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
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.”
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.”
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.