Oxm in­ves­ti­gates: videogame mu­sic

How com­posers craft the sound­tracks to the games that you know and love, plus a run­down of some of our fa­vorites

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From the ex­quis­ite com­po­si­tions of the bleeps and bloops of yes­ter­year to the epic orches­tral scores that sweep us off our feet, com­posers have long been cre­at­ing sound­tracks for videogames that have moved us in ev­ery way. It’s pretty hard to imag­ine play­ing Halo with­out hear­ing those ethe­real Gre­go­rian chants as they give way to the drums and strings, or walk­ing through Oak­vale in Fable with­out the jaunty and mag­i­cal theme play­ing along­side you. Th­ese scores don’t come from thin air, of course—but how do the com­posers go about cre­at­ing the sound­tracks to the games we adore? And what dif­fi­cul­ties would they face? We man­aged to chat with Jes­per Kyd, com­poser on As­sas­sin’s Creed and Hit­man, and Inon Zur, com­poser on Fall­out and Dragon Age, to find out the method be­hind their mag­i­cal mu­sic. Adam Bryant

Most com­posers come from hum­ble be­gin­nings, and the first soundtrack that Jes­per Kyd ever cre­ated was for Sub-Ter­ra­nia on the Sega Ge­n­e­sis. It was de­vel­oped by a small game stu­dio called Zyrinx he helped co­found with friends, which later evolved into IO In­ter­ac­tive. But given that games tra­di­tion­ally take two or three years to make, Kyd set his sights on big­ger things. “I wanted to write mu­sic for many dif­fer­ent kinds of games, films and TV shows, so I de­clined join­ing this new com­pany,” ad­mits Kyd. “I de­cided free­lanc­ing was the best way for­ward. I con­tin­ued work­ing with my friends, this time through their new com­pany IO In­ter­ac­tive, and the first ti­tle we worked on to­gether was Hit­man: Co­de­name 47.”

Inon Zur was drawn to clas­si­cal mu­sic from the age of three, and started cre­at­ing his own mu­sic a lit­tle while af­ter. “I lis­tened to records dur­ing most of my free time, and when I started play­ing the piano from the age of eight I also started com­pos­ing right away,” Zur re­veals. “Af­ter I came to the United States from Is­rael and fin­ished my mu­sic stud­ies I had a few op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­pose mu­sic for stu­dent films. Pro­fes­sion­ally I ini­tially started my ca­reer in tele­vi­sion and film, but then turned to­ward com­po­si­tion for games.”

Sound shak­ers

Cre­at­ing a soundtrack for a videogame dif­fers greatly from mak­ing one for tele­vi­sion or movies, and comes with its own set of prob­lems. “The chal­lenge can be how to keep a good flow be­tween tracks and lay­ers,” Kyd ex­plains. “Open-world games of­ten fea­ture game­play where you’re able to walk or drive around with­out en­gag­ing any mis­sions in the world, and so the chal­lenge be­comes how to make that ex­pe­ri­ence con­tin­u­ously en­ter­tain­ing.” Given that th­ese types of games of­fer you a large amount of free­dom, dy­namic mu­sic is key to de­liv­er­ing a seam­less ex­pe­ri­ence. “I think Hit­man 1-4 and As­sas­sin’s Creed 2 are good ex­am­ples of that,” Kyd con­tin­ues. “For those scores I fo­cused on mak­ing it fun to ex­plore and stay im­mersed in the game world in­stead of just push­ing the game player for­ward to com­plete the game as quick as pos­si­ble.

“Com­pos­ing mu­sic for games re­quires a lot of in­spi­ra­tion to cre­ate an at­mos­phere that will fit a large part of the game,” says Zur. “You have to cre­ate, in the most pro­found way, the at­mos­phere of the game,” as op­posed to film where just a few sim­ple notes can dras­ti­cally change the view­ers’ ex­pe­ri­ence. “The way I ap­proach scor­ing games is to find the right emo­tion and to cap­ture this rather than try­ing to de­scribe each ac­tion, place, or spe­cific event,” Zur says. “I al­ways start from an emo­tional per­spec­tive, the emo­tion you want to evoke with the player. If you achieve that then you can cover a vast ma­jor­ity of the sit­u­a­tions ingame with­out wor­ry­ing about non-rel­e­vancy.”

But how does a com­poser ac­tu­ally de­cide on what the type and style of mu­sic should be? “I try to fig­ure out the core as­pects of what the project is about, what the cre­ators would like peo­ple to feel and how we can en­hance or add to that world,” ex­plains Zur. “For videogames (un­less you are just scor­ing cut scenes) you have more room to freely add more ideas, and dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ments with a big­ger pal­ette, since you don’t have to be aware of how the im­age locks to your mu­sic at all times. Each gamer plays a game dif­fer­ently, so we can never pre­dict 100% when some­thing hap­pens next.”

You’d think that be­ing so close to the de­vel­op­ment process, com­posers would get a chance to play the game which they’re cre­at­ing mu­sic for but, sur­pris­ingly, that’s not nec­es­sar­ily the case. “I ac­tu­ally get no hands-on time with the game be­fore I start work on the score,” ad­mits Zur. “First I will have meet­ings with the de­sign­ers and pro­duc­ers dur­ing which time they will re­lay the story to me, show pre­lim­i­nary videos, and share the script, but I can­not usu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence the game first-hand yet. You could say the mu­sic starts to evolve when all the other as­pects of the game evolve and that’s what makes it co­he­sive.” Jes­per Kyd is oc­ca­sion­ally of­fered more time with the games, how­ever: “I pre­fer to re­ally im­merse my­self in the game­play. I like to

“I ac­tu­ally get no hands-on time with the game be­fore I start work on the score”

get a real sense of what the game is about, how it feels, the pac­ing, and how I can go in and make the game­play ex­pe­ri­ence deeper, more en­ter­tain­ing and cin­e­matic, even more mean­ing­ful.” This ap­proach al­lows the com­poser to write mu­sic from the per­spec­tive of the char­ac­ter, or even the world, which can add more feel­ing to the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. “We don’t al­ways have to follow the story with ev­ery­thing that hap­pens,” Kyd ex­plains. “When you go against the grain of what’s ex­pected, some­thing mag­i­cal can hap­pen; I love sur­pris­ing peo­ple and find­ing new ways of go­ing deeper with the mu­sic.”

Next we ask whether writ­ing a score for a se­ries that you’ve al­ready worked on is eas­ier, or saves a lot of time. “Well, it’s eas­ier and harder,” ad­mits Zur. “It’s eas­ier in some ways be­cause there’s al­ready a style in place. But it’s also harder be­cause you need to take the style as a launch­ing pad and try to stay within its realm while cre­at­ing some­thing to­tally new on top of it. That is chal­leng­ing in a dif­fer­ent, ex­cit­ing way, and I al­ways try to bring some­thing fresh each time.”

Mu­sic mak­ers

With ca­reers so suc­cess­ful and var­ied as Kyd and Zur’s, it can be dif­fi­cult to pin­point the high­lights. But there are al­ways mo­ments that stand out. “For me, writ­ing mu­sic for Hit­man was a lot of fun since I was work­ing with close friends,” Kyd ex­plains. “The soundtrack for Hit­man 2 was the first orches­tral score I recorded, so that has a spe­cial place in my heart.” But it’s not al­ways about firsts—some­times it’s just about hav­ing fun. “Border­lands has been an ex­cit­ing fran­chise to com­pose for; the 1980s synth scores for Border­lands: The Pre-Se­quel and Clap­tas­tic Voy­age were a to­tal blast to write,” Kyd con­tin­ues. “But of course,

As­sas­sin’s Creed has been very good to me and I’m a huge fan of the se­ries.”

“I sort of look at my ca­reer as like trav­el­ing a scenic road—you’re al­ways ob­serv­ing and look­ing around try­ing to find in­ter­est in what you’re do­ing,” Zur says. “So I could look at the times I’ve recorded at Abbey Road as high­lights, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the amaz­ing at­mos­phere of this leg­endary stu­dio, and bring­ing my mu­sic there, which is a mag­i­cal feel­ing. Or when I was com­pos­ing the mu­sic for [2014 rhythm game] Fan­ta­sia: Mu­sic

Evolved be­cause I had the op­por­tu­nity to write mu­sic in a more clas­si­cal form, which I had wanted to do for a long time.”

Re­gard­less of their meth­ods and dif­fer­ent level of ac­cess, both Kyd and Zur are able to com­pose scores that are as dy­namic as they are com­pelling, and be­tween them they’ve cre­ated some of the best in gam­ing. And yet, de­spite in­tro­duc­ing beau­ti­fully mov­ing pieces that can ri­val even the best Hol­ly­wood scores, mu­sic within videogames doesn’t get the same re­spect as its movie coun­ter­parts. Thank­fully, this is steadily chang­ing, and the likes of Jes­per Kyd and Inon Zur are prov­ing in­stru­men­tal (sorry) in that change.

clock­wise from above Ezio pops a cap in an Ital­ian sol­dier, Agent 47 walks mood­ily down a moody cor­ri­dor look­ing moody, and Jes­per Kyd is in con­trol in the sound stu­dio.

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