Dawn of Ragnarök is the biggest DLC in Assassin's Creed to date, and it needed a score to match its scope. Fortunately, Stephanie Economou, a composer best known for her work in Netflix's Jupiter's Legacy, Starz' Step Up: High Water, and Assassin's Creed Valhalla's Siege of Paris expansion, was up to the challenge. Economou sat down with Ubisoft News to detail how she created the mythic sounds of Svartalfheim by mixing the black metal and folk music genres, and surmounted some of the challenges that came with the project.
How did you come to be involved with Dawn of Ragnarök?
Stephanie Economou: I was the composer on the Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Siege of Paris expansion, which was released last year. I was thrilled and honored that Ubisoft wanted me back for another expansion. I love exploring the different worlds of Assassin's Creed and conjuring up musical ideas for these stories, so I was grateful to get another chance to collaborate with the Ubisoft team on Dawn of Ragnarök.
What kind of preparation did you do before composing? How does one research music for a story with both historical and mythological ties?
SE: For Siege of Paris, I did a ton of research about what the music of France sounded like during that specific historical period. It was inspiring to discover these ancient instruments and use them as portals to express my musical ideas for the game. Going from scoring Siege of Paris to a story like Dawn of Ragnarök, which is based in Norse mythical worlds, was an interesting experience. In the case of Ragnarök, I felt I was able to discover a different side of me as a composer, which opened the doors to a new artistic process. That's why it's so rewarding to compose music for Assassin's Creed. You can have these historically driven narratives and the music can echo the sounds of that time while still being hyper-modern, edgy, and rule-breaking.
Did you learn any new instruments or types of music for this project?
SE: I ended up acquiring a three-stringed tagelharpa (or talharpa), which is a unique Scandanavian instrument. Out of all the instruments I've tried out, the tagelharpa definitely has the steepest learning curve. It took quite a bit of finesse and practice to get even a halfway decent sound out of it, but after a couple of weeks of angrily abandoning it and sequestering it to the back of the studio, I managed to capture some cool bowed and plucked layers. It proved to be an awesome coloristic addition to the score.
Were there any Nordic instruments or styles of music you knew had to be part of Dawn of Ragnarök?
SE: In early discussions with the creative team, they mentioned wanting the sound for this score to be somewhat of a departure from Valhalla. The game developers were interested in exploring influences of black metal for the score, which I thought was a really exciting and unexpected challenge, so I set out to design the sound of the Muspels, Jötnar, and Surtr - our nemeses - to reflect the black metal style. Much of the score weaves between that tonal palette and a more neo-folk and primitive orchestral lens to give the story the emotional breadth and power I felt it needed.
You mentioned drawing on influences of black metal and Nordic folk music. How did you make these two seemingly incongruous genres work together?
SE: They're surprisingly not a million miles away from each other, in my opinion. There are many different dimensions within the black metal genre, but the most widely known is the Norwegian style, which has heavily distorted guitars, shrieking vocals, and raw production. Some of it can be uniquely ambient, some of it is cinematic and symphonic. I found the melodic and harmonic content in black metal shares a similar language with Nordic folk music. The folk side might use a more minimal acoustic palette, but the bones of the vocabulary have a lot of overlap.
Did you experiment with any instrument or style combinations? What worked? What didn't?
SE: For a lot of the exploratory cues, I leaned more into the neo-folk influence. I would pick up a mandolin or cigar box guitar and improvise, using my main theme as fodder for developing motifs and melodic phrasing. I would then layer in some harmony and counter-lines on viola, vielle, cello, and vocals. In addition, the pieces of music need fight layers on top of the exploration bed for when the player enters into a conflict zone. The fight layers often used percussion, bass, and guitar from the black metal genre, which I designed to represent the enemy territories of the Muspels and Jötnar. As I mentioned earlier, the folk and black metal genres pair surprisingly well together, so it was cool to have those styles intertwining.
What was it like collaborating with Wilderun?
SE: Wilderun truly changed everything about this score. They are a killer progressive black metal and neo-folk group, and I knew that I wanted them to be the primary musicians featured on this score. Wayne Ingram, their guitarist and orchestrator, introduced me to the music of Bathory, Heilung, and Wolves in the Throne Room, which were great catalysts for getting the inspiration flowing. At the start of the project, I had all of the band members do sampling sessions where they recorded various sounds, patterns, FX, and riffs so I could use them as stylistic building blocks while composing. I sent Jon Teachey, the drummer, a list of tempi, meters, and subdivisions and he gave me long stretches of loops, fills, and blast beats. Ingram came into my studio for a session and we played around with a ton of different guitar riffs, chugging rhythms, and distorted riser effects. Dan Müller and Evan Anderson Berry sent me a toolkit of metal growls and screams (which are by far the most fun to listen to isolated). Having those black metal colors to draw from as I was writing was super useful and we continued to record throughout the process.
Which Dawn of Ragnarök track was the most challenging to compose? What made it difficult, and how did you overcome those challenges?
SE: I think the toughest nut to crack was the final phase of the boss fight with Surtr (the track which ends the album, entitled Odin vs. the Elderstahl). I ended up re-writing and re-tweaking that one quite a bit. It can be challenging to gauge the level of intensity and action needed when you already have two quite heavy fight phases which precede it. In my first attempt, I made a pretty common mistake: I chose a tempo that was too fast, and it didn't have the right oomph. It felt chaotic, shallow, and lacked any kind of force in scope. When I re-wrote it, I chose a much slower tempo (which might seem counter-intuitive for a final all-out boss fight), but it ended up giving it a profound dominance. Surtr himself isn't a nimble, quick character. He's huge, commanding, and terrifying, and by having a slower pace and creating space within the sequence, it captured the stakes better. I also incorporated a lot of harmony changes and thematic quotes, which I think helped add an emotional complexity.
Which track is your favorite? Why?
SE: I tend to hate picking favorites of my own music. It's part of this whole debilitating self-loathing thing I have going on [laughs], but I can say I'm really proud of how the Main Theme turned out. It was an honor to have Einar Selvik record vocals for it because it made for a really special piece of music. Overall, I'm really pleased with the diversity of style and emotional breadth on the album and I hope others respond to that as well.
What impact do you hope the music has on players and their gameplay experience?
SE: I always want the music to transport the players to these vivid worlds. I want them to feel like they are the character they're embodying. I want them to feel their intuition, their plight, and their victories. In games, a player can be immersed in the score for days and weeks, which is a huge departure from the film and TV world. There's an opportunity to build strong emotional associations between the music and the story, and if I'm able to pull that off, I consider it a success.
Dawn of Ragnarök is available in the Ubisoft Store, or with a Ubisoft+ subscription. For more on Assassin's Creed Valhalla's latest DLC, read about Dawn of Ragnarök's launch or its mythic inspiration here.