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“Games don’t need to sound exactly like film scores to be good quality” – Borderlands and Assassin’s Creed’s Jesper Kyd on game music

Every month, we discuss the unique process of making music for video games. This month, we dive into the musical universe of Jesper Kyd, a BAFTA award-winning composer behind games such as Borderlands, Assassin’s Creed and Hitman

Jesper Kyd
Jesper Kyd

How early in a game’s development process do you usually start working on the score?

I am often involved early on in the process, sometimes before there’s anything helpful to see from the game, in which case the concept art becomes very useful. Being involved early can be a huge benefit, especially when writing a lot of music. It’s common for games to have 3+ hour scores and that requires some time to write, especially if experimentation is encouraged. It’s also beneficial when the score starts to evolve together with the development of the game, it really makes you feel part of the team. In such cases there’s a lot less guesswork involved and the direction of the score becomes very clear.

What type of material do you request from a studio before starting to write the score?

If I have started writing music when the game is early along in development, concept art can be very inspiring, since you are looking at the same images as the art department. Graphics can keep evolving right up to the end of music production. Videos are also very helpful, especially when the music is added and then sent back in a gameplay video. That is often very insightful. Depending on how the music is written, the story can also be key. Sometimes there’s more focus on the music enhancing a certain location, other times the score follows the storyline closely – but in general I feel that it’s important to come up with a concept for the score that can then be adapted to any part of the game world and the storyline.

Do you work closely with the sound designer(s) of the game, to ensure there’s cohesion between the score and the sound effects?

Since I often work with the sound department when delivering my music and talking about ideas and new deliveries, if there are any issues with the music and sound design not working well together, yes, we will talk about it and make changes accordingly. We discuss where the sounds effects or music should occupy the EQ range, what are the musical moments and which are sound-effects driven, where to let the music strongly affect the mood of the game, etc.

What are the typical challenges of writing for games as opposed to more linear narrative forms?

When writing for film and TV the story usually takes center stage over everything you write, unless the location is really unique. In games you often have the possibility of pausing the story and simply exploring the world, discovering secret items or locations. In this case the music is often inspired by the locations but I always try and find ways to add the lore and storyline into the music. An immersive music score can also encourage players to explore and experience the game atmosphere longer. In such cases, even five extra minutes can mean the player finds a clue and then spends much longer in the world.

Does your approach differ between writing for a multiplayer title as opposed to a single player narrative-driven game?

For a narrative-driven game the music is always key to telling the story and adding drama, emotion and depth to the experience. I often find that competitive multiplayer titles don’t need the same amount of music in-game, since the sound effects are vital to a good player performance and so music shouldn’t hinder or get in the way. As far as indie vs triple-A, the main difference is usually the amount of music needed; Indie games tend to be a lot shorter in length whereas triple-A games often require a minimum of 3-5 hours of music. Also, on indie titles you often get to work with the game designer directly but for triple-A games it’s normal to work with an audio department. But my writing approach doesn’t differ between them.

How has the role of the composer evolved in games over the past years in your experience?

I feel there’s more and more appreciation and focus on good scores. Games don’t need to sound exactly like film scores to be good quality and I feel that’s something that the industry has figured out. The games I have been scoring lately have given me a lot of creative freedom and I always get very excited about that.

Gris composer Marco Albano said the studio saw him as a designer as much as a composer as his music sometimes changed the game’s approach – do you feel that this reflects your own experience as a composer?

That’s really awesome to hear! In my experience, sometimes the developers let the music play longer, allowing it not to be interrupted, to extend cinematics or gameplay moments.

“Recording with a huge choir and 90-piece live orchestra was just so amazing to be part of.”

 

How free are you to experiment when you take on a mandate from a studio?

I’m very free to experiment most of the time. I frequently have a lot of ideas on both the music direction and music implementation which I share with the studio and so we are often able to tweak and improve the music brief. I am a gamer myself, so I think about what would be the best possible music for me, as a gamer to experience. It sometimes involves creating surprises or sometimes the opposite of what you expect to hear can really engage the player. As a gamer I find that sometimes this kind of approach can really connect with the audience and deepen the experience as well as make the moment more unique and memorable.

Do you feel like game soundtracks get the same recognition as film scores? If not, why does this difference exist?

Not really. It’s hard to say exactly why. Perhaps there still is a stigma that some people think it’s harder to score a film than a game. And yes, writing music for a Tetris puzzle game can seem easier, sure, but try scoring a 50 + hour open-world game and it becomes very challenging. Every single mood in this huge journey has to be supported by music.

Having scored films as well, such as Tumbbad (Amazon) and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe (Netflix), what’s on screen will usually show you the path of what’s needed to make a scene work but for games we often have to go find that path ourselves since we don’t have the opportunity of talking to the game designer every day. When working on a film I usually talk to the director every couple of days. There is an intense collaboration going on between composer and director. Subsequently the composer is more involved with the journey of the film and often gets included in the festivals/awards campaigning and glamour of the film industry. Perhaps this can explain it a bit.

What was the most inspiring game world you worked on, which aspect did you most want to bring into your score and how did you reflect that?

There are a few that come to mind. In Darksiders 2, scoring the character Death as you roam the afterlife was such an inspiring idea that I knew a concept score would be ideal. The developers asked me to write a fantasy score in a style that hadn’t been heard before and so it became a perfect collaboration. The developers not wanting the score to be dark and bombastic, and then to focus on the idea of an afterlife became a really deep and meaningful experience for me. Hitman is another series where the idea of scoring music from Agent 47’s viewpoint, his interior mindset as I call it, became an integral part of the game experience. Composing such a dark, operatic score for Hitman: Blood Money and recording with a huge choir and 90-piece live orchestra was just so amazing to be part of. Finally, composing the first 4 scores for Assassin’s Creed, especially Assassin’s Creed 2, was also an incredible experience. The idea of creating a contemporary Renaissance music score as well as adding a sci-fi twist to everything running through the Animus was really fun to figure out. The main character Ezio was also a huge inspiration, and his tragic story of loss and sacrifice is where Ezio’s Family came from. It has been amazing to see how the fans embraced this theme and how it has now evolved into an iconic theme for the franchise.

Do you have any tips on how can developers best help composers to make music for their game?

I find it super helpful getting involved early on in the game making process. That allows more time for experimentation and makes you a part of the team. A good line of communication is also key, meeting the team and having them show you the game is a huge plus.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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