There’s a calm in the air as I type up this review. I am currently listening to William Ackerman’s album Passage. There is a guitarist sitting under a tree and playing to the clarity of his heart and the rhythm of his soul. Sound-wise, the album definitely falls under the new age genre, although this doesn’t have the same ambiance as a record full of synthesizer and electronic effects. It’s mainly a steel string guitar record, but the album also features piano, cello, violin, and English horn on individual songs. The sixth song on the record, “Hawk Circle”, for instance, has the piano playing a beautiful melody that circles in on itself multiple times while remaining in unison with the acoustic guitar. It’s clear there is a sad quality to the song, with my guess being that the song is about clash of hawks battling each other in the forest, a sad moment indeed to see nature fight herself.
Songs like the second track, “Impending Death of the Virgin”, present the guitar as an awakening of sorts, bringing to mind all of the things we associate with virginal qualities, both sexually and metaphorically. It feels good to understand how things work in the world, but there is a deadly quality to hearing the guitar tell you what you’re gaining, understanding, and what you’re losing, innocence. It’s a coming of age within an instrumental context.
Passage is the closing track on the record, and it definitely feels like a continuation of the music journey at a later time. It constantly flows and features only the guitar, a fitting way to end a predominantly guitar-based record to begin with. In this song, I imagine crossing a river leading to a waterfall surrounded on both sides by two stone monuments… essentially this scene from Lord of the Rings, and just as cool.
Nick Drake’s second album might have been a distinct departure from the pastoral identity of his first album Five Leaves Left, but it is no less folk music because of it. While critics at the time described the album as an awkward mix of folk guitar and cocktail jazz, the record is more a folk album with pop dealings in today’s music terms.
The long dark is a quietly brutal and hellish game of survival. Abandoned towns, sparse farmland, and the withering trees of an unending winter dot the landscape. The ever-present danger of the wolves and bears of a harsh Canadian frostbite never really relinquish, and you’re continuously forced to scavenge for stale food and toilet water, wood for fires, medicine for treating wounds and illnesses, weapons to fend off the creatures of the land, and any other items that could increase your chances of survival in a town long-since abandoned.
What I really wanted to talk about, though, is the games music. While the soundtrack complements the games empty, yet engaging atmosphere, featuring the occasional lone electric guitar as you trudge across the barren white desert alongside occasional ominous strings indicating nearby danger, there’s another music artist in particular that would go really well with the game’s atmosphere.
Dan Caine writes music from the most inward depths of our emotional conscious. The music may be simplistic and lonely in nature, but the ambiance and gradual growth to each song creates the atmosphere to develop a slower, more mindful approach to thinking about one’s worldview. It’s like sitting by a river and putting your feet in the water. Just as the river changes constantly by its flow, your feet feel different as the water courses through your toes and adjusts to the water’s cold touch.
Music in video games tend not to follow a strict adherence to the genre or form of music they are trying to emulate, especially in video games with a real life cultural background. For instance, games like Skyrim use a more streamlined ambiance in each piece to have a surrounding atmosphere rather than making the music the focal point of the game itself. Although they use instruments from viking cultures and the landscape is that of Scandinavian cliffs and mountains, the music presents a welcoming warmth into the world itself, a place to get lost in rather than stomped on.
It’s usually better when a game’s music score follows the art, feelings, and mechanics of the game rather than try to take the forefront as a cultural standalone. Great video game scores accomplish both. However, I would rather listen to the ancient Nordic choirs with orchestral strings and clanging drums when fighting a dragon than listen to a soft Tagelharpa or Lyre in the midst of a fire-breathing dragon fight. The former music fuels the tension of the fight based on the need for it, not the want, which is exactly how the music should work.
Star Wars Score and Standalone Music
Imagine watching the lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Star Wars Episode III without the music. It loses its tension and grandiosity. Besides a few short cut-scenes for dialogue, the entire battle becomes a mish-mash of random grunts, lightsaber hits, and one force duel. Whether or not the force duel keeps its airy vibrations as the two force users try to knock the other down, it still wouldn’t have the same impact emotionally without the music.
One of the main reasons why music that stands alone is so effective is because it uses the creation and release of tension through sound to grab your attention throughout each part of the song. “Hotel California” wouldn’t sound the same without the Spanish flavored guitars, the single singer during the verse and then a harmony of singers during the chorus. Having a song feel monotone throughout its playback loses a song’s disheveled catchiness, wherein a song has different melodies, parts, and possibly key changes that both disrupt your listening experience and enhance it.
Progressive rock bands, which are a topic for another essay, are great at creating changes for the listening experience. It’s sort of like taking a vacation on a beach, closing your eyes and relaxing, then being transported to a medieval army where you have to fight an enemy with swords or think your way through a mental maze. Of course, you may eventually go back to the beach setting, but the building of the song creates a better experience than the lack of a build-up and remaining stuck on the beach.
Total War: Shogun 2
This brings me back to the soundtrack for Total War: Shogun 2. A well-placed composition within the heat of battle, just like the soundtrack for Rome: Total War, helps create and elevate the atmosphere in which it resides. Total War: Shogun 2 has a more unique identity that can stand on its own as opposed to Rome: Total War, which was innovative for its time, but had the usual medieval battles of most strategy games in 2004, beyond its mixture of turn-based campaigns and real-time battles. The use of samurai duels not just on a scale the size of an army, but also being able to zoom in to each samurai’s individual duel creates a unique perspective in the realm of gaming, where the player can see both the strategy and the blood shed for the victory of the clan.
When the main theme to a game opens up with a delicate series of strings and wind instruments, followed quickly by a big blast in sound by both drums and strings, then enters into a fast-paced samurai duel of a song, the music develops a whole new layer as the rest of the soundtrack plays during each piece of the gameplay.
Total War: Shogun 2’s opening song manages to accomplish the above and also sets the tone for the rest of the game. For a culture known greatly for peace, tea, and religions based on individuality, there has always been a time, like other cultures, where war went on for hundreds of years, with intermediary times of peace, and then more war to define the ruler, or in Shogun 2’s case, the shogunate. The music reflects both the peace of Japanese culture and the war-climate during the time period as well, specifically because it’s a video game, but also because it fits the paradigm of Japanese samurai, bowmen, and the taking of the title of shogun of Japan.
And that’s where music should take you. It should place an image in your head, whether it’s from the game or simply from the time or place it’s trying to depict. There’s a certain atmosphere created from Shogun 2, namely being that of a Japanese tea-drinking general leading an army of well-trained swordsmen into bloody battle and dusty death. Shouldn’t the music both create and enhance the atmosphere?
For the last five or six years, EA has become the butt of most jokes among players when it comes to publishing finished and immersive games. Franchises have been scrapped of their DLC, online shooters become wastelands, and other great games receive little to no development, including patching or love, after their release dates.
I feel that, as individuals, we often tend to get caught up in the stresses and anxieties of our daily lives. Whether we’ve lost a family member, gotten a hard-earned raise at work, or sank deep into the depths of depression, there’s an alluring feeling that nothing matters when we do anything with our lives, good or bad. Things in life just seem to flow from one event to the next, the current stopped only by an underwater boulder that catches us by our swimsuit and rips apart the fabric upon which we’re swimming.
Welcome, Star Slime! For that is what you shall henceforth be known as while I address this letter to you and your budding strategists for conquering the galaxy.
First things first, who likes unemployment? Yes? Me too. I love not working. Or… no? Okay, you might not like this game. And I’m not just talking about unemployment in the real world, because that’d be too easy to sum up this review letter! No, you’ll also experience unemployment on the planets that you colonize and conquer throughout your journey to become the greatest space-faring civilization in your randomly generated galaxy’s history!
There are Fallen Empires. These are ancient civilizations, thousands of years old, that rapidly progressed in technological progress before falling off the deep end and stagnating for several hundred to a thousand years.
There are also empires that somehow developed and progressed to the point of FTL travel at the exact same time as your empire in the year 2200 on 01/01/2200. How exactly every regular empire in the game managed to acquire FTL travel at the exact same time as your civilization is beyond me, but hey, this game is customizable and interpretive. Write your own narrative for it! You can choose among the pre-made empires and races, or you can create your own, giving them their own copious backstory and other minuet details to create not just the basis for a perfect galactic species, but a perfect galactic empire filled with many species.
Ultimately, I play my empire fairly standard. I’ve been trying to get as many Steam achievements as possible, so I play on Iron Man mode right now, which is great fun and hard because you can’t just save and go back when your empire is getting crushed by a 5x more powerful crisis.
I modeled my empire after the Roman Republic and called it the Triarian Republic. Parallel to Roman civilization, my galactic civilization began as a republic, then transformed into a full-blown imperial empire after I acquired Psionic traits and contacted the Shroud (basically mental telepathy equivalent to the battle meditation ability in Star Wars KOTOR II, but way cooler and the whole species can use it). I am accepting of all the galaxy’s species as long as they are subservient to my Empire’s will. The big difference between my empire and the Roman one? Mine is led mainly by a venerable group of bipedal lizards and my God-Empress is immortal (please don’t get the drug abuser trait, God-Empress! I love you, live forever).
Doesn’t this all sound like fun? Are you feeling it now Mr. Slime? Are you feeling it now Mr. Slime? Are you feeling it now? Are you feeling it…
… the grind of exploring a randomly generated galaxy. The rising unemployment of a diverse empire. Developing your species to be mental telepathics. And ultimately taking over a galaxy filled with mortal dangers that could destroy your empire at any moment and cause you to cry at all the progress you lost in-game?
Does this all sound like fun? Yes! Look, I know I’m painting out this game to be more of a time-sucking bore than it is a great strategy game, but I’ve sunk over 280 hours into the game since May of last year. This is an incredibly relaxing and slow-going game up until you get sucked into a war with a Fallen Empire you can’t beat. But the game is equal bits empire management and equal bits space-battles. And it’s entirely in real time, which is an awesome way of saying that you get to watch your empire conquer other empires without having to wait for the AIs next moves. Your empire will constantly be progressing, and the reward for picking the right technological, warfare, and economic upgrade is that you develop your empire faster and faster until, before you know it, you’ve conquered the entirety of the fictional Andromeda Galaxy! If that’s what you want to call it, of course.
Next time I’ll talk about Death Stars… ahem, I meant The Colossus.