
Find out more about Jack Wall at jackwall.net.