Anatomy of VGM #2 – Age of Empires II (Windows)
When I wrote the first Anatomy of Video Game Music article, I was thinking I would focus more on chip music, since the technical end of such tends to give me some fertile topics of discussion. No such luck with Age of Empires II, though – it relies entirely on music streamed from a CD (or audio files if you’re playing the HD remaster that will serve as the base for this review). What I quickly noticed as friends drew me into playing this game was that the soundtrack direction was rather different than my first impressions of the game would lead me to believe. I usually don’t go into games with strong audio expectations, so this was a bit of a surprise.
Given the sheer amount of civilizations over time that Age of Empires represents (in this installment, the entire world over a millennium), you’d expect a wide variety of instrumentation and style, and for the most part, that’s what you get. There are a few commonalities of note, though – one is that the composer uses a lot of electronic samples – synthetic percussion, ambient noises, etc. throughout the tracks; I found them especially noticeable once I started doing the deep listening I needed to in order to do this analysis justice. It’s one thing to say that it makes for a stark contrast to the film score medievalism, but what I find is that this actually helps tie the tracks together – given the aforementioned scope, some unity comes in handy.
The structure of the soundtrack is a bit amorphous at the best of times, but much of this is probably due to the requirements of VGM, and more specifically the overarching need for the music not to be overbearing or obtrusive. Some tracks are fairly lively, but since this is background music for a video game that isn’t Brütal Legend, it never gets particularly intense. The music actually tends more introspective and subdued in the second half, for whatever reason, at least going by the HD version’s trackination. The first only needs a few more trancey synths tossed into to create some worldtronica recording like Juno Reactor, and since some of the game’s compositions were distributed as MIDIs that are easy to find over the internet, the potential for quick and productive remixing work is certainly there. As far as I know, the streamed audio included with the game was created by playing the compositions on high end audio equipment. That’d explain some of the synth presence, perhaps; it’s definitely hard to resist the temptation to add an instrument to your music when it’s on hand.
Whether or not it’s completely appropriate doesn’t really matter at this point; the soundtrack of The Age of Kings has a certain atmosphere that helps the rest of the game establish its time-sucking qualities. It’s also reasonably lengthy (about an hour; newer games in the genre sometimes have rather more music) and yet repetitive enough to stick in your head. There has to be some merit there. From an article-writing stance, there’s enough meat here that I was even able to discuss the technical aspects of the recording, which makes me happy.
P.S: As proof of how easy some MIDIs make remixing work, I provide to you an arrangement of “T Station” as forced through my current metal music production pipeline. It can’t have taken more than 90 minutes and is a pretty quick hackjob, but you might get some entertainment out of it.