Recently we got the chance to talk with Brian Lee White and Brian Trifon - collectively known as Finishing Move - to talk about their work scoring Gearbox's upcoming looter shooter, Borderlands 3. Read on to see what it's like to join a series so far along, seeing how many genres of music is "too many", and what brought this duo into the gaming world.
Push Square: The music of Borderlands has always been more of a unification of visions. With the exception of Tales from the Borderlands - which was scored by Telltale's in-house composer Jared Emerson Johnson - the games usually have at least three different sets of hands on the music. While you’ve been involved with the series already, how does it feel as newcomers to that group of composers? And what do you hope to bring to the series’ sonic texture?
Finishing Move: Obviously, we are both thrilled and honoured to be a part of the composing team for Borderlands 3, and shout outs to the other amazing composers; Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann, and Raison Varner -- such an incredible group of dudes working on this. We have a bit of experience coming into existing franchises as new composers, having worked on several sequels, so adding our own unique voice while simultaneously respecting the musical DNA of an IP is a skill we've refined over many years. For this project, we wanted to bring our signature approach to musical sound design and production, all the things that sound undeniably "Finishing Move" and melt them into the crazy world that is Borderlands.
On your work credits, you’re listed as having already worked on guitar and synth programming for each of the first two main entries. How did those experiences compare to being full-on composers this time out? Did your familiarity with the games help, or did that actually hamper the creative process?
Many years ago, I [Trifon] was hired as a session musician by Jesper Kyd to contribute guitar parts and additional synth elements to Borderlands 1 and 2. Jesper has a unique musical voice, so it was a lot of fun to play and record some pretty wild guitar and synth parts for his compositions in the first two Borderlands games. Having that previous experience with the Borderlands sound was definitely useful when we started composing for Borderlands 3, because we knew that we would be allowed to go crazy with experimental sounds and aggressive blending of musical genres. The Borderlands audio team doesn't shy away from bold sounds and out-of-the-box ideas, so we knew from the start that we didn’t have to hold back any of our experimental or aggressive tendencies for Borderlands 3!
While Borderlands has plenty of sci-fi elements, it’s also got an ample amount of western twang to it, which makes for a really interesting cross-pollination of genres. Is there any out-there genre or feel you’d love to see brought to the series that hasn’t yet been introduced, musically or otherwise?
Borderlands never takes itself too seriously, and that is something we love about the franchise. There's such an eclectic mix of sounds and textures, with a real "anything goes as long as it’s cool" ideology behind the composing process. A big part of our sound design ethos is coming up with things that no one has ever heard before, so that's probably the best answer we could give you, "some sound or texture that no one has heard before!"
What elements of the game composing process do you feel are improved by your being a tandem rather than solo?
We believe that our results add up to a whole that is better than the parts involved, so working as a team has always been a net positive for us. While we can do each other's jobs well enough, working together allows each one of us to specialise in the things we are best at doing. It also allows us to fend off fatigue from doing too much of any one thing. So if one of us is having a mental block coming up with a new compositional idea, that person can switch over to designing sounds or production elements; it's really great for keeping the stress levels down and the creativity at its peak. Most busy composers here in LA have teams, some are quite large even, so this idea that it's always just a singular person contributing is kind of a misnomer.
Despite Borderlands’ reputation stemming largely from both its sense of humour and sheer volume of guns, there has been some seriously good music through the series. While much of your Borderlands 3 work may have been combat music, were there any moments you just couldn’t lock down the tone you wanted to hit? Any moments that proved especially tricky to score? And by extension, were there any moments that just clicked into place immediately?
The interactive music system in Borderlands 3 is quite ambitious and complex, as it's designed to dynamically blend dozens of smaller musical segments based on what the player is experiencing in-game. With this system, you can't just write a single linear piece of music and expect it to trigger the same way in the game every time, that's not how the system works. So there was a bit of a learning curve to writing content for this system, anticipating what would work best when the bits were combined or abstracted dynamically during gameplay. Ultimately we needed to write segments that could sound really cool and evocative in isolation but also easily add together with other elements as the interest level or combat density increased, so this required a sort of "this will probably be cool, let's playtest it" mindset when writing the material, then we'd iterate from there.
In addition to the combat music, you also did a lot of the planetary music the Vault Dwellers will visit. In what ways did you work to make the planets feel distinct from one another? For planets from past titles, how did you want to tackle those, especially in regards to the more recognisable themes from the series?
Most of our work was on the planet of Pandora, the desert planet. While we didn't set out to reference any specific themes from the past titles, we did work closely with musical director and in-house composer Raison Varner at Gearbox to make sure we tapped into the essence of the world and borrowed all the right elements when composing new music. Like we said earlier, the goal was to maintain the musical DNA and heritage of Borderlands music while evolving the sound into the next chapter of this iconic franchise. As far as favourites go, we had a blast writing all the boss battle music, especially [Redacted].
Is there any music you made for the game that you really liked, but ultimately decided didn’t work for the title? And the inverse of that -- was there anything you weren’t completely sold on until you heard or saw it in context?
So, we wrote this track for a boss and it's just kind of over-the-top ridiculous. Hair metal guitar riffs, dirty trombone slides, everything and the kitchen sink. When we finished, we just sort of looked at each other and said, “man, they might totally hate this but let's send it over anyway.” It turned out to be the perfect fit for this boss, the character designer and everyone loved it. But that is the beauty of Borderlands, just when you think you've taken things too far over the top, it's like, nah this is perfect!
And finally, as my closing question, I make it a habit on first-time interviews to ask how you found yourself composing for video games? Did you start as a duo? Did you find yourselves both involved with games but individually at first? Did you actively pursue being involved with games or did it just happen?
We didn't start out as a duo, and we didn't initially set out to compose for games. We met in the mid-2000s through a mutual artist friend when we were both living in the Bay Area, and after realising we had really complementary skill sets, started working on music together. Some of it was for commercial stuff that we'd hire each other to work on, some of it was just artist music. Trifon had a bit of buzz going on from his artist project (Trifonic), and some cool opportunities in games started to trickle into our sphere. We were both long-time gamers and not entirely satisfied with a career writing ad jingles for mattress commercials (yes, a real thing we once did!), so we decided to team up and make a run at game music. We formally created Finishing Move, Inc. in early 2013 and have been fortunate enough to have worked on some really awesome projects and franchises since then.
And that's going to do it for this interview. Thanks to Finishing Move for talking to us. While there's no news on an official soundtrack release just yet, the series has a track record of doing so. Expect that to release at some point after the game launches. Look for Borderlands 3 when it arrives in the coming days, and let us know what you think or hope for from the game in the comments.