Music is often the unsung heavyweight in gaming. It takes something special to make a game’s soundtrack stick with you, and “ethereal” singer Elizaveta Khripounova has helped to achieve that. As the singing voice of the bard Maryden Halewell in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Elizaveta brought to life over a dozen songs recounting players’ adventures, endearing players all the more to BioWare’s 2014 Game of the Year winner. I had the chance to sit down with Elizaveta to learn how Inquisition’s fan-favorite songs came to be and what goes into producing music for films and games.
For Elizaveta, music was an escape as a young girl growing up in Moscow. “I am a loner and a bit of a weirdo,” she said. Poetry, singing, and piano were second nature for her when she took music seriously upon moving to America. Double majoring in music composition and opera, Elizaveta would go on to produce a wide array of music, including for film and TV, such as The Mortal Instruments and Scandal. Yet nothing quite prepared her for her first performance in games, which, as she put it, was a “happy accident.”
“I’d previously worked with one of the composers on (Dragon Age: Inquisition), Raney Shockne, and he reached out to me to ask if I wanted to record ‘some songs for a game,’” she explained. However, unlike her projects, the games industry’s inclination to secrecy was a surprise. “In film and TV, you often pitch something for a specific scene, but they don’t always know exactly what they’re looking for. For games, it’s more controlled, and the client usually knows exactly what they want and they ask for it. When I asked what game, he said he couldn’t tell me because it was confidential.”
No matter the unconventional method, when it came to trying out for Maryden Halewell, it still came naturally. As Elizaveta put it, “There are similarities (with TV) for sure; it’s about creating a ‘vibe.’ (Shockne) sent me the instrumentals and lyrics and I went to work. I sent him a couple of recordings, and he told me that it was a go!” In an oddly appropriate way, Elizaveta’s circumstances when recording weren’t unlike that of the titular Inquisition Maryden Halewell serves alongside, building from the ground up.
“The funny thing is, I recorded everything on the fly,” she said. “At the time I’d just moved out of where I had my studio due to a break-up and was staying with friends. So I recorded the songs in my bedroom, without any kind of special equipment — just a mic to my laptop. I had to re-record a few small things because the pronunciation was supposed to be very specific. I was told to do a folky ballad, Celtic troubadours-style. They did paint cool pictures in my head, although I had no idea what world I was recording them for, really.”
After the songs were sent off, Elizaveta moved on, unsure what would come of it — until several months later, when “the emails!” started pouring in.
Despite inconsistent listings and credits online, fans were enraptured by Elizaveta’s performance as Maryden Halewell, delighted at having their own bard singing personal songs about their journeys to reunite Thedas in the face of calamity. Halewell had swiftly become a key part of the Inquisition experience, which not even BioWare itself had counted on. Initial releases of the soundtrack didn’t include a single excerpt of the tavern songs.
Elizaveta reflected on how humble the production had been: “(Her songs) were never really meant to be special. They were just to make the tavern a fun and relaxing experience.” Through a combination of memorable lyrics, solid instrumentals, and Elizaveta’s operatic vocals, one detail in such a massive game became crucial to its players.
In due time, the fans got what they wanted, with not only the songs but the sheet music released for real-life aspiring bards to perform as well. It was during this time Elizaveta herself finally looked into the game and, to her surprise, found the character bearing a remarkable resemblance. “I had no idea!” she said. “I went and looked, and there was a resemblance. I’m sure it was entirely a coincidence though.”
That string of coincidences has led to Elizaveta remaining an enduring part of Dragon Age’s legacy: “A few years later, I’m still getting fans and listeners from (the Dragon Age community). It’s a huge blessing. I’ve met so many great people, and many of them have become fans. The best comment I ever got on my YouTube channel was on one of my live performances of DAI songs. It was quite recent, and it was from someone who had heard the songs and decided to try the game because of them! I mean, how great is that?!”
Now Elizaveta’s back in the gaming scene in a whole new way on Twitch, following the path many musicians have taken to offer safe live performances in the middle of the pandemic. In addition to regular weekly improv music streams, Elizaveta cited Patreon and online royalties have been crucial to staying afloat.
“It’s been amazing,” she reflected. “Twitch has a real community attached to it, and it’s also been a great opportunity to perform regularly for. It’s a bit like digital busking — people pop in and out of your streams. Like if I was singing at the corner, a small crowd gathers, people put some bread in my hat, and so on.”
That interactivity is key to Twitch’s growing music scene. Elizaveta explained: “There’s a real live feedback going on at these sessions. It’s actually quite an addictive experience. I often get people from all over the world sharing the digital space with me, and it’s great to see them interacting with each other, too. We make jokes, I often get silly and improvise on all kinds of requested subjects or keywords… like a centurion cat named Maximus. Or an octopus who wants to be a musician. Zombie rats!”
All these years after Inquisition though, it remains one of her most requested encores: “I almost always throw in a song or two from Dragon Age.” While her future projects are up in the air, the accidental gamer’s bard digital touring is offering both Inquisitors and gamers at large a place to relax while we wait for the world to calm down. Above all else, she prioritizes offering a positive space, saying, “Music is such a great healer.”
For more of Elizaveta’s music, you can find her weekly streams on Twitch.