Jesper Kyd interview: Assassin’s Creed, Hitman and more

Videogame composer Jesper Kyd has created music for Assassin's Creed, Hitman, Borderlands and more. Paul sits down for a chat...

Legendary video game composer Jesper Kyd has spent the best part of the last three decades crafting the soundscapes for some of gaming’s most prominent franchises, including the likes of Hitman, Assassin’s Creed and Borderlands.

With the recent announcement at PAX Prime that Kyd would be returning to score the upcoming Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, we sat down for a chat with the composer to discuss his varied body of work.

Hi Jesper. You’ve been scoring for nearly three decades now. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved with the games industry? 

I became part owner/founder of a successful game company [Danish game developer, Zyrinx] when I was 20 and our first 3 games came out on the Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn and PC [Subterrania, Red Zone and Scorcher]. Prior to that I spent seven years in the demo scene in Europe making music for demos and games. All my friends were creative with computers, be it art and design, coding, hacking, music etc.

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The composing landscape has changed a lot during the past few decades. How surreal has it been to go from working with microchips to composing with full-scale orchestras?

Well, to me it’s actually not as surreal as it sounds. When writing music for the Commodore 64 and Amiga back when I was 13, I would use the Amiga computer to midi sequence synths, samplers and drum machines. Some Commodore 64 software was able to produce one sample channel of very limited samples. On the Amiga, sampling exploded since it could play back four sample channels. So creating my own samples have always been part of my composing style and I knew that sampling was something that would only get better and better and that eventually we would be working with CD based music.

The Sega CD and PC CD-rom drives are where it all started with CD based music, so this kind of music approach has been around for games for a long time. I always knew we would end up with CD based music for games since that’s the highest quality music format in my eyes.

Games going cinematic has also been around for ages. Remember Don Bluth’s 1983 Dragon’s Lair in the arcades? Cinematic games have been happening for decades and so adding live orchestras is just another step in the evolution towards film and more cinematic games.

The score you did for The Adventures Of Batman And Robin on the Mega Drive saw you pushing the hardware to the very limits of what it was capable of achieving and it still sounds contemporary today. Have you always sought to push hardware as hard as possible as you can, or was that more of a reaction to what was being produced by other composers at the time?

I’m really interested in pushing things to the limit and seeing what happens once you push things that far. To me, it’s interesting to see where we end up with a really open creative approach. The scores where I am told to “go for it” are also the hardest scores to write, since I am my own worst critic. However, these are also the scores where you learn a lot about yourself and your music. Once you are done you can sit back and feel pretty good about what was accomplished.

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In answer to the second part of your question, my favorite soundtrack on the Sega Genesis is Streets Of Rage 3. I know most people talk about Streets Of Rage 1 and 2, which I also like, but they sounded a bit more game score-ish to me. Streets Of Rage 3 doesn’t sound like a typical video game score. Some of it sounded like madness. Totally nuts.

For Batman And Robin, the developers really wanted me to go into a more upbeat direction than Subterrania and Red Zone and so I embraced that philosophy. I was going to a lot of raves at the time and so this was a perfect time for me to write that kind of score. I am a big fan of electronic dance music and have followed the genre since the 80s. 

Your work on Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is frequently cited as one of your best works. How did working with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Choir come about and why did you feel this was a particularly good fit for the Hitman franchise?

The idea to have an orchestral score came from the former studio head of IO, Janos Flösser and the original Hitman team. Hitman 2 was actually my first orchestral soundtrack. It was a lot of fun to work on and I got a lot of creative freedom from IO on that score. Working with the Budapest Symphony and Hungarian Radio Choir was awesome. I don’t think they had recorded a video game score before, and it was still unusual for a video game to have a live orchestra and choir at this time.

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On that note, how did your creative partnership with IO Interactive begin?

Well, it goes deep. It began in my childhood writing music with my friend Mikael Balle. Mikael started focusing more on graphics and once we met a group of programmers called Crionics – at the time considered some of the best coders in Denmark – our roles became more defined. Mikael and I were known in the demoscene as creators of good graphics and music and once we joined forces with Crionics, things really took off.

So I would start doing the music for all our games and demos. When one of our games got sold to Sega we moved to Boston. After some publisher deals didn’t work out (basically we didn’t get paid) the team decided to go back to Denmark to start over and form a new game studio, IO. I decided to stay in the US to start my own music studio, Nano Studios, and continued to work with IO, writing music for their next project, which was Hitman: Codename 47.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2RyHrNB_yE

Are you able to shed some light on why you weren’t involved with Hitman: Absolution, the latest game in the franchise? Your work was greatly missed.

I wasn’t asked by IO. No idea why.

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As well as scoring video games, you’ve also worked in film and television. How does scoring a videogame compare to scoring any other narrative medium?

Well, I feel that I know a lot about the medium. Especially having played tons of games since I was a teenager and spending those years in the demo scene with all my friends being involved with computer demos and games, as well as having been a part owner of a successful game company.

I have been there from the early days, so I feel I know games well and, in my experience. writing music for games is more difficult than writing to film. That’s not to say writing to picture is easy – it’s just that you have so much more to work with in film and TV. There is a certain set of circumstances, story, movement etc. and that is what you support.

Going back to gaming, your work has played an integral part in crafting the atmosphere and tone of games like the Assassin’s Creed franchise. At what stage are you generally brought in to the creative process? Does it tend to vary from project to project?

Yes, it varies from project to project. I prefer to be involved in the early stages as I like to experiment with ideas and come up with something unique for the project. That can take time.

Out of interest, how much freedom do you tend have on a project like that? Ultimately you’re working to craft a sound that has to be unique but ultimately sound like an Assassin’s Creed game. Are you generally left to do your own thing or is it a more collaborative process than that?

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I was given a lot of freedom from the development teams on those games, especially the first three scores, which were essentially written with complete creative freedom. I worked with the same audio team on the first the scores and I felt the team really appreciated the unique direction I was taking.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPFiOiYxjDQ

You touched on this briefly earlier, but in recent years there’s been a noticeable change in terms of videogame scores emulating Hollywood blockbusters. The likes of Mass Effect and Halo spring to mind, but there are many others. What are your thoughts on this?

A lot of developers embrace this style and if gamers love it too then it’s a win-win. I think that the film style of music is just one of many potential styles that could fit a game, so perhaps in five to 10 years there will be more of a focus on trying to create a music style that is uniquely written for games.

We have so much more freedom when writing for games as the music doesn’t always have to fit the moving picture, so there should be a lot more to game music than making it sound like a Hollywood movie.

Outside of music, what inspires you?

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Oh, it can be anything. A passionate game developer team, a conversation with someone you can bounce ideas around with, concept art, footage from the game or film, great music. Lots of things really!

Jesper Kyd, thank you very much.