Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Assassin's Creed: Jesper Kyd Interview

By Brent Soboleski via teamxbox.com
Assassin’s Creed is truly a next-generation game that will set a new standard in the action-adventure genre while taking full advantage of the technical capabilities of the Xbox 360.

The game is set in 1191 AD, when the Third Crusade was tearing the Holy Land apart. Shrouded in secrecy and feared for their ruthlessness, the Assassins intend to stop the hostilities by suppressing both sides of the conflict. Players, assuming the role of the main character Altair, will have the power to throw their immediate environment into chaos and to shape events during this pivotal moment in history.

Now that the game has been released, everyone has has the chance to play the game and experience what Assassin's Creed has to offer. A lot of the game's environment and presentation has to do with the audio that adds emotion and dynamics to the gameplay. We had the opportunity to speak with renowned composer Jesper Kyd, who worked on the game's soundtrack, to see what he had to say about the game and its music.

It seems you’ve been keeping yourself busy these days. One of your latest projects has had you working on the Assassin’s Creed score. Tell us a bit about what that was like for you.

Jesper Kyd: It was a lot of fun coming up with themes and ideas for all the different areas of such a huge world. There is more than 3 hours of music in the game, about 100 tracks in total. It was a challenging and very rewarding experience.

We’ve talked with you a few times now regarding several titles you’ve worked with. How was Assassin’s Creed in relation to other gaming projects you’ve been a part of?

Jesper Kyd: Assassin’s Creed gave me the opportunity to write a historical score and the instrumental palette was quite different to what I’ve previously composed for games. I often work with large symphony orchestras for other projects such as the Hitman series. However Assassin’s Creed required a more intimate approach. I recorded with some of Hollywood’s top ethnic instrument players and solo vocalists as well as a full choir at the Bastyr Chapel in Seattle and blended with other exotic sounds. This was a very fulfilling project musically as it allowed me to write and mix music styles that are rarely heard in games.

What was your initial concept of the game’s score and how much freedom were you given by Ubisoft to come up with your own ideas?

Jesper Kyd: The team wanted to make sure that the tragic story of the Crusades was embedded in the feel of the score. So I added a lot of spirituality in the music to match the religious awareness that was so present during these times. I was given a lot of creative freedom although we set ourselves rules for music instrumentation in the different cities in order to immerse players in each setting.

From what we’ve experienced of Assassin’s Creed to this point, there’s a heavy focus on medieval style along with some more modern elements. How did that play into your musical ideas?

Jesper Kyd: The use of specific instruments, vocal styles, color and tone varies and depends on which city you are in. The score is mostly acoustic, meaning I used mostly real instruments. For example in Jerusalem I mixed western instrumentation (piano, harp, Latin choir, Gregorian chants) with ethnic instrumentation (Ud guitar, Ney flute, mizmar, Mijwiz, Buzuq, percussion, Egyptian percussion, Moslem male vocals) to reflect the clash of religions in this multicultural city. During the escape scenes I switch into a more modern style.

A lot of what Assassin’s Creed is about has to do with its visual beauty and the elegance of the character movements. What was your approach to creating music that was able to not only seamlessly integrate within these elements but also enhance them?

Jesper Kyd: My approach was to create uplifting music, hypnotic and meditative music that reflects the aesthetic movement and interior mindset of the Assassins, while at the same time be sensitive to the overall tragic feel of cities like Acre.

What was the biggest challenge in working on Assassin’s Creed and how were you able to overcome it?

Jesper Kyd: The vast amount of music was the biggest challenge. I scored all the music in the game: cut-scenes, locations, investigation music, approach music, combat music, escape sequences, horse riding, street musicians, training session music, trailers and many other especially composed music pieces for other events.
Clearly the game design tends to influence the direction of the audio, but are there ever times where your concepts for a game’s sound in turn influence aspects of the game design? Such as during cinematic sequences that might be developed once the soundtrack starts to take shape…

Jesper Kyd: Sometimes this happens but for Assassins Creed I didn’t score any gameplay element until it was developed. We didn’t really know how the music should work until after the gameplay elements were established.

How much information do you need to know about a game before formulating ideas for its music?

Jesper Kyd: I can write a score from just a 50 word background story, but then of course the music is not going to fit exactly with everything you see on screen. However it will fit the story and the mood of the game. I prefer to get as much material from the project as possible. The more material I get to see and work with, the more accurately the music will take everything from the game world into consideration.

How do you find the right balance of outside input along with your own creativity?

Jesper Kyd: When I am hired to score a project, I want the music to improve the player’s experience. However I can’t just do something totally unique or experimental unless it makes complete sense for that project. Fortunately I am usually hired to add my own ideas into the melting pot, even if there are already some really strong well thought out ideas in place for the music. Once we agree on the music style and what we want the music to add to the game, I always aim to push the creative elements of the music to the limit.

Do you ever get to a certain point in your creative process where you stop and think things just aren’t working out the way you planned? If so how do you go forward from such a position?

Jesper Kyd: I re-think the approach and ideas I have for the track. If the track can be ‘saved’ I go back and re-work it or I will start over and write a new track.

Do you like to come up with multiple options for a musical style or do you tend to get a certain idea in your head and go with it?

Jesper Kyd: When writing the score, once the music becomes part of the game or film you see how the project gets more emotional or deeper because of the music you are writing. So you follow that path while adding the kind of color that creates the maximum amount of drama and depth. Still, in addition to the main style there are often areas that need a different type of scoring style so sometimes it can become more like working on several different scores at once.

What aspects of Assassin’s Creed were you most influenced by and what most impressed you by the game itself?

Jesper Kyd: The massive free-roaming design is my favorite aspect of the game. It’s really breathtaking how you can go anywhere and climb anything. This game is so deep you really have to take your time with it to truly appreciate the full experience.

More and more we are seeing games that play out more like interactive cinematic experiences than what we think of as traditional video games. How do you see the industry changing as regards to the production value of gaming?

Jesper Kyd: The animations, the landscape and the crowd tech in Assassin’s Creed are amazing. The facial expression technology in Mass Effect is cutting-edge. The depth of the organic weapons and upgrades in BioShock is awesome. The way story and cinematics are treated in Kane & Lynch is also pushing the medium forward. I can’t wait to see where all this innovation will take us next!

In case you haven't had the opportunity to check out Assassin's Creed in action to experience Jesper's work, you can download and listen to two tracks from the game below:

Jerusalem Horse Ride
City of Jerusalem

For more on Jesper Kyd, check out his official website at www.jesperkyd.com.

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