“When I was asked to work on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the first thing they told me was the setting, and I was immediately interested!” starts Jesper Kyd, seated amid an array of instruments in his home studio in Los Angeles during a video call with MetroPlus .
Being Danish and having Vikings as part of his growing up, the pull of his heritage towards the latest Assassin’s Creed video game just fit right. After all, he did score for the others in the series, as well as for the Hitman series, Borderlands 3 and State of Decay 2. As a result, Kyd has something of a cult following globally and across India for his constant experimentation with music for gamers.
- The recent years have seen a breed of soulful music from Scandinavian composers such as Atli Örvarsson (Defending Jacob), Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl, Joker), Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Tenet), and, of course, Kyd himself. Ask him about this cultural convergence between the US’ creative arts industry and Scandanavian countries and he feels pride, but he answers simply, “Scandinavia is a pretty dark place; Denmark not as bad as Norway and Sweden which have rougher winters. This is something we learned to embrace early on. I am not afraid of the dark and going dark. There is a certain melancholy I recognise in Scandinavian music, when I hear it, it reminds me of home.”
Kyd’s latest work is part of the 2020 video game that focusses on Viking histories, and their tumultuous battles with the Anglo-Saxons. The game is a deep dive into nature-rich exploration and gruelling wars, fuelled by stunning graphics and, of course, an evocative score.
Faith to the Norse
From the beginning, the self-taught BAFTA-winning composer knew he wanted to play his own instruments for Valhalla, and it presented a lot of relearning opportunities for the composer. He also worked with co-composer Sarah Schachner and artiste Einar Selvik on the haunting main theme
“Ubisoft was looking for faithful and not orchestral scores for the authentic world they had created. I had to research instruments and the time period, to give it that realism,” he recalls. “I acquired these instruments, and had to figure out how to compose for these instruments.” Said instruments include tagelharpa, tagelharpa cello, harps, fiddles, Viking horns, wind instruments such as bass flutes, and lots of drums and percussion instruments.
Kyd had fun with this play-time; he explains the music style he wanted to create couldn’t be summoned through hiring solo artistes. He wanted something abstract, so it was important that the score was modernised through filters and other edits for contemporary gameplay.
“I was told the first music I sent to the team was too dark; I had thought of Viking music as dark pulses and percussion,” he shares, “They wanted music for landscape exploration when not necessarily engaged in a mission or side-quest. It was interesting to find out what Viking music would sound like if not dark — that is where spirituality came in, taking inspiration from the Norse gods, the complex afterlife belief system, and interesting stories you find along the way.”
As an example, he recalls a theory of how Ragnarok inspired the Vikings who began as farmers facing constant natural disasters; as a result of which they morphed into warriors.
One of the most important and abstract concepts of the composing experience for Valhalla was soul. From the beginning, the 48-year-old was mindful that the score has a great deal of soul infused into every strum, hum, breath, and beat, in order to make the gaming experience that much more goosebump-raising.
“This world is in vast environments of nature — mountains, forest, fjords — it is so rich. Other Assassin’s Creed games have taken place in cities, so the feeling is different. So it was important, for Valhalla, to have these long pieces of epic music that takes a while to develop.” Much of the music is in the live performances.Kyd said this direction could not be achieved by explaining to a performer as it was a deeply personal experience.
Sci-fi at the core
Valhalla, however, is still an Assassin’s Creed game, not just a Viking game. The universal core is the Animus, the Virtual Reality machine that helps the protagonist read a subject’s genetic memory and project the output onto an external screen in three dimensions, pushing forward the various plots of each game. “This gives it an immediate sci-fi vibe,” asserts Kyd, “and offers an opportunity to mess around with the live performances with unusual editing and filters.”
Synthesisers are musical catnip for Kyd, and Valhalla offered up new ways to experiment with them. He went all out, even though these tools have outputs he could plug straight into the board or computer. “In order to get the most authentic and acoustic room-toned sound as possible, I needed to find a way to match them with the live performances, which have a lot of air in them. The mics are not very close as I wanted to simulate the feeling of being outside in nature. I tried to do that with synthesisers too. I would run them through an old Danelectro amp from the 1950s, put mics in front of this amp and record it like a live performance.”
This plugs into the ‘interior mindset’ music profile Kyd has pursued throughout his composing career, since the Hitman games. It is all about tapping into the atmosphere to achieve the right intensity for a stealth-based experience for the gamer. “I don’t like to make it apparent. I like surprising people and doing the opposite to what is expected. I like toning things down and making it primal. I used a morin khuur , a very old Mongolian cello which doesn’t belong in Viking settings.” Kyd concludes he actually used a lot of instruments that are not traditionally Scandinavian, “but as long as I used these unusual instruments in a way that elevated the interior mindset, I went for it.”
Unlike a film where layering environmental sounds and score is pretty straightforward, video games may require some innovation due to the thicker layer of sound design that is also playing. “You don’t want to hint at things that aren’t happening,” explains Kyd who worked on Hindi film Tumbbad , “because every sound effect in the game has to be there for a reason to remind the player and give the player feedback on what he does.”