Interview w/ Cataclysm Composer David Arkenstone

A good video game soundtrack is an important step in creating that sense of “immersion” that so many developers talk about. A good soundtrack can breathe life into the game world. It can help set a mood or elicit an emotional response from the player. And when Blizzard audio director Russell Brower wanted to breathe some life into World of Warcraft, he turned to composer David Arkenstone.

Known for a style of music described by some as a sort of cinematic New Age rock, Arkenstone was first responsible for scoring the Darkmoon Faire and the game’s many taverns. Since then, he’s gone on to create music for the Argent Tournament, the Fire Portal event and, now, the latest expansion – Cataclysm. GameZone recently had a chance to talk to the composer about his latest work, what areas of the game he enjoyed working on the most, and what games he might want to work on in the future.

GameZone: What music, specifically, did you work on in Cataclysm?

David ArkenstoneArkenstone: Basically, when we first started plotting out the music for it there were four or five composers involved, so we all had a meeting and sort of started picking zones. The minute I heard there was going to be an underwater zone, I threw my hat in for that because I thought that would really be fun, and it was. Then, we each ended up with 10 or 12 different zones because the game is just absolutely huge. I was really interested in doing a couple of new zones, which Vashj’ir was, and the majority of Hyjal was new. So, I tried to latch onto that.

Then, I also did the Mulgore music and Grimtotem, Plaquelands, Feralas, Stonetalon and Durotar. I did a new theme for Orgrimmar incorporating the old themes. Then, I got to do a pirate song, which was really cool. Then, I did some music for the Tanaris Desert and Thousand Needles. There’s probably a couple other zones I’m forgetting now. Then, I just did some random songs. I did a war march and then I did something called “Aftermath,” which we cut up. It’s in the game in several places. But it’s really an adventure making music like that because, at the beginning, there’s very little to go on except a few pieces of concept art. So, there was a lot to do. I did 46 pieces for Cataclysm. It’s pretty amazing.

GZ: Which zone was your favorite to work on?

Arkenstone: I really liked being able to do a pirate song (laugh). I’ve always wanted to do one and especially with a full orchestra. So, I talked Russell into it and actually it ended up in some good places. But, I really liked doing music for the Naga and Vashj’ir. Probably, if I had to pick one area, I would have picked that. That and Hyjal, because it was pretty new. The storyline isn’t that new, but the area has been totally expanded. That was probably my second favorite. Then the Durotar stuff, because I got to use the metallic sounds and big drums for the Orcs and tried to make some really good moods, kind of really bad moods but, you know, rich moods, I guess I should say. But, Vashj’ir is probably my favorite.

GZ: I haven’t had a chance to see Vashj’ir yet. Have you had a chance to go in, as a player, and experience it yourself?

Arkenstone: No. I’m a really bad player. I know if I spent the time to be a good player, that’s all I would be doing and I would not be doing any music in the rest of my life, I think, because the game is so immersive. So, I’m slow and because of that, I just went to Blizzard and had them show me the different implementations of my music, actually all the music. We went through a whole bunch of zones because I wanted to see how [it works]. If you’re there with the developer, they can just fly around without getting killed, or without anything hampering them. You can fly over stuff. It’s really nice because I got to see where all the music was. We did several different mixes of each piece so that it can be used throughout the player’s visit to an area.

GZ: So now that Cataclysm is done, are you excited to be back on the road again?

Arkenstone: You know, I really love touring at holiday time because everybody’s in such a good mood. Even if they’ve been shopping all day, they’re in a good mood. So, it’s always really good audiences. We tried some new songs and we even did a Warcraft song, so it was pretty fun. It’s nice touring and, then, it’s nice to stop touring and just have a nice holiday season with the family and then go out and maybe do more in January, February, maybe do other games, or something, if they come along.

GZ: Any particular games you’d like to work on?

Arkenstone: I’d like something along the Warcraft line. I wouldn’t mind doing something like Medal of Honor. I like doing epic things, I think. It’s probably my favorite because, with video game scoring, there’s a lot of freedom in it. I mean, yeah, you have to work with a bunch of other people that have ideas, of course, because you’re really part of a team. It’s not like when I do my own record. It’s like, ‘This is what I want to do, and nobody’s going to tell me different.’ But, if you decide you want to work on films, games, whatever it might be, you’re part of a team. You’re one cog in that wheel. You have to sort of check your ego at the door and do the best work you can and, in films, there’s all kinds of things – there’s on-screen things that you have to hit and moods you have to deliver and enhance – which is a great challenge and great fun. But, in a game, it’s much more wide open unless you’re doing a cinematic, where it’s really like scoring a trailer or a film. The palette is wide open. You can bring so much creativity and originality to it.

GZ: So, what’s next for you after the holidays?

Arkenstone: After the holidays, I am going to clean my studio up because it’s a mess! I can barely get to my keyboard. I have two new records I’m planning. One’s sort of a classical pop thing that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. Then, I’m working on two pieces for orchestra. One about the LA River – a lot of people don’t even know there is an LA River – and another one that’s a little bit more of a symphonic poem. I love doing games and there’s a couple that I’m in the running for, so it could happen. I can’t really talk about them. When I’m involved with a game, I can’t do anything else at that time. I spent four months, I think, on Cataclysm, solid. It’s a very rewarding kind of work to do.