Borderlands 3 arrives this week in a flurry of fanfare. With fans chomping at the bit to jump into Pandora with guns blazing, teams from around the world have already been entrenched in Borderlands’ world for months, preparing the way for the coming onslaught of Vault Hunters. One of these teams is Finishing Move, the music production company responsible for scoring large portions of Borderland 3.
Finishing Move did not simply jump into creating music and soundscapes for one of 2019’s biggest releases. They earned their spot at the table over the last two decades through perseverance and hard work. The company, which gamers may not be familiar with (but they almost have certainly heard its work), is a long-time collaboration between partners Brian Trifon and Brian Lee White, two LA-based musicians who – after diving into solo careers – pooled their talents together years ago “like Captain Planet, to make a better world.”
Beginning Move – Finishing Move’s Origin Story
“We have pretty overlapping skills – but also very complimentary skills,” says Brian Trifon. “Meaning that we can [each] do a piece from start to finish entirely on our own if necessary. But because we can each specialize in certain things, sometimes we’ll end up just focusing on certain areas of a track. Often, the other person is adding stuff or contributing to it.”
Trifon admits that while they share a common skill set, each member for Finishing Move brings individual strengths to the table. “Brian White is an excellent mixer. So all of the final mixes end up on his plate. He does all the mixing and finals and that kind of stuff.”
While Trifon studied guitar in college and has always pursued a career in music, Brian White took a detour before landing in the music business. “My Dad owns a music store,”says White. “I worked at a music store all through high school, and then I actually stopped that and went to college for business management because I thought I was going to get a real job. I spent four years, working towards getting a ‘real job’. I graduated a quarter early from college and immediately threw all that away and went to go intern at a recording studio, making no money. Of course. Right after earning a fresh degree in business from college. Um, yeah.”
Early in his career, Trifon began working as a session musician for various games, contributing to such titles as Tiger Woods 2004, Assassin’s Creed II, and Need for Speed Shift. It was through these recording sessions that he met Brian White, who was working as a record producer. “That career started to show some cracks in the mid to late 2000,” says White, “as the money from the record labels started shifting and drying up as things moved towards iTunes and streaming. So I got into composing for advertising and commercials.”
Following the same path, the duo decided to merge their talents. “A lot of composers think it’s like, ‘Oh, well that’s weird. Do you like working in a team?’”, says White. “And it’s like, man, it’d be weird to not work on a team.”
“We assign things and divide [the work] up and then we just contribute in the way that’s going to be most beneficial and functional,” adds Trifon. Soon after they teamed up, mutual contacts that they had made during their session days allowed them to get their company’s foot in the door composing for games.
“We were working together on lots of advertising and commercial projects,” says Trifon. “Then we started to get some bigger game opportunities, like Halo: Combat Evolved, the 10-year anniversary. After that project, we decided to team up in 2013 and start Finishing Move so that together we could take on bigger projects; not as freelancers, not working under anybody else. We wanted to aim for bigger things. And once we started Finishing Move, that’s when we were able to do Halo 2 Anniversary. We did Massive Chalice, Crackdown 3, and now we’re on to Borderlands 3.”
Complexity, Interactivity, And The Borderlands Crunch
Coming off of Crackdown 3, Finishing Move were under the gun to get Borderlands 3 up and running. “We were rolling off Crackdown at the same time we were ramping up on Borderlands, says Brian White. “I was playing five or six hours a day of Crackdown 3. While Trifon was starting to work on Borderlands, I was still shipping Crackdown, fixing bugs. Crackdown shipped in in February. We started Borderlands in January. So that moved at a really fast clip.
“I wouldn’t say we were in ‘crunch’,” White continues. “I mean, if TV guys hear us saying crunch, they would be like ‘You guys can die, we did this music in one day’. But yeah, for game stuff – because of the complexity of the interactivity – that was a pretty tight schedule where we were delivering a couple of maps a month. That’s quite a quite a tight time-frame.”
The ‘complexity of the interactivity’ is key to the work Finishing Move does. While some themes that the duo compose play from beginning to end in a menu or over credits, other music needs to be dynamic, forcing the team to think about and construct music differently. In order for a game soundtrack to react in real-time – increasing or decreasing tension depending on what’s happening on the screen – musicians must create smaller pieces of music that can be layered on top of each other – or removed – without clashing or sounding discordant. And some music is created as one flowing piece, just to chopped into smaller bits to be used throughout a game.
“Cratered for Halo Wars 2 is the main menu music, [played] when you launch the game. So, we did that piece early on and it appears in its entirety,” says Brian White. “Versus some of this stuff like Chimera Dawn [from Crackdown 3]. We made that piece and then mined it for lots of little sounds and stingers. It almost turns into a sound design toolkit, for when you’re plugging it into the game. So, when you collect a bunch of orbs and you go to the next level, you hear these little musical stingers that might be like a bar or two bars.
“And a lot of the Borderlands music is like that too,” White continues. “There’s this dichotomy between these boss battles that are very much like linear pieces of music that are looped together, like train cars. You’re hearing a very distinct piece of music in the game as we wrote it. Whereas the map music is highly generative. We would write these suites of music that had lots of different interesting layers, but the idea was you could add them together or subtract them. You could only play one, or you could play one with part of another and it would still make sense. Then it would scale based on a gameplay interaction, when you encounter enemies.”
“Threat level and ‘interests’ are the parameters that the game is feeding into the music engine,” Brian Trifon elaborates, “and then the music changes based on that. What we had to deliver was very granular, hardly even longer than just loops. It’s just layers of things. But in order to do it in a way that that makes sense and then ends up being coherent, we have to write linear pieces that had a lot of different sections and evolved quickly.
From that we extract that all this stuff that [the game] delivers. [Our music] runs the gamut from just being a totally linear piece that plays through and builds as you hear it, to stuff that is entirely chopped up and dissected into the tiniest little bits – depending on how granular the interactive music system is in the game.”
Of course, putting all of this music into place in an “interactive music system” is not as easy as simply looping some tracks together. Finishing Move often find themselves doing extremely taxing quality assurance work on titles, trying out music in a game while the planes of development are all still in the air. This means playing through unfinished levels of games – over and over again.
The First To Pandora
“It’s pretty cool,” says Brian Trifon, about getting to play early versions of games, “but it’s also pretty intense work too. Because you’re not just like, ‘I’m gonna playing this game and it’s just going to be fun.’ You usually have to use some debug mode to get [the game] to the point where it’s gonna trigger the thing that you need to see, and then you have to listen and make sure the music works – and often it doesn’t. And then you have to figure out, ‘Okay, why is this not working?’ But yes, it’s like obviously pretty cool playing the builds and then getting to test out your music. But I think in the moment it’s usually more stressful than the fantasy that you’d imagine of it.”
“Sometimes if it’s a game where you have to pay attention,” says White, “we use debugs so that we can have infinite ammo or lives, so that we can focus a little bit more on how the system is reacting instead of having to stay alive. But sometimes if it’s a challenging section or you’re trying to approach it like a player would approach it, you can fall into a trap. If you’ve got all the debugs on and you’ve got the best armor and the best guns, you might move through something a little faster than a normal person would, so you’re not actually getting a true sense of how the system would work under normal play.”
For work on Borderlands, Finishing Move were not the only composers taking the game through its paces. A team of composers – including Finishing Move, Jesper Kyd and Michael McCann among others – and led by Gearbox Music Director Raison Varner, all worked simultaneously on portions of the game.
“Borderlands 3 is such a massive game that there’s no way one composer or team could do it,” explains Brian White. “We were just talking about this among all the composers the other day that the soundtrack, which we’re putting together now, is almost six hours long. And that’s the curated music. That’s the stuff where we had everybody picking their best stuff, you know what I mean? There’s a ton of music in the game. It’s a huge game.
“The way they split it up is that for different acts of the game that take place on different planets, those were assigned to single composers,” White continues. “So, we didn’t necessarily have to coordinate [with the other composers], it’s not like we were in touch with Jesper or Michael a whole bunch, making sure that all the themes relate. Each composer was assigned different areas or planets and maps that they were responsible for.
And then we were in very close coordination with Raison [Varner], in terms of the aesthetic and what is needed. He’s the voice of Gearbox, [so he would explain] what do they want? What are they trying to achieve musically and stylistically?”
With different composers tacking different areas of Borderlands 3, Finishing Move found themselves with the enviable task of scoring Pandora – the iconic planet on whichf all previous Borderlands games took place. Finding interesting sounds to bring Pandora to life without being derivative to previous work proved to be an intriguing challenge.
“We worked a lot on the planet of Pandora, which is kind of like an alien, desert planet,” says Trifon. “Some of the stuff that we wanted to focus on there were desert soundscapes, things that would evoke this alien, desert, dusty, rusty, kind of broken down world. So a lot of our sound design direction from Gearbox was [considering] how we capture the emotion of this desert world. That meant there were like scrape-y and rusty elements and kinda crunchy guitars.
“But then since it’s alien – it’s not like a desert on earth – so we included weird choir samples and things that we’d recorded. A lot of world music influence – not in a cheesy way – but integrated in a cool way. So, you could have heavy guitars and an electronic beats and synths, and then like Turkish oud and Bulgarian choir. We really tried to make sure all that stuff was very coherent, and it didn’t sound like, “Oh, this is this thing slapped on top.” So it was a really fun balance to figure out how to thread that needle? It works stylistically really well.”
Bringing The Proving Grounds To Life
In addition to Pandora, Finishing Move ended up scoring many areas of Borderland 3, including the recently revealed Proving Grounds. Brian White explains, “The Proving Grounds are kind of like places where you can just level up and get a bunch of loot, ’cause it’s just brings in a bunch of enemies really quickly, and then you just blast them.”
Video Credit: IGN
“When it gets into the heavier combat, it’s mayhem for sure,” says Brian Trifon. In order to fully score the gradual rise in intensity that players will experience, Finishing Move composed three pieces of music, which were then broken down so that they could be dynamically layered.
“The three Proven Grounds pieces are like soundtrack versions,” explains Trifon. “You can listen to it and it sounds linear in the way it progresses. [In the game] we delivered very granular elements of that. It’s combined in different ways. The first minute is basically just very sparse, ambient sounds and then it starts to slowly pick up steam and build a little.
“When you get involved in some skirmishes and your interest level is high [the intensity increases]. And then to go the full range of medium intensity combat and then like pretty fricking high intensity combat. And then the third proving grounds piece is when you’re fighting the boss of that level. And that’s full-on “Boss Music”.
After all the time that they have spent playing Borderlands 3, one would think that White and Trifon would be quite skilled at the game.
“Oh, I’m not that good,” laughs Trifon. “Most of the way that we end up playing it is in testing and making sure our music works. We have to play with debug on just to save time. But [in general] first-person shooter style games are not my strong suit in terms – where I’m super skilled. I would have to play for a couple of years to be, ‘Oh yeah, I’m really good at this.’ It’s a challenging game.”
With an already great resume, and another very high-profile title under their belts, Finishing Move are not resting on their laurels. They are constantly working and thinking about the future. But at the same time, they also deeply appreciative of their success so far.
When contemplating what other franchises they would eventually like to score, Brian White muses, “I would be happy with just getting all the sequels. That would fulfill my wildest dreams, continuing to just contribute to some of these huge franchises. We really have been super fortunate to get to jump onto some huge franchises. We do not take it for granted. It’s awesome to be like involved with these really significant pieces of culture and get to write music for them. There’s millions of people experiencing our work and we definitely do not take that for granted.”
Thank you so much to Finishing Move for agreeing to take part in this interview.