Composer Brings Ambient, Acoustic Vibe to 'State of Decay 2'

Surviving the zombie-apocalypse would be challenging enough, but to make it in Undead Labs’ State of Decay 2 game—just released for Xbox and PC—a player must thrive. The focus is on securing and managing resources and recruiting people to form a larger community. As leader of the group, the player must build settlements and protect outposts that supply necessities like power or water. But rebuilding civilization isn’t easy. Resources are finite while the zombies seem endless.

Since the first release in 2013, the State of Decay franchise has been consistent in terms of location and time period, but how the player moves through this scenario has evolved. State of Decay 2’s dynamic narrative system feels even less structured than previous State of Decay releases. As a player explores the open-world environment scavenging for food and supplies, he or she can choose whether to rescue and recruit survivors or not. Each character brings unique abilities and traits to the community, and therefore affects the course of the narrative.

Scoring an open-world game is tricky because the player has complete control over how he or she plays the game. Without a defined, linear storyline to follow, the score needs to be flexible enough to complement any play style, says BAFTA award-winning and Billboard/MTV Video Music Award-nominated composer Jesper Kyd.

The postapocalyptic, zombie-filled world of "State of Decay 2"

The postapocalyptic, zombie-filled world of State of Decay 2

“When I’m composing for film and TV, it’s more apparent where to take the music,” he explains. “But for an open-world game, you often have to imagine scenarios in your mind and come up with music that tells its own story—a story that fits the world and helps the gameplay connect with a cue in different ways depending on what the player is doing while that cue is playing.”

Kyd is the recent recipient of the 2018 Nile Rodgers Global Creators Award, presented during Canadian Music Week in Toronto in May. Previous recipients have included Spike Lee and Tony Visconti. Kyd has composed scores for many popular game titles, including the Assassin’s Creed series, Borderlands series and Hitman series. And fittingly, he’s slated to score the upcoming zombie film Rise of the Living Dead—written and directed by George Cameron Romero, son of zombie film legend George A. Romero.

Related: Composer Jesper Kyd to Receive Nile Rodgers Global Creators Award at 2018 Canadian Music Week, April 25, 2018

This is Kyd’s third score for the State of Decay series, and overall he feels the music is much more interactive than in previous releases. There’s also more of it, including ambient melodic music for the first time in franchise history. These cues act as a backdrop soundscape during exploration.

“As a player becomes more proficient at playing the game and learns the map, he or she gets better at avoiding zombie encounters and only engages the zombies when necessary,” Kyd says. “So that means a lot of music will be heard when roaming the world between encounters.”

There are also specific cues for specific events, such as low-intensity combat, human-to-human combat, tension, suspense, reward, and music for new gameplay elements. Kyd wrote more than three hours of new music for State of Decay 2, to go along with cues written by Undead Labs audio director Kevin Patzelt. The two write separately from each other, with Kyd sending his finished tracks to Patzelt for mastering and implementation.

As one would expect for a zombie game franchise, all three soundtracks (including State of Decay: Year-One Survival Edition) have been dark and haunting, often intense. They also have a twisted and bent feeling. Some tracks—like “Zombie Decay” from the first volume and “Hot Summer Nights,” “Into the Fire,” and “Fields of Red” from the newest release, feel a bit broken-down, and as the franchise title would suggest, in a state of decay.

But this time around Kyd wanted the music to give players a boost, to help make the experience feel hopeful as they try to rebuild and expand their community and base. That really comes across in tracks like “Promised Land” and “Starting Over.”

State of Decay 2 has a more acoustic-treated score than the previous games,” Kyd notes. “There is also a starker contrast between the exploration cues and suspenseful cues. Both make heavy use of Dobro guitars, and acoustic and electric guitars, mixed with analog synths. However, the more intense music has guitar performances that are programmed to sound more warped and modern.”

Kyd’s palette for State of Decay is dominated by string-based instruments. In addition to the guitars, he employs zithers, dulcimers, live solo cellos and violins, with occasional old organs thrown in—most of which he performs himself and records into Steinberg Cubase at his studio in Burbank, Calif. “When I need a really great performance, I often record soloists here in my studio,” Kyd adds.

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For the electronic elements, he uses Zebra software synths by u-he, and hardware synths including his Yamaha CS-80, Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, Roland SH-5 and Korg Mono/Poly.

To create that broken-down and aged-sounding vibe, Kyd processed many of his recordings with gear from the 1970s and early ‘80s, including an AKG BX20 reverb and Lexicon 224X. “This approach is inspired by the game’s setting of rural America,” he says. “It’s a contemporary setting but it feels like a place that time has forgotten—a place with old rustic cars sitting on farms, old farm equipment, and a feeling that these rural areas are stuck in the ’50s and ’60s, back when they were in their prime. There’s a sense of actual decay that’s present in most of the music.”

Album/soundtrack cover for State of Decay 2, scored by Jesper Kyd

Additional outboard processing included Eventide’s DSP7000 and its Space and PitchFactor effects pedals, plus effects modules by Elysia. Kyd’s go-to plug-ins on State of Decay 2 were HD Cart by Reverb Foundry, Ohmicide by Ohm Force, UAD’s Massive Passive EQ, UAD’s Ocean Way Studios acoustic space emulator, and dynamics processing from Kush Plugins.

Kyd’s favorite tracks from State of Decay 2 are the mysterious “Hope Runs Thin,” which starts off with a fuzzy, warped solo synth that gives way to the score’s signature Dobro guitar, awash in reverb. The other is the game’s title track “State of Decay 2 Main Theme.” Kyd says: “The main theme really captures the atmosphere of the world, and I am a sucker for odd meter and time changes, which this track certainly has.”

Even on this third score—which adheres to the instrumental tone established on the previous State of Decay releases, Kyd is able to bring a fresh perspective to the series. It’s like taking that next step along the same path and seeing a wider view of the landscape. What makes Kyd most proud about his work on State of Decay 2 is being able to compose music “that takes the player somewhere different and keeps them there throughout the experience. Immersing the player into the game world is something I really work hard to achieve,” he concludes.   

Related:

The Music of Composer Jesper Kyd, Aug. 1, 2017

Jesper Kyd Scores Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Videogame, Nov. 16, 2007

Jesper Kyd Scores Video Game for Spellborn International, April 21, 2006

Composer Kyd's Award-Winning Game Score Performed at Annual GC-Games Convention, Aug. 18, 2004