Immortals Fenyx Rising is a big, varied game, and its soundtrack provides beat-for-beat accompaniment for every onscreen action, changing to reflect whether Fenyx is running, gliding, riding, or fighting. Behind the tunes is award-winning composer Gareth Coker, whose credits include both Ori games, ARK: Survival Evolved, Minecraft, and Halo Infinite.
Coker began his career in 2010 by putting his music “everywhere online.” This included writing music for game mods and student films, which is how his work was first discovered by the director of Ori and the Blind Forest. He’s since gone on to contribute music to a range of other games, but Immortals Fenyx Rising is Coker’s first time at the helm of a triple-A open-world game’s soundtrack. To find out more about how a project of this scope takes shape, we sat down with Coker to talk about the sounds of Greek mythology, the process of creating interactive music, and how a soundtrack can take shape around a standout character.
How did you begin work on Immortals Fenyx Rising, and what was the process like?
Gareth Coker: I started last year, and I think one of the first things I did – it might actually be the very first thing I did – ended up becoming the main theme for the game. So the music in the trailer that was shown at E3 last year was the first thing I wrote, and it then became the main theme, and that really doesn't happen very often at all.
This game, and the way Ubisoft works, were very new to me. It's also my first open-world game; I've done some other games that are kind of open-world, but this the first open world with a narrative [I’ve worked on], and certainly the biggest. The sheer scope of this game requires such an insane amount of music to be written, and then it's all got to be interactive as well. Just one example of that is, we have exploration music that plays in each area of the game, and it changes whether you’re walking on the ground, on a horse, flying, or whether you're in combat, and it's all seamless.
That’s something that took me a while to get my head around. Once I did, the process started to flow really well. One of the things I wanted was to get something as authentically Greek as possible to combine with the non-Grecian instruments I’m using in the score. So I actually had a couple of Greek lyres commissioned by a luthier in Greece.
I'm almost surprised that there are still people making lyres. It’s not an instrument you often see in the real world.
GC: There are not that many but I found one called Luthieros. They try to make their instruments as authentic as possible, ethically using real horns and tortoiseshells combined with wood from the local Grecian area. The lyre is ever-present in the game as an accompaniment, and featured more strongly as part of Hermes’ music.
Image courtesy of Gareth Coker
The game has a really wide variety of music, too. A lot of the exploration music is quite soft, but then we’ve got all of these epic boss fights, and then there’s a ton of combat that occurs at a slightly less intense level in the game as well. The scope of the music is really super-soft and mystical in parts, because of the mythological element that is in the game. However, when you have these big character and enemy encounters that happen fairly frequently, we want to go really over the top. So in terms of instruments used, I was able to throw everything I wanted to at the project, and here we are.
Let's talk about the title theme: It starts out ethereal, but then it builds to something more stirring. What is it trying to evoke? What do you want players to think when they hear it?
GC: That was a fun one to do. It's actually quite rare in games to be asked to do a piece of music that's longer than three minutes, so it’s a chance to stretch my legs musically. But at that point, I had read a script, so I knew everything Fenyx was going to encounter in the game. I wanted to try and get all of that into one piece of music, so it basically encapsulates everything that the player might go through.
The opening is pretty intimate and vulnerable, because when you start the game you’re not very powerful. I wanted to try and maintain the sweetness and innocence throughout the track, but also still make it powerful, because yes, we are in the realm of the gods. It's a piece of music that the player should be able to listen to and think, “Yes, that is what Fenyx sounds like.” When people hear that melody right at the beginning, I want them to think, “Yes, this is only Fenyx’s [theme], you’ll never hear it again in any other game, it's just for Fenyx.”
Other than using the instruments themselves, do you find that there’s a musical sound or style people tend to associate with Greek myth? And how do you approximate that while still differentiating Immortals Fenyx Rising from other, thematically similar games?
GC: Greek mythology is kind of enjoying a renaissance at the moment. Obviously Assassin's Creed Odyssey is set in and around Greece, but because it's set in a more realistic world, I think the music itself is a touch more authentic to the period than what I have done. What I love about Immortals is, because of the visual style, the world, and storytelling, it allows me to use these real-world instruments as a starting point, but then I can take it into a much more magical realm, which is a signature of some of my previous work as well, and bring that in.
So we’ve got the magical sounds, which are created in my studio with a combination of acoustic and synthetic elements, and then we combine those with real instruments, which gives us the sound of Immortals. Yes, there are a lot of featured orchestral sounds, but in contrast, when the player enters the Vaults of Tartaros, the music is as ethereal and almost as non-orchestral as you can get. You're literally on an astral plane; you don't really need orchestra if you're on an astral plane. I did put one Greek instrument in the Vaults – the aulos. But I gave it a very washed out, reverbed, and heavily effected sound, so the origin of the sound is from the aulos, but it sounds otherworldly.
Image courtesy of Gareth Coker
Ultimately, I make my choices based on what the visuals and the gameplay inspire me to do musically. The best situation for me as a composer is when the game basically dictates that for me and I can feel it by playing it. I love it when a game that I work on does that and in Immortals, it feels like everything is working together.
When you're working with live instruments, say with an orchestra, how do you still compose music that can just change on the fly depending on whether you’re in exploration or combat?
GC: It doesn't really matter what instruments are used; the way I’ve ended up writing most of these, there’s a core piece of music that I sketch out on the piano, and then I'll assign certain instruments to only play when you're flying, for example. So when you're flying, you'll almost always hear a woodwind instrument. But you'll never hear the woodwind instrument while you're on a horse or in combat, as it's unique to the flying experience.
When you assign certain instruments to a certain gameplay feel, the player becomes familiar with them – and because it's being written within that same framework, you can change things on the fly. Another example: We only have a certain kind of drum play when you're riding a horse, and you don't hear that drum when you're in combat, so again, it feels unique. It's all about trying to make each form of gameplay feel unique through the choices of instruments I use, but they're all written around the same musical structure.
Each of the game’s regions is patterned after a different god, with a distinct feel; how did you express that feel in each region’s music?
GC: Every region has its own musical theme and feel. For example, Hephaistos’ music utilizes a lot of metallic instruments as he’s the god of the forge. In contrast, Aphrodite’s music is much lighter and feels a little bit more romantic. There's a lot of vocals in there. And Ares, the god of war – it doesn't really take much to imagine what the music sounds like for him. It's much heavier. The music is written to match each god’s distinct personality.
Each region has exploration music suites, like the flying, the battle, the horse, and basic exploration – so in total you've got about 15 to 18 (three to five per god) different suites of music that play while you're exploring in the game world, and they're all seamless and interactive.
Is that approach more complicated than your work on previous games?
GC: Well, it's just different. Every game has its own requirements for music, and like I said, this is the first open-world game that I've done, certainly on this scale. And having played the game a fair bit, I understand why the game needs as much music as it does. The thing about Ori is that, first of all, it takes place on a 2D plane, and so your perception of the world as a player is limited, whereas when you're playing a 3D game, you can go anywhere you can see on the X, Y, and Z axis.
In Ori, you can literally only go where you're seeing on the screen without the Z axis (depth); what that allows me to do is to be really, really picky and definitive about where the music changes, because I generally can predict what the player is going to do due to the limitation of where he/she can go. In Immortals, I can't, and so that's why we have the seamless interactive music systems that allow us to change things on the fly and not feel gimmicky.
In Ori, it's really me who’s defining the musical scope, whereas I would say in Immortals the player is deciding, because they can literally go anywhere in the world from the moment you start the game. I think every player is going to get a slightly different musical experience, because there are going to be some players who want to spend the whole game on a horse, and maybe some players who want to spend as much time as possible flying. It's going to be a different feel for everyone who plays. Hopefully this illustrates why it’s tough to compare Ori and Immortals because every game has a different musical need that needs to be thought through thoroughly.
What was your favorite thing about composing for Immortals? Was there a particular piece that really stands out?
GC: I always enjoy doing boss fights, and there are a lot of them in this game. I think the cool thing about boss fights is that they really allow you to kind of stretch your legs musically, because it's a general expectation in games that the music's got to be pretty big and epic. Especially in a game like this, which is dealing with Greek mythology, you can go all out. I think I remember sending a piece to the music supervisor [Jerome Angelot], and he responded, “Yeah, I want more! Louder! Make it bigger!”
But the thing I enjoyed most about this project is its range; I wasn't expecting the range of music. I think when you go into a project like this, you just see the words “Greek; mythology; epic,” and you think of a certain sound, and it ended up being way, way more than that. That comes down to Fenyx, the main character, and her journey. I hadn't expected it to be so character-driven. And then you've got all of the individual gods who you meet throughout the game and their stories and interactions with each other. There's nothing better than having fun characters to work with, because you can help give them an identity. And some of the voice acting is extremely entertaining, so I can get in there and support that just a little bit.
When it all comes together, it feels really good. I think for me, whenever I'm working with great characters, it's usually a chance to tell a story with music. I think the range of music that I was allowed to write due to how the characters and story develop is probably the main aspect I enjoyed most. It was more story-driven than I was expecting, and the amount of personality the game has is something I hope comes across in the music, the game, and ultimately for the players to enjoy!
Immortals Fenyx Rising launches on December 3 for Stadia, Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, Switch, and Amazon Luna. Click here to play the demo and pre-order Immortals Fenyx Rising. For more on the game, check out our previous coverage.