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VGM Review #10: ‘Papo & Yo’ OST

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Brian D’Oliveira’s soundtrack to Minority Media’s Papo & Yo is an instantly attractive one. In our modern age of “epic,” film-like orchestrated video game music being commonplace, D’Oliveira presents the listener with a sound that is as unique as the setting and themes of the game in which it is placed—there aren’t many soundtracks that gamers can point to that are based in Latin American tradition, especially not as authentically as D’Oliveira’s. Therefore, the listener, whether experiencing the soundtrack in-game or out, will likely be intrigued by what D’Oliveira offers him or her.


The soundtrack as a whole certainly doesn’t disappoint. D’Oliveira’s writing combines dense rhythmic layering with other sounds and instruments to create fulfilling grooves and environments in each track. If the listener engages the music appropriately, s/he will enjoy the nuances of the rhythmic pattern variations, the appropriate timing of unsuspected instrumental and electronic sound entrances, and the way in which the melodic instruments are used to create a thick musical atmosphere.


However, despite the soundtrack’s many favorable elements, it doesn’t captivate the listener in-game nearly as much as it does outside of it. More

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VGM Review #9: ‘Bioshock’ OST

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Numbering only 12 tracks and totaling just 18 minutes, Garry Schyman’s compositions for 2K Games’ now-classic 2007 release BioShock, while not expansive in length, has an immense amount of originality and depth that shatters common video game music conventions and, by doing so, has allowed itself to be rooted within the memories of gamers.

Like a handful of other soundtracks that I have reviewed on my personal website, I have yet to play a significant amount of BioShock. However, the soundtrack is so strong that I feel like I have absorbed the essence of Rapture through Schyman’s compositions alone. As most of the greats tend to be, where the graphical environment and story may be water and syrup, it is the carbonation of each musical track that permeates this game and makes it fizz and pop.

Listeners need to look no further than the game’s main theme, “The Ocean on His Shoulders,” to know the quality and type of work that they are about to experience. Even the first few seconds makes an important impact, providing a dark foreshadowing that lingers in the ear as the premiere instruments of the soundtrack – the strings – bleed a hauntingly stunning and tragic melody that, at 1:10, is padded by a sinister atmospheric dissonance. It is that dissonance that allows the tune to come full circle as it consumes and dissolves the consonance of the strings, forcing the tune back into the obscurity highlighted in the beginning.

Though this tune prepares the listener for the world of Rapture and sets him or her up for the rest of the soundtrack, Schyman’s work is so dynamic that the listener continuously gains fresh perspective within his cohesive musical setting—each piece carries its own momentum and has its own identity within a soundtrack is decidedly BioShock. Take, for instance, the unconventional second track of OST, “Welcome to Rapture,” a tune that sounds as if were in a world dreamt up by Tim Burton. In possibly my favorite instance of the whole soundtrack, the violin that subtlety screams onto the scene on the first beat of this piece breaks apart from the main theme and from any other game soundtrack of which I’m aware. In literally two seconds the listener is fully engulfed by a new melodic direction, and then in the spirit of cohesiveness is starkly reminded nine seconds later that s/he is still playing the game that also features the devices of “The Ocean on His Shoulders.”

Pieces such as “Welcome to Rapture” also break the soundtrack from the ranks of the ever-popular “epic” sound that is so popular today. Sure, “Welcome to Rapture” has an instance of a bigger sound (0:35), but it quickly gives way to delicate melodic content that makes the listener shutter beneath its swirling emotional complexities (0:45 onwards). Even the pieces that sound like they may lean towards “epicness” are thankfully void of that quality’s soullessness. “The Dash” keeps listeners off balance by shifting meter (from 5/4 to 4/4 to 6/8), and “The Engine City,” while entrenching itself in a lumbering brassy romp, is accentuated by string parts that – while not all unmelodic – feel wholly erratic.

Carrying the soundtrack’s originality even further, at times the listener may feel as if s/he were actually doing something other than playing a game. That feature doesn’t stop with the opening measures of “Welcome to Rapture”—in fact, “Dancers of a String” and “Cohen’s Masterpiece” can make one feel as if s/he were doing some as discordant from gaming as watching a ballet. In the modern gaming world, oftentimes one may feel that a video game score is equivalent to a film score, therefore achieving an effect of removing the player’s senses from a direct association with a “game” (albeit that feeling has become a bit watered down now that so many try to achieve that film-like quality). However, Schyman’s works are unique in that they don’t come across as simply something that could be applied to a film. One would be hard pressed to transplant this music and stick it in another game, unlike those soundtracks that sound a bit too film-y. This music is that of BioShock and none other.

Even “Empty Houses,” a tune that one may feel simply sounds like a lamentation that may be found in a film, fits very well into the context of the soundtrack. The obvious factor is the emotional string element, but Schyman is crafty and once again uses subtlety to his advantage. The feeling of unease that one gets while listening to these pieces does not dissipate with the intake of this tune. For most of the piece, things feel fine, but at 1:25 the cello bends down out of tune and slides up with a high-pitched note from a violin, which continues to waver in and out of tune. Of course, the vibrato technique does this naturally; however, at the tail end of this piece, the note bends dip just a little too far. That extra bit of bend becomes extremely unsettling—almost maniacal. Though it’s easy to overlook specifically why things are still creepy while listening to that piece, the effect of the strings embeds itself into the subconscious, proving that Schyman’s execution is nothing short of masterful.

The pieces that rely on more atmospheric elements have instances like the one mentioned above, yet in more apparent fashion. In general, these pieces employ horrifying elements to churn the mind of the gamers as well as the melodies that accompany them. “The Docks” is an unpredictable work that makes use of indiscernible noises, random orchestral dissonances, and nautical sounds – such as the accordion melody and the ship bell – to keep the gamer on his or her toes; “This is Where They Sleep” takes a similar, yet more startling, approach, with the overlaying atop a bed of rising tones; and “Step Into My Gardens” has a beautiful cello feature that is surrounded by disturbing percussion, ghastly violin slides, and unearthly whale-like noises.

Schyman deserves all of the praise that he received for this soundtrack—it is truly one of great caliber. From the melodic arrangements to the psychological twists of the horrific atmospheric elements, its originality outdoes itself with each track that passes, shoving aside the stale conventionality that pervades many modern game soundtracks. Without any other context, listening to these pieces makes one want to play the game itself, and if a soundtrack can push that feeling, the listener knows that s/he is experiencing something extraordinary.

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This review is also featured on The Game Faces, a new collaborative video game review blog and podcast.

Concert Review: Video Games Live! Bonus Round

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A few weekends ago, Tommy Tallarico and his merry band of video game composers headed into Vienna, VA, to play Video Games Live! Bonus Round at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. Excitedly, Jen and I went with a couple of friends to see the show, which was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Disclaimer: Jen’s camera ended up breaking so I don’t have pictures from the actual show [insert here your vision of a crying man]; the ones included are from the VGL press page.

wolftrapIf you have never been to the Wolf Trap, it’s a beautiful venue. Every time I’ve been I have opted to get a lawn ticket, which has been lovely simply because you can set yourself up a little picnic spot. Granted, your spot is going to be squished between all of the other picnic spots, especially if you want a good seat, but to be real, the spaces between you and your neighbors on the lawn are still larger than they would be if you sat next to them in the seated area.

Even though we were pretty far up on the lawn (which is a hill that leads down to the seating area, as you can tell from the picture), we still had a pretty great view of the symphony. Aside from experiencing this music played by a live orchestra, another main part of the VGL show is video, and while we were too high up to see the video behind the symphony itself, Wolf Trap had set up a second external screen that was large and very visible once it got a little darker outside. Deciding whether to focus on the orchestra or on the screens was a minor dilemma at times, but one that was certainly overcome by ability to bring and eat Triscuits and cheese.

As the show’s host, Tommy Tallarico, who looks and dresses like some people that I hung out with in high school, acts like a goofy, energetic kid—and I mean that in a good way. The show, though it is based around a serious concept – the one of symphony orchestras performing music from games, those things that are often seen by people as a horrible, mind-numbing alternative to going outside –, is extremely light-hearted to the point where it is almost like an old-school game itself. Tommy bounds around on stage, hyping up the audience and shredding on his guitar, reminding us that this music, while sometimes serious, is also serious fun. More

VGM Review #8: ‘FTL: Faster Than Light’ OST

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or irl) know that I have been playing a ton of FTL lately. I just bought it during the Steam Summer Sale for something absurd like $2.50 (<3) and it has maliciously taken over much of whatever free time I have to burn.

For those that don’t know, FTL is a real-time strategy game by Subset Games that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter to a release last fall (2012). While it is very fun and comes highly recommended – and not just by me, evidenced by its Metascore of 84 –, it is extremely unforgiving and has done nothing but pain me at great lengths. Still, I will on, determined to beat it someday…

But my excruciating experiences with the game are not why I write today. I come to speak of the soundtrack, of course—a soundtrack that has received high praise from a variety of sources. The accolades that composer Ben Prunty has listed on the front of his website are as follows:

  • IGN: Best Overall Music and Best PC Sound of 2012 (nominee)
  • Kotaku: Best Video Game Music of 2012
  • The Game Scouts: Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks of 2012
  • Complex: Top 25 Best Video Game Soundtracks on Bandcamp
  • NeoGAF: Official Game Soundtracks of the Year 2012

That’s pretty great. Based on his webpage, Prunty has only composed for a few projects so far, so kudos to him for getting that kind of recognition so early on in his career


I will start out by saying that I was instantly attracted to Prunty’s music. The title theme, “Space Cruise” is easy to like. The beginning certainly screams “OUTER SPACE,” from the tone choice, to the chord that bends and fades, to the seemingly eternal amount of space between that first chord and the second. Hearing those elements from the very beginning immediately puts the gamer in the mood to play a space-themed game.

Another great thing about the open beginning is that it sets up the next section, which one can still consider spacey, but in a different, more light-hearted and fun way. Prunty introduces more electronic instruments with different tone colors that fill in the voids that are left between the first two chords. What you hear is a pretty typical layered build-up that is meant to lead into a climax at 0:57.

This climax features a swifter pace that comes about by way of new, swirling rhythmic sounds and notes with shorter durations. It doesn’t last too long, though, as it hits a breakdown at 1:16 that signals the beginning of a devolution back to the more open feel of the beginning. Essentially, the other two-and-half minutes are filled by a variety of melodies and rehashing of ideas from the beginning of the tune in that open feel.

While I enjoy the piece, I do have some criticism for it More

Review: “Nate’s Theme” (‘Uncharted’ OST), Part II

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In case you missed it, here’s Part I of the review!

 

Getting right into it, “Nate’s Theme 2.0” sounds completely different from its predecessor right off the bat, and it’s not due to bitrate or quality of the audio file (trust me, I went and listened to a handful of files to make absolutely sure).


 

The first big reason for this difference is that, unless my ears are failing me, the theme in Drake’s Fortune is recorded using electronic samples while the one in Among Thieves is done so by recording actual live instrumentalists (it could be that Edmonson simply uses much higher-quality samples, too, though—sometimes it’s really hard to distinguish between the two).  The second reason, which ties into the first, is that everything is just crisper.  From the deadened reverb to the sharper articulations around all the instruments, each note played comes out very cleanly.

The difference in the effect of the newfound crispness is especially striking in the brass.  Every entrance by those instruments is very clear and commanding; every line pushes that feel of excitement and adventure just a bit more.  It’s not just the articulations and production that adds to it either—listen to how much more, for a lack of a better word, “brassy” the section sounds.  Instead of the timbre of the section being straight and clean, Edmonson made sure that the brass got a little dirty this time around.

One will notice the percussion a bit more, as well.  Along with the reasons in the first paragraph, its place in the audio mix is much nicer.  One would not likely doubt its importance in “1.0” – it does, as you have read and heard, set the table for the rest of the tune –, but in “2.0” it makes its presence known from beginning to end and continues to replicate that energy felt in the first phrase.  Listen to the difference from 0:29 to 0:33 and how the entrance of the suspended cymbal rings so much more clearly than before.  That’s the stuff.

Speaking of the drive of the percussion, there is a new element in the mix of “2.0” that you might have noticed.  Through 0:40, there is a hit on beat 2 of every measure—it sounds like it might be a ride cymbal.  The hits just reinforce the percussion in the beginning, but then, whether you noticed it or not, when 1:09 kicks the tune back into gear, the cymbal creates even more energy by hitting on both beats 2 and 4.  As it was for me at first, you may have only just felt the effect subconsciously for the first few listens; however, the effect is very much alive if you’re listening.  While it might not sound like a huge difference on paper, Edmonson’s writing of the part in this manner was completely deliberate, and it’s as I always like to say: the Art lies in the details.

Let’s quickly check out some other places that Edmonson made minor tweaks that were not tweaked again in the third version of the tune:

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VGM Review #7: “Nate’s Theme” (‘Uncharted’ OST), Part I

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Last December (erhm, not quite a year yet!) I had my first media encounter with composer Greg Edmonson via GamesRadar’s SoundRadar podcast.  Edmonson was a fantastic interviewee, offering a lot of valuable insight to his approach to writing music for the Uncharted series.  His attitude and ideas had made me want to check his stuff out and subsequently blog about him.

Flash forward to two days ago, when I finally started to write down a list of topics that I need to blog about.  Edmonson was a no-brainer for the list: I enjoyed his interview, I’ve liked what I heard from him, and he’s a modern composer of a critically acclaimed game soundtrack.  He was such a no-brainer, in fact, that I immediately chose to review some of his work, namely the Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception OST.

It was upon beginning my listening that I came across “Nate’s Theme” (naturally, as it is the main theme of the game itself).  The interesting thing about this tune is that there are three iterations of it—Edmonson composed the theme originally for the first game and has revisited it each time he has worked on a new Uncharted title.  I love this concept.

I think that, as a composer, one can almost always find places where more can be tweaked, which is why I talk about having simply to close the door on projects.  As there are infinite possibilities in regards to tweaking in a tune, one can drive him or herself mad trying to revise and revise to make a perfect product—that is why one has to know when to say, “okay, I’m finished and am moving on.”  However, that doesn’t mean that one cannot or should not go back and critically listen to a composition after spending time away from it.  Sometimes taking a step back gives one the most objective viewpoint.  The Uncharted titles were released in two-year intervals, and somewhere within those two-year gaps Edmonson found the time to take that step back and revamp his work.

The good news: his labor was well worth it.

I’m going to talk about what sets each version of “Nate’s Theme” apart from the others, but before I get into those specifics (which will come in a post in the next few days), I’d like to talk a little about the tune in general.  Here’s version 1.0:

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‘Suikoden II’ OST Review, Part 2

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(continued from Part I of the review)

After hearing the opening, I again found myself shaking my head at being so out of touch with such works.  Just listening to the Suikoden II OST places it extremely high on my preferred VGM list—I only wish that I could play the actual game without spending ridiculous amounts of money (one day…!).  Regardless, however, there is, as I’ve said before, something to be said about loving a game OST without having played the game itself.   Higashino’s work on Suikoden II is so involved and so perfect for a game that I am pretty content just imagining what would be happening on-screen during a particular tune and determining how that fits in the greater context of the musical body of work.

And what a body of work it is!  I listened to the OST via a YouTube channel by a user that just uploads full video game soundtracksSuikoden II has 105 tracks in its playlist; if one looks at the list of games the number of tracks each one has, s/he will find that there are few (out of this relatively small sample size) that even come close to 105.  Regardless of length of the tracks, that’s 105 different ideas for a single game.  Including length, if one roughly calculates that the average track is two minutes long, that’s about three and a half hours of music alone.  I don’t care if the second half of most of the tracks is a loop – because, let’s face it, making something that is enjoyable to listen to after five loops is worth giving the gimmie – this is a lot of music.

Thinking about the quantity of music leads me to think about Suikoden II versus modern OSTs.  Journey, for instance, has 18 tracks that total an hour.  The difference is, Journey is an hour of non-looping music and has an average track length of 3:25; therefore, one may say that Journey has more ideas within a particular track – meaning that composer Austin Wintory took an idea and developed it over a large span of time coinciding with other ideas – while Suikoden II has an impressively robust number of raw ideas.  That’s just interesting to consider, looking at classic versus modern soundtracks and thinking about approaching composing for games.

What’s even more impressive about the soundtrack having so many raw ideas is that Higashino’s approach to Suikoden II was clearly not a linear one.  There’s such a variety in the soundtrack that the listener will be surprised from one track to the next due simply to the fact that s/he won’t be able to anticipate what kind of sound the next tune will have.  Some soundtracks might be able to be categorized into an everyday genre (i.e., electronic, rock, ambient), but this one is one of those that fall strictly under the blanket of “VGM.”  The listener will find that she wrote everything from orchestral music to Mitsuda-like folk songs and jigs to more traditional “classical” pieces to ambient abstractions.  One of the best things about it is, though, that Higashino makes her own mark and creates an OST that is distinct among its peers.

Let’s take a look at some of the elements and themes that one will find within the OST:

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