Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Just What is Epic Enough, Anyway?

I've been listening to the Battle Bards podcast* while driving the kids to and from school, and we're up to Episode 21 now, which is about MMO music that moves you. Syp described it as "Oscar Bait", and Steff offered up "It gives you the Feels".

My oldest, sitting in the passenger seat next to me, commented that she calls that music "epic music", the stuff that she listens to while she does her homework (courtesy of YouTube playlists).

I'm not going to dispute those descriptions, although I believe I'd refer to what Steff was looking for was music that stirs deep emotions in the soul.

But what I found interesting was a comment by Syp about how the pieces in the SWTOR soundtrack --Alderaan: The Throne was Steff's example of the sort of music she was aiming for-- are overly long and can be tedious at times.

If you've played the game, the piece's first minute is heard when Alderaan loads (and periodically when travelling), but you might not have heard the rest without consciously seeking the soundtrack out.

But you know what that piece reminds me of? Ottorino Respighi's The Pines of Rome. Oh, not in a "it sounds like" moment, but in how the piece uses the music to paint a picture. If you're not familiar with Pines of Rome, you probably have heard the Fantasia 2000 version of it:

Yeah, I know. It's the "flying whales" piece.

But the point is, both pieces paint a picture. Pines of Rome creates a musical poem of the pines found in certain areas of Rome, such as the Pines of the Appian Way, and Alderaan: the Throne does the same thing for the planet of Alderaan, its apparent refinement and beauty, but underneath its struggles with civil war.

SWTOR's soundtrack is a bit unique among MMO soundtracks in that individual pieces for classes and planets are often in the 5-6 minute range, far longer than traditional MMO pieces. You can find individual MMO pieces that match the SWTOR ones, such as The Sindorei and Forged in Blood from WoW (BC and Wrath, respectively), but they are the exception rather than the rule. And still, the only pieces that play out in their 5+ minute entirety while adventuring in the game world --that I'm aware of, anyway-- are The Sindorei and Totems of the Grizzlemaw (Wrath again). Even SWTOR will chop up bits and pieces of their soundtrack for use in game, figuring that the KISS principle is the best one.**

I suppose that it only makes sense that when you're playing a game as visually stimulating and interactive as an MMO, creating overly complex themes would be lost on the average game player. Hell, I play WoW with the soundtrack off, mainly because you get tired of hearing the same 30 second piece when in a battleground.*** But the design intent of an in-game MMO soundtrack can be completely different than that found in the MP3/iTunes/CD version of the same.

While in-game, a soundtrack supplements the visual and interactive aspects of the MMO, but once the game exits, a soundtrack would have to stand on its own. Some games, such as Guild Wars 2, have a bunch of short pieces that have great sound and beauty, and they excel at meshing with the game itself. Alone, however, they feel too short. There's an epic feel present, but nothing sustained beyond a minute or two for all but a few pieces. But SWTOR took a different tactic, and took 5-6 minute tone poems and cherry-picked themes from each one to use in-game. This may not sit well with some, but others would welcome it.

For example, when I was playing pieces off of YouTube for this post, my wife looked up from her perusal of the internet and asked what that piece I was playing was.

"'Alderaan: The Throne', from the Star Wars: The Old Republic Soundtrack," I replied. The piece was well into its third minute.

"I like it," she said.

I made a mental note of that, because the other piece that I've played of MMO soundtracks lately that she stopped me and actually asked about it was Forged in Blood. The piano sweeps of Forged in Blood give that piece a distinct modern feel, and that attracted her attention.


Does this mean that I prefer one MMO soundtrack methodology over another? Not really, but it does mean that composers and game houses are tinkering, trying things out, and stretching what it means to be an MMO soundtrack. There are parts of the SWTOR soundtrack that I hear and think that the composer was aiming for the wider classical audience, rather than just the MMO gamer crowd. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, because I as a gamer (and movie soundtrack buff) am increasingly tired of hearing from certain crowds how second rate the video game/movie compositions are.

But that's a topic for another post.

*See the sidebar for the link. If you like MMO music, give them a try. You know the principals involved: Syl from MMO Gypsy, Syp from Biobreak and Massively, and Steff from MMO Gamer Chick.

**KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Come on, you really thought I was talking about these guys?

***That doesn't mean I play WoW without music, because there's often something running in the background. I personally will stream the Live365 channel Tears of Glory when playing WoW for the variety. Plus, I'm amused when I'm in Alterac Valley and suddenly the WoW cities' themes comes on.

EtA: Sorry, Shin.  I can blame that it was almost midnight when I wrote that. Corrected.


  1. Syl from Raging Monkeys and Going Commando

    Eh what? Syl and I are different people! :P

    1. Sorry, Shin. It was late when I wrote this and my brain was having a hard time coming up with MMO blog titles.



      I am happy to hear you and your kids are still enjoying the show. am not gonna spoil today's new episode but I'd sure love to see their faces when they hear it!!

      oh and Grizzly Hills, Forged in Blood and Mountain of Thunder are my alltime favorite WotLK tracks! <3

    3. /sigh

      I'm never going to live that down, am I?

      Now I'm wishing that I had had a few beers beforehand, so I could pass it off due to having a buzz.

  2. I like your daughter's definition of "epic music" as the stuff she likes to listen to while doing her homework! My favorite stuff to listen to while I'm doing heavy thinking includes the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter soundtracks (all eight of them) and the FFVI soundtrack.

    Sometimes while I'm flying around the world I wish that the music wouldn't change quite so often as I move from place to place. There've been times when I've stopped my flying mount and just hovered to listen to a bit of the soundtrack play out. I guess one of these days I really ought to just go buy the WoW soundtracks.

    Speaking of video game music and the quality/musical "validity" thereof -- Classical Minnesota Public Radio does a podcast feature called "Top Score" about video game music in general, not necessarily MMO music, and recently they had an article suggesting that video game music is the "folk music" of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2014/02/26/video-games-classical-music

    1. I've been known to loiter around Grizzly Hills for just the same reason as you mentioned, Kamalia. The music is so perfect for the scenery that I'll often dismount, stealth, and go wandering around.

      As for Top Score, I'm going to have to hunt down that podcast. I'd not argue against that assertion about video game music being the modern folk music of a generation, and further I'd also argue that it is more complex than people give it credit for. When Baba Yetu won the Grammy a few years back, most people in the audience had no idea it was also from Civ IV's soundtrack. And, I'd suspect, neither did the voters; if they did know, Baba Yetu might not have won.