At the confluence of emotions and strategy, you’ll find Tim Wynn. Over the last 15 years, the American composer’s work has effectively become the soundtrack to tactical gaming. His scores to XCOM 2, Command & Conquer, and myriad Total War entries have helped forge a bridge between players and the digital forces they direct in-game. So when developer Firaxis began work on Marvel’s Midnight Suns, they knew exactly who to turn to for its soundtrack.
Following the addition of Venom to Midnight Suns – and with more superhero DLC on the horizon – we sat down with Wynn to discuss his history of strategy soundtracks, and how he tackled the daunting prospect of scoring such a broad and beloved comic book cast.
As a longtime fan of strategy games, Wynn is the perfect fit for the genre. But he never intended to corner the market. In fact, his opening shot was more “happy accident” than career stratagem.
“One of my favorite strategy games early on was Command & Conquer: Red Alert,” says Wynn. “I loved playing that game. I was working on another game from EA, and I saw a poster on the wall of the Kirov airship [from Red Alert 3]. I said, ‘Oh my God, are you guys doing this game?’ And they said, ‘Well I can't really talk about it, but the audio director is looking for a composer. Would you want to talk to him?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So the rest is history!”
Since then, Wynn has jumped from Soviet resurgences to alien invasions, historical conquests, and fantasy warfare. Fortunately, variety is something Wynn values most in his work.
“You definitely have to work on it, but I will say that not being stuck in any one genre is refreshing,” Wynn says. “I don't know if I would enjoy working on the same game for 15 years in the same sort of sound, because you start to run out of ideas.
“For Midnight Suns, one of the things that I was really proud of was that I had to write so many different themes for so many different characters. For some reason, every theme, every motif for the different characters just kind of came to me. I don’t want to say easily, but it definitely flowed right off. From the brain, to the fingers, onto the score. And it felt really good.”
As a licensed game, with motifs and recognizable melodies for heroes and locations, Marvel’s Midnight Suns presented Wynn with a new challenge: How closely do you tie yourself to the sounds of the well-established movies?
“From the very beginning, we wanted it to sound like it came from the Marvel universe,” Wynn says. “There's a huge library of great music for all the movies. I looked at it as this tree, and I'm going to have a new branch as part of it. Doing my own thing, but it's still part of that tree. It still had to have certain qualities that the Marvel sound has.
“And the funny thing is, I don't even know how to define [Marvel] other than that you know it when you hear it. I'm aware of the music in the Marvel universe, but I can't say I've gone through and analyzed it because I didn't really want to be that influenced on the score.”
Fortunately, knowing when his work hits the mark is something Wynn has developed keen sense for.
“I have to have that hair-stands-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment,” says Wynn. “When I know that I’m comfortable with turning it in. And if it's not, why aren’t my spidey senses tingling? There's something magic about it. It could be a knob, a certain filter, a certain melody – it could be anything. But until I get that feeling, every stone is turned until the track is ready to go.”
So how do you go about making someone feel like a superhero? The secret at the heart of heroism, it turns out, is a single instrument.
“French horns, French horns!” Wynn exclaims before we even finish the question. “Absolutely, French horns are a must. And I would say the use of perfect fifths. I remember when I was first starting off, I was writing a main theme for The Simpsons game or something like that – it was a heroic sort of thing. I'd written a lot of heroic themes even at that point, so I thought I’d see if I could write one that actually progresses down. And I got the feedback that no, heroic themes always go up. They go up.”
But with more than 20 different characters to work on, Wynn couldn’t just rely on the same tricks each time. The good news? Midnight Suns’ cast were introduced slowly, offering Wynn plenty of time to iterate.
“Early on in the process, I didn't have the whole story,” says Wynn. “It was still evolving. I was going one step at a time, so I didn't have to think ‘All right, let me write 15 themes at a time.’
“It's like climbing a mountain. You don't get up Mount Everest by going to the top in one step. You’ve got to stop along the way, you’ve got to acclimatize, get oxygen, and keep on going up. It's the same way for composing. I like to think of myself as a sculptor, I just keep on chipping away. There's a great piece of music inside there somewhere. I just have to chip away at the granite and I'll find it.”
At the heart of the game, and Wynn’s work, were the Midnight Suns themselves. Their breadth of designs and backstories helped out a lot with their compositions.
“The characters’ personalities really spoke to me as well,” Wynn explains. “Wanda, she has more of a tragic sense to her theme, and the same with [the villain] Lilith. She's not just a bad, evil person. She has reasoning behind her, she has a struggle. So I try to differentiate from something like Captain America, where he's just pure heroic. Hers had like a bit more of a nuance to it. The darkness and the light in her character – I wanted to bring that out in the melody.
“I added in some flutes and some woodwind instruments for Scarlet Witch. I thought she had a softness to her. But definitely French horns carried a lot of of the melodies. They just really speak, the French horns and the strings!”
The Marvel movies weren’t the only inspirations Wynn harnessed. To match the game’s eclectic cast, he also tapped into cinematic heroes of an older generation.
“The genesis of the whole thing is the comic book in the 1990s”, Wynn says. “So I was looking for inspiration from scores of the time. I was thinking of Alan Silvestri’s score for The Predator, [James] Horner’s Braveheart. I know that seems a little bit out there because we're talking heroic stuff, but I was looking for any ways that I could incorporate the sound from the ‘90s, but bring it up to 2022 standards.”
With Midnights Suns released to critical acclaim, Wynn was free to move on to the game’s DLC cast. A list that many probably giggled at upon reaching upcoming character Morbius. The disastrous 2022 movie surrounding the vampiric character has transformed the film into an ongoing joke. Wynn wasn’t aware of the fiasco, but fortunately his family stepped in to offer an education.
“My 17-year-old daughter came in to my office and said, ‘You're working on Morbius? Oh my God!’ And she filled me in on the whole controversy. I knew there was a lot of stuff that was interesting going on, but my daughter had to fill me in on all the details, so it didn't really influence me.”
It’s likely that this iteration of the character will get a better reception than his silver screen counterpart. But among all of the superheroes and villains Wynn has had the chance to work on, his favorite, Dr. Faustus, took the concept of killing your darlings just a little too literally. A spoiler warning for those who have not yet gotten through the game’s first act.
“The reason why is that I was really proud of the theme,” Wynn says. “It's got this cool little vibe, and his was more done on violins than the French horn. But Dr. Faustus gets killed pretty soon! I was like, ‘Oh! I thought this was gonna be this big theme. I'm going to be able change and morph and do all these different things to it!’”
For Wynn, working on games like Marvel’s Midnight Suns and Total War was more than just an opportunity to score worlds and characters that he loved. The project also provided a lifeline during years of COVID-induced lockdowns.
“I was so thankful that I was able to work on these projects during the pandemic,” Wynn says. “It really gave me meaning and focus. And it was something that we were all involved with. ‘How can we get through this as a team?’ There were times when we had to take a mental check and ask, ‘How is everyone doing? Let's talk about what's going on, and is everyone doing okay?’ In some ways I was motivated, and the music sort of expressed itself that way.”
Those connections are something Wynn has grown to prize highly. And feedback – whether from developers or fans – is always a welcome way to generate them.
“You love hearing it”, says Wynn “As a composer, you're really on the outside, working in your own studio. You don't always get to interact with the whole development team. So when you get feedback, then it's like, wow, that just made my week!
“People still send me messages and emails, and it means a lot. If anyone has ever wondered whether they should reach out to a composer and express heartfelt thanks or appreciation, I love hearing it. I love getting that sort of feedback. Somebody contacted me about XCOM and that just tickles me, because that's how I wanted you to feel when I wrote that piece of music. So when I get that feedback, it really makes me feel good.”
Marvel’s Midnight Suns is available now on PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. You can listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify.
Our thanks to Tim Wynn for taking the time to speak with us about his work. To keep up with his latest scores and thoughts, find him on Twitter or visit his website. Want more composer-based content? Have a look through our conversation with Moss: Book II composer Jason Graves here.