On a Tuesday morning in a cozy, wood-lined Hell’s Kitchen recording studio known for hosting the likes of Bruce Springsteen, I watch as the New York Arabic Orchestra begins to play. The music swells and transports me to a version of 9th-century Baghdad, filled with dangerous secrets and sci-fi synth influences. This is the music of Assassin’s Creed Mirage.
Standing behind the soundboard is a man dressed in a black sweater with white dinosaurs on it. He exudes calm, despite the sharp focus in his eyes and the subtle way his ears perk up in attention at every string being plucked. This is composer Brendan Angelides, who’s worked on shows including 13 Reasons Why and Billions. This is his first video game score.
“I don’t know if I had a full scope of how big this was before I started,” Angelides tells Inverse between recording sessions. “It was very much about taking things in bite-sized chunks, one thing at a time, and going on to the next. Otherwise, you go crazy.”
Taking things one at a time culminates here, in a cathartic moment for the team. It is also the product of Ubisoft’s commitment to the music in its games, especially a pivotal title like Assassin’s Creed Mirage.
Mirage is poised to be a return to form for the long-running series and draws inspiration directly from 2007’s original Assassin’s Creed. It promises a renewed focus on the franchise’s stealth roots, after the more overt warfare of the Viking-themed Valhalla. But while Mirage looks to the series’ past for its core mechanics, Valhalla’s influence is still keenly felt here. The 2020 game went down in history as the inaugural recipient of the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media in 2022 for the Dawn of Ragnarok DLC composed by Stephanie Economou.
Rather than adding pressure on the team, Valhalla’s musical triumph opened up new opportunities for Mirage.
“It gave us more visibility inside the development team, that music brings something very important to the game,” says audio director Etienne Marque. “It’s more helpful than anything else.”
That success already had a direct impact on the ambition and mission of Mirage. Music supervisor Simon Landry adds that “even today, being here and recording with a real orchestra” was made possible in part because of Valhalla’s success.
As the hotly anticipated next entry in Ubisoft’s crowned jewel, expectations are sky-high. I asked Angelides if he researched the franchise’s music before pitching for the job.
His response? “Honestly, no.”
“When I first started, there was a demo process to create a thing and send it in” he recounts. “Admittedly, I listened to probably 15 seconds of all the other [games]. I don’t want to be drawn too much into a particular thing. They’re going to ask me what I might do with this. It needs to be an authentic vision. I think it might have clicked for them because it did not sound like some of the other [games].”
The back-to-basics approach of Mirage also does away with the open-world RPG elements the series has relied upon since 2017’s Origins. This time, the game will take place in just one city – Baghdad. Ninth-century Baghdad was a thriving center of culture, a defacto capital during the Islamic Golden Age. Angelides's research on this era led to the defining theme of the city’s sound being “liveliness.”
“There's a sonic imprint that feels cohesive,” says Angelides, “making sure that Baghdad is a beautiful tapestry with a darker side sneaking around.” This darker side is the enduring conflict of the series — that of the Assassins and the Templars.
Mirage will put players in the shoes of protagonist Basim, who returns from a supporting role in Valhalla. But unlike the weathered assassin we see in that game, Basim begins Mirage as a novice. A major goal of the score was to reflect the journey from, as Angelides puts it, “fumbling innocence to a more refined kîller.” He adds, “By the end, the sonic palette is still cohesive but it is a whole other side of the coin.”
In order to capture both Basim and Baghdad through sound, Angelides collaborated extensively with Layth Sidiq, a violinist and the artistic director of the New York Arabic Orchestra. Sidiq connected Angelides with other musicians and helped him refine the sound profile of the game, one with a heavy focus on strings mixed with traditional Arabic musical instruments like the oud. Angelides held onto the sci-fi premise of Assassin’s Creed by weaving electronic synth into the more historical instruments.
The combination of research, collaboration, and experimentation is unlike anything “achieved before for an Assassin’s Creed game” says Landry. The end result, Landry believes, will help players immerse themselves in the stealth-focused gameplay, keeping them in the “predatory mindset” of an assassin.
Letting the music wash over me as I sat in the sound booth, I was transported from the foggy weather of Manhattan to the heat of a Baghdad day filled with lively bustle. None of that is possible without the strong commitment to collaboration from Angelides and the team at Ubisoft.
“If we are going to do this, we have to make sure that we are hiring a group of people that live and breathe this culture and can actually represent it,” Angelides says.