What Would Iron Man Sound Like in Mordor? Listen to 'Anthem' to Find Out
We talked with composer Sarah Schachner about the music of 'Anthem'.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might sound like if Iron Man flew into Mordor to fight giant magical monsters, then Anthem is the game of your dreams. BioWare’s latest video game basically does just that, putting you in a powerful mechanized suit of armor and sending you off into the wild to fight oversized bugs and building-sized monsters, all against the backdrop of a sweeping orchestral score that deftly balances hard sci-fi elements with more fantastical music in tune with nature.
That score comes from Sarah Schachner, who wrote some music for Marvel’s Iron Man 3 but also three Assassin’s Creed games and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, making her the perfect person to take the lead on composing for Anthem.
For a game that’s still grappling with gameplay balancing issues, Anthem’s impeccable music conveys the sense that as you fly through the air in your Javelin suit just like Tony Stark, you’re participating in a world unlike anything else. Yes, there are elements of Destiny, Mass Effect, and Halo in there, but it also feels like Monster Hunter: World and more traditional fantasy like The Lord of the Rings as it blends magic with futuristic technology.
“From the start, BioWare was clear that they wanted the music to feel somewhere between Avengers and Middle-earth,” Schachner tells Inverse. “I think that’s pretty accurate, but with a sprinkling of Kraftwerk for good measure.”
When tasked with describing the game Anthem in six or fewer words, Schachner’s response was perfect: “Iron Man Jungle Chronicles (with friends).” Since it was first announced, Anthem has always been best-described as an online game where everybody flies around a jungle in Iron Man suits as various forces try to control a magical force of creation called “The Anthem.”
“The ancient yet futuristic duality of the world of Anthem provided the inspiration for the score,” Schachner said in an official press release. “I wanted to create a sonic world that felt familiar yet alien at the same time. It’s a musical fusion of heroic adventure, tribal, and sci-fi influences.”
We recently talked with Schachner about her experience scoring Anthem, how she developed its unique sound, and what it’s like making music for games.
How much does the setting of Anthem in the far-flung future influence the music composition? What elements of the music convey that harder sci-fi edge?
The setting had a huge influence on the music. Because the world has such a jungly primal feeling, I wanted to incorporate tribal instruments like the didgeridoo and a Slovakian overtone flute called the Fujara. They are processed with filters and distortion to give more of a sci-fi flavor.
Another sound I used to reflect the technological sci-fi aspect was the vocoder which re-synthesizes the human voice and sounds like a humanoid robot. Some tracks are more orchestral, but others have a heavier synth feel like “Outlaw Ambush” which features a chaotic modular synth lead over a drum and bass tempo.
What was the Anthem composition process like from start to finish, especially in terms of direction given to you by BioWare?
I had a lot of artwork and descriptive information about the world in the beginning, but as with any new IP, there were a lot of moving parts along the way, so I had to be flexible during the composing process. One thing we were all clear on from the start was that the music needed to bring an uplifting positivity to the world and not just convey danger and darkness.
I worked very closely with the BioWare audio team to make sure that we had a cohesive vision across music and sound design. If I was using a certain instrument (like the didgeridoo) in the score, they would then use that as a sound source for their work and vice versa. I even treated a bunch of dialogue at one point with my vocoder processing chain. It’s really inspiring to have a collaboration like that and the sound artists at BioWare are really passionate about what they’re doing.
There’s a lot of blending between traditional orchestral music and synthetic sounds, like a reflection of the chaotic natural world amid really advanced technology. How did you go about achieving that with the music?
Blending acoustic and synthesized sounds is something I’m pretty much always doing in my work, so that part happened naturally. Once I find a unique sound or texture that conveys the right feeling for a certain character or part of the game, I’ll come back to it and use it in different ways.
The synth sound and melodic motif in “Anthem of Creation” weaves in and out of the score (“Ancient Mysteries,” “In The Shadow Of The Gods,” “Into The Heart of Rage,” “Reflections,” etc.) and is taken over by different instruments to reflect how the Anthem itself permeates everything.
I noticed some sharp, almost staccato sections that make the mood feel otherworldly and frightening. “The Monitor” in particular makes me afraid of the character. Is this universe meant to be a frightening place for the people living in it?
That was definitely the intent.
I was aiming for a mechanical and oppressive sound for “The Monitor” since he is the villain. The orchestra gets pretty aggressive with a militaristic march-like feel. The dominion resort to brute force and are a very organized faction who want complete control of the Anthem.
I still wanted their theme to have a bit of a heroic feel though (kind of like how “The Imperial March” goes to that awesome triumphant major chord after all the minor stuff) because in their eyes, they’re doing something very brave and believe they will succeed even if their motivations are questionable.
Did you have a favorite track or moment from the game?
My favorite tracks are probably “Legion of Dawn” and “Anthem of Creation.”
The vocoder melody in “Legion” was something I came up with early on in the process. It didn’t quite work for what it was originally intended for, but I felt it was destined to be an important piece of the score DNA so I kept it in the back of my head the whole time. When I was writing a theme for General Tarsis (“Legion of Dawn”) many months later, it finally all came together and I was able to reimagine it into what you hear now.
I’ll often record 10, sometimes 20 minutes straight of open-ended random stuff on the modular synth and go through it later to see if there’s anything cool, then build a track around the thing that works.
That’s how “Anthem of Creation” came together. Sometimes the modular almost seems like a sentient alien machine that I have no power over, so I like that the Shaper sound came about in that way.
What was it like doing that epic orchestral debut at the Game Awards in December?
That was crazy. I was only told a couple weeks before that I needed to arrange something for it so I was pretty nervous leading up to it. It turns out answering press questions beforehand is way more traumatizing than performing for 26 million people, so by the time the show started I was fine and was able to enjoy it. I had a such a great time working with Lorne Balfe and the incredible LA choir and orchestra.
This is random, but I read in another interview that you often read about the Large Hadron Collider. Why’s that so fascinating to you?
We all go through an astro and quantum physics-obsessed phase right? I think it’s human nature to be fascinated by space. It makes us feel insignificant but also strangely important to be a part of something so enormous.
I’m also so weirded out by quantum physics. It’s hard to believe there’s an entire world invisible to us at the smallest scales of the universe that operates by a completely different set of insane rules. I love learning about that stuff because it gets me out of my own head and makes whatever I was worrying about seem not so important. It helps see things from a different perspective and makes me appreciate being alive in a weird way.
You said in that same interview that you “would love to score a futuristic sci-fi about the technological singularity.” Do you feel like Anthem is scratching that particular itch?
Absolutely! I love the sci-fi setting of Anthem, the look of the world, and the Javelins are so awesome.
I think when I said that though, I was thinking of something more psychological, less action-oriented. Ex Machina, District 9, Moon, and Her are all films that I touched on futuristic stuff in an amazing way with a level of intimacy that draws you in.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.