How do you go about scoring a sci-fi conspiracy thriller set in 15th Century Venice?
Assassin’s Creed II places the player at the heart of an epic story of family, vengeance and conspiracy. Set in the Renaissance era, the life Italian nobleman Ezio Auditore da Firenze gradually unfolds accompanied by a rich soundscape.
Underpinning the aural offering is the original score by Jesper Kyd (pictured above, far right) which, running at some three-and-a-half hours, was clearly a massive undertaking. Luckily, Kyd tells us, he was brought into the project in its very early stages.
“It’s vital to start discussions early on the project. Being involved at that stage makes for a more accurate soundtrack – you can capture a lot of things you might not have thought about if you’d had to do it all in three weeks at the end,” he explains.
“You can really get into the mood and what the team is trying to express. A unique game requires a unique soundtrack – you have to step all the way back and consider what are the ground elements you want. You start from scratch and build around the core idea which, in this case, is the 15th Century setting. The music has to be interesting; it has to fit the era but also be entertaining.”
Kyd clearly does his research, but most of all is concerned with creating the right vibe. Not historically hog-tied, however, he mixes in many modern elements as well: “The music has a dark foreboding feel when you undertake missions, but there’s also plenty of score for exploring the cities featuring lots of strings and woodwind, individual vocal performances, acoustic and electric guitars, live percussion and choir. There are live elements to every piece of music in the game.”
With two hours’ worth of orchestra and choir performances recorded at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios, the entire production took Kyd nine months. Much work was done at his own facility where among the other usual studio toys, he owns 22 hardware synthesisers, including a 1970s collection encompassing a Yamaha CS-80 and a Roland System 100.
“I use analogue to get an organic sound – it’s vastly superior to anything that goes on inside a computer,” he explains. “I use it to make a non-electronic sound, you could say. None of these synths are MIDI-equipped so I play it all in live, recording directly to audio. Using plug-ins can quickly become precise and electronic sounding, and I needed something that would blend nicely with live orchestra.”
Music integration and balancing with sound effects and dialogue falls to the Ubisoft audio team, although Kyd takes a thoughtful approach at his end. “With the escape music, for example, I’m aware that there’ll be people screaming and running around, so you need to write something that kind of slips through those sounds – whereas when you’re just walking around Venice not engaged, the music will come through very clearly with more detail. You can create something with a lot of depth for that.”
Interestingly, Kyd is somewhat wary of so-called interactive music systems potentially making for clinical music output. “It really depends on the genre but in some games the music just needs to spell out the story – you’ve reached the falling off the bridge point so now play the ‘falling off the bridge’ music,” he says.
“But for titles like Assassin’s Creed II there’s the whole sandbox idea of people living in that environment where we want them to have fun. That’s what I’m trying to support with the music, and so it can’t always be mission or gameplay-structured. It has to be more about setting the mood to help you feel you’re really hanging out inside the assassin’s world.
“I think a lot of times when music in games is too ‘systematic’ it’s because of a technology-driven decision, maybe by programmers, and you can end up sacrificing music quality or music entertainment with too much layering.
“So I have to hand it to Ubisoft – whilst they are really a hardcore tech-savvy team, and visually the game looks amazing, at the same time they’re willing to step back and say we don’t actually have to take that kind of complicated approach to music delivery.
“Instead, because we have fairly long pieces of music with custom endings that can be triggered at a musically appropriate point, there’s time to set the mood. By doing so, I think you’re facilitating immersion – if people love the atmosphere and want to go back there even after they’ve completed the missions and again experience the mood and feelings they had when listening to the music, then the score is successful.”
With his initial music experiments warmly received by the team at Ubisoft Montreal, an atmosphere of trust was soon established leading to even greater creative freedom which Kyd has clearly relished, judging by the final results. As well as featuring in Video Games Live symphony concerts, the music soundtrack has also charted very favourably on iTunes and Amazon, demonstrating once again that high quality videogame music has a life beyond the borders of its original application.
John Broomhall is an independent audio director, consultant and content provider.