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Deep Dive: The musical score of A Plague Tale: Requiem
Composer Olivier Derivière explores the thought process behind the game's music and how it supports the emotional depth within its universe.
December 1, 2022
6 Min Read
Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as how art director Olivier Latouche reimagined the art direction of Foundation, how the developer of the RPG Roadwarden designed its narrative for impact and variance, and recreating the the real-life diorama-based experience with the art of LEGO Bricktales.
In this edition, Olivier Derivière, composer on A Plague Tale: Requiem, gives us some insight into how its musical score supports themes and worldbuilding within the series, touching on how quality talent and team synergy strengthen the formula.
I’m Olivier Derivière, composer on the A Plague Tale series, whose second chapter, A Plague Tale: Requiem, was released last month. It has been quite moving to see the wonderful appreciation from the press and the players! And with five nominations at The Game Awards 2022, including Best Score and Music, I could not be prouder. It’s been a joy to craft this score and collaborate with such inspiring and talented people; let me tell you about this exciting journey here.
A fitting collaboration renewed
When Asobo Studio first presented A Plague Tale to me, I was immediately struck by its visual aspect. It’s rare to see so much sensibility in the art direction of a video game that immediately conveys an inspiring aura for composing a score. Then I discovered the scenario and characters and their remarkable profundity, adding to the poignant vision behind A Plague Tale. I easily got on board given these, and I’m glad I did embark on this creative journey with Asobo. Their team’s synergy is video game development at its best: everybody discusses every aspect together, never restricting their perspective to their own field.
In this context, music can thrive as something more than a mere illustrative or decorative background component. It becomes an essential element, bringing aspects beyond the visual and verbal layers into existence. It’s all the more exciting to design this role in a game with the emotional depth of A Plague Tale, in which inner feelings have so much importance.
This team synergy and the place given to the music mean that the score can influence the rest of the production as much as it designs itself accordingly. This happened for a level in A Plague Tale: Requiem for which I had different impressions than what was being done at the time, and it wasn’t until I scored those that the rest of the team could grasp my feeling. They liked this input, and it very much contributed to crafting the sequence, not in a radical change of the gameplay but in the presentation of the sequence, such as the way Amicia talks.
A nyckelharpa, a type of key-based fiddle that is the national musical instrument of Sweden.
A heritage continued
A Plague Tale: Requiem stands in the continuity of Innocence, carrying the identity of A Plague Tale previously introduced and growing from its heritage. You’ll hear the familiar sounds of its main theme, reworked in a new version, and instruments—guitar, cello, viol, nyckelharpa—and generally will find A Plague Tale’s emblematic aspects in an overall bigger design.
The scale, in general, has widened, with bigger, more open environments to explore and more flexible gameplay. This is also true of the sensations provided: with a drastically increased number of rats on screen comes an explosive score, adding density to the already massive, spectacular show of frenzy and destruction. Their number is not the only way the rats will shake you up; their role also evolves, with new feelings associated with their appearances… to avoid any spoilers, let’s just say that you can expect new rats-induced sensations, with a score to enhance them.
Similarly, while Innocence was already bringing intense emotions, Requiem multiplies them, with a much denser score as a result. This is tied to the evolution of the characters, who must deal with the traumatic events they faced in the first game, hence a less austere, more agitated score. This is also reflected through encounters: the score uses the same approach as in Innocence—to give a distance-based sense of anxiety as Amicia gets closer to the enemy—but Amicia will at times become the threatening one and suddenly unleash her rage. And the score allows the player to feel this build-up from underground.
The evolution of the characters is really central and you’ll meet the same two heroes you met before, but they’ve grown and show new attitudes. In the same way, the cello keeps playing a central part, but its sound is altered. This was achieved through our fantastic collaboration with Eric-Maria Couturier, a high-class cellist who has worked with us on both games. During a long session, we experimented with everything until he started holding his cello from the top, producing a peculiar sound… and I knew right away that it was the right sound for Requiem.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, whose acapella performance was key to building the game's atmosphere.
Welcoming new performers
While we did carry the core identity of A Plague Tale from the first to the second game, composing for A Plague Tale: Requiem was a lot about finding how to renew this identity. Having already built mutual trust, we could immediately get into the heart of the matter, making time for researching instruments, looking for musicians, and experimenting with new things. These highly valuable steps have allowed us to find relevant additions among some of the very best performers and engineers out there.
Amicia and Hugo will spend time in Provence, and you’ll hear instruments from the region at that time, such as the galoubet, a small pipe, and medieval bagpipes—a discovery for everyone, and the result of the amazing research effort of the team. The sound of these bagpipes is nothing like that of its Scottish cousin. It was extremely exciting to work with this new and unusual instrument, and I’m positive that it will make a lasting impression on players, forging a strong identity for Amicia and Hugo’s adventures in Provence.
Another major musical newcomer is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. They’re a world-renowned, two-time Grammy winner choir that you want to hear with all your ears. You’ll hear them a cappella most of the time, emanating that distinct, Requiem atmosphere. The game introduces a completely imaginary, mythical place: the island, which inspires Amicia and Hugo’s quest. The choir very much defines the new emotion tied to this new environment.
I hope your ears are ready for this musical program! You can still count on the aptness with which A Plague Tale talks about the human condition, and its uncompromising crude tone in doing so—with musical approaches such as close-miking to record all the cello’s raw, irregular sound. And it works because the best equipment and engineers available are involved. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, as a relatively small choir with immense prestige, perfectly embodies the defining features of A Plague Tale: the very best means, always on a human scale.
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