Interview: Composer Robert Wolf on Creating Music for Hypergryph’s Arknights

There is no doubt that video game music has greatly changed in the last few decades. From simple Super Mario Bros. tunes to Austin Wintory’s orchestral Journey score earning the first-ever Grammy nomination, the gaming musical evolution has been pretty remarkable. Games such as Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Silent Hill, Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft have helped this evolution and expanded the musical perimeters of what standard video games scores should sound like. Another title garnering some attention in this area is Hypergryph’s anime-style strategy game, Arknights. Robert Wolf’s track, “Immutable” from the game was recently nominated for a Game Audio Network Guild award for “Best Original Song” and has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube. We wanted to learn more about “Immutable” and what goes into creating a video game track like this, so we conducted the below Q&A with Robert. 

VIDEO: Behind the scenes of Arknights’ “Immutable” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ywVRJ3Tx9Q

Can you first talk about how you got into scoring video games? Why not other mediums too?

In retrospect, I find it surprising that I didn’t fully dedicate myself to video game music sooner. I have always been a huge gamer, but despite that, I was working towards being a film composer. I think this was mainly because I personally knew some composers working in film and television, but not in games. It was attending the Hollywood Music Workshop in 2017 and the masterclass I had with Cris Velasco that really gave me a sense of the potential of composing for this medium. Cris is the composer of some of my all-time favorite titles, including Mass Effect and Company of Heroes 2, and it was so exciting to learn more about his craft. Then, during my time at the University of Southern California, I was fortunate to have classes on video game scoring with Garry Schyman, and at that point, I became fully committed to composing for games. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed writing for other mediums. I have written music for film, theater, photo exhibitions, and live events, but I feel that I have a more intimate connection with video game music. After graduating from USC, a classmate of mine, Angela Little, who is now a really well-established film composer in Australia, was hired by Hexany. That’s when I first heard of the company and thought, “Wow, this would really be the perfect job for me”. Shortly after, Hexany had another job opening, so I went for it and was thrilled to get the position.

You have written a few songs for Arknights. How would you say Immutable is different than those previous tracks?

Yes, “Immutable” is quite different from most of my previous work for the game, especially those composed since the track was released. That being said, my earlier track “Reconnection” shares stylistic similarities with “Immutable.” They both have ambient electronic elements, while “Reconnection” doesn’t have a typical song structure or vocals. These song elements made “Immutable” a unique project for me in comparison to the work I’ve done at Hexany so far. Overall, the soundtrack for Arknights is incredibly diverse, spanning many different genres, from rock and EDM to orchestral music and hip-hop. It’s always an exciting challenge to get assigned a new track for this game.

Immutable is supposed to tell some of the backstories behind the character, Kal’tsit. What did you do to familiarize yourself with the character?

For every new track, Hypergryph provides us with a design document that includes screenshots, music references, detailed information about the character’s background, along with many other things. In the case of Kal’tsit, she was described as a secretive, enigmatic character who has lived for thousands of years. She is a scientist and a doctor, but she has also assumed many other identities during her extremely long life. After I studied the design document, I discussed Kal’tsit’s story and the concept for the track with Hexany Audio’s lead composer Matthew Carl Earl. 

At what point in the game would the player hear Immutable?

The soundtrack release for Arknights is quite different in comparison to other games. A new song usually gets revealed and released as a single on streaming platforms such as Bilibili, Youtube, Apple Music, etc. So, the fans closely follow these channels and interact with new music releases on these platforms, which means they can listen to the music outside of the game. Hypergryph, the developer of Arknights, acts in some ways like a record company, releasing new music based on the rich story of the game’s characters.

How do you think music for video games has changed in the last 10 or even 20 years?

Oh, that is a big question! In the last 20 years, music technology has gone through massive changes and video game music has, of course, changed alongside it. For example, one important aspect is remote recording. These days, many composers record orchestras overseas, without being present themselves. During the height of the Covid travel restrictions, this remote option was a huge help. But today even work done with musicians that are not so far away, like my collaboration with Melissa, is still often completed remotely. At the same time, as gaming continues to grow into the dominant form of entertainment around the world, the appreciation for video game music has increased significantly. It is much more common now to include music as an important part of a video game review, which I feel wasn’t quite as central to the discussion 10 or 20 years ago. 

Your resume says you have worked on games such as Call of Duty: Mobile, Honor of Kings, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and Kingdom Craft. Which game on your resume would you say you learned the most from, musically? 

I love this question! It’s hard to choose. For Honor of Kings, I learned how to effectively combine Chinese and Japanese instruments with a Western orchestra to really capture the sound of this game. On Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, I really got into hybrid tracks, combining electronic drums with a big orchestra. But in terms of expanding my production skillset as a composer, I really think Arknights has challenged me the most since its requests often involve combining different styles in a new and challenging way. At Hexany Audio, we write a lot of music for these games and many others. It is great to have amazingly talented colleagues who are all specialists in their own ways. For Richard Ludlow, the company’s founder, a major goal was to facilitate close collaboration between sound designers and composers. I have benefitted from this approach a lot since it encourages us to exchange tips and constantly learn from one another.

Congratulations on your GANG nomination for Immutable. What would you say sets this song apart from other video game tracks?

Thank you so much! I think Melissa Kaplan’s vocals make a huge difference—they really make the song stand out. Her voice just fits so well within the track and gives it a lot of character. Another aspect might be that it has a certain intensity to it but it’s still relaxing to listen to. The drums often feel understated, and in the first chorus they drop out almost entirely. Additionally, I worked gear noises and other mechanical sounds into the beat, which I think makes it sound more unique.  

What are you working on next?

I have just wrapped up a new Arknights track, but unfortunately, I cannot share any details just yet. You can keep an eye on our site at https://hexanyaudio.com for the latest news about our work! In addition to our music work, we also have a great sound design team headed by Kellen Fenton. Kellen, Matthew, and our founder Richard Ludlow have created a place where we are given the opportunity to work on a wide range of video game projects, which is always fun and challenging.

Is there another video game composer that you would like to collaborate with someday?

Oh, this is a tough one! There are so many fantastic composers in video game music that it would be hard to choose just one! I have been listening to the Frostpunk soundtrack a lot recently, so working with Piotr Musiał someday would be amazing! As I have mentioned, Cris Velasco was also a huge influence, so I’d love to work with him sometime. Austin Wintory is another incredible composer that I would be very honored to work with. I also really like the Witcher 3 soundtrack—so working with either Marcin Przybyłowicz or Mikołaj Stroiński would be crazy! In the past, I wrote lyrics for Garry Schyman on the game Metamorphosis, which also featured music by Mikołaj Stroiński. Getting to collaborate on a project with these two distinguished composers was incredibly rewarding. I’ve long admired both of them, and I would love to work together again.

Learn more about Robert Wolf here, http://wolf-music.com/

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