Leaf Me Alone (David Fenn)

Cover
Cover

The Ludum Dare is an indie video game competition that challenges participants to come up with a functioning game in an absurdly small amount of time. The “Game Jam” category allows a developer team only 72 hours to make a game, and the August 2013 Ludum Dare Jam winner was a simple browser game called Leaf Me Alone which followed the adventures of a tiny forest denizen seeking a place to rest. It was developed by a team of two, Mark Foster and David Fenn, and Fenn wrote the game’s score which was later released for sale as a standalone product.

Fenn uses a surprisingly sophisticated set of synths for his music, lending it a very organic sound despite the game’s 8-bit NES-era aesthetic. It is also strongly thematic, with a fetching pastoral melody appearing right from the outset in “Home,” one which has a feeling of Greig or Copeland about it but most strongly resembles the beautiful Viva Pinata score by fellow UK developer Grant Kirkhope. The theme returns both in whole and in fragments throughout the album, but is most gorgeously rendered in “Night,” which features stunningly synthesized woodwinds passing the theme back and forth over a bed of peaceful piano and mallet washes. “Night” is easily one of the finest video game music pieces of 2013 and worth the price of the album by itself.

The other tracks in the main score are all largely very attractive as well, with a variety of sounds and tempos all incorporating the same organic and melodic aesthetic. “Tree” and “Sky” both feature warm melodies, while “Mountain” and “Temple” are more percussive and troubled. The brief “A Place of Rest” and “A New Leaf” bring the album to a soft solo piano close, the latter giving one last interpretation of the main theme. The main score is rather brief, only 15 minutes, so the album is rounded out by a series of six remixes by various artists, and it’s there where the album stumbles somewhat. The remixes rely far too heavily on overused and trendy sounds like record scratches and generally muddy the simple and charming originals more than they offer a meaningful reinterpretation; the electronic sounds so common to modern remixery are a particularly bad match.

Leaf Me Alone is a very strong score and comes recommended, especially “Night.” However, while it is available on the composer’s Bandcamp for the low price of $3, the fact that half of the music is inferior remixes does hold the album back from a top rating. Even so, it is a musical journey well worth taking for anyone who considers themselves a fan of pastoralism or Grant Kirkhope, and “Night” is an absolutely essential purchase (the song can be had on its own for only 50¢). Hopefully Leaf Me Alone is a sign of great things yet to come from a rising talent.

Rating: starstarstar

Afrika (Wataru Hokoyama)

Cover

A spiritual successor to — of all things — Pokémon Snap, Afrika sets players on a photo safari, capturing shots of wildlife in motion. The game has attracted considerable praise, but the most discussed feature seems to be Wataru Hokoyama’s original score — his first for a major video game.

While Japan-born, Hokoyama’s training was in a decidedly Western vein, and this shows clearly in the sound he establishes for Afrika. Many of the orchestral colors and orchestrations have clearly been inspired by Western greats such as John Williams and Elmer Bernstein, building on the soundscapes those composers established for massive fantasy-adventure scores on the one hand and National Geographic specials on the other. The result is a unique blend of action-adventure — occasionally bordering on the superheroic — and expansive, pastoral documentary music.

Hokoyama introduces a strong theme in “Savanna” that forms the basis for the rest of the score. It’s sweeping and adventurous, while maintaining a strongly romantic and expansive feel. The theme is present in most of the tracks, and is given extended airings in the triumphant finale “Afrika” and the rambunctiously exhilarating “Safari,” the best track on the album.

The game’s setting isn’t neglected and Hokoyama anchors a number of cues with percussive rhythms to reflect the high veldt setting. “Base Camp” is the pick of the lot, transposing a xylophone variation on the main theme with a full drum ensemble. Darker tracks for dangerous and dark situations also make an appearance in “Hunting” and “Night Safari,” the latter of which is particularly reminiscent of John Williams’ suspense writing.

There are no outright dud tracks, although two do fall somewhat short of the standard established by the others. “Masai” and “Hatari” are percussion-only tracks that don’t have enough variation to justify their (admittedly brief) running times. Both could have easily been omitted from the disc without much loss, shortened by half, or even combined into a suite. In truth, almost every track other than those two is a highlight.

While Afrika the game remains relatively obscure outside Japan despite a belated Stateside release, the score is readily available via import. Thirty minutes of music is present on a standard CD, while a Dolby 5.1 version of the music, along with interviews, is present on a supplementary DVD. The music is highly recommended to anyone who can get their hands on it; it’s a superior product, bursting with creativity.

* * * * *