Whether in a comic, movie, or video game, finding balance within a superhero squad presents a unique challenge to writers and composers alike.
How do you let each character shine while telling a compelling story about the team as a whole? For veteran composer Bobby Tahouri, who wrote the music for Crystal Dynamics’ upcoming Marvel’s Avengers game, that meant creating a unique sound for each hero that scales into larger compositions.
“You have to think about all these different superheroes in one game,” Tahouri tells Inverse. “The challenge becomes how to make it unified, but then represent each character with a unique perspective.”
Early on in the game’s development, Audio Director Jack Grillo came up with a novel idea: “For each character, let’s focus on being inspired by what they would listen to, or what instrument best describes their power,” Tahouri says.
Every hero has a sound
This track from the game is equal parts epic and heroic.
The audio team made playlists for each character. Tony Stark’s tracklist consists of ‘80s rock with lots of bombastic guitar and bass: Scorpions, Judas Priest, Dio. That mood influences the game’s music whenever Iron Man flies into the scene and blasts enemies with his repulsors. For Captain America, it’s trumpet and other brass sounds that embraces an Americana vibe.
Tahouri says Thor, the otherworldly God of Thunder, demanded the most unconventional approach to composition.
“I was trying to find that metallic powerful metal sound for him,” he explains. “I wound up experimenting with different pieces of metal I found in the scrapyard, using a hammer and a cello bow on them.”
When you hear the sound of “big metallic anvils striking” every time Thor appears on the screen, that’s Tahouri smashing scrap metal with a hammer. A distinctive grinding twang is Tahouri running taught strips of horsetail hair coated in rosin across those same pieces of metal.
“I had to find that balance between the super and the human.”
During cinematic scenes, "the overall mood and tone of the piece reflect whatever’s going on in the scene,” including character motifs (like Thor's metallic sound) and relationships to other characters. The music during gameplay was a different story.
“Especially when you're in combat, things have to loop,” Tahouri explains. “So you have to find ways to creatively loop music so that the player is never aware that things are repeating.”
A boss battle might take one person 25 minutes and several tries, but another person only 5 minutes. The same collection of sounds has to repeat in a way that is more complex than replaying the track. There’s also the transitions in and out of battle to consider, as they might happen at any moment. Sound designers and audio directors cue and blend the music with other sound effects and tracks based on player input, so there's a lot of nuance that has to be considered during the composition. So Tahouri had to know every devastating detail from the very beginning.
When Tahouri signed on for the project, he was given a story bible overviewing the entire plot, including the full list of characters that appear. Using the aforementioned playlists, various pieces of concept art, and eventually animatics, he composed the music for every character and scene in the game.
“These superheroes are both amazing and flawed,” he says. “So I had to find that balance between the super and the human.”
Every hero has to start somewhere
The game opens during a massive celebration of all things Avengers in San Francisco, but after a terrorist group hijacks the event and destroys a helicarrier — taking Captain America’s life in the process — the heroes are disgraced and disbanded, leading to the creation of a slew of dangerous, superpowered “Inhumans.”
Several years later, a young woman named Kamala Khan discovers she’s an Inhuman, and embarks on a quest to reunite the Avengers and save the world. While all of these heroes are playable, Kamala is ostensibly the audience surrogate and also the protagonist.
The score, like the game’s story, shifts from the epic to personal on the fly to reflect her journey in particular.
“The music is very emotional, epic, and bombastic but grounded by more intimate moments in the score,” Tahouri says, somewhat sadly adding, “There are a lot of things that go wrong.”
The Avengers fail miserably within the opening minutes of the game, and the story seems to center on rekindling hope in a dark world. Characters stumble along the way — even if they’re superheroes, they still have a flawed sense of humanity. Tahouri was tasked with capturing that in a mostly orchestral score.
For Kamala, a young woman on the fringe of society who becomes Ms. Marvel, “electric piano with delays and washy reverbs” call attention to her inner conflict. Both within the game’s story and in its score, Ms. Marvel represents a generational leap forward. In the game’s demo, Kamala switches the radio from a generic classic rock song to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” (It’s also canon that she prefers Lorde over Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, by the way.)
All of this makes for an interesting culture clash in the story and music, especially when early in the story Kamala teams up with the dorky Bruce Banner — who uses a Baroque-style cello to calm himself to avoid becoming The Incredible Hulk, a monstrous character with his own musical motifs.
“When I see Hulk I want to just give him big, bombastic Taiko drums, but I have to be mindful of the percussion he creates — his mouth, his body smashing and destroying things,” Tahouri explains. “I can’t just give him a bunch of drum sounds or there’d be too much low-energy sound and your speakers would blow.”
When your speakers don't explode from a Hulk Smash while you're playing Marvel's Avengers, you'll have Bobby Tahouri to thank.
Marvel's Avengers will be released September 4, 2020.