In our ongoing series of composer interviews here at Push Square we get some insight into the music that goes into making games the great experiences that they can be. A couple months ago, we interviewed Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White (collectively Finishing Move LLC) about their work scoring Borderlands 3. As it turns out, we actually have another Borderlands 3 interview to share with you, this time with longtime series composer Jesper Kyd. Let's dive in!
Push Square: A decade ago, you established the sound for the series that persists to this day. You’ve also returned for each subsequent release, sans Tales. In what way has being along for every step of the way helped you make the music for the series? Has it gotten in the way? How have you tried to evolve your sound with each entry?
Jesper Kyd: It's been a great ride to work on the Borderlands games. From Pandora in Borderlands and Borderlands 2 to Handsome Jack’s Moon in The Pre-Sequel and the wild journey inside Claptrap’s head in Claptastic Voyage. The sci-fi sound for these last 2 projects required a very different sound; however it still had to fit within the Borderlands universe. For Borderlands 3 I worked on a new part of the Borderlands universe, the planet called Eden 6, which is a swamp planet full of marshlands and wetlands. So this required a different sound and while twangy desert guitars is part of the Borderlands sound, we didn’t feel going for a New Orleans-esque sound would fit with the more alien and tech-driven world of Borderlands. Subsequently the focus became more about creating an organic soundscape with acoustic instruments while supporting the heavy focus on nature.
Recently I interviewed Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White (Finishing Move) and they said how cool they thought it was to be helping shape the sound of the series this time out. To build off that last question, how does hopping back into a series you’re intimately familiar with feel?
I love Borderlands: the gameplay, the colourful characters, the gun variations, the off-beat humor and the cool art style. This time around we worked with a highly complex interactive music system so right of the bat the experience was very different. It's great to be involved with a franchise like Borderlands and see it grow, and I'm always looking to push things forward when coming back to a franchise.
Is the general tone of Borderlands something that factors into the way you approach your compositions? If you view each in isolation, the tone of the writing and that of the music don’t necessarily appear that they would match.
The music has been written to support the open world gameplay of Borderlands 3. That means that there is exploration music mixed with different intensities of combat music as well as tracks for End Bosses and special circumstances music. For the menu music I thought a lot about the general tone of Borderlands 3 and that all made it into the Main Menu Theme. In general, my music is deeply inspired by the different environments in the game.
On the topic of the Menu Theme, can you offer any insight into the process for creating that? How did the sound for it develop? Was it separate or in conjunction with the rest of the music, and to what extent? Music for situations like that can often get lost in the shuffle when it comes to being able to appreciate it as much as the stand in-game stuff. But the menu music with this title is just so damn good!
Thank you! That was one of the last tracks I wrote for the game and so I had gone through the journey of working on Borderlands 3. What I was aiming for with the menu music was to create a feeling that there is this huge adventure awaiting you but for now we are just going to chill right here and listen to some melodies. I created a very minimal track as far as production goes and thereby put all the listener’s attention towards the melodies.
You’ve composed music to a lot of high profile series’, such as Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, Darksiders, State of Decay, and of course Borderlands. How does scoring for Borderlands differ from your work on other high profile properties? On any level really: publisher, series, individual game, etc. These properties are so widespread in tone, even if they are bigger games, that composing for each must offer something different?
I have worked with Raison Varner, the music supervisor at Gearbox, since the first Borderlands game, and he's very open-minded to my ideas and experiments. We also talk a great deal about the music direction. The publishing side doesn't really get involved and most of the feedback from focus groups and game tests are about music implementation tweaks. On a series level we do pay a lot of attention to this and make sure the music fits in with the Borderlands franchise as well as the specific moment or location the music is written for.
What sort of influences show up in your Borderlands works that might not be immediately obvious? Plus are there any sounds or influences you tried out, and just decided absolutely did not work after giving them a go? And by that token, anything you implemented in more of a “yeah, might as well try it” attitude, only to find that it worked surprisingly well?
We figured out early on that anything comedic didn't work well, even though the Borderlands games are full of wacky humor. For the Eden 6 Floating Tomb End Boss ('The Graveyard Boss'), I wanted to try something a bit different and wrote a heroic and uplifting dance track. That worked great but we also needed to set the mood for a big heavy End Boss fight first and then if you are still alive after this first track plays we fire one of the uplifting cue called 'Tranquility Achieved'. As far as influences, there's an organic feel to much of the music I have written which hopefully comes through in all the tracks.
As a follow-up to that last question too, are there any influences within your own Borderlands music that you revisited in later games (particularly BL3) that no longer really felt as if they worked? Additionally, are there any kinds of sounds you’d always wanted to try out within the context of this series, but never got the opportunity to do until recently?
The cinematics needed to be scored from a minimal perspective and was more about enhancing all the dialog and helping the story move along. We don't use any comedic elements in the music so if the scene is going for a comedic effect, it's more about when to play, stop, or not play any music.
And then to close things out, I end my first time interviews up with just asking about how you found yourself scoring games? What brought you to the industry? Did you want to specifically break into games, or was it more just pure happenstance that it came about?
I wanted to score games since I started playing games when I was 13. I started making music with computers and meet up with graphics artists and programmers who also wanted to create games. I co-founded a game company with my friends when I was 19. Our first game got sold to SEGA and we all moved from Denmark to the US. (Later they went back to Denmark to start IO Interactive and create the Hitman series). I have continued to write music for games and also films since.
This interview comes hot off the heels of the announcement of a couple incredible vinyl packages of Borderlands 3's soundtrack, as well as it's release on all of the usual digital platforms. If you want to check out Jesper's exceptional work on Borderlands 3, you can listen to it via SoundCloud.