The Art of Game Music

In this article I analyze how music can enhance games by giving three great examples of how the soundtrack improved upon Rogue Trader, Baldur's Gate 3 and Bloodhunt.

Having fitting and immersive music in games is very much like putting the right music in a film or tv-series, or like adding the proper spices in a dish. The difference between games and tv is that the music in games has to adapt and respond to what actions the player is taking, and it has to emphasize those actions to increase the atmosphere and bring the player into the now.

In this article I will talk about three games that I think accomplished this, and how, as well as why. Starting with the game Rogue Trader.

Rogue Trader Music

Rogue Trader by Owlcat Games is a title that most likely has flown under many people's radar, it's a niche Warhammer 40K-CRPG with an old-school skill system, where your choices really affects the outcome. If you haven't checked it out, I suggest that you do.

Rogue Trader very much is set in a grimdark setting (see previous article on this), you play a kind of trader/diplomat/fighter that represents the Empire, and therefore have a lot of power. The moment you hear the very first notes of the main song by Pawel Perepelica, you immediately are pulled into the very essence of W40K.

The low note strings, the distant somber choirs, there's a dark pastoral ancient imperial sense, all done with electronic instruments that all give a vibe of Science Fiction and the infinity of space.

The main melody tells you of a bleak and dystopian world with little hope, but there's still a strong sense of majesty and cultural tradition. The vibes are incredibly on-point for the setting, and not since I heard the theme from Mechanicus by Guillaume David have I ever felt this strong a connection with this fictional setting.

Not only does the main soundtrack encapsulate the universe, but it also adapts and changes based on where you are as a player, what you are experiencing and also what you're doing. If your psyker is using too much of their powers and the veil between realities is pierced, everything changes, and you truly get the sense that you made a big mistake and are treading on very thin ice. This is a masterful game musically, and I credit a big part of its ability to pull you into the story to the music. I'd say it's one of the best soundtracks to the W40K universe, and that's saying a lot.

Speaking of a title song that immediately pulls you in, let's talk Baldur's Gate 3.

Baldur's Gate 3 Music

When Borislav Slavov decided to make the soundtrack to Baldur's Gate 3, he joined a pantheon of incredibly talented composers that have composed songs for the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. Among the greats are Jeremy Soule, Michael Hoenig, Howard Drossin, Sam Hulick, Mark Morgan, and more. With the main theme for Baldur's Gate 3 you have to tell the tale of the game in one song. You have to reveal the terribly dark ancestry of the lord of murder, the Illithid threat, the epic adventure, and, not to forget the setting of the game at the Sword Coast of Faerûn. Which is an impossible task, really, unless your name is Borislav Slavov of course.

From the very first low-key reversed vibrating piano notes to the ensemble of singers chanting something in a foreign language to the shattering deep beats that sounds like a Japanese Taiko and the strings that are best described as something out of a horror scene in a Alfred Hitchcock-movie. All of this forebodes a tale that isn't sunshine and roses, but an epic tale of survival in an end of the world scenario.

But then you're pulled into the heroics of the forebearers (Baldur's Gate 1, Shadows of Amn, and BG2) and begin to understand that this not just about the threat, but the incredible boldness that is required to overcome that threat, in true Epic Fantasy musical storytelling.

The last time someone had this high expectations and big shoes to fill, was probably when Howard Shore had to write music for the trilogy Lord of the Rings, and it goes without saying that both pulled it off.

Having spoken about these two, it's perhaps best to finally speak a little about a game that I actually was directly involved in.

Bloodhunt Music

When Atanas Valkov was approached to compose the music behind Bloodhunt, he faced the difficult task of trying to capture the essence of both a World of Darkness, and the deep traditions of a hidden ancient society of vampires. On top of this, he had to also encapsulate the city of Prague in which the game is set.

Very wisely he chose classical music instruments and a grand orchestra to manifest this. Old Prague has distant memories and a history full of archaic tales, some of which are filled with horror, others that contain the very foundation of the tale of Europe as some credit this city to be the heart of the continent.

Knowing so much about the eastern traditions of music, Atanas included the many notes of slavic and Balkan instruments alongside the powerful string instruments, but in my opinion the real hero here is the piano, which tells the tale of the deceptive intrigue and provides a voice of the Camarilla and Anarchs that feud over the city.

Atanas does not only manage to write music for the city and the vampire societies, he also goes down into the details of the different vampire clans. When you play as a Nosferatu, or a Toreador, or a Brujah, the music appropriately shifts, again emphasizing your choice as a player and reflecting upon your agency.

Atanas spent several years on this project and it shows. I'm proud to own the full soundtrack on vinyl, it's THAT good.

- Tobias Solem Posted on: 2024-02-09 21:54:43


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