Elite: Dangerous (Erasmus Talbot)

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Elite was an epochal game for many players on home computer systems, using basic wireframe graphics to place players as starship pilots in an expansive universe. Like many more sophisticated sandbox games, there was no set objective and no endpoint, other than raising one’s rank in combat to that of “Elite.” Countless hours of space combat and trading gave the game unrivaled cult appeal for a whole generation of gamers, to say nothing of inspiring titles like Privateer or Escape Velocity. But the actual Elite sequels were disappointments, with Frontier: Elite II and First Encounters: Elite III both being plagued with technical problems and stiff competition from imitators. The series lay dormant for nearly 20 years after Elite III before a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign successfully raised the money to make a direct sequel on modern systems. Elite: Dangerous has been well-recieved since its debut, though its always-online play (even in single-player) means that those without access to high-speed internet are still left out in the cold.

The development cycle of Elite: Dangerous was such that the project’s audio lead had time to carefully solicit composers for the game through a series of pitches and demos. Ultimately, newcomer Erasmus Talbot was commissioned to pen the score; while he had worked on some iOS games, shorts, and commercials before joining Elite in 2013, it was by far his most prominent credit to date. Talbot brought experience in sound design and implementation to the table, a benefit in working with a game that procedurally changed its music in response to player input, and he was instructed to create a hybrid score that utilized traditional symphonic and choral colors alongside synthesizers and electronic textures. The commission was complicated by the fact that what had initially been planned as a fully orchestral recording for its acoustic components wound up as a largely synth endeavor with live soloists: singers, percussion, some woodwinds, solo horn, violin, and oud were the sum total of live music recorded for the project.

One might have expected overtly synthetic elements to dominate a score about spaceships in space, but Talbot’s music is far less harshly electronic than comparable efforts like Jon Hallur Haraldsson’s EVE Online. Influences from that work can be felt in some of the pulsing and shimmering synths, and the use of world music elements like oud and singer Mia Salazar harkens most strongly back to Paul Ruskay’s Homeworld score. The overall use of ambient texture combined with a number of common motifs is perhaps most reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s scores in the Elder Scrolls series, but Talbot’s score works these influences together in a way that rarely feels derivative.

Most prominent and surprising to someone expecting the harshness of EVE Online is its thorough use of both synth and live choral elements–“like distant calls weaving in and out
through the vastness of space,” as Talbot says in his liner notes. Singers Salazar and Hannah Holgersson are joined by synth male voices and a synth children’s chorus in a series of the music’s most prominent thematic building blocks based on the various factions encountered in the game. Near and Far Eastern choral textures, African and Middle Eastern tones (though thankfully never to the “wailing woman” level of early 2000s cliche), masculine chanting, and classical European voice elements all make appearances–often in their most wistful and ambient mode.

The game’s battle tracks are its most traditionally symphonic, with rippling percussion and brass added over elements of the more ambient tracks. It’s interesting that the battle music is presented in pieces rather than in suites as is the typical practice with video game music. Rather than slapping together the various parts as they might have been procedurally combined by the game’s music engine, listeners are presented with 30 short songs that represent different combat scenarios at varying levels of intensity (low, medium, and high). It’s a refreshing approach, if slightly bitty in a Thomas Newman way, and it of course means that listeners are free to string together whatever parts they like rather than being chained to a single “frozen playthrough.” But the combat music is also where the limits of Talbot’s budget show the most clearly: he is forced to work with a mostly synth orchestra, and parts of it (especially the prominent brass) sounds terribly fake.

Arguably, the highlight of the effort is the Frameshift Suite, music for high-speed travel and starport landings in Elite: Dangerous. It brings together the vocal, ambient electronic, and acoustic soloist elements of the broader score into a single, tonal, and cohesive whole. It’s the best showing-off of the game’s broader music style to those who may be bored by the Soule-inflected ambience of the exploration music and irritated by the phony brass blasts of the more traditional battle tracks.

Listeners’ response to Elite: Dangerous will likely be predicated on how much weight they give to its various elements. Lovers of ambient but tuneful music, subtle choral effects, and scoring that reflects diverse video game ane cinema influences will probably enjoy it; those looking for a traditional symphonic experience, harsh EVE Online atmospherics, or Hans Zimmer power anthems will probably be much less interested. If nothing else, the game’s commercial download album (a CD is mentioned in the liner notes that apparently never came to fruition) is an extremely generous 140 minutes and 86 tracks for less than $10, meaning that listeners who like only the exploration, Frameshift, or combat music will still have a wide selection. It’s a shame that Elite: Dangerous can’t be played without an internet connection, but its music certainly can, and it makes for a fine experience on its own.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Cloud (Vincent Diamante)

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One of the most acclaimed developers exclusive to the Sony Playstation ecosystem, Thatgamecompany is famous for producing games that stretch the visual, narrative, and artistic boundaries of the medium. Its titles, including Flow, Flower, and Journey. Thatgamecompany had its genesis as a student project in the Interactive Media master’s degree program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts with Cloud, a game about the flying dreams of a bedridden child. Released for free, the title swept a number of indie game awards and downloads crashed the school’s server, paving the way for Thatgamecompany to form around the seven members of the original student dev team.

One of the seven was composer Vincent Diamante, who was at the time a second year Master of Fine Arts student in the Interactive Media Division. With a diverse background including stints as a radio show host, games journalist, photographer, and artist, Diamante would go on to become the audio director for Thatgamecompany and an instructor at USC in his own right. Cloud, though, was his first stab at video game music and sound design to see release.

A purely synthesized score made with Cakewalk Sonar and Miroslav Mini, Cloud nevertheless has a crystal clear sound, bright and resonant, that’s a testament to both composer’s skill in composition and design. The music, even as variable bitrate MP3 files, often sound better than that produced by mega-studios with ten times the budget and a live ensemble at their disposal. And, most importantly, the music beautifully captures the sense of joyousness and serenity that’s so much a part of the game through frequent use of rambling piano lines, litling woodwinds, and powerful strings. When, as in “Fluffy Sweet,” the album’s highlight, the pieces lock together, the effect is breathtaking.

In addition to the overall atmosphere, Diamante uses a central theme that winds throughout most of his Cloud. Debuting in “Title,” the woodwind theme is, like the rest of the music, lilting and gossamer-thin like the cloudscape it seeks to evoke. It’s not dominant in the score, but the theme provides a second thread to tie the work together in addition to Diamante’s distinctive stylistics. Whether presented as counterpoint (“Just About Ready”) or in a more tortured minor key (in the concluding “Reflection”) Diamante’s theme is always a welcome presence.

The album isn’t all smiles and sunshine. “Reflection” plays like an introvert on a rainy day, its strings beautiful but vaguely tragic, and the optimistic main theme is contrasted with troubled piano, harp and woodwinds in “Cycling” to good effect. “Reflection” does make a rather dour ending to the album, which might have been better served by a return to joyful soaring instead. A few shorter tracks in the mix don’t break up the album’s flow much, but there is one outright dud: “Passing By,” a 22-second track of ambient noise. Luckily, true to its name, it passes by quickly.

With both the game and the 30-minute original soundtrack available as free downloads, there’s simply no reason not to experience Cloud for yourself, especially as the music was specifically mastered for its VBR bitrate rather than being compressed. Five years later, Diamante would follow up his effort with Flower, a much lengthier and more ambitious game score cut from the same cloth, albeit at greater length and with a less overt thematic strand running through it. Still, for your money, there’s no better Thatgamecompany-related soundtrack investment than Cloud.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (Michael Giacchino and Chris Tilton)

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Well-known to many score fans through his participation on film and video game music message boards, New Orleans native Chris Tilton has worn many hats in the industry, from orchestrator to composer to fan. His career has been closely tied to that of his friend Michael Giacchino, who first hired Tilton as an assistant on the hit TV show Alias. Tilton soon found plentiful Hollywood work, orchestrating and composing additional music for many of Giacchino’s big and small screen scores, including a significant portion of the music for seasons 4 and 5 of Alias, Mission: Impossible III, The Family Stone, and The Incredibles.

It was in the field of video game music, though, that Tilton made his biggest splash. His first major solo project, 2004’s Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, allowed him to create a full-length, fully orchestral score virtually on his own, with impressive results. More high-profile assignments like 2006’s Black would follow; both it and Mercenaries received full soundtrack releases as well.

While Giacchino provided the driving “Mercenaries Main Theme,” Tilton filled out the remaining 55 minutes of music as a solo effort. The main theme, which has a bold aggressiveness that wouldn’t be out of place in a Medal of Honor game, is a staple of the album’s explosive action pieces. Tracks like “Allied Nations” and “Deck of 52” feature the theme alongside terrifically impressive brass and percussion, and the result is better than many of the large-scale cues in modern movies. As befits the game’s setting, there’s often a Bond-style lit to these pieces as well.

The action set pieces are broken up by quieter, but no less impressive, music. Tilton incorporates powerful choral work into “Hidden Valley Bunker” before segueing into string-slashing suspense music, while “For the Motherland,” the theme of the in-game Russian Mafia, features soulful Godfather-like strings. In many ways these suspense tracks are more compelling than the battle music, as the writing is entirely Tilton’s own as he rarely references Giacchino’s theme in them.

If the album has any weakness, it’s that Tilton doesn’t establish themes of his own. The music is strong but Giacchino’s music remains the unifying thread throughout, albeit seamlessly integrated. Though Giacchino and Tilton would collaborate in the future, and given the two men’s close prior working relationship the results were almost always impressive, Tilton was also allowed free rein to write his own themes in many of his later scores.

These qualms aside, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a must for fans of orchestral video game music. In fact, as mentioned above, it’s superior to many pieces appearing in modern action films, and served as a clear announcement of Tilton’s arrival in the limelight of game scoring. With many fine scores since, one hopes that he will one day follow in Giacchino’s footsteps to branch into feature scoring.

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