The Flight Share Thoughts on Their Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Soundtrack
By Hektor Apostolopoulos
Luckily enough, we had the chance to pick the brains of Alexis Smith and Joe Henson, the duo that’s otherwise known as The Flight. With background in commercial music and soundtrack production in games, TV and beyond, The Flight seem determined to stay on their toes and, also, the games industry. But what of their latest and seemingly biggest project to date? Read on to find out, as The Flight share thoughts on their Assassin’s Creed Odyssey soundtrack.
This interview originally appeared on and is reproduced here with permission.
As we understand it, getting into soundtrack composition, for games or not, wasn’t necessarily a goal when you started out as a duo. During the last few years though you seem to have made a turn to the cinematic with clear moody and dark tones. Releases like the Dark Futures duo are telling, as well as your previous involvement in games and TV, but we we also sense an overall shift in your style. That’s what tracks from the Hangman and Sarah EPs left us feeling. Which do you feel was the turning point beyond which your interested in soundtrack production became solid and clearly interesting to you?
Alexis Smith: We have always been interested in soundtracks. Joe grew up obsessively listening to scores such as Blade Runner and Dirty Harry, and we are both big film fans. While it is true that in our earlier careers we focused mainly on commercial music, as Joe was in various touring bands and I was learning music production from my mentor, Marius de Vries, we both knew that it was not the only thing we wanted to do.
Joe Henson: When we got together and formed The Flight, back in 2010, we had already collaborated on one game, a rhythm-based children’s title for Electronic Arts. Although that game didn’t really go anywhere, we both loved working in that medium and the processes involved. The industry felt new and exciting, and we pretty much decided at that point that we wanted to do more.
Alexis Smith: But it is a hard industry to break into! Our big moment was composing the score for Alien: Isolation, which really propelled us to the next level.
It’s not your first brush with Assassin’s Creed. Neither with Lydia Andrew for that matter, the audio director for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Even so, this year’s release is the second step in the franchise’s pivot into a much more massive and different structure. Where in the past a player would need roughly 20 hours to see all one needed to see and possibly more, Assassin’s Creed Origins and seemingly Assassin’s Creed Odyssey can take up significantly more time to “complete”. Which brings us to the meat of the question. With so much more to envelope in music and different paths a player can take, paths that also have to be expressed accordingly in musical terms, was there a significant difference in how you approached the endeavour this time around, compared to say, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and if so how did you go about managing it?
Joe Henson: Yes, a massive difference. For Assassin’s Creed Black Flag we wrote about 40 minutes of music, for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey it was more like 240! Obviously, we had a lot more time, which let us take a very different approach.
Alexis Smith: The main thing was that we wanted the score to have an ‘overall’ feel, one that felt right with the time period and setting, but also a lot of variety. As the world itself was split up into different regions, Attica, the Peloponnese, etc, we focused down on each of these regions and gave them each certain musical characteristics. These could be instrumental palettes, or modes, or simply feelings we wanted to portray. For example, we saw Athens and Attica as a seat of learning, the birthplace of philosophy and mathematics, and so the music is stately and ordered. The music of the Peloponnese, on the other hand, is more emotional, and we tried to reflect somewhat of a Spartan military feel to their rhythms.
Joe Henson: The Odyssey score was also a lot more character-driven than what was required from us on the Black Flag multiplayer. We started by composing a series of thematic ‘suites’ for the main characters, and these then formed the emotional ‘backbone’ of the score.
The weird thing about Ancient Greek music is that practically none of it survives. We might have a grasp of instruments that were predominantly used in the era, thanks to various artistic depictions, but we don’t really, really know much about the music itself. If we Greeks were pressed to answer whether any one of the flourishes used in your work is “Ancient Greek” enough, we wouldn’t really know. At the same time, the lack of information gives you creative leeway, enough room to try and capture a music feel that feels right in the end and, of course, can be built upon and used in conjunction with modern structure and cinematic sensibilities. Did you find that challenging and out of your norm and, moreover, how did you approach making the aforementioned creative room count?
Alexis Smith: It was a challenge, but one that excited us. While Joe was listening to his dad’s film score collection, I was brought up on my mum’s folk music records. There’s something that links all early music from around the world, that it’s from the people, the land, and whilst of course there are big differences between early music from Greece, and the British Isles, there are also a lot of similarities.
Joe Henson: As you say, the most important thing was not to beat ourselves up trying to be ‘authentic’, as no-one really knows what this would have been anyway, but to find a sound that felt right, whilst still giving us enough room for the variety that we needed for such a long experience.
We assume there’s a chance you came across an instrument or two for the first time. The main theme, one that’s already out as a single, seems to rely on the use of lute, bouzouki and sandouri. We’d wager he heard a bit of askomandoura or a similar bagpipe but we wouldn’t go for an extravagant bet. In any case, which Greek instruments did you focus on for the needs of this soundtrack, which were new to you, if any, and did any one of them surprise you either for good or for bad?
Alexis Smith: We did a lot of research into what instruments might have have been around at the time, and then tried to find their closest relatives available today. We bought a hammered Dulcimer, and various Lyres, bouzoukis and panpipes. One of the instruments we were keen to involve was the Diaulos; we had seen some videos of people playing them online and loved the piercing sound, quite unlike anything we had heard before! Unfortunately it proved impossible to get hold of one, but we used bagpipe chanters and a blown reed to get an approximation.
Joe Henson: It is always inspiring for us to pick up an instrument that we aren’t familiar with. It is something we try and do on every project so was very natural for us on Odyssey.
Giving character to two opposing forces through music isn’t new, least of all new for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. At the same time, there has always been a pretty clear distinction between the “good” and the “evil” side. With the Brotherhood and the Templars out of the picture in the game’s fictional Ancient Greece, the obvious dichotomy is between the Delian and the Peloponnesian Leagues. With the player in a position to shift alliances, we assume your music has to both make the distinction between them audible and felt as well as highlight the changing of sides. Seeing as said war isn’t exactly famous for leaving any clearly positive light shine on any side, how did you go about working on those themes that are tasked with giving them character?
Alexis Smith: The wars between the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues are the historical background to the game, but it is the personal quest of the protagonist that we are scoring. There is evil in the game, but it would spoil the story if we spoke about that in detail…
Joe Henson: We wanted the combat music when you fight against either side to have quite a contrasting sound though. The Delian league music references the musical palette of Attica, albeit in a more action-orientated way, and the Spartan music is much more aggressive and looks back to the palette of the Peloponnese. Neither of these are thematically the ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ – just like in real life.
Odyssey, tragedy and practically a procession of loaded words that need to somehow be expressed an encapsulated in the game’s soundtrack. Incorporating Greek musical elements is one thing. Codifying ideas though and complementing both history and story in the game is quite another. In that regard, we’re interested in how you approached research of such ideas and how do you feel you ended up giving them musical shape.
Joe Henson: Though the historical and mythological setting are important, as we said before our main task was scoring the personal story of Kassandra/Alexios; their journey to find out who they really are.
Alexis Smith: We do come across some of the famous creatures from Greek Mythology though, and scoring them was one of the highlights for us. Again, we don’t want to give too much away at this point.
While playing the game’s latest demo at a recent trade show, we (finally!) came across your variation on “Ezio’s Family”, the track from Assassin’s Creed II that has become virtually synonymous to the series, even though it hasn’t always been used, one way or the other, in every Assassin’s Creed title that followed. We encountered your take on it on the menu screen and we feel certain we’ll come across it someplace else too before the game ends. Sadly we haven’t had the chance to listen to it in full and have a clear understanding of how you went about it. Of the versions that followed Assassin’s Creed II’s release, we found that last year’s variation, worked on by Sarah Schachner, was very interesting as it combined the well-known melody with Origins’ elements in the background and a few very characteristic notes at the beginning and end in a very remarkable way that made the end result stand out. Creatively, what was your approach, while knowing you have to work on a fan-favourite melody Jesper Kyd thought of more than a decade ago, add Greek elements, keep everybody happy and, yet, make it your own in the process?
Alexis Smith: We know how much this piece means to the fans, and we wanted to do a version that was both instantly recognisable to them, but still in keeping with the rest of the score. We began by playing the main 8-note theme on our favourite Lyre, and then built it up from there, treating it as if it were another piece that we had written.
Joe Henson: This was towards the end of production so we got all of our musicians together. Mike Georgiades played the Bouzouki, Reinaud Ford bowed his Rebec, and Emma Rohan sang the lead. I played bass and Alexis played the Lyre. It was a great way to finish the project.
From the quite voluminous chat we had with Lydia Andrew, it became pretty clear the game’s music was quite the group effort, with talent from various countries involved. Musicians, poets, historians and more are involved in a process that informs your work and yet you also inform everyone else’s work accordingly. Did you have to adjust your regular MO for the needs of such a production and, if yes, how so? Do you feel you’re taking away something from this labour, something you might find useful and employ in future works?
Alexis Smith: We always like to collaborate with other musicians so this wasn’t really a change for us. Composing for games is always a collaboration between us and the entire audio team, and this is something that we love about working on a big project such as Assassin’s Creed.
Joe Henson: Yeah, music for us is about getting people together and experimenting – that’s where the magic happens.
When all is said and done, which would you say is your favourite track from this particular soundtrack and why? Keep in mind that it’s highly possible at this point that neither us nor our readers have heard of it at this point (unless it’s the main theme) so you’ll have to go the extra mile with the explanation, if you don’t mind. Plus, it must be obvious by now we love details, insights and anecdotes.
Joe Henson: My favourite piece is called ‘A Happy Family’. It was the first track we composed for Odyssey, and we meant it to encapsulate the tragic story of the protagonist. Alexis, Mike, and I wrote this as a group, and as soon as we hit on the melody we knew it that we had something. We wrote this at the beginning of Spring here in London, and if you listen carefully to the intro you can hear the birds singing outside the studio! We tried later to replace this part bird-free, but could never capture that special vibe again, So the birds stayed!
Alexis Smith: Mine has to be the original version of the main theme, ‘The Legend Of The Eagle Bearer’. Magic was in our studio that day; from picking up the instruments to having the main parts of the track down took us only a few hours, like a crazy dream. We were all on the same wavelength and it just flowed.
You’re no stranger to game soundtrack composition and production. Between your involvement in the Assassin’s Creed series and Horizon: Zero Dawn, you’re no stranger to big musical productions for the industry. Certainly more have been exposed to your work through games than through BBC productions that just don’t have the same global reach, regardless of quality. Any chance we’ve drawn you in for good with the idiosyncrasies of game music?
Alexis Smith: Yes! We are here for good now…
Joe Henson: For us it doesn’t matter if it’s a game, a small budget documentary or a song with an artist. We just look out for good quality projects made by people we get on with creatively and on a personal level. We have a lot more in the pipeline…
Thank you for your time. We hope this picking of your brain proves to be refreshing to you, ourselves and, of course, our readers.
Joe Henson & Alexis Smith aka The Flight: It was our pleasure, we hope you enjoy playing the rest of the game as much as we did working on it…