Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Those Who Can, Play;
Those Who Can't, Crank it up to Eleven

As my family will tell you, I like music.

I'm one of those people who can't play an instrument worth a damn, but I've spent a lot of my time surrounded by music.  I worked a DJ shift in college, listened to shortwave radio for the world music (now easily found over the internet), volunteered at our local Celtic festival to help run sound and do stage work*, and spent time supporting the arts as much as I could.  It would figure, I suppose, that I really enjoy the music in video games, such as this gem from 1998:

It isn't exactly news to gamers that video game soundtracks had reached movie soundtrack quality, but the wider world only seemed to take notice when Christopher Tin's Baba Yetu, the main theme for Civilization IV, won a Grammy in 2011 for Best Instrumental Arrangement With Vocalist(s):

In that spirit, I thought I'd take a quick look at some of my favorite pieces in the MMOs I play, and you're welcome to add your own favorite in the comments.

The largest MMO out there, WoW, has some of the most impressive soundtracks as well.  The music ranges from the classic:

to the solo piece:

to the Appalachian inspired:

But my favorite piece in WoW has to be this one:

It feels like the composers were channeling Brian Eno and adding a sinister guitar riff atop it.  WoW has a history of music that evokes and complements the scenery of a region, but for some reason they really hit one out of the park with the soundtrack to Hellfire Peninsula.  This music isn't in your face, it isn't classic inspirational/emotional raid boss fight type of stuff, but it's there, lurking.  And when the ground shakes at the approach of a Fel Reaver at the same time as the guitar riff starts, look out.

By contrast, Lord of the Rings Online has a soundtrack that is understated and designed to fit neatly into the background.  Like Middle-earth itself, the music is part of the tapestry surrounding the fields of the Shire or the halls of stone in Thorin's Gate.  It's there, and you notice it from time to time --just enter a tavern-- but it never comes to the forefront.  

Unless, say, you manage to make it to Rivendell for the first time:

When you hear that music, you know the long run is finally over.  You can relax; you're at Elrond's house at last.

Switching gears from Epic Fantasy to classic Sword and Sorcery, the soundtrack to Age of Conan echoes Basil Poledouris' soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian.  There's something raw and primal to pieces like this one:

Or this:

The sharp beauty of the pieces echo the barren lands of the Hyborian Age, with a heavy dose of Norse imagery thrown into the mix.

With the wealth of music generated by six movies (okay, seven if you count the Clone Wars movie) and a television series, you'd think that The Old Republic could coast a bit.  Yes, the MMO does use a bit of legacy Star Wars music (okay, a lot), but it does have a soundtrack in its own right.  The piece that most people are familiar with is the loading screen:

But among other items, each planet does have its own soundtrack as well.  This one happens to be one of my favorites, and I'll be honest in that I thought at first it was written by John Williams:

As you can see by my lists above, I avoided the "rah rah" in your face battle music.  All of the MMOs in question have great inspirational music that you might not even notice in the heat of battle (or you've turned down the in-game music so you have your own to listen to while raiding).  I was tempted to select the old Warsong Gulch BG music, because that always gets my blood flowing during a hotly contested game, but in the end I went with music that I can also pause and just listen to for a few minutes.  Try doing that in WSG and you'll be spending most of your time being corpse camped at the graveyard.

Still, I find that game music fits nicely into my playlists while I get my work done, and on my MP3 player while I'm cutting the grass or going for a walk.  Good music has a utility all its own, and I'm glad that video game composers are finally starting to get their due from the world at large.

*Don't ask me to mix sound for a recording.  It's been over a decade since I was last behind a mixing board.

EtA:  Stupid cut-and-paste issues.


  1. Baba Yetu is awesome, and I've never even played Civilization. My ex used to play it a lot though, and that tune had a way of getting stuck in your head...

    You know, every time the subject of gaming soundtracks comes up I can't think of much, but you made me consider games that I'm not currently playing for the first time, so here's a real oldie but goodie: Mechwarrior 2. I never even played it that much, but I remember my delight when I found out that I could just pop the gaming CD into my audio CD player and listen to the music all day long - as long as I didn't try to play track 1, the game data, which would just result in painful screeching noise. :P

    1. I remember when I first installed Civ IV and watched the opening sequence. I was speechless.

      That Mechwarrior piece is really cool, kind of like if Axel F and Brian Eno got together and had a love child.

      I'm more used to the heavy metal inspired pieces for mech type games, like in Starsiege, but that was really cool.

    2. The whole soundtrack is slightly ethereal, and really makes you feel like you're on a low-gravity moon, an ice world or wherever else the game's missions sent you. I think the music played a not insignificant role in making the game a success at a time when graphics fidelity was still comparatively primitive.

  2. I hadn't heard the non-WoW music, especially liked that first one from Age of Conan. I think I first realized the quality of game soundtracks when I heard the Oblivion Elder Scrolls main title music.

    I played Alliance only for the first few years in WoW but I really never felt a sense of "alliance" with the other races until I heard the Cataclysm soundtrack for Stormwind.

    1. Age of Conan has a great soundtrack to it, and really does a better job than WoW overall. The gameplay is a bit more brutal, however, and unless you're familiar with Robert E. Howard's work (or the movies), the game will feel like a generic sword and sorcery setting.

      Oh, and the mobs hit harder than in WoW or LOTRO by a long shot. The nearby enemies will come over and assist if you're attacking one group, and they respawn much more quickly than you're used to as well.

      And there's that little matter of nudity in the game... Let's just say that in AoC you can identify the hormonal teenagers a lot more easily than in WoW.