Category Archives: Creativity

The Music of Death Knight Lovestory (A Guest Post by Hugh Hancock)

It’s been a good while since we’ve had any news from Hugh over at MMO Melting Pot. In recent months the pot has quieted down rather noticeably and many bloggers, myself included, have been wondering about what happened or what secret projects may be afoot there. Well, a secret no longer.

I am very happy to feature a new guest post on MMO Gypsy. Having always considered this place a space not just for my own writing but also for my commenters thoughts, for blogosphere interaction and for supporting fellow bloggers’ creative ventures, I was excited to hear about Death Knight Love Story – an ambitious WoW machinima project only revealed today. Due to my interest in videogame soundtrack, Hugh has decided to focus on the creative process of creating the music, the challenges involved and his different MMO and movie influences. From here, all words are his own. (Syl)

The Music of Death Knight Lovestory by Hugh Hancock

What’s the only thing scarier than trying to create something great? Trying to follow something great. That was the problem I bit off with Death Knight Love Story.

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Death Knight Love Story is my crazily ambitious Machinima fan-film, the first part of which was released about 8 hours ago. It’s voiced by Hollywood actors Anna Chancellor, Joanna Lumley, Jack Davenport and Brian Blessed. It’s not Machinima animated in the standard way, instead being fully motion captured and rendered using the same software WETA were using at the time I picked it up. And it tells a pretty ambitious story: the story of two Death Knights who fall in love whilst under the Lich King’s sway – but only one of them escapes his power, and they end up on opposite sides of the battle…

Obviously, even more than a game, a film needs music. And with Death Knight Love Story, I had not just one but three great touchstones to follow. My cinematography had been heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, and Howard Shore’s shadow falls long over the entire fantasy genre. Meanwhile, the purity of the romance was inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge – not a low bar for music there. And finally, of course, there was the music of World of Warcraft, which I personally think is almost the equal of Shore’s work in places.

If it had just been me and Garageband, I cannot stress how very screwed I would have been. Fortunately, I made the best – and scariest – call I could…

So here’s the tale of how we ended up composing an alternate musical take on the World of Warcraft and the fresh new takes on fantasy we found as a result, which I hope might make their way into other games’ scores in future! But first, here’s a quick trailer for you:

A New Fantastic Influence

The music for Death Knight Love Story was composed by Ross Campbell, one of Scotland’s best-known composers for screen, TV, opera, and even house music. I took the same approach to finding a composer that I took to finding a casting director, and subsequently actors: I pulled up a list of Scottish TV composers and started with the person who sounded the most dramatically overqualified to work on my movie. I was expecting nothing more than a rather curt “no” – but was astonished when Ross agreed to work on Death Knight Love Story!

On our first meeting, Ross immediately and dramatically changed the way I was thinking about the film’s score for the better. I’d had Shore and the WoW music in my mind – classic Western orchestral soundtracks. Frankly, rather cliche. But Ross’s first thought on watching the film was much more interesting. He felt it was an obvious reference, but it had never occurred to me as a lifelong cinephile and fantasy fan: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

Kurosawa was one of the most influential film directors of all time, a recipient of the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement and the director of films like Seven Samurai – yes, the original. Ran was one of his later works – based on King Lear, it’s an incredibly dark film, focused on themes of chaos, nihilism, and death.

It’s also set in medieval Japan, and in many ways feels a lot like a mid-eighties, Japanese Game of Thrones. And its music, composed by Toru Takemitsu, fit astonishingly well with the themes of Death Knight Love Story and the Death Knights of WoW in general. The chaos, darkness and violence of a Death Knight’s life is almost eerily similar to the themes explored in Ran’s tale of the collapse of a kingdom led by a ruthless warlord.

(Interesting trivia fact: Brian Blessed, who plays Arthas, the Lich King, is also well known for his portrayal of King Lear – and Ran’s story, and its ruthless king, is based on Lear.)


The Problem Of Orchestral Sound

I did consider hiring an orchestra to record the score for Death Knight Love Story. It’s actually cheaper than you might think, semi-affordable for an indie film, if you work with an Eastern European orchestra. But in the end, I concluded we couldn’t afford it.

That left us with a problem: how did we avoid the problem of tinny-sounding fake orchestration?

Indie games, indie films, and essentially anyone without a big budget hit this problem over and over again. Whilst modern electronic composition can do pretty remarkable things, one of the things it still can’t do is accurately recreate the sound of an orchestra. Usually, game or film composers will try to create an orchestra as best they can anyway, leading to the soundtrack sounding, well, cheap.

Ross, however, had a different solution. Drawing on the work of another Scottish composer, Paul Leonard-Morgan, he suggested that if we didn’t have an orchestra, we shouldn’t apologise for that. We should go for the “sweep” of an orchestral soundtrack, and the feel of orchestration, but without attempting to use orchestral instruments – instead, proudly using the electronic music and sounds that we had. In essence, he would create a new set of instruments for our orchestra.

It worked phenomenally well. Death Knight Love Story’s music sounds epic, appropriately dark or heroic, but it never has the false note of cheap string or brass samples pretending to be what they’re not. Even in Wintergarde, where we’re closest to the major-key majesty and triumphalism of the WoW alliance theme, we’re still proudly digital.

Given how successful it was for us, and how tremendously well a similar approach worked the soundtrack for “Dredd” (the work of Paul Leonard-Morgan), this is a style of composing that I hope we’ll see a lot more of.

We’ve got amazing musical tools these days, but so much effort is devoted toward making them sound like analogue, offline instruments. I think there’s real potential for soundtrack designers, particularly indie game and film composers, to break genuinely new ground.

A Nod To Lord of the Rings: Leitmotifs

I’d indicated to Ross that I’d been heavily inspired by the Lord of the Rings film adaptions, and one technique that we used very clearly is shared with Shore’s inspiration in Wagner: our use of leitmotifs.

A leitmotif is a short, repeated musical phrase associated with a person, a place, or an idea. It was brought to prominence by Wagner in Der Ring des Nibelungen, which hugely influenced Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings.

In the Death Knight Love Story score, leitmotifs proved invaluable, particularly in introducing and linking the appearances of our heroes. Thanks to DKLS’s rather complex structure, starting with a flashback and then going back into a series of historical events, we found that it was easy to get confused as to exactly where in the story we were, and whom we were following. The various leitmotifs Ross put into the score, notably the phrases which could be considered “Miria and Zelieck’s theme” really draw the entire film together. I was amazed at how much of a difference it made to not just the emotions behind the film, but even the simple ability to follow the story!

I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more use of leitmotif techniques in games. Whilst most games have the idea of a musical theme for an area, there’s never any attempt to mix in music representing principle characters, let alone the ideas behind the fiction of the world. The only exception I can think of is the Dhovakin theme in Skyrim.

Having now seen first-hand just how powerful leitmotifs can be, I can’t help but think that games composers are really missing out on an opportunity to deepen their worlds here.

(Note: this last section of the article includes spoilers for the film! Definitely watch DKLS before reading this bit!)


The Hidden Message of Games?

We struggled with one section of the score above all: the battle between Miria and Zelieck.

Ross’s initial inclination was to score this as an extremely dark, twisted moment. Whilst I didn’t disagree about the darkness – after all, this is two people falling in love through the expression of lethal, unbridled violence – I really wanted to get across something that I felt was key, both to the roots of much of WoW’s joy.

World of Warcraft, like almost all computer games, is significantly about violence, and the joy of destruction. And that’s what Death Knight Love Story is expressing in part – the idea that a meeting of minds might come through battle, and anger, skill, and archetype of the Warrior. And that is still as true an expression of love as any other. (If we’re going to get really Jungian about it, Death Knight Love Story is a story about two Warriors who become Lovers, trapped under the rule of a twisted King.)

I’d penciled in music like the Dropkick Murphys here – Shipping Up To Boston, most notable from the soundtrack of “The Departed” – and possibly the quintessential expression of rage and the joy of conflict in cinema, “After The Flesh” from the soundtrack of The Crow. But for some reason, Ross and I weren’t quite able to meet in the middle on this one.

Until one day I remembered a particularly impressive show I’d seen at the Edinburgh Festival some years back: a performance by Tao, the Japanese drumming ensemble who mix traditional Japanese drumming with martial arts to produce one of the most electrifying musical performances I’ve ever heard. It’s like angry, uproarious thunder.

I suggested Taiko drumming to Ross, and he immediately got where I was going – and that’s the reason the fight sequence ended up with such a unique soundtrack.

Hugh Hancock

Artistic Director, Strange Company

Friday Linkage

Battle Bards episode 13 has aired this last Tuesday and it’s adventure time! One of our most abstract theme shows so far, it was both interesting and challenging to think of MMO tunes that convey the spirit of adventure; that feeling of setting sail into the blue. Adventure and travel are every explorer’s bread and butter but no matter your Bartle profile, it means a great deal of different things to different people. What does it mean to you? Find out and tune in!

Episode 13 show notes

  • “Open Sea Music” from Pirates of the Burning Sea
  • “Explorers and Artifacts” from Guild Wars 2
  • “Spiritual Elysium” from Anarchy Online
  • “Step to the Next World” from Aion
  • “Talking Island” from Lineage II
  • “Romulus Suite” from Star Trek Online
  • “Breeland Jig” from Lord of the Rings Online

An NBI-2 Status Update

This October’s NBI has already attracted a fair group of new MMO bloggers – head over to the official forums to check them out! We are only halfway which means there’s plenty of time left to sign up as a newcomer or to contribute as a sponsor. The poetry slam event is still going too and around ten MMO bloggers have already risen to the challenge. This has been great fun so far, so keep them rhymes (or not rhymes) coming, folks!


Women who play interview

Kazz from Gameskinny has started an interview series on female gamers, bloggers and women generally active in and around the field of gaming. It is her proclaimed goal to reach out and encourage women who play to step into the light – to join communities such as the blogosphere and other networks where gamers roam and are being creative, without fear of rejection.

“Women in gaming” is a topic I wanted to write about for some time, but never quite found the right approach. Whilst there are many tales available of the horror stories and downsides for women who dare to call themselves gamers, my own experiences – as a gamer and game blogger – have actually been quite positive.

I’ve always felt that it is important to highlight what is going wrong and to expose those who judge by gender. But equally, women are playing games, they are making games, and they are making positive contributions to gaming communities. [Kazz]

As a videogame blogger I have a lot of self-cringe when being asked to give anyone an interview on myself; it seems like a horribly self-absorbed thing to do unless your name is Jane McGonigal or Markus Persson in which case you probably have something important to say. However, after overcoming these initial misgivings I was happy to answer Kazz’ questionnaire which led me way back, to humble beginnings and parts of my gamer biography I have never talked about before on the blog. If some of my own struggles can inspire anyone to take heart, that’s a worthy cause right there.

Tangentially, I always wanted to write an article on my personal gamer bio; I think this would make for an awesome blogosphere meme. I’d love to hear fellow MMO bloggers to talk about their own journeys – how it all began and which games they deem the most significant and formative. In any case, over the course of the questionnaire I realized once more how much I owe the blogging community and how thankful I am for discovering it, including all the special bloggers and commenters who have engaged with me over the last few years. I was a fairly isolated gamer before I started my blog. I still hold a torch for fellow gamers and geeks everywhere, no matter the sometimes bad propaganda or foul apples on boards and comment sections. We are the community.

So, thanks Kazz for having me. For all those who are similarly nosy and curious as myself where their fellow bloggers are concerned, you can find the interview here.

Happy weekend everybody! I shall resume more game-related news and ponderings soon, well as soon as an MMO out there does something interesting. Here’s to hoping!

Back to Minecraft (and my first video documentary!)

After the longest break since my first, very intense Minecraft spree over a year ago, it was decided last week, somewhat collectively out of the blue, that a revisit to Mojang’s prodigy was due. Truth be told, my absence from the game has had much to do with the unrestrained pace of my first encounter; I was completely and utterly hooked to MC for some weeks, spending nights in front of the PC exploring its depths (and creating my big ass castle dream). As a result, I burned out too quickly on what was still a limited game at the time, struggling with pre-release issues. Thus the last block of cobble stone set in my castle wall marked the ending of that first chapter.

But oh, have the times moved forward in Minecraft! With the arrival of the (approved) Spoutcraft client, Bukkit server mods, myriads of fan-written plugins and customization features, right down to some amazing and downloadable adventure maps, Minecraft has burst into what can only be described as (even more) baffling heights of community effort and player creativity. All the while, Mojang have kept improving and adding to the game, offering even more possibilities and freedoms to shape your unlimited, virtual space.

With great freedom comes great variety. While there are no default player classes in Minecraft, the game certainly brings out all sorts of playstyles and character types in its audience – from nutty engineers, to brave explorers, peaceful settlers and diligent carpenters. There are even MMO servers now with all the textbook MMO/RPG features you can think of, for both PVE and PVP, in a sword&sorcery, steampunk or zombie apocalypse themed world (where poisonous rain keeps falling…which you could’ve known if you actually read the tutorial).

I’ve visited a few public MMO servers and was duly impressed; after being run through a detailed starter/tutorial area, I was amazed to see item shops, teleport hubs, vendor and questgiver NPCs, PvP mini-games and more. Maybe a small detail but no less enjoyable for a soundtrack nut like myself: any designated area in Minecraft can now be attributed its own background music, hallelujah!

Public MMO servers

This is where it gets particularly interesting (and scary) because a “Minecraft MMO” can potentially offer the kind of tools and impact the current MMO market can still only dream of (known sandboxes included). It’s also where we see best how gameplay, fun and freedom trump everything else, top graphics first and foremost. The biggest woes of public MC servers right now are stability and bandwidth related, which is where big business MMO ventures will always have the upper hand.

Still, if a visit to Minecraft was highly recommended before, by now it is an absolute must! If you have any time to spare between your MMOs, RPGs and other games (and you know you do), have a look at MC! You will never install any game faster than this one.

My first omg-video documentary

Starting off on a fresh, customized server with friends, I quickly realized how behind I was on MC’s current flora and fauna, which inspired a small project called “the underwater greenhouse”. I am also still working on a much bigger scale hedge maze challenge but that’s for another time.

At completion, it struck me how I always wanted to give video commentaries with fraps another go (back when I was playing WoW my old PC was hopeless) which is how my first ever Minecraft (and for that matter first ever videogame documentary) came to be. In hindsight, I should probably have rehearsed this more…but I am a lazy person and easy to satisfy.

And yes, I am fully aware that everyone can hear my voice now. Oh noes!

Creating this video was actually so simple and fun that I am definitely doing more in the future. Maybe next time I’ll also manage to make less silly noises with my lips.

Quick Fraps how-to

Without exaggeration, making a video commentary like the one above is as easy as blogging. I was surprised how simple a tool fraps really is, with minimal setting up involved. My smartphone is more complicated than fraps! Together with a youtube account and two more, free tools, you are fully equipped to create your own gaming videologs which are lots of fun to do. And here’s how:

– Get a full version of fraps to be able to record more than 30secs videos
– Capture your ingame video (I use custom 15fps setting and record voice via headset)
Watch this guide on using Xvid and Vdub for file compression
– Upload your compressed video to your youtube channel

Works like a charm! And you can add extras like a title pane or annotations with youtube later. I love learning new things by myself, so it’s not unlikely I’ll look into Sony Vegas or similar video enhancement software soon. So I guess that’s one more way how Minecraft can boost your creativity!