Jack Wall, ‘Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’ composer: “Storytelling is the fun part of writing music for games”

The Hollywood composer discusses how he modernised the '80s sound for Treyarch’s latest blockbuster FPS

Jack Wall has had a long and rich career in composing video game music, beginning at the start of the millennium when he came to prominence with his award-winning score for the 2001 adventure title Myst 3, as well as its 2004 sequel, Myst IV: Revelation.

He then collaborated with BioWare, where he composed the music for 2005’s East-Asian inspired Jade Empire, before progressing to his most celebrated achievements in the first two Mass Effect games.

Jack Wall

These games aren’t only of an epic cinematic scale but also heavily interactive, which has always been the appeal for Wall, as he tells NME: “For me, it’s mostly about making the story come alive,” he says. “Making something feel like an interactive cinematic experience is always the goal in games and it’s really fun to make that happen. If the music gets implemented properly, that’s pretty rewarding.”

So it must be a surprise then that Wall didn’t continue working on Mass Effect after the second instalment – arguably the series’ peak – but instead leapt into the challenge of composing for Call Of Duty’s Black Ops series, starting with 2012’s Black Ops 2 and continuing with the latest Black Ops Cold War. Certainly, in the immediate adrenaline of an FPS, an immersive cinematic score might not be as much of a priority as compared to the sounds of gunfire, explosions and enemy footsteps.

“It’s definitely an important consideration,” Wall admits. “But there are plenty of moments when you’re not fully engaged in combat in the campaign. For example, I will write more moody music for the exploration sections. But even when the combat is full on, there are ways to heighten the experience for the player, even if the music is playing more of a support role in the background.

“I might do something with high strings or a pad without a lot of conflicting percussion. Or I might have a lot of percussion that feels appropriate for a specific map. I always react to what the map is. Maybe it’s the location or the characters involved that I can latch onto. In any case, it’s got to have energy and keep up with the action. If the music goes away or is not there, and you miss it, then we’re doing our job.”

He continues: “For me, storytelling is the fun part of writing music for games and Treyarch spends a lot of time focusing on the narrative in the single-player campaigns. Even if you’re not thinking about the music while playing the game’s story mode, we feel it viscerally improves the experience if we give the music all the love we can.”

Being able to work on a new campaign score for Black Ops Cold War was a delight in itself, Wall tells us, but the fact that the story was set in the 1980s – a period that continues to be hugely influential for sci-fi and futuristic sounds – was even more thrilling. “I was super excited when I learned we would be in that era,” says Wall. “I’ve done a ton of music outside of that era but owed to that era, like Mass Effect.”

You get a sense of what Wall is going for right away with Black Ops Cold War’s main menu track, which combines an orchestra with gloomy synths and a Soviet choir, immediately conjuring, as he puts it, “that dark, shadowy Black Ops feel in the time of larger-than-life Cold War political figures like Reagan and Brezhnev”. Ultimately, the idea was to modernise the ’80s sound while still making it feel as if it could have come from that period.

In stark contrast to the campaign’s considerably dark and sombre tone, however, the multiplayer fully embraces the fun vibe of the ’80s. Jumping into the multiplayer lobby, players are greeted with the ‘Rising Tide’ theme, steeped in upbeat nostalgic synthwave sounds. “I wanted an energetic, fun piece that worked in this new Cold War era,” Wall explains. “It’s definitely an effort to follow up Black Ops 2’s ‘Adrenaline’ but with some distinctly ’80s sounds that have a more modern approach.” The track also happens to be a collaboration with musician Jimmy Hinson (who also goes by Big Giant Circles) who teamed up with Wall on Mass Effect 2.

Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2. Credit: BioWare

Speaking of Mass Effect, now that EA has also finally announced that the long-awaited trilogy remaster Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will be arriving in the spring of 2021, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask Wall his thoughts on seeing this beloved series return.

“I’m happy to see that there is still such a demand for the original series,” he says. “That is very rare in video games. We’re usually, with a new title, relevant for a fairly short period of time. Mass Effect really has had a long tail and I’m so proud to have been a small part of it.”

While we know the remasters will be optimised for 4K resolutions and feature a slew graphical enhancements, there hasn’t been any talk about whether Wall’s original score will be getting a retouch. Remasters can occasionally be divisive, with some fans finding any ‘improvements’ to be inferior or missing the spirit of the original. Wall, however, is open to the idea of being able to at least remix the existing music.

“As most artists will agree, we hope to get better with time in all aspects of our craft and art and I do think I could improve it,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to change the score, but giving it a face lift would be nice.”

In any case, he’s only able to confirm that he’s not involved in the remasters, and even if he was, he admits he wouldn’t know where to find the original audio files. “Mass Effect was 13 years ago and Mass Effect 2 was 10 years ago. That is an eternity in computer files time! In any case, I’m proud of our work on that series and grateful it still finds an audience.”

‘Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’ is out now for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and PC.

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