Warframe Audio Director and Composer George Spanos Has a Bunch of Space Ninjas Singing Sea Shanties
'Sleeping In The Cold Below' isn't your average gaming song
Ever since launching way back in 2013, Warframe has become a preferred video game among many, and a lifestyle for some.
The free-to-play action title combines a number of people’s favorite things ranging from epic sci-fi space lore and all sorts of machine badassery to ninja-like abilities with both melee and ranged warfare. But perhaps more than anything else, the two things that constantly draw people to the powerhouse title are its virtually limitless customization and the sheer size of the world to explore. In short, there’s always something new to do, see, or acquire.
And for a game that lets players more or less look and play however they want, the developers at Digital Extremes have a very similar attitude when it comes to what makes it into the game.
The latest major Warframe quest update, April’s Call of the Tempestarii (which will be continued in the soon-to-be-released Sisters of Parvos update), brought with it a bit of a nautical vibe to the game, enough so that Audio Director and Composer George Spanos teamed up with some of his musical colleagues to create a sea shanty for it, “Sleeping In The Cold Below.” The track — as a few other Warframe tunes have done before — picked up steam on social media and YouTube (perhaps catching the tail end of the sea shanty trend on TikTok), and quickly became a bit of a hit even with those who aren’t interested in being space ninjas.
Check out an exclusive first look at the behind-the-scenes video of the making of “Sleeping In The Cold Below” as well as our chat with Spanos about the song and game below.
SPIN: What inspired you to jump on the sea shanty train with Warframe?
George Spanos: The central enemy of our most recent game update, Call of the Tempestarii, is Vala Glarios, who will also be re-appearing in our upcoming update, Sisters of Parvos. For Call of the Tempestarii, we wanted to telegraph Vala’s story in a unique way given the new ghost ship-like fiction being added to the game. Vala is the captain of a ship who has lost some of her crew, and — despite all of this taking place in space — we thought a sea shanty could work, if done the Warframe way. We wanted “Sleeping In The Cold Below” to be a unique yet appropriate way to help convey her message. Plus, who doesn’t love singing along to a shanty?
Knowing that you recorded and produced this at the height of COVID-19, what was that process like?
Keith Power is a composer based in Los Angeles, Alan Doyle is a composer based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and our main studio is in London, Ontario. Fortunately, we’ve had a great long-distance working relationship with Keith for years now. Coordinating this remotely with Keith and Alan during COVID felt very natural and normal to us. Even the lead singer, Damhnait Doyle, lives in a different part of Canada, so all of the musicians were recorded in different parts of North America and brought together digitally for the final mix. Funny enough, it’s similar to how our global community of players come together to cooperate online in Warframe.
It was a really great collaborative process. We had several phone and Skype meetings as the track progressed from the initial demo idea to the final piece that you hear in the game. Our story writers came up with a general outline of what we wanted the shanty to speak to. Keith and Alan then came back to us with lyric and melody ideas.
As we progressed, there was talk about how far we should go with making it a true shanty. Things like instrumentation, feel, and mood all came into play. We ended up with two versions of the song. One has a dark vibe and never touches on the more lighthearted aspects that the other one had. It was a hard decision to make, but ultimately we ended up with what I think is the perfect amalgamation of shanty while allowing Vala to recount her story in a really interesting and different way.
Considering some of the unexpected directions Warframe has gone over the years, what is it about the fanbase that makes them so willing to embrace these ideas regardless of how they fit in?
We’re very fortunate to have a player base that seems to enjoy when we take creative risks. I think one of the keys to introducing a new concept or new direction into the game is to frame it as part of the overall story. We always make sure that it relates to the broader Warframe universe in some important way.
While the majority of the music in Warframe fits into either the orchestral or electronic style, there is room for us to explore different creative avenues. The lyrics in the song tie into Vala’s storyline and help it develop, so instead of her narrating the whole story to the player as the quest progresses, we wove her plight into the lyrics. Hopefully, you feel a touch of empathy for her and make a connection with her on that level even though she is the villain. That, combined with the ghost ship storyline allows the track to fit in thematically with the rest of the quest and Warframe as a whole.
Since Warframe is all about customization and creative freedom, does that change how you’re able to approach new musical ventures within the game?
Creative freedom has been a fundamental concept for us at Digital Extremes, and that freedom carries over into Warframe and its music in many ways. A few years ago, we created the song “We All Lift Together” — also written by Keith Power — for the launch of an [expansion] called Fortuna, which our players loved and has generated more than 14 million views on YouTube. We also created a Warframe named Octavia who lets you customize her in-game abilities with music that players can compose. We’ve gone as far as building musical features in Warframe that enable our community to express themselves through their own creations. Some of our players have even recreated popular songs generating millions of views online, so it’s only natural for us to want to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in both the music we create as well as the features that enable player-created music.
Seeing as people sink thousands of hours into becoming the best space ninjas they can be, how do you keep the soundtrack of the game feeling fresh?
By creating songs like “Sleeping In The Cold Below” with a game that has been running as long as Warframe, it’s important to explore new musical ideas and new creative ways of communicating the story to players, where appropriate. We also pride ourselves on our dynamic music system. This tech enables us to break the music of the game apart and replay certain components of it based on the game’s state. For instance, the game knows if you’ve been in combat for a long time, and instead of just looping the same music over and over, it will play only the rhythm track, or only the rhythm track with some of the melody. So in this way we have a dynamic system that is like a virtual DJ in the game — not to be confused with the musical mayhem of Octavia. It’s always mixing and matching musical components to make sure it always feels fresh and exciting.