The Sound and the Fury: What we listened to while writing Dragon Age: Inquisition

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ScreenshotWin32_0012_Final_WMIf you wandered into the Writer’s Pit while Inquisition was in full swing, you probably would’ve seen seven writers (and one editor) with headphones on, eyes fixed on monitors, typing furiously. Most of the writing happens when we can shut out the rest of the world and immerse ourselves fully in the story and characters. For many of us, this requires music. Often the music we listen to informs and even inspires what we write.

So, what was coming through those headphones when we wrote Dragon Age: Inquisition?

 

Sheryl Chee writer of Blackwall and Leliana

My characters’ voices don’t really establish themselves firmly until I’ve written one or two conversations for them. While I often have a good idea of their arc and personality, how they express themselves usually takes some poking around.

Music often helps get me into the right mindset, so when I set out in the early stages of planning and writing a character, I begin by building a playlist that evokes a certain mood. For instance, Leliana’s playlist is sweetly melancholic, with occasional moments of self-indulgent gloom and anger. Though it starts off with A Perfect Circle’s “The Noose,” it’s otherwise dominated by female voices like Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, Anna Ternheim, Laura Veirs, Poe, and iamamiwhoami.

Blackwall was a bit of a special snowflake, and I ended up with two separate playlists by the time Inquisition reached its final stages. From the start I knew that I needed a classic rock playlist for a certain furious energy that I find reflected in songs by Cream, Rush, and Led Zeppelin. His second playlist, on the other hand, was extremely eclectic, running a gamut of genres from folksy Americana to electronica. These songs, chosen mainly for their lyrics, came from artists including The Civil Wars, Kate Bush, Grizzly Bear, and Blaqk Audio, and were used as inspiration for the writing of his personal story.

For wildernesses and codex entries, I would usually listen to whatever fit my mood at the time. However, generally the more work I had to get done and the less time I had to do it in, the louder and faster the music got. There was a phase when I was listening to nothing but electronic body music. Then there was the time I was writing combat barks for Multiplayer. That was done to “Timber,” by Pitbull and Ke$ha on repeat.

It got the job done.

 

Sylvia Feketekuty writer of Josephine

I often write without music at all, but sometimes I really need a track to keep my thoughts company. It often doesn’t have much bearing on what I’m writing—I mostly use whatever song is stuck in my head at the time, set it to repeat, and start writing.

When I’m in a good stretch the music gets zoned out and becomes part of my background thought process–something I don’t notice consciously, but would miss if it weren’t there. According to my DA:I playlist, the artists I listened to the most on the project were the Scissor Sisters and the Electric Six. That sounds about right.

 

Ben Gelinas editor for Sera, The Iron Bull, Blackwall, Varric, Leliana

I am many kinds of nerd. I have too many video games, I see too many movies, and I speak in dusty Simpsons quotes. But it’s the title of “music nerd” that I hold most dear. When I don’t have to think too much about the task at hand, I’ll listen to weird rap like Run the Jewels and Death Grips, weird hardcore bands like Converge and Daughters, and weird electro like FKA Twigs and Baths. But when I’m working with words I get very specific. Editing text—and I mean substantive edits, rather than the spelling, grammar, and consistency checks that come later—requires music that is both dramatic and blends into the background so I can concentrate on each line of dialogue I polish.

For Inquisition, I kept returning to a few key albums:

The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation is a dark, disturbing, and unpredictable ambient gem that proved a perfect soundtrack for the Fade.

Jon Hopkins’ Immunity and Kuedo’s Severant are lighter albums than the Haxan Cloak, and squeeze a surprising amount of emotion out of their entirely instrumental tracks. Both also thump along at a steady pace, keeping me motivated and focused.

Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack to There Will Be Blood is beautiful stuff, but it sure is unsettling. It wasn’t right for Sera at all, but I listened to it a lot while working on “In Hushed Whispers.”

Joanna Newsom’s Ys is basically Ferelden in an album—and has some of the best lyrics ever put to music.

Chelsea Wolfe’s Pain is Beauty actually has a song called The Warden.

But the single track I listened to the most on this project was Eclipse/Blue by Nosaj Thing. The video was often on repeat for entire days of crunch edits because it’s just too pretty.

 

Brianne Battye writer of Cullen

I listen to music that I‘ve connected – sometimes tenuously – to the character or scene. Cullen’s playlist had a lot of songs that were calming, if at times somewhat melancholy. I had a fairly decent split between songs with lyrics – such as “Grey” by Dave Gunning, “Curse Me Good” by The Heavy, and “Falling Slowly” from Once – and instrumentals, such as Chris Tilton’s “Olivia” from the Fringe Season 3 soundtrack, Danny Elfman’s “In the Tub” from Big Fish, and Sam Hulick’s “We Fought as a United Galaxy” from Mass Effect 3. Sometimes I throw the playlist on and let it go. Other times, I need to listen to the same two or three songs on loop while working on a particular scene.

While writing content for the wilderness, my playlist was mostly instrumental and dependent on the area (open and awe-inspiring, dark and eerie, etc.). I did the same for codex entries.

Then there was one late night where I wrote combat barks while listening to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” on loop. No idea why.

 

Patrick Weekes writer of The Iron Bull, Cole, and Solas

For most of my writing in wilderness areas, and for the Iron Bull, I stuck to movie soundtracks. I generally cannot handle writing to anything with lyrics, but it fades into comfortable mood music quickly enough for me that I could handle the same several albums and be fine. My general playlist for writing music is:

In order to write Cole, a character who is essentially a raw nerve of sensitivity, I wanted to get music that was, well, sad is the easy way to put it, but I also needed a certain level of bare honest emotion. And specifically, it had to be songs that felt sad to me. Many people suggested songs that were sad to them, or about sad topics, but they didn’t give me the right sort of feel.

For me, a good lonely piano with vocals kills me in a way other things can’t. And so what I ended up with was my list of “14 Feels-Inducing, Piano-Heavy Sarah McLachlan Songs.” I listened to these songs for the entirety of the time I was writing and revising Cole’s plot and character dialog. According to friends, writing Cole all day to this music apparently made me act strangely. I’m sure I was fine.

[Editor’s note: Because Patrick had explained his musical inspiration for Cole, I would also listen to Sarah McLachlan (all of her music on random, not just a select few songs) while editing him. There may have been days when I listened to ‘When She Loved Me’ over and over again. And wept.]

And finally, there was Solas. I used the general list for a lot of him, but his thoughtful voice needed something more in some parts. I did a lot of writing to the soundtrack to the movie “Once”, which captured the kind of melancholy wisdom Solas needed.

However, for a few specific parts, even that wasn’t quite right for me. When Solas talks about things that he saw in the Fade, things that speak to a distant past, I needed him to sound ever so slightly otherworldly and wistful – someone remembering a dream with a sense of both sadness and inevitability.

So I took k.d. lang’s cover of “Hallelujah”, and I wrote key scenes to that single song on loop.

If you follow that link and look at some of Solas’s lines, you may notice a familiar rhythm come out. It would have been forcing it to give lines the same rhyme scheme, but giving the words the meter captured some of that wistfulness and made Solas sound ever so slightly otherworldly:

At Haven:

“I’ve journeyed deep into the Fade in ancient ruins and battlefields to see the dreams of lost civilizations.

I’ve watched as hosts of spirits clash to reenact the bloody past in ancient wars both famous and forgotten.

Every great war has its heroes. I’m just curious what kind you’ll be.”

On very rare occasions, the player’s voice would actually play along with this:

Solas: The Chantry says that demons hate the natural world and seek to bring their chaos and destruction to the living.

Solas: But such simplistic labels misconstrue their motivations and, in so doing, do all a great disservice.

Solas: Spirits wish to join the living, and a demon is that wish gone wrong.

Player: Is there a way to coexist? To live with them, if not in peace, at least without such active confrontation?

Solas: Not in the world we know today. The Veil creates a barrier that makes true understanding most unlikely.

Solas: But the question is a good one, and it matters that you thought to ask.

(In the rare cases the player got into the same rhythm, there was always an approval bump from Solas. For that brief period, it was like the player was thinking like he did.)

I used this a few times over the game, and I love what it did to his voice. Also, Cori (who edited Solas) is exceedingly kind for putting up with my request that changes to those lines keep this surreptitious rhythm.

[Editor’s note: Yes, yes I am.]

 

Lukas Kristjanson, writer of Sera, In Your Heart Shall Burn, and countless Codex entries

There were moods to what I was writing, and at the highest level it was really about whether or not stuff was on fire – both thematically and/or due to deadlines.

Main story missions like In Your Heart Shall Burn always juggle heavy topics, but they are really about the player coming into their own – how is their strength growing or changing? Sacrifice/ascendance/wonder etc. Guitars and sudden silence. Stuff is on fire.

Sera is all about the energy of the moment. She’s frustrating and fun at the same time. You have to meet her at her level, not drag her to yours. Her music was loud, silly, and mean, except when suddenly sweet. Stuff may or may not be on fire, but odds are good it will be soon.

Skyhold and Val Royeaux are spaces where characters decompress. Relatively quiet but still epic in scope, these places are a nexus where the player’s efforts quietly weave through many background lives. There’s a ton of short stories about heroes, hope, and sadness in the codex entries and simple ambient pairings. Music was lighter with lots of variance, because it’s about individuals. Stuff is not on fire. The deadline is.

I tend to loop a single song until it’s almost white noise. I don’t switch around much, because for me, lyrics I’m not used to mess with the rhythm of dialogue. Yet I don’t go to instrumentals. Go figure. The songs below drifted to the top of my playlist by the end of the project, more or less. It isn’t much of a mix, because each song was played dozens of times – hundreds over the development cycle. That probably says more about my mental process during crunch than it does about any one moment.

I also pulled the soundtrack from our Leliana’s Song DLC. A different flavor of DA that is fun to visit.

 

David Gaider, writer of Dorian, Cassandra, and much of the main plot

I’m not sure I could give an answer as complex as Luke does – when I’m writing I only listen to music on occasion, and when I do I’m not that picky about it. I have two playlists: my Classical playlist for when I’m writing complex dialogue (which is mostly Chopin, but has some other orchestral pieces in there) and my Dance playlist for when I’m writing action scenes (anything with a beat will do, and I’m not about to name the tunes).

Aaaand that’s about it.

 

Karin Weekes, editor of Cassandra, Josephine, and much of the main plot

When I edit dialogue, I can’t listen to music with words, so I have a couple classical/movie score playlists.

For general editing, I listen to things like Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon and Mississippi Suites, a bunch of John Williams (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, etc.), Carter Burwell’s score from Rob Roy, and various Celtic songs.

For Dragon Age, there was Rob Roy, Klaus Badelt’s Pirates of the Carribean score, Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones Score, and Hans Zimmer’s Hunt for Red October score.

When I’m not editing dialogue and can listen to music with words, my love of all kinds of music takes over. Random songs on my main playlist include:

Then, I have my Very Special Working Late playlist for when it’s late at night and I feel myself lagging. I’ll crank up the ABBA and start a Twitter “sing-along” (Shout-out to all my fellow #DancingQueens!). I won’t list songs; it’s pretty much ALL the ABBA.

 

Cori May editor of Cole, Cullen, Solas, and Dorian, and Vivienne’s caretaker

When I’m editing dialogue, I say every word out loud in order to get a sense of the voice and character, to make sure the line flows. I can’t listen to music while I’m doing that (except for Cole, as noted above). I even try to get the accent right whenever possible. I’ve tried desperately to pick up a Welsh accent (it’s the most beautiful voice in the world) and can’t, but I do a mean Morrigan (and really, is there any other kind?) and a passable Vivienne.

 

Mary Kirby, writer of Vivienne, Varric, and In Hushed Whispers

I have to match my music to the character, plot, and scene I’m writing.

Vivienne’s playlist was heavily instrumental. She had a lot of music from the soundtracks of Inception, Cloud Atlas, and Doctor Who, lightly seasoned with Lorde’s version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” because why not.

Varric got a lot of soulful strings and alternative. And words. Tracy Chapman, Don Henley, Pearl Jam, Radical Face. If someone has written a top 40 song about being regretful and/or lying, it is probably on that playlist somewhere.

When I worked on the plot “In Hushed Whispers,” I listened to a lot of Gershwin. I am not sure what that says about Alexius. “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts,” and I guess just Orlais in general, required Cellos, so I put 2CELLOS album on repeat. Gaspard got “Smooth Criminal.” Celene got “With or Without You,” and Briala got “Use Somebody.” I am not actually sure why.