To be perfectly honest with you, I still find the concept behind Gubble questionable. This PSX cover’s tagline is pretty accurate in describing the overall gameplay (mostly action, some thought required), but you’re still playing as an insane blathering alien that goes around disassembling prerendered 3D abstract landscapes with construction tools. The end result is basically a spiritual successor to Atari’s Crystal Castles, which kind of makes sense considering both games share a programmer. You’re probably wondering what elevates this game to the level of consideration you’ve come to expect from my “Anatomy of Video Game Music” series – it turns out there was a demoscene moon rising on the night Gubble was first conceived.
Gubble‘s music was written by Seppo Hurme (aka Fleshbrain), who wrote his fair share of tracker music in the early ’90s and also collaborated with the more famous Bjørn Lynne at times. The PC versions uses MIDI music; the quality of instruments in their soundtrack will depend greatly on your setup, and it might not necessarily represent the intent of the composer. When in doubt (and using Windows), install Coolsoft’s VirtualMIDISynth and your soundfont of choice. I am not sure if the PlayStation version uses sample/sequencer based audio, or if just plays prebaked recordings, but it still sounds better than, for instance, the stock MIDI functionality in recent versions of Windows.
Given the subject matter and apparent audience for the game (which is certainly child friendly and most likely explicitly aimed at a younger audience than mine), Gubble‘s soundtrack is… surprisingly nifty. There’s an even split between silly melodramatic cartoon orchestra music and electronic tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an early 90s computer scenedemo. The former is arguably more appropriate for the game’s aesthetic, but I personally prefer demoscene techno to cartoon orchestra music. None of the tracks are particularly long, but they have their share of elaboration and interesting musical ideas. Some of them do admittedly feel incomplete; as if they abruptly conclude in what should rightly be in the middle of the composition. That’s a fairly common pitfall for video game composers, who understandably deal with different challenges than musicians writing for other mediums.
Overall, though, I’d say the OST is far more ambitious than you might initially expect given the circumstances that surround this game, and it’s got plenty of merits to keep your interest if you ever end up playing the game. Much of its strength is probably a result of MIDI/sequencer limitations; skilled composers can, after all, do especially well under such stylistic pressure, especially if you’re like Fleshbrain and you cut your teeth on module music.
P.S: Because Gubble stores its music in easily obtainable MIDIs, you get another quick and dirty track remix. People who are following my mainline musical efforts might be interested to know that I reused some instrument presets from “Superior Steel”, and thusly it sounds more like the industrial/EDM track I heard yearning to break free from the original.
This album was my first experience with VNV Nation; I’d like to say there’s an interesting story behind how I discovered this band, but they’re basically just one of those bands I stumbled upon. Of the albums by this band I’ve listened to, Empires is likely the most aesthetically consistent, occupying a sweet spot between the unintentional jank of the band’s debut (Advance and Follow) and the intentional exploration of later recordings, like Matter + Form. As far as I know, this is transitional material. When you get down to it, Empires isn’t a huge leap from VNV Nation’s past, but it mainstreams the band enough to make the differences easily apparent with familiarity.
In general, VNV Nation on Empires comes across as an earlier form of the electronic dance pop prevalent today (these days it’s all about sidechain, wubs, and similar onomotopaeia); one that’s arguably in closer communion with the various forms of EDM prevalent in the mid-late ’90s. In fact, vocalist Ronan Harris went as far as to give us a name for this – “futurepop”; it relies more heavily on arpeggio textures and certain types of repetition than… uh… contemporarypop, but it’s still generally structured in a similar fashion. There are a few more abstract tracks (“Fragments” comes to mind) to break things up between the vocal pop. I haven’t listened to anything by this band past 2005, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their overall aesthetics follow contemporary trends at most times. To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in most of the popular music out there, but VNV Nation doesn’t quite approach what passes for “mainstream” sales figures, and that does occasionally lead people to believe such bands are immune to the forces of the market when, in fact, it makes them especially vulnerable.
It turns out that Empires is kind of hard to write about in any significant aspect, at least if you’re like me and you want to compare it to the rest of their discography, but the essential similarities in VNV Nation’s discography do keep popping up. This could be the album where the band actually found itself, for all I know, but its newfound cohesion leaves it with a relatively narrow focus. Even Futureperfect, released a few years later, pushes the formula established here significantly further, although it doesn’t stop being pop music in the process. It’s not that I want to disparage Empires too much, since without it I don’t think we’d have the foundation for such later and more accomplished works, and it definitely is ahead of its (admittedly interesting if flawed) predecessors. It might even be a good starting point for appreciating the band; I would indeed be fortunate if this were the case.
Highlights: “Saviour”, “Fragments”, “Darkangel”
For a game that I’ve put so many hours into, I don’t spend a huge amount of time with Victoria II‘s music. Strategy games tend to have relatively short soundtracks compared to how many hours addictive types put into them, although Paradox Development Studio (the gaming developing arm of Paradox Interactive) has been selling additional music for their games for some time, including a license deal with Sabaton! Victoria II predates that business model, though, and has to rely on about an hour of what turns out to be compositions in the various styles of Western classical music prevalent in the 19th century.
Paradox has relied on Andreas Waldetoft as their primary composer since at least 2006, with the release of Europa Universalis III. Waldetoft uses, for better or worse, a sort of “filmscore” approach to composing for their games in that he relies very heavily on modern orchestral arrangement and recognizable leitmotifs. Victoria II is, as far as I know, the closest he comes to actually composing in period styles, but as far as I know, most of the orchestral music you hear in films these days takes its cues from the “Romantic” period of the 19th century, although sometimes a film goes a little more modern and dissonant; we have a potential benefit of hindsight that the period composers obviously didn’t. Waldetoft sometimes lifts material directly from period music, but if he did so for this game, it’s either subtle enough to avoid notice, or I need to isolate myself and do nothing but listen to Western classical for a few weeks.
The soundtrack showcases great breadth; it is, after all, trying to put sound to an entire century. A track like the vaguely Baroque and flashy “Handel This” contrasts with the somber and almost too melodramatic “Russia 1917” (that violin lead in the middle and restated at the end pulls so intensely at my heartstrings that I can no longer take it seriously), although a good portion of the music is fairly subdued. This is an instance where using the Clausewitz engine’s music scripting options might’ve helped the soundtrack of Victoria II shine better; tracks could be programmed to play more often when relevant and so forth, but to my understanding this functionality went unused, there’s no evidence of a scriptfile in the game’s music directory. Still, this dedication to period accuracy fits well alongside the attempts at plausible historical simulation (although V2 is notably more sandbox oriented than the most recent crop of PDS games), and it does stand in stark contrast to a game like Age of Empires II, where gameplay over pure historical simulation is coincidentally accompanied by the composers’ personal styles similarly taking precedence.
The only real flaw I can think of in this game’s soundtrack is that there isn’t enough of it. With any luck, the long-awaited sequel will help deal with this.