Q&A: Assassin's Creed composer Jesper Kyd

Danish soundtrack producer and writer talks about creating intense and epic tracks for Ubisoft's latest, as well as Eidos' violent shooter Kane & Lynch.


Unreal Tournament III
The Chronicles of Spellborn
Assassin's Creed

This week, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Eidos' Kane & Lynch: Dead Men will offer unrelenting mayhem du jour. Although the 12th-century stealth action adventure and the modern-day kill-'em-all shooter are sure to offer widely different takes on the graphical depiction of violence, the aural accompaniments to those onscreen actions may strike a few similar harmonic chords. That's in large part due to Jesper Kyd, the award-winning composer and producer who scored both games.

Kyd has been composing music for the gaming sector since the mid-1990s. Most notably, Kyd provided the musical backdrop to IO Interactive's stealth action series Hitman. He has been the receipt of numerous industry awards, including GameSpot's Best Soundtrack of the Year Award in 2003 for Freedom Fighters. In addition to Assassin's Creed and Kane & Lynch, Kyd will be contributing tracks to Sega's The Club, Epic Games' Unreal Tournament III, and Spellborn International's The Chronicles of Spellborn. Samples of these tunes can be heard on Kyd's official Web site.

GameSpot recently spoke with Kyd for more on his contribution to Ubisoft's and Eidos' upcoming games, as well as his general take on the game-industry music scene.

GameSpot: You've worked with IO extensively in the past on games like Hitman and Freedom Fighters. What's your relationship there?

Jesper Kyd: We've known each other for a long time, and I've been working with IO since their first game, Hitman: Codename 47. I've worked hard on giving IO's unique games a unique sound. I am fortunate to be involved early on with IO's projects so that we have time to come up with something well thought out. When a new IO game is released, it's a big deal, and I am lucky to be working with such a talented group of people.

GS: Did you collaborate with anyone at IO or otherwise when creating the music for the game?

JK: On Kane & Lynch, I collaborated with IO audio lead Frank Lindeskov and game designer JP, as well as guitarist Peter Peter, who did some cool guitar parts.

GS: How much material did you create for Kane & Lynch?

JK: I wrote and produced the score, which consists of more than one hour of music. The score was divided into interactive music layers that respond to what you are doing. I would write a track that the team would approve, then I mixed in live elements, and the track was divided into layers so we could mix the music to the action onscreen.

GS: The game explores a lot of dark themes, not the least of which being revenge, anger, and pain. What was the research process like? What kinds of techniques do you use to convey these emotions?

JK: IO supplied me with a lot of reference material such as videos, concept art, and the script. Then I researched and tested out different ideas and worked with the team to find out how intense we wanted the music to go. It was a challenge to come up with so much music that was overwhelmingly dark and gritty in tone and style. In a movie, you can have a five-minute bonding moment, or a five-minute love scene or drinking scene, and so on. These are perfect places to add thematic atmospheric music, and then when the action kicks back into the movie, it suddenly feels really intense. However, in a game environment, you don't really get to play these kinds of moments. You want to start a riot, go rob banks, break out of jail, and so forth. So a lot of the score will be suspenseful or action-based. That is something I thought a lot about--how to keep the music interesting while it continually delivers this heavy onslaught for action, stealth, or even suspense. With the Hitman series, I worked around this by writing music based on the main character, Agent 47, and I have done the same for Kane & Lynch in some of the compositions, such as "Kane's Family Portrait."

GS: How do the visual and interactive elements of a game affect the composition process? Do you actually take a look at the game beforehand or just go off a description?

JK: For me, as a gamer, it affects the composition a great deal. It's important that the music feels like it goes hand in hand with what happens on the screen. How fast is the gameplay, how chaotic does it feel; these are very important considerations when writing music that plays throughout the game.

GS: How would you describe your musical style? What are your influences?

JK: It's hard to describe my music, since I am able to adapt my style to almost any genre. Some people know me for my music recorded with live symphony orchestras and big choirs, others know my modern cinematic scoring with synths, or my hybrid music where I mix live performances with electronic music. Many of my scores are epic in scale, but I can also go in the opposite direction and create futuristic abstract music.

Some of the scores I have written during the last couple of years I chose because I wanted to work in areas that I am not known for. For example, the MMORPG fantasy score for The Chronicles of Spellborn was a lot of fun and sounds completely different from anything else I have done before. For Assassin's Creed, I have been able to write deeply spiritual music, a technique I have been using mostly for my film scores, so it was great to be able to write this kind of music for a game score.

Horror and sci-fi is something I am really influenced by, and I enjoy going dark with a score, so character-driven projects such as Hitman, Kane & Lynch, and Assassin's Creed are a good fit. I also write dance music; it's good practice and enables me to write percussive, rhythmic, and beat-driven music. I feel percussion is very important in hard-hitting scores, including orchestral scores. In-between scoring assignments, I'm currently writing my electronic music album project Deftronic, so I would have to say I cover a wide range of different music styles.

GS: How big of a contribution do you think the soundtrack makes to the game?

JK: It really depends on the type of game. In a story-driven title, the music helps explain the story and also makes people care more about the world in which the game takes place. If you play a game in order to be involved in a rich, dramatic story-driven game, a custom-written score is a must. Creating an atmospheric soundtrack adds a very deep level of immersion, and you care about what happens next. It's not yet like in a film, where a blockbuster movie simply does not work without a soundtrack, but I think we are going in that direction.

GS: What do you think is necessary to make a soundtrack really stand out?

JK: First of all, the score needs to sound like it's been custom written for the game. This means giving the composer more creative freedom and moving away from trying to imitate certain movies and scores. I believe the average gamer has a better knowledge of music than game companies realize and will see right through a lot of the more generic music written for games. That is probably why when good and unique scores come out, gamers really respond to these scores.

GS: Conversely, what's your opinion of licensed soundtracks that are often a hodge-podge of various loosely related artists performing their singles, as in some sports games?

JK: Well, a sports game doesn't really need a custom-made score. A collection of licensed tracks will work fine for the menu screens. As long as the music fits the game and makes sense within the context of the game, I think it can work. But if you have a very intense racing game, the music needs to fit exactly with this mood and not be on the soundtrack just because the record label wants to push certain artists. The same problem sometimes happens in movies, where a licensed music track doesn't fit the film at all and it immediately pulls you out of the experience.

GS: What games do you think have done a soundtrack well, and what was it about them that got your attention?

JK: I would say the Halo series. The fact that you have a very calm and uncluttered theme playing for an absolutely huge, epic game is awesome. It gives Halo an almost mystical feel, a feeling that there is a lot to uncover in this world. I also think Katamari has some very original soundtracks.

GS: Have you done anything with the Video Games Live concert series?

JK: I wouldn't be surprised if we did something together in the future. I've been approached by a lot of different people to have my music performed in concert. Some of my orchestra music from Hitman 2 was previously performed at the Games Convention Symphonic Game Music concert in Leipzig, Germany.

GS: Do you get into others' music composed for games, or have a favorite game-soundtrack composer?

JK: I pay more attention to film, classical, and electronic music rather than other video game scores.

GS: You've also handled score duties for Assassin's Creed and Unreal Tournament III. How do you choose which projects to do?

JK: I try to choose a variety of projects that have different challenges. Assassin's Creed is a massive historical score employing numerous live-instrument musical palettes with their own set of guidelines, as well as mixing with large choir performances and some of my film-scoring techniques. For UTIII, I worked on adapting my music to the sound of the Unreal games and was then asked to take it as far as I could. It's important for me to be able to go in different directions, as I'm always looking to push my music forward.

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