‘It can be stressful, forced’: BAFTA-winning musician Jesper Kyd on composing for video games

Jesper Kyd has been composing music every day since he was 13. The Danish music composer’s career goes beyond professional work. A browse through Jesper’s Spotify artiste profile reveals he has an average of 4,10,505 monthly listeners. His fans are not just gamers though, given Jesper has written music for series such as Mortal Kombat X and even 2018 Hindi film Tumbbad. The 47-year-old won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Games Award in 2005 for Best Original Music for Hitman: Contracts.

Jesper’s hit list

2019: Borderlands 32018: State Of Decay 2, Warhammer: Vermintide 22016: Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection2015: Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel – Claptastic Voyage2014: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, Sparta War Of Empires2013: State Of Decay2012: Borderlands 2, Darksiders II2011: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Forza Motorsport 42010: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood2009: Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines, Borderlands2007: Assassin’s Creed, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men2006: Hitman: Blood Money2005: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory2004: Hitman: Contracts2002: Minority Report, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin2000: Hitman: Codename 471994: Red Zone, The Adventures of Batman & Robin

Recent projects continued to garner curious ears, particularly for the Assassin’s Creed games and Borderlands 3. There are many different elements — drums, claps, bass — all melded into a varietal score which reflects the zany and wild nature of the Borderlands franchise. “You have to really immerse yourself into a project at the deepest level possible,” says Jesper, who has worked on the franchise for almost 10 years. He adds, “Borderlands is not the most serious game as it likes to poke fun at itself, but the composition and production itself is taken seriously, despite the game going into more comedic areas. Having said that, I know the people at Gearbox [the developers] well, especially audio lead and music director Raison Varner, and they know me as a composer.” Jesper explains that the team at Gearbox had no requests around the music but rather that they let his creativity run free, making it a stress-free process.

Composing for gaming at the beginning of a gaming project can be stressful, points out Jesper, given there are few visual elements. “It can feel forced to make music that is not ready to come out yet. You are trying to figure out way too many things. With Borderlands, it is helpful to know what the score has to become, because of the ranging story-lines.”

For many gamers, music is a key hype-factor in gearing up for the game. Music for the initial menu screen has to pack a punch, after all. Jesper’s strategy is all about venturing into the unexpected. “I wanted something that would give you a taste of this massive world and experience; it is something I was aiming for. Even though you would be chilling at the menu screen, looking at your character, the music aims to give a certain depth, while also reminding you of what may not be on that screen. I love to remind people about what is present in that world or story, but not necessarily something they are watching or playing at that moment. There is the idea that if your player goes into a dark, scary cave and you have music much like that, then that is fine. But I believe that if you bring music, especially for an immersive platform like a video game, where the music goes beyond what is on screen, the experience is deepened.”

Deepened by tech

Jesper, like most veteran music professionals, does have his favourite hardware to work with: Doepfer LMK4+, Eurorack Modular, Yamaha CS-80, Prophet 10 and the Juno 60. But talk software and he favours Cubase (Steinberg), EQuality (DMG Audio), Ohmicide (Ohm Force), HD Cart (Reverb Foundry), and TC1210 (TC Electronic).

But how has technology evolved to enhance composition for video games? “In early days, you would be at your studio, at the piano, and you would basically have the director come over and have a listen of what has been created. Now, however, the delivery of that music itself is different. I try to use both analogue and digital equipment to get the best of everything into a single mix. Technology also lets you meld different sounds into a score, such as choirs and screams. With Borderlands 3, some of the technology is the most advanced I have seen in my career as far as a music system is concerned. Let us say I take a piece of music for a part where the player is exploring a certain part of the world, such as a jungle, where there is an abandoned spaceship. At this point, the player is not engaged in combat but is more exploratory. This music is called ‘exploration music’ and is a three-minute piece divided into four or five sections. Those sections become modules which have to talk to each other. At the same time, I deliver those sections in front of layers.”

Jesper elaborates that, thanks to avenues of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, players can then see the possibilities of the permutations and orders of playing that music.

Suddenly, the game is playing this unique soundtrack on the side, and remarkably, if the player revisits that part, the music may sound different. But Jesper says he is not worried about AI ever being a full-fledged composer, because composing is a very emotional and personal process.

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