Assassin’s Creed tunes up
Jesper Kyd and The Flight tell us what it takes to create music for Assassin’s Creed
As part of this issue’s big Assassin’s Creed blowout, we couldn’t forget the excellent musical scores the games have had over the years. As the series covers different historical eras, the music has had to evolve and change with each instalment, while at the same time continuously building on the main themes of the franchise. To dig deeper into how the music is made, we sit down to speak with composer Jesper Kyd, who worked on Assassin’s Creed all the way through to Revelations, and with Joe Henson and Alexis Smith from The Flight, who performed Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s main theme, ‘Legend Of The Eagle Bearer’. OPM: How do you include the Assassin’s Creed series’ historical influences in your respective soundtracks? The Flight: The historical settings of the Assassin’s Creed games are one of the things that make them special, but it is also a game with a science fiction storyline. Our aim was to take flavours and influence from the time period in which Odyssey is set, while still producing a contemporary score. One of the first things we did was look at the instruments that were invented by the ancient Greeks, and try to find their nearest descendants that we could use in our music. Jesper Kyd: Researching the time period is as important as the locations for a game.
This is a good place to start when coming up with ideas for what kind of sound will benefit the game world. The narrative is also important and will determine the direction of the score and what type of moods and themes are to be created within the game environment. Then I find it’s important to establish how authentic the score should sound. For the Ezio Trilogy of Assassin’s Creed games Ubisoft was looking for a contemporary version of Renaissance-inspired music to fit the time period and location. Outside of that I had a lot of creative freedom to come up with my own take on what that should sound like. OPM: What musical knowledge from the settings of your respective games did you have before starting – Greece and Italy? TF: Very little, although as soon as we were given the pitch we started to do a lot of research: museum visits, history books, and listening to the recreations of some of the ancient music that still exists, as well as more contemporary Greek folk music. As we’ve just mentioned previously, we also went shopping and purchased as many instruments where we could trace a lineage back to the instruments of the time. JK: None, I mean I don’t think I ever heard Renaissance music before. I was aware of folk music played in pubs and eateries but I had never attempted to create anything close to Renaissance in feel and mood. This made the project especially enjoyable since I love working on new styles of music I have never worked with before. I think this is clear if you look at the other scores I have worked on such as Russian choral music for Freedom Fighters, 1980s synth music for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, sci-fi jungle for Robinson: The Journey, Middle Ages music with a twist for the Warhammer: Vermintide series, for example. I always try to explore and create original sounds when working in new territory. OPM: What are some of the differences between working on a piece of music for a videogame, versus perhaps scoring a film, or just working on a general release song? TF: There are some big differences, but at the end of the day they are all just pieces of music. With games there are usually more complicated deliverables, so that the piece can fit into the music system, but then the cinematics are the same as scoring for film. However it is being used, we always start each piece as a creative musical composition, not as some kind of technical challenge; keeping the interactive element in mind but not letting it take over.
I SCORED EVERY KEY MOMENT OF EZIO’S LIFE FROM HIS BIRTH UP UNTIL WHERE EZIO HAS BECOME A MASTER ASSASSIN.
JK: With every facet of the music industry and many different music artists contributing to game scores these days, there are a lot of music creators scoring games that don’t actually play games or know much about games. That always surprises me to hear since I feel that being a gamer is a huge benefit when writing music for games. I play the games I score a lot to create the right feel of the music that best fits the game.
Writing good-sounding music for games is expected, but writing music that really fits the game is where it becomes more challenging since you don’t always have a narrative to follow. OPM: So you guys [The Flight] also did some of the score for Horizon Zero Dawn. What was that like? TF: Yeah, we composed roughly half the score for Horizon Zero Dawn, and before that Alien: Isolation. We were both gamers when younger, and so we were always interested in writing music for games, but it is a hard industry to break into. Once we did, though, we were hooked. We love the length and depth of the projects, and the originality of the briefs. Most of the games we have worked on have taken years to make, and we’ve felt like integral members of the team. OPM: What are some of the things you get initial inspiration from? TF:
The first thing we do is sit down and discuss some broad strokes as to what we think it should sound like, in terms of instrumentation, tempo, feel etc, and listen to some other music that maybe has parts of the vibe we are imagining. Then, usually, we grab some instruments and start playing! We worked with a friend of ours, Mike Georgiades on this project, who is a very accomplished stringed-instrument musician, so we always had a little band that we could knock out the main ideas out live. JK: I focus on story elements that really define a character, like Ezio’s loss of his father and brother, or Hitman’s stealth and quiet approach (which makes for music scored with an interior mindset, like we are inside the head of Agent 47 exploring everything with a very close connection to our anti-hero). [Kyd worked on the Hitman soundtracks from the first game all the way through to Blood Money.] OPM: Jesper, the track ‘Ezio’s Family’ has become iconic in the series. How did that develop as it was used in later games in the series? JK: It was a pleasant surprise when Ubisoft started using this theme outside the Ezio series of games. I feel it has now evolved into a theme that symbolises the sacrifice of becoming an assassin and the emotional impact it has on the character’s life. For me, that theme has always represented family and sacrifice. That is something universal which can be applied to other characters and stories within the Assassin’s Creed universe, as most of them too have experienced sacrifice to become an assassin. OPM: Continuing on from that, Ezio’s life is mostly played out in full through the trilogy of Ezio games. What was it like musically to reflect his life through all of those different points so substantially? JK: That’s a great question. With Assassin’s Creed II I scored every key moment of Ezio’s life from his birth up until where Ezio has become a master assassin. That was a great journey to score and I think music like ‘Home in Florence’ has a youthful, almost naïve feel to it, with the way modern and traditional music instruments are mixed together. That feels very Ezio to me, like Ezio is a mix of youth and traditional, trying to find his identity.
In general, reflecting back on the Assassin’s Creed scores they are written in a very positive tone, full of hope and mystery, which really makes ‘Ezio’s Family’ theme stand out with its sadness and reflective mood, but this is the moment Ezio became an assassin.
The score for Brotherhood was focused much more on the dark narrative. That is, the dark history of the Borgia family and the foreboding mood of an occupied Rome. Once you free Rome the music in the different occupied areas changes into a much more optimistic and positive mood. This score still has its operatic moments where hope and mystery are brought out in full.
Finally, for Revelations, we focused more on in-game music that follows gameplay states such as suspense, action, tension, and music for exploring the cities, featuring Greek, Renaissance, and Middle Eastern music styles. OPM: What do you think about the special relationship videogame scores have with fans? Does this create extra pressure? TF: We think it’s great that they are starting to be more recognised, and there have been some great scores over the past ten years. Having the music released in parallel with the game seems to bring so much to the fans; they can relive their favourite moments of the experience through the music. The score is also one of the only elements of the game that you can experience in day-to-day life, giving people a new way to explore the game. JK: This is not surprising to me since I grew up listening to videogame music myself. I had game music on cassette tapes and loved listening outside of the game - it kept the experience I had playing the game alive.
These days it has really evolved into something quite wonderful. Concerts in symphony halls around the world regularly celebrate games with performances of game soundtracks. It’s a really festive environment and a great feeling to be together with gamers who all appreciate and love these games. That’s an important part of it, sharing this experience with other gamers who have played these games for 20, sometimes hundreds of hours and know this music incredibly well.
The reaction from fans during these concerts can be very emotional. It opens up symphony halls to young people and I have repeatedly had people tell me Hitman 2: Silent Assassin opened up their eyes to classical music. It’s really a win-win for everybody and you know what, it makes complete sense.
The generation that grew up with games keeps growing. One day everyone will have grown up with games and game concerts will be a normal part of a successful symphony orchestra’s concert schedule.
‘Legend Of The Eagle Bearer’ is Odyssey’s main theme, written by The Flight.
Middle Henson and Smith also provided music for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Left Kyd has scored Ezio’s life. Right The themes follow Ezio’s hopes and sorrows.