Flower (Vincent Diamante)

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It might seem rather quaint, in an age of multimillion dollar blockbuster video game titles with Hollywood production values, to produce a retail game with no dialogue, no human or animal characters, and a story that is completely about tone rather than narrative. But that’s just what Thatgamecompany did in 2009 with Flower, the follow-up to their first retail title Flow. Structured as the dream of a flower in an urban pot, Flower entranced critics and Playstation 3 players alike with its colorful worlds and simple use of motion controls, becoming a surprise hit and one of the PS3’s more compelling exclusives.

For Flow, Thatgamecompany had contracted outside composer Austin Wintory to provide a meditative, choral-tinged score, and they would return to Wintory for their follow-up, Journey. But for Flower, which was a clear spiritual successor to Cloud, Thatgamecompany audio director and composer Vincent Diamante returned to scoring for the project. A member of the original seven-student USC development team that had produced Cloud, Diamante had produced an appropriately airy and stunningly realized score for that title on a shoestring budget. Flower would allow a much broader canvas, with Diamante’s music procedurally recombined during gameplay in a way that integrated music an images to an unprecedented extent.

As with Cloud, the music of Flower is entirely synthesized in Cakewalk Sonar, Miroslav Mini, and Synful, but the sample libraries that Diamante had built up once again meant that the sound had incredible clarity for a synthesized orchestra. The synthesized nature of the score also allowed Diamante to play with instrument dynamics; while elements like pianos, strings, and acoustic guitars are in their natural range, a significant portion of the music involves instruments like bass flutes and bassoons pushed to higher registers in what Diamante described as a process akin to the earthbound flowers taking flight.

There is a main melody in the score, a short and lilting idea that’s a close cousin to the theme from Cloud, if somewhat more deconstructed and subtle. It’s featured in hints on piano at its first expression in “Life As A Flower,” in woodwinds in “Splash of Color,” and and finally merging both woodwind and piano performances with full orchestral accompaniment in “Sailing on the Wind.” Diamante’s theme is given its most extensive workout in the bright “Purification of the City,” the album’s highlight and longest track, where it weaves in and out of the song, passing from instrument to instrument in the orchestral mix.

Mirroring the development of the Flower theme, the songs on the album take a sonic journey from the more minimalist and new age sections, where the music is pared down to a guitar and small ensemble, to the album’s highlights which feature a much fuller sound. This means that at times the mix is at times somewhat thinner than Cloud. Part of the album’s progression does lead into greyer territory, though. The lengthy “Solitary Wasteland” track is rather desolate and minimalist even in comparison to the other tracks, and its minor-key mode and great length (11 minutes) make it stand out somewhat, especially coming between the pared-down “Nighttime Excursion” and the joyous “Purification.” It’s also worth noting that the meaty length of Flower‘s tracks, of which five are over seven minutes long and two are over ten minutes apiece, may serve to exacerbate the album’s weaknesses for some listeners.

Flower‘s close fusion of music and gameplay led to immediate calls for a soundtrack, but the music’s conception as being procedurally generated layers and instruments made the process more difficult than it might otherwise have been. An 8-track digital score was eventually released in 2010, but like the game itself it was a Playstation Network exclusive, meaning that non-console-owners had no recourse for purchase. This was eventually remedied by La-La Land in 2014 with the release of a limited-edition CD soundtrack containing two tracks not on the initial release. Flower winds up being somewhat less accessible than Cloud due to its more subtle use of its overall theme and its much lengthier tracks, but lovers of simple and colorful video game music will nevertheless find much to appreciate, and fans of Cloud will be delighted to hear more music from the same sonic world.

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