When I heard that well-known video game composer Jesper Kyd was handling the music for Borderlands 2, my first thought was, "Huh." Kyd, a versatile and icily atmospheric writer best known for his work on the first Assassin's Creed games, seems like an odd fit for Borderlands, a game loaded to the gills with flesh-eating hillbilly bandit explosions.
My second thought was to go back and look at the soundtrack to the first game, where I learned that indeed, Kyd contributed a few tracks to that game's soundtrack as well. His contribution to the sequel, however, is much more substantial. The track above, which fans of the game will recognise as the music that accompanies any exploration in the game's open world, is my favourite.
At times, Borderlands 2 feels like it's of two minds. On the one hand, it's a sophomoric, winking game full of meta-gags, slightly dated internet lingo, and toilet humour. That side of the game is equal parts grating and genuinely hilarious. On the other hand — and this aspect may be enhanced by the fact that I've mostly been playing it solo — the game is a yawning, beautifully lonesome thing, a journey of exploration into a colourful and deadly comic book world.
Kyd's music, with its ambient swells and impeccably placed guitar slides, echoes and enhances that second feeling. It brings a thoughtful gravity to my time spent on Pandora.
I like most of what I've heard on the soundtrack fine, but the theme above, which plays as you explore the overworld, is one of the simplest, stickiest motifs I've heard in a game in some time. Four notes over a bass pedal tone: down then up, brought to a false resolution. It begins softly, an ambient dream-like melody, before the drums begin pounding and the guitar makes its entrance.
Oddly enough, I was unable to find this track anywhere on the (perfectly good) official Borderlands 2 soundtrack, so I don't know its actual name (I went with "Exploration Music"). I don't even know for sure that it's his, though it's got his fingerprints all over it and the same theme turns up at the fringes of the the menu music, which he also composed. I captured this recording from the game itself. That pulsing beat, the big mallet booming quietly as a slide works the fretboard… it's really something.
Despite the fact that so much of Borderlands 2 is like a more amped-up version of the first game, it's also a more serious game. It feels much more focused on character, and on building a world that feels authentic and oddly melancholy. The musical choices reflect that — for example, where the first game opened with that now-iconic, rowdy Cage The Elephant Song, the second game opens with the track to the side here by The Heavy. It's a more melancholy song for a somewhat heavier game. And from what Tina tells me (without spoiling anything for me), I'm in for some actual emotional gut-punches as the story goes on. Emotional gut-punches? From Borderlands? OK then!
A couple of weeks ago at PAX, I sat down with Kyd and a bunch of other well-known game composers to talk about the creative process. While we were talking, I asked if any of them ever knew that they were going to be composing "the song" for a certain game, the one theme that fans would come back to again and again. Was it always random, where they never quite knew what would resonate? Kyd said when it comes to big-budget games, it's all about where the game developers eventually decide to put the song.
"You know, there's another side to that," he said. "And that is, how is the music used? If you have an iconic moment in the game, whatever music you put on it is immediately going to be a little bit more iconic than if it was just some background thing. That sometimes surprises me, [I think] 'Oh, they put that music there! Oh wow, okay… interesting. Maybe I would've spent another three days on that track!'"
What's funny is that in the case of this exploration music, the most enjoyable tune in the game (for me, anyway) is in fact a "background thing" like Kyd describes. But what a background thing it is. That lovely motif goes a long way towards grounding Borderlands 2; Kyd's music keeps the game from devolving into irreverence and anchors me as I explore Pandora. I don't think I'll ever get tired of listening to it.