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Anatomy of VGM #9 – Diablo II (2000)

diablo 2 boxart.jpgNote: This review will also cover the music of Diablo II’s expansion pack, Lord of Destruction.

The greatest tragedy of Matt Uelmen’s professional life is almost certainly that he was not present to ensure that Diablo III’s soundtrack would live up to the daunting standards of its predecessors. The less said about that one, the better. The music in Diablo II, on the other hand, expands on the techniques of its predecessor much like the game underlying it – there’s more of it in more styles with more variety of instruments, but the overall approach hasn’t changed. Predictable, yes, but I don’t think you can reasonably complain about sequels taking this approach.

In short, Matt Uelmen’s work on the Diablo series mixes Western symphonic traditions with dark ambience, and a tinge of rock and electronica for flavor’s sake. The balance varies throughout the environments that the player traverses in their quest to bring down the Prime Evils – from the Middle Eastern inspired deserts of Aranoch, to the entirely orchestral and even heroic accompaniment to your traversal of Mount Arreat (although to be fair, Lord of Destruction came out a year later, and its music is arguably a separate work). Each track isn’t especially long, but they’re densely packed, evolving gradually and sometimes ending in completely unexpected territory, but consistent instrumentation and recurring themes help to keep these soundscapes coherent.

Matt Uelmen has the rare and subtle talent to required to balance both ambience and narrative songwriting in these tracks, meaning that melodies and leitmotifs not only exist alongside the sounds of dark dungeons and demonic combat, but they also compliment them. One of the high points of playing this game properly (instead of just killing Mephisto until Tyreal snaps and begs you to stop for your own sanity) are the moments when you’ve just emerged from a difficult fight; a soundscape of blood, broken bones, elemental chaos, and the screams of the damned gives way to ominous, creeping terror. In short, you may have prevailed for the moment, but you’re still deep in the territory of a nightmarish enemy that could kill you in an instant… …at least on higher difficulties. For all the strengths of Diablo II‘s music, this is still a case where the actual game enhances the effectiveness of the soundtrack, which is surprisingly harder than the common opposite.

While many an action RPG has surpassed Diablo II‘s mechanics (Grim Dawn comes to mind; maybe I’ll write about that at some point if I feel the need), few have come close to its aural mastery. For all we know, Blizzard might make it freeware in a few years, just like what they did with Starcraft

Anatomy of VGM #7: Quake II (PC)

quake 2 boxart.jpgReally had you going after last week’s post, didn’t I?

In my defense, the soundtrack of Quake II is a pretty good match for what you might’ve expected from the soundtrack of Quake I if you were a rampant id Software fanatic back in the day trying to rationalize from the style of music you heard in Doom. It’s also a good match for what you might’ve expected after Broken or The Downward Spiral if you were a rampant Nine Inch Nails fanatic. Instead, the convergence was blessed with an unsettling ambient soundtrack, a Quake fan decided they’d make their own OST, and that’s how Sascha Dikiciyan (aka Sonic Mayhem) got the job for Quake II. Fascinating how things happen, eh?

This is a straight up work of industrial metal. The more direct approach jives well with Quake II‘s less horrific and more aggressive atmosphere compared to its predecessor. As far as I’m concerned, it leans more towards what contemporary mainstream metal bands were doing at the time than some of the more electronic-thinking acts of the time; the emphasis is on metal instrumentation and the synthesized parts are reserved primarily for sound effects. Like most things in life, there are exceptions, like the stompboxy boss theme (“Climb”), but ultimately this game’s soundtrack caters more to the Pantera/Machine Head sort of metalhead than their riveted friends.

The results are… to be honest, pretty basic at most times. Quake II (without expansions)’s soundtrack is brief, clocking in at less than half an hour and being organized into compact, if conventionally structured songs. Songs here are composed of a handful of midpaced riffs arranged in easily predictable orders. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more it pales in comparison to Invisible Blog‘s usual fare; while it’s certainly appropriate for the style of gameplay, it’s lacking that spark of variety and vitality that would make it rewarding outside of its background. Most of the artists who perform in this style usually delegate this ‘having a spark’ thing to their vocalist, but that’s usually not a great option in the world of video games, especially if you’re repeating the same tracks over and over and over again…

So I guess that when I actually think about it, Quake II‘s music is a bust. Unfortunate, really. When I actually play Quake II (which isn’t going to be that often, since I’ve never ventured into its multiplayer), I don’t actually have to pay the OST much mind, though, so that’s some level of consolation?

Anatomy of VGM #6 – Sonic CD (Sega CD)

latest.jpgToday’s “Anatomy of VGM” feature is brought to you by the original Japanese version of Sonic CD’s soundtrack. I might do a separate feature on the completely different American soundtrack someday if I feel up to it.

I’m not much for Sonic CD’s bonus stages, but the soundtrack is one of the best in the entire series. Imagine the best aspects of the Sega Genesis entries’ music (good pop songwriting, genre variety, a strong ear for consonant melody) given an entire CD’s worth of streaming redbook audio to stretch out and experiment with, and you should have a good idea of why this game’s music turned out as well as it did. Both of this game’s composers (Masafumi Ogata and Naofumi Hataya) had cut their teeth on more limited sound chips for arcade and console hardware, and that experience served them well when it came time to pen this game’s tracks.

The most obvious gimmick here is that each of the main stages has four separate versions of its music; one to accompany each time period you can explore in-game. These generally hew close to each other in terms of overall arrangement, although the “Bad Future” versions tend to convert the frequently upbeat and peppy arrangements into darker and/or more aggressive styles. The music for the first stage (“Palmtree Panic”) is a good example of this, rewarding the player for not correctly altering the past by turning its sunny, Latin jazz theme into a menacing techno track that even manages to recontextualize its own content in such a way that the quoted phrases come off completely different than they would otherwise. In short, it’s a good example of the composers creatively turning limitations into new and creative techniques even when the technical limitations have been lifted.

Besides the attractions provided by extra space, there’s plenty of other fun and well-executed ideas strewn throughout this soundtrack to keep your attention. Comprehensively describing them all would make this entry far longer than it should be, although I’m certain that someone out there has published an extremely detailed analysis of the OST that you could peruse if such is to your liking. With that in mind, two points stand out – first, the heavy use of sampling, especially vocals, in what is generally an instrumental soundtrack. That was nothing new in 1992, but it still adds depth and texture to the listening experience. There’s also a clear influence from contemporary, bleeding edge EDM, and while yet again this was already a well explored vein of inspiration for many video game composers at the time, it does stand out for a series whose primary muse these days appears to be hard rock (read: Crush 40).

While some people have criticized Sonic CD‘s OST for being relentlessly hyperactive and maniacal, anything so much as a nod in that direction is a plus in my book. The cartridges that surround this game offer very stiff competition (and arguably most of the Sega Genesis Sonic games have better gameplay), but this pulls ahead and still holds up well today, at least for people of my general musical tastes.

Anatomy of VGM #5 – Mibibli’s Quest (Windows)

mibibli's quest

Described as the author as having gameplay and a plot that will “make you cry”, Mibibli’s Quest strikes a tenuous balance between Mega Man clone and waking nightmare in all things, including its music.

Well, I say that, but to be entirely honest the soundtrack of Mibibli’s Quest leans more towards the former than the latter, with many a track hearkening back to the late ’80s NEStalgia that’s so pervasive in our culture even if it’s mostly hawked by people a few years older than I… and given that I’ve written my fair share of chiptunes, perhaps myself as well. The ideas are out there, in more than one way, but the tension between various elements is very much a defining element.

For the most part, the strangeness or lack thereof is kept discretely separated between tracks, which for the most part are either deliberately weird or more conventional and rarely somewhere in between. There are some notable exceptions in the second hub world, which has arguably more abstract tracks without going off the deep end. Another sign of this separation of concerns comes from the very instrumentation itself. Most of the tracks in Mibibli’s Quest are chiptunes. They’re mostly faithful to the limitations of the NES’s various soundchips, but I don’t think perfect accuracy was a goal. Some of the percussion and instrument layering leads me to believe that the tracks were put together on a more conventional digital audio workstation, though I wouldn’t rule out the use of emulation entirely.

The actual songwriting seems to be based primarily on rock music tropes. It makes sense even when you consider the chippy sounds used to illustrate these – rock is literally a form of popular music, and it’s one that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of simultaneous instruments to pull off. It should help explain why you’ll hear plenty of the stuff in chiptunes; it’s obviously not the only influence, but a good deal of it filters into Mibibli’s Quest. It’s especially notable in the introductory “Art Zone”, for instance. Beyond this, Ryan Melmoth’s most notable technique as a composer is arguably how he approaches harmonic/melodic construction. There’s a lot of progressions in these songs that are, to put out bluntly, kind of out there, at least by the rock music standards I’ve recently tried to convince you were relevant. Luckily, they’re not so overused as to be listener fatiguing, but they do help to contribute to the unique characteristics of this soundtrack. Barring that, there’s also the occasional unsettling soundscape to keep you awake, but Melmoth’s got enough pop sensibility in these tracks that they’re both accessible and hooky enough for a mass audience.

Needless to say, once this officially gets released on Steam, there’ll probably be a swarm of remixers on it like flies around vinegar. In what is becoming something of an internal obligation, I have contributed to this. Mibibli’s Quest does not, however, store its music in easily editable MIDIs or tracker form, at least not that I’m aware of. Still worth the time and effort.

 

Anatomy of VGM #4 – Gubble (Windows, PS1)

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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.

Anatomy of VGM #3 – Victoria II (Windows)

vicky2boxartFor 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.

Anatomy of VGM #2 – Age of Empires II (Windows)

aoe2When 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.