Garry Schyman on composing the Forspoken fantasy score and finding a voice for Frey

“It’s a pretty stunning world [the developers] created, so it gave me the opportunity to write some very beautiful music,” says Garry Schyman, co-composer of Forspoken. “It was really an opportunity to write something that’s not just combative and not just dark; it was an opportunity to write melodies.”

Forspoken is Square Enix’s latest fantasy epic, about a young woman named Frey who finds herself transported from modern-day New York to the strange world of Athia. Composers Garry Schyman (the BioShock series, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and more) and Bear McCreary (God of War Ragnarök and Amazon’s Rings of Power series) shared the task of writing music for Frey’s adventures.

But how do you create the sound of a fantasy world through music? And what is Frey’s musical voice?

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It starts with melody. “I love writing melodies, and you know what, I think audiences love melodies,” says Schyman.

“And games often offer an opportunity to write melodies, which I love. There are a lot of films with great scores, but they’re pretty atmospheric, they’re pretty sound design – shall we say, for lack of a better word, and there’s really nothing to remember.

“So that’s a very dominant style right now in film and television and also in games. Games don’t escape that.”

He adds: “[The developers] I really wanted something traditional, but I think the score also has some very unique elements.”

Schyman and McCreary shared score responsibility and co-composed a number of themes that Schyman fleshed out for the in-game music. Schyman selects Frey’s theme and the theme for downtown Cipal as key pieces: the latter features lengthy musical phrases with touches of dissonance over harp accompaniment to really enhance the mystical atmosphere.

“I went more into mysterious fantasy, action, combat music,” explains Schyman. “It was triadic, but with many added dissonances … to give the harmonies a rich vocabulary.” Essentially, not just basic three-note chords are added, but additional notes outside the home key are added to create a more complex harmonic sound. One such dissonant interval Schyman used is the tritone, which is as far apart as two notes can be within the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale – it had been known since the 18th century as “diabolus in musica” (the devil in the music) known.

Headshot of Forspoken co-composer Garry Schyman
Forspoken co-composer Garry Schyman

The use of unusual and primitive instruments such as the viola d’amore – a six-string baroque viola – as well as a choir and synthesizer contribute to the imaginative sound. Additionally, Schyman experimented with hip-hop beats along with traditional orchestral instrumentation to reflect Frey’s journey from modern New York to Athia.

This is certainly evident in Frey’s theme, characterized by a wistful vocal melody sung over lush accompaniment and a synthesized drumbeat.

The singer is black singer India Carney, whose singing becomes a kind of human anchor in the music.

“India has a beautiful voice, she was a great discovery for both Bear and me,” says Schyman. “She kind of became the voice of Frey, the main character. And she did a fabulous job [job]. She’s not in every cue, I didn’t use her all the time, but in certain cues she just really brought it to life. I loved working with her.”

He adds, “She does everything, she’s amazing,” referring to her versatile voice, which oscillates between a kind of gospel vibe and a more choral sound. Schyman was determined to take advantage of this versatility.

“Besides singing what I had written for them, I said, ‘If you have any ideas, if you want to improvise…’. And she made some really nice improvisations on top of what I wrote,” he says. “It added so much character. When I was done I was actually almost sorry I didn’t add more of her because she just adds that whole uniqueness to whatever she sings on.”

You can certainly hear that in Frey’s theme, where the initial, somewhat mournful melody is almost reticent before Carney later unleashes some impressive vocal runs.

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Frey, main character in Forspoken

Carney’s voice also suits Frey as a character. “It just sounded right as soon as we heard them. She’s a young black woman, and so was Frey and [her voice] just seemed to represent the character beautifully,” says Schyman. “We wanted her to sing her authentic sound and it just seemed like a perfect fit. It’s like when we found her and she started doing it, ‘yeah, it just works’. It’s an intuitive thing.”

Were there any particular challenges creating music for an open world game?

“The hardest part is almost always at the beginning, when you’re developing themes and a musical style that suits the project,” says Schyman. “Once you develop that, and [the developers are] happy with that and they are on board with all of this then I know the style and what me and Bear have created. And now I’m going to write music in this world based on what they’ve given me, provided as inspiration, or to show me what’s going on visually.”

There’s a lot of back and forth and give and take between the composer and developer to ensure the right tone is struck. Still, Schyman has nothing but praise for his time at Luminous Games and Square Enix.

“They were determined to create something really beautiful and really special,” he says. “And that influenced me. They cared and I love what inspires me to do my best.

“And of course you have a beautiful world. And there were these opportunities to write beautiful music. I’ve certainly written a ton of scary music in my life, but I love writing beautiful melodies.” It could be so intense and beautiful like that. So part of the battle music also has this opportunity where the characters become heroic. That’s really fun.

“And it inspired me and I wrote some of the best music I’ve ever written, I think, for this game.” Garry Schyman on composing the Forspoken fantasy score and finding a voice for Frey

Fry Electronics Team

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