Bird Song - The music of Eagle Flight

Bird Song - The music of Eagle Flight
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

February 7th 2017 at 2:30PM

With a new kind of reality comes a new challenge in the world of games music. Sean Cleaver speaks to composer Inon Zur about his latest work on Ubisoft’s VR title, Eagle Flight

To soar: ‘fly or rise high in the air, or even increase rapidly above the usual level’. The definition of soaring becomes very apt when you look at Eagle Flight. Ubisoft’s first VR game, released for the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR in November, casts you as an eagle flying above an abandoned Paris reclaimed by nature.

Using tunnelling, a VR technique to reduce motion sickness, you can fly around at great speeds, darting around the alleys and treetops with nary a flutter of the stomach. However immersion in a world isn’t just limited to the visuals. Audio is very important and music has a different job when it comes VR gaming. You don’t want your soundtrack to remove you from the experience of the game which, in standard gaming, isn’t a concern.

Tackling this challenge for Eagle Flight is Inon Zur, who has been composing for video games for over fifteen years. You might recognise his name from legendary titles like Dragon Age: Origins and Bethesda’s Fallout games.

“I had an immediate wave of inspiration when I saw and played Eagle Flight for the first time,” he tells me. “I understood that we would need to bring in some tribal influences in order to give the player a genuine natural world feel, but I also realized that this wouldn’t be enough on its own and that we also needed to incorporate classical influences and the sound of the orchestra.”

If SFX and dialogue enhance reality, music is there to enhance the story and emotions. 

Inon Zur, composer, Eagle Flight

I have often found that flight is scored in a wistful and calming way, although that could be more to do with watching too many nature documentaries. Zur did not have these expectations. “Flight can be very calm and there are a few pieces in the score that convey just that. However, more than anything else, the game is about embarking on a new and unknown adventure, and this is where I started.

“Since flying is what you do most of the time, I approached this aspect of the score from a different perspective – less dependent on ‘grounded’ music or heavy beats, but rather more on driving percussion and uplifting, melodic writing.“

For those unfamiliar with the game, Paris’s reclamation by nature has also seen the influx of animals, turning the ruined metropolis into a big, inner city safari park. Whilst the buildings have begun to crumble and the spires of Notre Dame now house your fellow Accipitridae, the streets and parks become lined with elephants and giraffes. It’s more like a thriving savannah rather than a Parisian boulevard. It’s this look and feel that help to give the game an identity outside of the calming winds that you hear.

“I used very simple tribal percussions so it sounds as primitive and ‘back to nature’ as can be,” says Zur. “The vocals are an extremely important signature for the whole score. I wanted to try to ‘sing the calls of the birds’ and these vocals – tribal, short and simple – served our intentions perfectly and brought this to life.”

When creating music for virtual reality, there are different approaches that need to be taken and according to Zur, after much consulting with experts he, and Ubisoft, “came to a very simple but profound understanding regarding music composition and mixing for VR games”.

“Music in games (and all other media) is a component that serves a very different purpose in the sonic map. If sound effects and dialogue are there to enhance reality, the music is there to enhance the story and emotions,” Zur says.

“While the SFX and dialogue should be influenced by and administered directly to the VR perspective, music plays a different role. Music is in your head, communicating the emotions. Therefore, the SFX should be mixed in surround but music should stay right between your ears, so music was mixed in stereo.

“This technique really helped to differentiate between the music and other sound components. It allows each one of the sonic elements to stand on its own and have an effective presentation without getting in the way of the other sounds.”

The problem of emotional conveyance is another that is a difficult to master in virtual reality music. Whereas music normally helps communicate a feeling or a tension, that job is taken over by the immersive nature of the visuals. That job becomes harder when you add more players to the mix.

“With single player you only need to address an individual experience,” says Zur, “but with multiplayer you need
to try to capture the feel of all the participants.”

Part of this is also down to the competitive nature of the game. As teams of eagles go up against each other online the need for tension to be amplified is key, but how you approach that in a VR environment is harder given everything that is already going on. Do you take a personalised approach or do you create a general music feel?

“The music needs to respond well to what each player is doing,” says Zur. “So you can choose, for example, to divert the music to a positive (for victory) and negative (for loss) and each of the participants will hear a slightly different tune. Or you can just frame the action (which we did for most of this game) and play the general feel without taking sides.”