Cutting Edge for Game Music

Video game music composer Jesper Kyd, whose music can be found in Hitman, Freedom Fighters, and many others, discusses what he's striving for

GameDaily BIZ: When you sit down to write music, what gets you motivated, puts you in the right mood to produce game music?

Jesper Kyd: I am excited about how I can enhance the game experience and how the music piece I am writing is going to enhance the situation I am writing it for. There is so much that can be done with music. There are no limits anymore since technical limitations are not a huge concern these days. And with music budgets for most games now the size of independent films, sometimes even larger, there are so many creative things we could be doing. We have only just scratched the surface and pushing things forward is also a huge inspiration for me.

BIZ: We're aware that your musical style emphasizes a lot of experimentation. What kind of fusion of music genres are you looking to create next?

JK: I can't really talk about my current/upcoming projects but I recently finished the score for The Chronicles of Spellborn ( This was my first MMO score and I wanted to try something different from other MMOs and RPGs. A lot of fantasy games use the grandiose orchestral sound usually associated with Dungeons & Dragons and the Lord of the Rings. This is not what Spellborn were looking for. They wanted something more personal, more human. I came up with a dramatic score that mixes orchestra, choir, electronics and acoustic sounds. So while I still used lots of samples, beats and DJ techniques, it was all done with acoustic textures so it sounds natural when combined with the orchestra and choir. It's my most dramatic and most personal score yet.

BIZ: How important is the use of non-traditional instruments to your music? How do you decide on which instrument to use for certain parts of a game?

JK: I create many of my own sounds and instruments when writing electronic music and it's a natural choice of what fits and where and what you are trying to convey with the music. Music should always serve a purpose especially in games, since you have more room and artistic freedom to express yourself. If music just sits in the background and fits the game it has not reached its fullest potential of enhancing the game instead of just supporting it.

BIZ: What is your view of the current state of video game music? Is it too generic?

JK: Yes, it's a bit generic. I feel this way because I think a lot of original and creative music is coming out of Hollywood and independent films. We now have budgets that often surpass independent films and so we should be able to create some really interesting music. Of course the best composers in the world work for films but I feel there are some really good composers emerging in the game industry as well.

BIZ: As you alluded to, a lot of video game scores today are reminiscent of Hollywood film scores. How can video game music differentiate itself?

JK: Actually, my personal opinion is that most Hollywood scores are better than game scores. They have John Williams, a million dollar orchestra budget etc. So it is really tough to compete.

Anyway, a game is not a film. A game is much more complex and involving. The dramatic possibilities in games are just starting to come through. If films can make us cry, shouldn't games one day be able to do the same? And since you control the action and environment, we should actually be able to surpass the emotional impact of films one day. A generic orchestral score is not going to take us there on a dramatic level. It will actually make the experience feel ordinary instead of special.

BIZ: Is it your goal to inspire other video game publishers and composers?

JK: I am not really out there to inspire people, but I would love to see music in games improve. I am a gamer and I often end up turning down the music.

Personally, I just love games too much to just create something that is not original. I think games deserve better. I am not here to do as many scores I can per year. There needs to be meaning with what I do. And in the current post 9/11 world we live in I am not interested in writing music that is disposable or that doesn't touch people in some way.

I try to write music I would want in the game as a gamer, so if I am happy with my music I know I am doing something right.

BIZ: The music in the Hitman games seems to always match the tone of what's going on in-game. What information are you given to help compose these dynamic and appropriate songs?

JK: I play the games a lot. I have completed the Hitman games many times before they come out. Playing the games really helps. I find out what the developers are trying to express and try to add as many subliminal things into the scores as possible that will add to the game atmosphere and make it feel deeper. Hitman: Blood Money has lots of references to the earlier scores but it's hidden deep in there.

BIZ: What are you doing differently for the original soundtrack to Hitman: Blood Money? How will the music be different than what we heard in previous Hitman games?

JK: This time around we brought back the Budapest Symphony together with the Hungarian Radio Choir. That makes up 150 musicians so the orchestral tracks sound huge. Although the music has some epic moments, this score is more slow and sinister. While I have composed plenty of dark electronic music for the Hitman series the orchestra tracks were always more upbeat. However, for Blood Money I wanted to use the orchestra to bring out the darkness of Hitman's world and the electronic tracks are actually the more upbeat part of the score. Basically the score is full of mystery, stealth and sneaky atmospheres.

BIZ: Have you ever felt that a video game's budget has restricted your creativity for the score?

JK: No. I think that if you want a live orchestra budget for a score and the money simply isn't there you have two options. Pay for it yourself or compose the score in a way so that a non-live budget is taken into account. The Spellborn score does not have any live orchestra or choir performances even though it features orchestral-style compositions and choir vocals. And if people listen to this score I don't think they would miss a live orchestra and choir.

There are also composers working in Hollywood who specialize in creating scores that sound great without the additional big budget a live orchestra.

BIZ: Of the original soundtracks you've composed, do you have a personal favorite?

JK: My rule of thumb is that if my latest score is not my favorite I am doing something wrong and not improving myself. So Spellborn and Hitman Blood Money are my two current favorites.

But I do my best on all my scores so looking back I don't really have a favorite...

Freedom Fighters was written right after 9/11 in my Manhattan studio for a game about an invasion and occupation of New York City. I have never identified with a game more so than Freedom Fighters. Perhaps I am taking my job too seriously.

For Hitman: Contracts I really tried to define the Hitman music style with electronics, and winning a British Oscar, especially for an electronic score is pretty awesome.

With Spellborn I also dug deep and created some ethereal, dramatic and personal music.

BIZ: How will video game music evolve with this next generation of consoles? Is there something musically that you can do now with Xbox 360 (or PS3) that you couldn't accomplish on Xbox, PS2 or GameCube?

JK: Well, we have room for much more music in games these days. I mainly write CD-based music so unless you are working with chip-based music there is not a big difference anymore between the consoles. Also, if the music is mixed in surround this is usually done at the developer's music studios, so the new surround specs don't change things much when composing.

BIZ: Which video game composers (besides yourself) do you believe are pushing the envelope for originality in games? Have you considered ever doing a joint project with other prominent video game composers?

JK: I don't really have any favorites since the kind of music I enjoy is mostly being written for films. It would be fun to collaborate. On BioWare's MDK 2, I wrote the score together with Albert Olson and that was great fun.

BIZ: You've received accolades from the British Academy and also have had your music praised not just as music in a video game, but as great music, period. Do you believe that original video game scores can ultimately help promote the video game medium to the mainstream?

JK: I believe people will listen to good music no matter what the music genre, what it was written for and why. If it's good music people will listen to it.

If people listen to a game score because it's good, then that music is out there promoting the game and making people think of, for example, Hitman every time they listen to the soundtrack CD.

BIZ: Anything you'd like to add?

JK: Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy Hitman: Blood Money and The Chronicles of Spellborn.

BIZ: Thanks for your time, Jesper

For more on Jesper Kyd, visit his website at

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