In the recent 2K Games release, “The Darkness II,” based on the long-running Top Cow comic series, mob boss Jackie Estacado continues to fight the gnawing pull of the demonic forces contained within him as a religious order appears in town, bent on capturing The Darkness for themselves. He must also deal with repeated visions of his long lost love, Jenny, and the possibility that everything he knows is just an illusion.
Picking up the story that began with 2007’s acclaimed “The Darkness,” the sequel was welcomed early this year by critics who praised the shift to a first-person shooter format and the emotionally engaging storyline. No small part of creating that engagement is the score written by Timothy Michael Wynn. A composer for film, television and games, Wynn spoke with CBR News about “The Darkness II,” the challenges of composing for video games and the emotional elements that set this particular game’s story apart from the rest.
Wynn started his video game association with another comic book character, Frank Castle, with the 2005 Marvel/THQ release “The Punisher.” “I wrote it with my partner Chris Lennertz,” said Wynn. “We were excited by the challenge.” While challenging, he said the end product remains one of his favorites, in part because the budget allowed for him to work with a full orchestra. “I also got to write a song with the band Alien Ant Farm called ‘Dark in Here,'” he said. “[It] turned out great.”
His work on “The Darkness II” began when he sent a demo to developer Digital Extremes. “I sent them music that fit,” he said.
Movie and TV scores are made to be “screen-specific,” that is, the individual compositions sync up with the timing and content of a given scene. In video games, Wynn explained, the musical material might appear in different contexts as the player moves through the action. “When scoring films you only need to worry about how the music fits a specific scene,” he said. “Your music stems may be used for other parts of the game.”
Writing with this malleability in mind, Wynn created musical layers for audio director Dustin Crenna. “When the level needs low energy, Dustin can use those elements and when the action picks up, it’s also in the track,” he said. This allows the different music cues to be used across the large emotional and physical landscape of the game.
One thing Wynn credits with the final score’s high quality is the fact that he had the opportunity to work on “The Darkness II” for over a year. “I’ve composed scores that I have had only weeks,” he said. “More time is always better. It’s great to have time to try out ideas that may or may not work.”
An idea that does work is the change in tone whenever Jackie’s finds himself in an asylum where his life as a mobster attached to the Darkness is just a delusion; complete with several early issues of the Top Cow comic in his room. “We wanted the music to sound and feel completely different,” said Wynn of the sequences. “We wanted the player to get a break from the constant action and cacophony of sound.” In contrast, the music underscoring the asylum sequences are sparse. “I wanted it to sound a little uneasy,” he continued. “Is Jackie going nuts? Is this just a dream?”
Even in the primary part of the game, Jackie appears to have waking dreams centered around Jenny. Wynn composed a haunting theme for Jackie’s dreams and moments when she appears to be a nurse at the asylum. “For all its killing and gore, ‘The Darkness,’ at its core, is a tragic love story,” he said. “I envisioned this theme to convey this. I wanted it to be a window into the Jackie and Jenny love story. … When I finally started to write the music, I was fully engulfed in the story and this aspect specifically.”
Creating a palpable musical shift also came into play when composing music for the Darkling, a character the player actually controls in a couple of key sequences. “I wanted him to sound completely different than the rest of the game,” said Wynn. He “lightened the percussion” in these levels to play up the sneaky and stealthy qualities of the Darkling and his objectives. “Gone are the large taiko drums,” he explained. “The strings became more plucky while the brass used mutes.”
Of course, things pick up when Jackie has to make his way through waves of gangsters, crazed monks, and even demons. To create music for the more intense situations, Wynn received a version of the game level to get a feel for the energy of the moment. “I think that the tempo becomes apparent when you watch the scene or the level,” he said. “I start to tap my foot and go from there. I will then adjust the tempo when writing if it feels too fast or too slow.” Even when the player is engaged in the first-person shooter sections, the music rises and falls depending on where Jackie is and who he fights. “If you are fighting a main antagonist then the energy is high. If you are walking around just eliminating average thugs, it should be less. If the whole game score is high energy it can become just noise.”
Sharing the credit for the finished music, Wynn cites his good working relationship with developer Digital Extremes, particularly Crenna and producer Jeff Edwards. “Dustin and Jeff were great with feedback,” he said. “Their insight to the game and direction was invaluable to how the score turned out.”
Wynn’s other projects include an untitled feature film at Universal and “A Symphony of Hope,” a benefit for victims of the Haiti earthquake.
Check out the music of Timothy Michael Wynn in “The Darkness II,” now available on XBox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.