If you’re a newcomer to the world of Tyria then let me quickly cement what Guild Wars 2 is all about. Besides the awesome achievements, the battles in the Mists, and some pretty despicable gods, it’s about Dragons. Players trudging through years of heroics first took on the Elder dragon Zhaitan when it threatened to raise the dead and overrun us all, and ever since we’ve toiled and torn our way through unimaginable odds, all with the shadow of these colossal beasts hanging over us.
While it’s easy to flip through an art book and gaze at the detailed depiction of these earth shattering monsters, there’s more to bringing a dragon to life than just filling in the eyes. The recent release of Virtual Video Game Orchestra’s version of Aurene, Dragon Full of Light highlighted quite how powerful music is in depicting these core creations of Tyria, so we raided some of Maclaine Diemer’s time to talk about the evolution of a dragon.
Gamespace: Thanks for taking some time to chat with us today. It’s clear that dragons are a tremendous force, more than just a boss battle or another NPC. They seem to be both these things and still central to the story. How to you marry this and write music that works on all these levels for a dragon.
Maclaine: That’s a good question. So I would say that the first time I ever thought about writing music for dragons, it started off kind of accidentally. It was when we were starting Season One of the Living World and the studio was starting to set up this larger arc of what was going to happen with all these Elder Dragons. I had written a piece of music for an event called the Tower of Nightmares and there was a little motif in there that I thought was cool. A couple of months after that content had come out I kind of backtracked as we started very early talks about setting up Heart of Thorns and decided this should be the beginning of Mordremoth’s theme. At that time, I just wanted to start piecing together the musical story of that expansion. And you know, since Mordremoth is such a big part of it, you take a little bit of the classic Star Wars motif so every time you hear that music you think “Uh oh, it’s Mordremoth”.
That was the very first time I really conceived that the dragons musically. Since then it’s been a combination of thinking about those characters, and then thinking about how events would play out in the world. All the dragon themes actually have some sort of connection to that first Mordremoth theme. It’s very spooky, very dark, and it has a half step motion that links all of the Elder Dragons together. It’s a little like Jaws and is where it all starts.
Interviewer’s note. We did ask if Bubbles will feature the Jaw’s theme but like everything about that sea bound adventure, we just have to wait and sea.
Gamespace: How does that work for other dragons that aren’t quite as foreboding?
Maclaine: Well, even Aurene’s theme has same link to Mordremoth’s Theme in it, although it’s like a happier sort of presentation of it. That’s been that’s like the foundation for all dragon music. Despite that, it’s still possible to have it sound light and tender. As each new dragon needs its own music, it just depends on the content, you know. With Dragon Full of Light, that was something where one of the content designers, Cameron Rich, came to me and said, ‘hey, I’ve got this crazy, big event that’s the finale of this season and I want to make it musical. So can we talk about doing something cool with the music. From there, it became a big production. So, from humble beginnings it just kind of snowballs into something larger and more complex.
Gamespace: Despite that underlying theme, it seems like you’re building a very distinct personality when you create each of the dragons we come across. The recent release of Primordus’ Theme on SoundCloud makes me think there’s not going to be any negotiation and this thing is just a force of nature that’s set to reign chaos down on Tyria. Is that the intention?
Maclaine: You sort of nailed it. That’s the intention is to give a perception of each dragon musically, not just to give them an identifiable melody, but to give them a defining characteristic and a sort of underlying emotion that the music expresses. With Primordus that was exactly the idea. The studio described it as a sort of chaotic fiery elemental, and they wanted it to feel like chaos. For Primordus the musical examples they gave to me, were less about rehashing a pre existing sort of epic orchestral Guild Wars type themes. Instead, It was stuff from like, The Last of Us and Donkey XL’s Mad Max that were all about energy, distortion, and a barely containable kind of energy.
Gamespace: What was the response like to something that outlandish?
Maclaine: It’s been great. This has been some of the wildest music we’ve put in the game so far.
Gamespace: Experimenting like this doesn’t seem to be entirely new either. Heart of Thorns was so unexpected, not just Mordremoth but the entire jungle. How did you end up with something that distinctive?
Maclaine: You know, it’s that one that was the first time I truly felt like I think I might have gone too far. Rata Novus is very out there and Chak Tunnels is almost a horror piece, but I felt like I had built up enough trust by this point. There are hours of lush orchestral fantasy soundscape in Guild Wars 2 already butt hose moments really emphasize how gloomy the Forest can be. This isn’t like the Grove or Sylvari areas where everything is beautiful and it’s melded with nature. This is almost like nature is against you so it has so it had to be very dark and very heavy.
Gamespace: Where do those ideas come from?
Maclaine: It’s almost like my past life as a sound designer in some ways. You start to think about these things and wonder what would it sound like if you were standing in that forest and if it’s truly that big you’re going to get echoes almost like you do when you are in a city with tall buildings. You clap your hands with and the sounds are bouncing around between the buildings. I thought instead of it being a force that’s on top of you and oppressive and it feels very dry and close, I want it to feel intimidatingly large and that’s why we used a lot of repetitive percussive elements to sort of emphasize the fact that sound might be echoing around. With Rata Novus, because it’s related to the Asura, it’s kind of as close as we can get to science fiction. There’s a little bit of synthesizer stuff, but it’s mostly tonnes of heavy reverb. Think of a signal coming back at you after bouncing around for 1000 years. In general, it’s about trying to latch on to an idea of whether it’s a piece of art or a moment in the story, and then figuring out what that means, musically.
Gamespace: Can we expect to see more of this soon?
Maclaine : Yes. The last piece that I completed is going to be coming out in the next episode, Balance. It’s less chaotic than the previous one but still has interesting instrument choices with a lot of processing on them to make them sound like they’re bubbling up from the underworld, all distorted and crackly and aggressive.
Gamespace: what’s the strangest, what’s the strangest instrument or technique that you’ve had to use?
Maclaine : It’s called a Jouhikko which is a Finnish instrument.
Maclaine proceeds to run off and grab an instrument that makes a noise that can only be described as a Swedish horror movie soundtrack. A long droning death crow that seems to scratch the joy from the room.
I have used this before, a couple of times on some Northern music but when it came to Primordus, it made so much sense. The tone is so ugly and scratchy while giving off squeaky overtones and it gives it this like jittery energy. When I picked it up, I didn’t really know how to play it at first and just decided to do something until I make something that sounds cool and then hope I can repeat that.
Gamespace: Does that come from being a sound designer earlier in your career thinking about music in that way?
Maclaine: I never really connected the two from previously being a sound designer, but that’s definitely a part of it. If I can learn just enough about it to be dangerous and get something cool and usable out of it I will try, and hopefully find new and unusual sounds. For Guild Wars 2 the orchestra is always going to be the basis like that’s what it is because the genre and because of the tone that’s already been established. But if you’re looking for a new way to express a new part of the story and the character, then you need something more than just strings, woodwinds, and brass.
Gamespace: With the Choir being one of those more traditional fantasy MMO instruments, how did you get involved with the Virtual Video Game Orchestra?
Maclaine: That’s goes way back to a composer named Eric Whitacre, who’s a sort of the premier choral composer of the last 10-15 years. He rose to notoriety doing what he called his virtual choir. He organized people and he figured out a system to get everybody in sync on your phone, on a webcam, whatever. He takes those tracks and put those recordings all into this one big, cool community event.
The Virtual Video Game Orchestra started during the lockdown, with the intention of doing the same thing where everybody would just, you know, they pick a piece to work on for a couple of months. They’re all very talented musicians, a lot of them play in either community orchestras or semi professional groups, or maybe in a college studying music. They take a track and they’ll either transcribe it or track down the sheet music. Everybody will record from home and then they’ll mix it and release it. One of the members of the orchestra was a big Guild Wars 2 fan and it was her idea to say, ‘hey, let’s do this piece because it’s so pretty.’ They took it and went further with it. They added more parts to it, adding a richer variety of tone. In the end, they just wrote what I think is even more interesting and more ornate stuff around it and I think it came out beautifully. So you know, my hats off to them if I was wearing a hat.
I think they did an amazing job and even asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and if I would conduct it. Basically, if I would play the role of Eric Whitacre in this situation and guide them along with the music. So, I sent them a video of me doing that, and they put together something really cool.
More Than Human
It’s odd to think that while we might look at Tequatil or The Claw of Jormag as just another daily event to chew through on the path to yet the latest achievement for another alt, there’s a lot more to the Elder Dragons than even many of the more human elements of Guild Wars 2. Without the option of simply calling like Taimi, or turning up and saying their piece, the influence of the Elder Dragons ebbs through Tyria and the music that surrounds us. It’s something to think about next time you are queueing up to take down Mordremoth. Check out more about the latest Dragon, or even hear a glimpse of Maclaine’s latest work on the brand new Icebrood Saga Episode 5 trailer before it arrives next week.