On February 5, composer Stephanie Economou took home the first Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media for her work on Assassin's Creed Valhalla's Dawn of Ragnarök DLC. This historic moment shines a light on the new award category, which celebrates the talent and expertise of music composers in videogames and legitimizes them amongst the pantheons of film and TV composers.
Economou's hard work on Dawn of Ragnarök and her talent are to be celebrated, but behind her and her Grammy stand the Ubisoft Sofia audio team and the Ubisoft Music team who helped her realize her full potential. We spoke with Alkis Argyriadis, head of Ubisoft Music, and Simon Landry, music supervisor, who shared what it took to win the inaugural award and shined a spotlight on the team behind the music.
Composing the Team
The Ubisoft Music team is a team of 15 people, all of whom are passionate about, and experts in, music. Their main priorities include music supervising, such as working with composers and production teams; music licensing, which involves the rights to use pre-existing music; and publishing and marketing, which includes partnerships and distribution of music created by the team.
Argyriadis, who has been at Ubisoft for over 20 years, joined the Music team four years ago and has always had music as the guiding theme of his career in the company. His work first started in audio and music systems and supervision, after which he became creative director on games such as Michael Jackson: The Experience and the Just Dance franchise. His vision for music in games is expressed in the team's values, which are music being a creative channel for artists to speak to a global audience and the intersection between creativity and technology.
Working with Argyriadis is Landry, who joined Ubisoft in 2008. Though Landry's work manifests mostly in a creative way, it also requires a good sense of music-business awareness. His main role is to be the central point of contact between composers, agents, and production teams, all while following the creative journey from the first note on paper. Landry not only worked directly with Economou on the Dawn of Ragnarök soundtrack, but strongly recommended her to be the composer on Siege of Paris. But what does a music supervisor actually do?
The scope of what "music supervising" means for the team cannot be contained by these two words. From finding a composer and working with audio teams to the end product of the music, and every step in between that leads to an impactful soundtrack, Landry's role is instrumental.
Music in games can be considered as a character itself, adding an emotional presence to the narrative. Music in games can support long action sequences, lift a vibrant cutscene, or deepen a player's level of immersion and emotional connection while exploring the world. All this combined with its interactive nature, video games are a medium that offers a unique opportunity to players to develop a deep emotional connection with the soundtrack that will magnify their journey. This considerable impact on the gaming experience means that choosing a composer is a crucial task that can set the tone of the entire game.
"Finding the perfect composer is almost 50% of the work," Landry says. "Once we have assessed the devs' vision for music, the budget, and the timeline, we're good to get started." This search includes keeping in touch with current music trends, feeding the team's talent radar with new soundtrack releases, having frequent conversations with agencies, and understanding the business practices in the world of music for the screen.
Another side of a music supervisor's job is to help composers navigate the process of adapting their music pieces to technical requirements that are specific to Ubisoft's gameplay mechanics. The team's support involves defining a cue list, finessing the music briefs, reviewing the submitted material regularly, and updating the composer with the latest creative info, while making sure to keep a careful eye on the timeline. When needed, the team can also work directly to alleviate the technical challenges of music integration by offering additional music-editing services (layering, transitions) and creating additional content (underscores).
Landry adds that it's important to find someone who has great composing and producing skills and is eager to explore innovative ideas regarding interactive solutions, while being able to deliver the emotional impact necessary for the project. Which is exactly what made Economou the perfect fit for the Siege of Paris and Dawn of Ragnarök DLC.
Economou and the Team
When it came to pushing the limits and delivering high-quality music with a unique style, Economou fit every criterion for the DLC. Having never composed for a video game prior to Siege of Paris, Economou says it was an exciting challenge.
"Ubisoft took a chance on me and hired me when I had no experience writing for games," she says. "That really goes to show how much they value discovering new talent and fostering relationships with different kinds of artists. There are very few companies who prioritize taking risks like that in the hiring process."
"During my lookout for a composer, I was already following Economou's career progress and could tell she was about to break out! When I reached out and she sent in some creations, they really spoke for themselves," Landry says. "It was a dream collaboration."
Following her high-quality work on Siege of Paris, the team suggested she work on Dawn of Ragnarök, this time with a different approach. Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which sees players take on the role of Eivor Varinsdottir during the Viking expansions into the British Isles, features composers Jesper Kyd, Sarah Schachner, and Einar Selvik, who leaned into Norse inspiration to create an authentic Viking experience. For Economou, it was requested she keep these Norse roots in the DLC but add a modern twist to it. With this, the idea of exploring black metal came up, and Economou eagerly took the challenge on to create the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack.
"It was an unusual choice for a Norse mythological story, and I was instantly intrigued," she recounts. "When I saw some of the concept art and the design of [characters and enemies in the game], I could hear all of those colors and instruments in my head."
Today, the importance of music in games is clear, with the new Grammy category only legitimizing it further within the wider entertainment industry. However, this hasn't always been the case, and Argyriadis and Landry say the team and the industry have come a long way since they started years ago.
For Argyriadis, the biggest challenge in elevating the genre was breaking away from cliches that have been imposed on games, such as being too violent or repetitive. "Ubisoft's strength is the diversity of its catalogue, giving us the freedom to use different musical aesthetics." From Valiant Hearts with its jazz-inspired score, to Scott Pilgrim and its retro gaming music, and the rock industrial style of Ghost Recon, Ubisoft's games give the team the freedom to explore and create different types of music. "The industry thinks we're just using the same go-to recipe for our games when we're actually innovating."
This industry's hesitancy to view video game music as a legitimate medium for creativity also affected Landry's work, especially when it came to finding composers.
"Our team has become more credible, and the odds of working with a big-name composer have increased drastically in the past 15 years," Landry says. He explains that, with awards like the Grammy, as well as the BAFTA win on Far Cry 4, video game music has toppled the former hierarchy of TV and film, allowing gaming composers, teams, and companies to be seen as legitimate actors in the genre.
"Thanks to the Grammy, we now belong to pop and mainstream culture in a very large way," Landry says.
The Future of Music
This Grammy win is the result of years of the team challenging not only the way the industry views music in games, but the way composers' efforts are officially recognized.
For Argyriadis, the Grammy sheds a light on the efforts the team has made and shows what it's capable of producing while validating the hard work that went into creating the new category. "This win is historical," he says. "Not only did a Ubisoft game win this Grammy, but a woman composer won it as well." Landry agrees, adding that this global recognition is a huge moral boost for the team and gives them the chance to be more ambitious in their projects.
As a composer, Economou adds that this Grammy signifies the impact video game music can have on players and highlights the uniqueness of the genre. "We are collectively evolving the dimensionality of media music," Economou says. "We are pushing the boundaries of how deeply we can experience and absorb stories."
Industry-side, both Argyriadis and Landry say the genre may see an increase in competition as more teams develop their music departments, and more composers want to work with video game companies. Argyriadis adds that even players will have an impact, since games such as Just Dance and Rocksmith+ have given them the power of music creation. "Those who are the artists of tomorrow have grown up with our games and are more than welcome in our future experiences."
At Ubisoft Music, passion for music is the heart of what animates the team in all their work, and they are looking for individuals who are just as passionate about music and what is to come for the genre.