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Jesper Kyd Shares His Thoughts on the Popularity of Assassin’s Creed, Warhammer, His Work on Tumbbad and the Changing Landscape of Video Game Scores

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Legendary composer Jesper Kyd has long been associated with iconic gaming franchises starting from Hitman in the early 2000s. However, it was his work for the scores on Assassin’s Creed that catapulted the Danish musician to new heights.

The Ubisoft franchise recently reached the 15-year mark in 2022, and to celebrate the success of the action-adventure series, Jesper Kyd will kick-off the Assassin’s Creed Symphonic Adventure concert tour tonight at the Le Grand Rex in Paris as the Guest of Honour.

We at India had the honor of having a chat with Jesper Kyd to talk about his adventures with the Assassin’s Creed, while also sharing tidbits about his work with Warhammer, Indian horror film Tumbbad and the art of composing scores for films and games.

It’s been over 15 years since you first took composed for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. What were your first thoughts while composing it, and what are some of your fondest memories looking back on it?

I have fond memories of working on all of them. Each Assassin’s Creed game is such a huge undertaking. Once you start working on an Assassin’s Creed game, you’re slowly becoming aware of how huge these games are. I mean, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was made by 16 Ubisoft studios, right? Of course, Ubisoft Montreal being the lead studio. And that can be a little intimidating. It’s something that you certainly shouldn’t be thinking, and it’s something I don’t think about while I’m working on it.

But, when you do work on these games, you are also reminded about how huge the fanbase is, because I remember on Valhalla, we were releasing music while I was still writing the score. And there was just so much chatter and activity when the music started coming out, and it’s a really special franchise to be part of.

After the release of Revelations, you took several years off from Assassin’s Creed, until you returned for Valhalla a couple of years ago. Did you feel there was a drastic change to the series from back in the day, and was that the reason for you to think about making your long-awaited return?

I do think the franchise has changed a lot, because coming back for Valhalla I really noticed the difference from the Ezio trilogy. The first game to some extent is more based in cities. There’s a lot of focus on the cities and its environments, and traversing buildings. But Valhalla was an outdoor environment, and it didn’t have big cities. It had just these ginormous landscapes and, and so the music, I felt had to be written totally differently from the previous games had worked on. So that was the first thing I really noticed, which was the size and the scale. And the franchise has grown so much since the beginning, it’s really cool.

You have worked on multiple titles of the series. Is there any particular game that you have had the best memories working on? It could be because of the soundtrack you composed or just the amount of fun you had working on it.

There are different reasons for different games: The first one was definitely interesting, because we had to establish all the rules and the ideas of what Assassin’s Creed music was going to sound like. Then, when the second one came about, all that stuff had been invented, and I could kind of relax because now we had the answers to all these questions. And the focus became more recreating the Renaissance period musically. So, I would say Assassin’s Creed II if I had to pick a favorite.

I was just in love with the idea of the team experimenting with these romantic notions that you see in the lighting, graphics and the main character Ezio. I just thought this was so original, I had never seen anybody do anything like this before. And the music also had to of course reflect this. So, I had to really create some melodic and atmospheric music to fit that setting. That was where me and team working on Assassin’s Creed II felt they were part of something really special. There was some kind of electricity going through the team that’s hard to explain, but I do feel it was something I felt very much.

Moving away from Assassin’s Creed a bit, I wanted to have a chat with you about Tumbbad, and I wanted to talk to you about this because of my personal view. Now, I hate horror films, I don’t particularly like being scared. But, when Tumbbad came out in 2018, it was this big thing about an epic horror film, and I went to watch it in theatres, which is something I never do for horror films. And up until recently, I never knew that you composed for the score for it. How in the world did you end up composing the soundtrack for an Indian horror period movie?

I was approached by the team. Sohum Shah and Adesh Prasad, especially Adesh was a big fan of my music for Hitman. And he really thought that my music was crazy enough to to fit this movie, because when they did show me the movie, and this was a different cut than the one that was released, but I could just immediately tell that this movie was something special. The way it was shot, the story, and the acting; I loved everything about this movie. And I also realized that this movie is so beautiful, and it has so much atmosphere that it’s going to be a challenge to compete with that, and that’s when I knew this would be a great project to be a part of.

I am always looking for a challenge, and the bigger the challenge, the more I’m interested. So, I knew right away after watching the material, they sent me that I wanted to be part of it. It’s just such an amazing film they’ve created.

Since Tumbbad, have you been approached to work on any other Indian films, and is there a reason why we haven’t seen you return with a score for a project?

I’m just looking for the right project, and I’m also keeping myself really busy with a lot of work. So, things have to work out with the schedule, and the right project has to come along, and that’s always tricky. But I’m definitely open to working on more Indian movies.

You have worked on a ton of genres when it comes to films and video games. Is there any particular genre that you would like to work with in the near future? It could be new or something you have already done in the past.

Having done so much music for Borderlands: basically, all the games, I’ve always wanted to do a sci-fi score that was really dark and serious. The Borderlands scores are still sci-fi, but there’s a lot of desert environments, and there’s also a kind of quirky sense to the whole franchise. But I always want to do something serious and dark, and that’s what I’ve got to do for my new project, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide. So, that really was a dream come true for me. because it takes place 40,000 years in the future, but it comes from a perspective of realism and not popcorn, and I felt very blessed to be part of that.

I wanted to pick your mind a bit on how you compose for a title. What are some of the key pointers that you look out for, when you are looking to develop a sound for a game?

It’s very important to understand what the dev team is looking for. And often the team don’t really know or can express exactly what they’re looking for, which is great, because that gives me even more to work with. That also gives us even more to talk about. Sometimes you get involved and people know what exactly they want. But I’m really looking for the projects where we can discuss to come up with a music style together.

So, there’s a lot of great ways to do this. I mean, meeting the team is really important, because you need to get a sense of where they’re coming from with regards to their priorities and what they really feel affectionate about. It also is about taking a step as far back as you can and kind of look at an overall thing, instead of being all the way down in the weeds to try to go above and decide where the sound can begin.

And that often starts with conversations with the team, and also being provided with the story of the game and concept art. I need to see what the graphics department is looking at, so I am aware of how the game is going to look when it’s finished, because often when you get involved, the game doesn’t look anything like it’s going to look when it’s finished. It has no lighting, textures, and you really can’t get a good idea of it, and that’s why concept art is very important for me. And then I just kind of lock myself in the studio for however long it takes to come up with some ideas, which I then send to the team. From there on, we talk about it, and I find out what how they are reacting to the music, and there’s nothing wrong with sending something that they don’t like because that just becomes a way for you to figure out what they don’t want, or what we don’t want.

So, in that experimentation phase. there’s nothing really right or wrong. It’s just a matter of composing a lot of music, and then you slowly hone in on what the style becomes. And I think the more projects you work on, the more experience you get in creating that kind of approach, and also to be comfortable being uncomfortable, because when you don’t have the sound, you have to really put yourself out there and be vulnerable with what you’re doing and talking about. And that’s just all part of the process I love to be a part of.

You talked about sending tracks to the development team, while you’re working on the music. So, are they like individual tracks and you kind of build a theme around it? Or is it a theme first, and then you build the individual tracks around it?

It goes either way. I mean, I remember for Tumbbad, we did a lot of experimentation before I actually started writing the score from start to finish. And one of the ideas I sent over was like this 16-minute track of this mood idea. And there is no way there’s a scene in the movie which requires a 16-minute-long track. But there was such a great appreciation for that track, and I think it’s something that I was told, they (The makers of Tumbbad) listened to a lot. So, even though it’s not in the movie, you can never know the benefits of these songs. Whatever feels right is usually what I go with, and instincts are really important in these matters.

I also remember with Assassin’s Creed II, when we created Ezio’s family, it wasn’t clear where we should put that music. But we knew that that music was all about Ezio, and it just fit that character so well. So, of course we found a place to put it. But it’s more about just going with your instincts, and each project I work on is different from the last project.

You mentioned about your score for Tumbbad. Do you think there’s like a vast difference on how you score for a game and how you score for a film?

I do think there’s a big difference. When you’re working on a game, you’re often working with the supporting gameplay. There are other things like cinematics as well, but a lot of it is focused on the gameplay, and that has to be fun to play whether there’s music or not. What the music does is, it adds a lot of depth to that experience. So, you are creating music that is there to support what the player does: Like if the player ends up over here, we have music over here, or if he or she engages in some stealth, we have to create music that builds up tension. And those music pieces are usually complete music pieces. which are like two or three minutes long, and they usually need to have the same intensity, because if you’re writing a suspense track, you don’t want it to suddenly go somewhere where it gets too intense, because there’s a combat track allocated for that kind of mood. So, with video games, you get to write these two to three minutes long experiments, where you stay in the same mood, and it gives you an enormous amount of creative freedom. Here you can bring everything you can think of with respects to themes, and other elements.

Whereas on a movie, that doesn’t necessarily work without the music. The music is not as important in let’s say a comedy because it has to be funny without the music itself. But, when it comes to genres like horror and fantasy, these types of films often rely on the music to make things work. So, there’s a whole other responsibility that the music has in a film or TV series.

For example. you really have to be able to learn how to transition between scenes very quickly, because if there’s suspense, and a chase and combat or something, it can take five seconds for each of these things. And the music has to be able to flow very quickly between all these different kinds of moods. So, like the games, here you don’t get to have like three minutes of a certain mood. The music is always changing, and it’s always evolving in a film. And when you create themes, you have to think about how we might need a sad version of this theme over here, or a victorious version of this theme over there.

There are so many ways to repurpose themes for films and TV shows, and it’s something that doesn’t work that great for games, because you don’t really want to hear that theme over and over again when you play a game for around 100 because it becomes boring. So, repeating themes in games is done quite rare, because we can’t just fire them off all the time. But, for like a two-hour experience in a film, it’s a perfect way to have themes keep repeating themselves. So, in that regard, I feel there’s a lot of difference there, and I basically had to start over when I started scoring film in order to figure out what my music sounds like when I’m writing for a movie.

You have been working for over 30 years now, and in the 90s, you worked on titles for the Sega Genesis and Sega Saturn. Do you miss any particular component of the music in the scores back then?

No, I don’t miss that. Honestly, I do not. It was very difficult back then to create music because there were so many limitations, I mean, you had like three channels and no RAM.

That seems like a headache.

It is a headache, believe me. But still though, it was cutting edge at the time. That was the forefront of technology. So, I didn’t sit around thinking about it as a headache, and when I look back now, I think about those many limitations. But of course, there’s also the other side of that coin, which is that limitations often can be a good thing, because it makes you create things in a different way.

So, I don’t miss it. But I’m glad to have been part of it, because I feel like I grew up in the video game industry. And I’m in that generation where I’ve just seen the technology start with beeps, and then with Hitman 2: Silent Assassin it became live orchestra, and it has evolved since then. I feel really grateful to have seen this complete journey, and I have a pretty good overview of all the technology we’ve been through. And also, I’m a huge gamer. So, having played games for all these years is just great.

The music has evolved massively since the days of games on the SEGA Saturn and SEGA Genesis. The titles now have music that’s comparable to soundtracks that you might see in a big budget film. However, even with all the technological disadvantages, many of the tunes we heard from the 90s and the 2000s like Ezio’s Family have become songs that everyone remembers. We rarely see that happen nowadays. Do you agree with that notion?

Yeah, I don’t disagree with it. However, I think there’s a lot to consider there.

It’s like the Mario tune, which is pretty simple yet wildly popular. But you don’t expect to see those tunes a lot nowadays. And I feel like the last video game tune that I still remember vividly is probably from Undertale.

The interesting thing about what you’re saying there is that all these soundtracks you’re mentioning, I would expect most of these composers behind them to be either self-taught, or they never received formal music education, just like me. Something that I have noticed is that a lot of the music that feels more creative or feels more unique comes from different places than the vast majority of music that you usually hear in games and films.

If I take myself as an example, I’m self-taught, and I started out making music with computers when I was 13. I’ve been doing it ever since and I was never really interested in a formal music education. And I think if I ever had that, I would have composed music in a different way.

But I only composed things that I was interested in, and I wasn’t interested in classical music up until I started working on Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, then I became very interested in it. And that opened the door for me, and I was like, “Oh my God, I love this kind of music.” But prior to that, I wasn’t interested, and I had only taught myself what I was interested in, which was a lot of a dance music, rave culture and electronic music. Then I opened my eyes to symphonic music. And that seeped into my music, and it suddenly became something that I was interested in.

But I think all those years of embracing dance music and the way you write when you write dance music is a different kind of approach. And even just the way you play instruments or play back instruments, it’s done in a way that there’s always these very odd kind of nuances and that you would never do anywhere else. If you didn’t know dance music, there is a technique to doing something that make the music like it was done to by a DJ. And I can immediately hear when music is done by a DJ.

I think us in the electronic music community, we can immediately hear those things, especially all the rave culture stuff. So, what I’m trying to get here is that, when you have a journey that’s unique to you as a composer, that’s where the unique music comes from. And it’s arguable that it’s more memorable. I certainly am more interested in those kinds of music, which stands out to me when I hear it. That could be perhaps an answer to your question. This is just this perspective. I’m not saying this is the right perspective.

I want to move back to the games you are currently working on. Obviously, like you mentioned, Warhammer is something that you’ve been working on for quite a while. And before Darktide, we last saw you on Vermintide 2. What can you say about the music on Darktide, and how does it differ from your previous Warhammer projects?

Warhammer: Vermintide 2 has a much more of a medieval-type feel, and it’s also during the end times where humanity is lost, and we have basically lost the battle. Everybody knows we’ve lost it, and we’re just kind of on the last few years before humanity is wiped out. So, there’s this very “Mankind is Doomed” kind of vibe that the gives out, and of course, there’s the Skaven, the giant ratmen that run around in the world.

It needed to feel like you were dumped into their world and things are very dangerous, right from the get-go. So,, the perspective of that score was to make it sound like you were in their world, and the music sounded like it was created by the Skaven creatures. The tunes feel like they’re being played by a band featuring four or five Skaven creaures, and they seem a little bit unhinged. There’s even rave culture in that music as well, and everything is just crazy. And that’s what we wanted.

Whereas Warhammer 40,000: Darktide takes place in the year 40,000. So, it’s almost 40,000 years in the future. That right there is already something I had to really embody. Like what’s important for people 40,000 years in the future. What kind of priorities do they have? Also the developers at Fatshark, one of the first things they told me was that the inhabitants in that world had forgotten how the technology in these giant cities work. They only know how to fix it and maintain it. So, they look at these giant machines that the size of city blocks as a mystical and holy figure. But also, the music needed to sound like these machines were kind of alive, and that was quite the challenge.

While making the music, I immediately thought about vintage synths, the 40–50-year-old ones that don’t sound brand new, but still sounds like they’re functional. But there’s something funny going on in these old analog synths, and it just so happens, I have a huge analog synth collection, because I use them all the time. And you can certainly make them sound like something that’s alive, especially machineries. So, that’s what I started using.

And, of course, there’s also the Imperium, which is the strongest force in the universe. They control about a million worlds, and they are humans as well. Plus, they are also the ones that are employed by the Imperium to go kick butt for the Empire. So, there also needed to be a sense of patriotism in some of the music, which you can have this really intense broken futuristic folk music with electronics and beats. And then you have this really big choir performance that gets everything to a whole another level and we did record this with a with a live choir in the Budapest Scoring Choir. So yeah, it’s a very different score with totally different priorities, and it was just a blast to work on.

You’re doing a live concert experience this year starting in Paris to celebrate 15 years of Assassin’s Creed. After starting out dance and electronic music, how does it feel to see your work come to life with a live symphonic orchestra?

Yeah. I mean, when I first worked on Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, that’s when everything changed. And that’s obviously 20 years ago. So, the whole dance music and rave culture was very much part of my early career, almost childhood. So, I’ve been working with that for a while, and it’s not something that just happened. But it’s always a joy to hear your music performed live. And sometimes when you sit in your studio, you can kind of forget how wonderful it is. And then you go in and you hear your music being performed by like 80 people in an orchestra perfectly in sync with each other, and it’s just such an awesome thing to experience.

What’s so special about the concerts is that you can play Assassin’s Creed Valhalla for 100 hours and if you hear some of that music from your video game being performed in a beautiful opera house, with beautiful sounds in a very carefully constructed building, it’s so amazing, and in that room, people are so passionate about the music they’re listening to. I just think it’s so wonderful that we have all these new people come in to enjoy game music in opera houses, and it happens all over the world.

If you had to pick another one of your soundtracks to do live, which series/title would you like that to happen with?

I mean, we also have been performing Hitman. That’s also been fun. But I’d like to see more of my scores from Borderlands and State of Decay to be played in opera houses. Perhaps, Darksiders II as well.

Final question Jesper, you have worked on your fair share of video games and films. But was there a film or video game that you saw, and you were like, “I wish I could have composed for this.”

I think a lot of people would probably say the same thing, but Blade Runner was the movie that I thought, “Is there a better movie? Has there ever been a better movie?”

I don’t go around thinking I wish I could have done this or that. It’s not on my mind. But I think Blade Runner is the ultimate movie. If I had the choice to do anything, and it required scoring something, I’d go back and score that one.

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