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Saturday, August 30th, I’m moderating a discussion called “Maestros of Video Games” in Seattle at PAX Prime. As usual, I’m pretty frickin’ excited about this. Here’s a bit of background on each panelist, along with a couple of my favorite samples of their music.

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Sascha Dikiciyan

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Sascha’s Mass Effect 3 music hits me with such nostalgia that all I need to do is see the title of one of those tracks and I’m hit with a wave.

Here’s the character creation music. Sascha is great at creating the illusion of spacious landscapes in his tracks. He worked on both Borderlands games; here’s one of my favorites from Borderlands 2.

Lest we forget Dead Rising 3, a soundtrack with more than five hours of music on it. Sascha isn’t responsible for all five of those hours, as you’ll learn below. He contributed a lot of music, though, such as “Infected”, which you can check out on Sascha’s website.

Darren Korb

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Darren is the audio guy and composer for Supergiant Games. His soundtrack for Bastion pretty much blew everyone away. He came back with more amazing music for Transistor in 2014. Both games are all but unplayable without the soundtracks. Here’s a favorite track from each:

Slinger’s Song” – Bastion

Sandbox” – Transistor

Jesper Kyd

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Oh man I love this dude so much it hurts. I mean no disrespect to the other incredible talents on the panel. One of game music’s greatest tragedies was the separation of Assassin’s Creed and Jesper, although I tell myself this opened up opportunities for us to hear his music elsewhere.

One of my favorite “elsewheres” is Darksiders II, which quite possibly will forever remain a favorite soundtrack of mine. Here’s that.

He’s done much since then, as he did much before AC with his Hitman music. Borderlands, Borderlands 2, State of Decay, and the TV series Metal Hurlant Chronicles. Here’s some awesome Borderlands 2 music.

Oleksa Lozochuk

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Oleksa joined the Dead Rising series for Dead Rising 2. Oleksa is a pretty great songwriter, for one. Check out “Halfway Dead”. It’s amazing.

I adore this track from Dead Rising 3 in so many ways, too. Yay Prince!

Not all his music has words, such as this.

Martin O’Donnell

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What honestly to say about Martin, the king of Halo, that hasn’t been said? My favorite soundtrack from the Halo series is from ODST. My favorite other Halo track is “Luck” from Halo 3.

I kinda can’t wait to hear more Destiny music, and I’m bummed that won’t happen until after the panel (Destiny releases September 9). Here’s a taste, though!

Boris Salchow

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Huge huge huge Boris fan. I loved his music for Resistance 3; he’s written amazing music for Ratchet & Clank, and I cannot wait to hear what’s up with Sunset Overdrive.

However, if you want to hear a hidden gem, I highly, highly recommend you listen to his score for a film called Germany from Above (Deutschland von Oben). It’s fantastic, and you can hear it on his website.

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

It’s time for another round of Emily’s pet peeves in gaming. Isn’t it? I think it is. I’ve been brewing up this list for a while.

Being Taunted

I’m not talking about being taunted by humans in multiplayer scenarios. I’m not talking about being chided by my friends while they watch me gloriously fail a poorly planned frontal assault in whatever game. I’m talking about being taunted by the game itself when I make a mistake or do poorly.

Here’s a simple example: I play a solitaire game called Fairway Solitaire by Big Fish Games. If I have more than five cards left over at the end of a round, this insipid little gopher pops into the middle of the screen and laughs at me. Occasionally, he’ll stick his tongue out. Sometimes, I have to set the phone down and walk away for fear I’ll chuck it into the wall.

Look, I know that fourteen-over-par is horrible. I don’t need you to laugh at me.

Is this because I got bullied as a child?

I remember Bastion’s narrator giving me crap for falling off the sidewalk a million times when I first started the game. That was annoying. Great game though. Awesome music. Made up for it.

Elaborate death screens sometimes feel like mockery. Some giant bleeding skull with gothic font saying “YOU DIED” or some such obvious language. Whatever. I hate being taunted.

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Mark Hamill: among the greatest of gaming’s offenders

Horde Mode

Wait, wait, wait. I actually love horde modes. I don’t always enjoy how horde modes are constructed.

Every once in a while, I’ll get home from a day – maybe it’s not even a bad day, relatively; it might be a great day. So every once in a while, I really enjoy just beasting on some bots, to feel like the queen of all games for a short amount of time, to feel… invincible.

Horde modes can let you feel this way for a short amount of time, until inevitably, you’re overwhelmed. In my opinion, this happens way too quickly.

I don’t always want a challenge. I don’t always want it to be hard. Sometimes, I just want to win all the things. I want the waves of enemies to stop when I want them to stop, not when they overwhelm me either by their rising armor and weapon levels or by their sheer numbers.

I want a game that gives me waves of the most moronic, incapable bots that gather in large groups ripe for predator missiles or acid bombs or energy beams or whatever my weapon of choice happens to be. I want those bots to keep coming, and I want my armor and weapon upgrades to keep coming, so I can continue to wreak endless havoc on the worthless, useless AI, until which time I decide I’ve had enough. Perhaps I’m driving a car over zombies, or shelling the opposition, or firing a mounted death beam.

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[Editor's Note] I’m just gonna leave this heeeere…

Timers

I hate being timed, largely in puzzle games. My whole life revolves around time, at a radio station. That is fine. It is my job. Parameters have benefits in this line of work. When I’m not at my job, please don’t time me. If your game has a stupid timer, please give me an untimed mode.

I understand timers on powers and such, and the occasional “get through here as fast as possible” board. I still mourn the loss of Zen mode in Bejeweled 3 since that mobile game got ruined by ads. Speaking of puzzle games:

Puzzle Games

I’m so bad at them. So, so bad. Often, when I play puzzle games, I’m left feeling like the kid in the corner wearing the dunce cap. I have to put in a game with shooting or driving just to feel in command again.

On the bright side, I feel like a genius when I solve one without a walkthrough. I’ve played many, many puzzle games. Too many to list. Games like Thomas Was Alone or Braid or Fez or The Unfinished Swan or whatever omgggggggg I get so frustrated. Even Uncharted puts me over the edge sometimes.

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Ugh.

Did I mention I like to win?

I make myself play them though. I can feel my brain work. Kind of like in quick time events.

Interestingly enough, I heart Portal to death. I love the Portal games so very much, and enjoy playing them. Most of the time.

Lockpicking

I spoke about this recently, so no need to go into too much detail. All I’ll say is, anyone should be able to learn how to pick a frickin’ lock. If a character has hands with opposable thumbs, that character should be able to learn that stupid skill.

Stationary Maps

In Dragon Age, the mini-map on the HUD doesn’t rotate. I think it forces my brain to use a different area that never gets used, like maybe the math or reason area. I struggle mightily with stationary mini-maps. I get up and down and left and right all mixed up, I get dizzy going in circles, and I get that brain whiplash you get when something comes into focus quickly.

How about you? What are your gaming pet peeves?

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

Yes, more Dragon Age. <spoilers for Dragon Age (all of it, really) follow>

I had a startling revelation over the weekend as I wrapped up the Witch Hunt DLC. It occurred to me that the only reason I romanced Leliana is because I couldn’t romance Morrigan. She’s a hetero-only romance (I have no issue with that). So I straight up used Leliana as a result.

As I approached Morrigan at the end of Witch Hunt, I was thrilled to see her. And in Morrigan’s way, she was happy to see me as well. I felt myself drawn to Morrigan as a result of her character; she’s sharp-tongued, agenda-ridden and difficult. None of those things sound pleasing, in terms of having a relationship with someone with those characteristics. Nothing about that screams, “Let’s spend all our time together,” does it?

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Doesn’t play well with others

Morrigan has a plan. You learn of the plan right before fighting the archdemon in Origins. As I’m wont to do, I was thrown into a tailspin trying to make a decision about her plan. After way too much deliberation and forum-scouting, I chose to do as she asked, talking Alistair into impregnating her so she could conceive the OGB (old god baby, duh).

However, Morrigan forgot to include “friendship” in her plan. She grew attached to me; to us. Morrigan didn’t want to leave, but she knew her “plan” didn’t care about that.

Morrigan is always clear with you: she doesn’t feel comfortable around people, she doesn’t understand friendship, she’ll leave your party at the end of the fight with the archdemon. When Witch Hunt starts, the presumption is that she’s gone, and you’re on a path to track her down.

She wasn’t that excited that I found her. She’d explicitly told me not to look for her. Witch Hunt opens with her saying, “’Do not follow me,’ I said. Harder words I have never spoken.” But find her I did (as the game asked me to). She eventually says, “How was I to know the battle with the archdemon would come so soon? And when it did, I came to you. I needed you, yes, but I also did not want to see you die.

More truth from Morrigan – yes, she used me, but she’d hoped to spend more time with me (or us), and she certainly didn’t want me to die when I killed the archdemon. Morrigan does not choose her words lightly.

“I also did not want to see you die,” she says. It’s one of the kindest things she says throughout Origins.

Then there’s Leliana. Unlike Morrigan, Leliana does not always tell the truth. She greatly embellishes her stories, and lies to you about her visions, even after she’s confronted with this by the Guardian of the Urn of Sacred Ashes. Following her companion quest, she becomes slightly more reasonable, but has only a shred of conviction compared to Morrigan.

Morrigan will follow through with her plan at great personal expense. This isn’t to say Leliana isn’t jumping from the frying pan into the fire when she joins the Warden’s party, but Leliana chooses her own route out of a selfish necessity to get away from the path she’d previously chosen in the Chantry. Morrigan is sprinting through life while Leliana meanders.

I feel for BioWare. I really do. I felt like they got a raw deal out of the ending of Mass Effect 3. On one hand, I understand why fans were upset with the ending. Fans wanted their choices to matter at the conclusion of ME3, and when it became clear that very few of those choices did matter, folks got upset. I wasn’t upset. I was confused initially, but not upset. If that’s how the writers wanted ME3 to end, so be it. It really irked me that BioWare wrote a new ending. I never played it. I don’t imagine I ever will.

BioWare created such broad universes in Dragon Age and Mass Effect. It is impossible to wrap up every single thread of story. I do hope they’ll wrap this one up, and with Morrigan appearing in Dragon Age Inquition, it seems likely we’ll hear more from her and OGB.

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She’s baaaack!

In fact, I’m fairly certain I should get a Morrigan tattoo. Maybe I will, if this post gets one hundred unique comments from a hundred different individuals. A heart, with “Morrigan” in it? Whaddya think?

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

Forgive me, my friends, for writing more about Dragon Age. Let it be known there might be spoilers below for Origins.

Origins is pretty much over once you slay the archdemon. I slayed that beast the other day, despite the fact I had several unfinished quests.

I mentioned to a friend that it was the worst playthrough I’ve ever done in an RPG, including my first playthrough of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, during which I never knew I could heal myself with magic.

My Origins playthrough was worse than that. However, the game still let me “complete” it.

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I only finished two companion quests. There are eight. I left two quests in the Korcari Wilds undone right in the beginning of the game. I left several Denerim missions undone, and completely botched the illegal missions you acquire from the bartender in the Gnawed Noble Tavern.

Also, I forgot to “fully” romance my love interest. Therefore, I missed out on the squirm-in-your-seat awkwardness that comes along with viewing a “full” romance scene in a video game (we’re not there yet, everyone).

I say this with love in my heart: Origins isn’t exactly the easiest game to play. It runs horribly on the PS3 – I’m pretty sure the frame rate is about 2FPS. Every single battle lags, sometimes for several seconds. The load times are obnoxious, saving is a pain, fast-traveling isn’t always convenient (or very fast).

It’s an “old” game, right (2009)? I won’t be doing another playthrough to correct my errors. There are sections of Origins that are downright painful to experience, no matter how much I adore the game or its story.

I remember the first time I played Fallout 3 (a moment of silence to remember how awesome that game is). I completely ended the game on accident. I had noooooo idea what I was doing, but I got sucked into that final mission and ended the game. So. Much. Undone. I had no idea the game would, I don’t know, end there.

How can something incomplete be complete?

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I’m not looking for 100% completion, as in Platinum Trophy / Gold Achievement. But I’d sure love to finish the quests. Games like Fallout 3 and Origins have such fantastic lore, such compelling storytelling with sometimes riveting choices to make as a player.

What do you think about this? Do I blame BioWare for the clumsy codex/journal system? Should Bethesda have put a warning on the final Fallout quest, or is that discovery part of the “game” at large? Should I be more proactive about searching Wikis for lists of quests to finish before moving onto “X”?

You might ask, “Emily. Why did you go kill the archdemon if you weren’t done?”

I might reply, “I just didn’t. Why couldn’t I go finish my companion quests after I killed it? The blight ended, but what harm would there be in that? How can a game be done if it’s NOT DONE?”

Thoughts??

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

I pose a question to you: How long is too long, when you’re considering what class to choose in a game? More questions: Do you always choose the same class? Do you instantly know you want to be, let’s say, a warrior? Or rogue?

I’m laboring over this decision for, wait for it, a game that isn’t even out yet.

That’s right. It won’t be out until October.

I’m wasting my brain power on Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Here’s why.

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If you’re unfamiliar with Dragon Age lore, one of the most compelling plotlines involves the never-ending battle between mages and non-mages. More specifically, between the Mages and Templars (who serve as the military protectors of the Chantry). In essence, Mages are allowed to practice magic as supervised by the Templars. Mages who abuse magic, or practice outside the “Circle” run by the Templars are “apostates”, and if an apostate is caught alive, that Mage will be turned into a Tranquil.

The dialog is fascinating if you choose to play as a Mage. You’re the “hero” of the game, whether you’re the Grey Warden in Dragon Age Origins, or Hawke in Dragon Age II. NPCs respond in a multitude of ways upon discovering you’re a Mage and the hero protecting Ferelden. Some NPCs support Mage’s rights, other NPCs are fearful of magic and consider it a sin that should be abolished. Even playing as a Mage yourself, you can still support the Templars. You get the idea – there’s more to the story but that’s the rub.

I enjoy playing games as an underdog. I was a trumpet player, I’m an avid gamer, and I’m a woman. I get what it’s like to be an underdog. I enjoy overcoming stereotypes in real life, and it’s equally enjoyable to triumph over them while gaming.

So, you wonder, why such a hard decision? Be a stupid Mage and be done with it.

For this difficulty in coming to a “class conclusion”, I blame not only my own poor decision making skillz, but I blame developers.

In Dragon Age, you get to bring along members of your party on most quests. In theory, you can choose three of your nine (in DAO) companions. However, Dragon Age makes use of a skill that many fantasy RPGs employ: lockpicking. In Dragon Age, the only class that can pick locks is a rogue. If you walk up to a locked chest or door, you need a lockpicker.

If I play as a Mage, I’m tied to bringing along a rogue in my party every single time. In DAO, this means I have to bring Leiliana on every single mission. In reality, this means I only get to choose two party members for each outing, since two of the four party members will be my own character, and Leiliana. For DA2, it was always the rogue, Isabela (she’s much cuter than Varric).

It takes away the enjoyment of being able to choose the party and mix up the characters to hear fun banter common to followers in BioWare games. If you mix companion A & B, they might argue. If you mix companion A & C, they might help you come to conclusions or joke in the background. They ask each other questions, judge each other, poke fun at each other – it’s enjoyable to hear. However, if I must take the rogue everywhere, I lose out on hearing that banter at the least. And sometimes, you really want all your heavy hitters, not someone with a bow and arrow or a couple daggers.

The solution to this problem is to play as a rogue myself. Now, I can bring whomever I want, and I can pick my own stupid locks.

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Sorry L, we left without you.

And then I lose out on the ability to play as a Mage, and lose that connection to the story at large – the ages long debate about Mages and their ability to practice magic, their abuse of it, the Templars abuse of their own powers, the tragedy of the Tranquil – I lose my direct connection to that monstrous plot line.

Ugh.

Possible alternate solution, and I’m looking at you, Developers: If I’m a Mage, can’t I have, like, Mage-picking powers? Can’t I have a spell that lets me open locks? If I come up to a locked door, I’m a frickin’ Mage. I should be able to Mage it open.

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Gandalf gets it..

What are your thoughts?

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

The first game I ever played on a phone was like Centipede only not. If you’ve seen Orange is the New Black, it’s the game Piper plays on the cell phone in the bathroom.

I put hours of my life into that tiny game. No color, no soundtrack, just a square worm and a dot.

I’m glad those days are gone. My main mobile jam these days is any number of match-three games, a dash of solitaire and one endless runner. If I didn’t know better, I’d obsessively match gems all night long. I can’t play right before bed though, or my mind won’t shut off for sleep. For some scientific reason, it’s too stimulating for my brain. Who knew?

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Were I to list my top 50 gaming tragedies, you’d find Bejeweled on that list. EA/PopCap ruined that game by, seemingly out of nowhere, inserting advertising and forcing me to pay for portions of the game I’d enjoyed for months on end. I had almost all of the trophies, too. I was committed. The first ad I saw, I deleted the game from my phone for good. I really miss “Diamond Mine”. I was killer at that game.

In Bejeweled’s stead, I threw myself full force into solitaire, hidden object games and other match-threes. I’ve found some decent hidden object titles, but none that are amazing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever played an amazing hidden object game. Suggestions?

If you’re into match-three, I highly recommend Fishdom. It’s kind of adorable, and fun to upgrade aquariums and make your fish love you. There are, however, only three aquariums, which I maxed out in like a weekend. Boss.

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I like Fishdom because the board changes each game, adding elements that require you to unlock a square to pass. I’m not a huge fan of timers, but the Fishdom timer is manageable. Once you max out your aquariums, you can still play forever, accumulating more money to no end. Additionally, you can keep futzing with your aquariums if you like.

The Treasures of Montezuma 3 is also a fun match-three. You can upgrade gems in this one, although the upgrade system is a bit odd. The timer is too short for my style, since I tend to play mobile games to relax, not race. But I haven’t felt overwhelmed or defeated by the timer, the goals or the gameplay. I think ToM3 is a well-paced game.

If I want to play something right before I go to sleep, it’s gotta be solitaire. Perhaps playing solitaire accesses a different area of my brain. I can set the phone down and immediately fall asleep if I choose.

There are plenty of options for solitaire, and as much as I dislike going the free-to-play route, Fairway Solitaire is kind of awesome. Yes, I have paid for perks in that game, like more money and clubs.

Sigh. Free-to-play: the gaming development we all wanted to fail that is doing the opposite of failing. You can sort of get around it in Fairway Solitaire, depending on how patient you are feeling. I suppose that’s true of many free-to-plays.

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Things I cannot play on a mobile device:

1: Any kind of shooter. I have a controller and a few consoles if I want to shoot something.

2. Racing games. See number one, sub “race” for “shoot”

3. Puzzle games. In this instance, it’s too expensive to get angry and throw and break a phone. It’s less expensive to get angry and throw and break a controller. So, see number one, sub “solve a puzzle” for “shoot something”

4. Any game in the universe that requires audio and/or headphones. I’m not putting on my headphones in line at the DMV just to play your game.

When you’re chilling at the doctor’s office, what’s your go-to game?

——————– Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

 

I love Cris Velasco’s newest soundtrack for Enemy Front. Although it’s all samples, he uses only orchestral sounds, and it sounds fantastic.

The beauty of the music comes from Cris’s attention to detail. The minor key of the opening track, “Enemy Front”, allows for some simple yet pleasing harmonic colors. For instance, rather than using a minor iv (minor four) chord, he uses the major IV (major four). This happens at the thirty-second mark. Cris didn’t invent that, it’s been done for centuries, but it’s a nice color and it achieves a hopeful tone.

Enemy Front is a first-person shooter that takes place during World War II. One would expect music for an FPS to be bombastic, full of combat music replete with percussion, brass and speedy strings.

Enemy Front Cover                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The Enemy Front Soundtrack is available now!

Cris’s score, however, is subdued. War is emotional no matter the setting, and Cris chose to focus on the weighty despair of war, rather than the aggressive action.

Don’t fear: there is indeed combat music. You can hear it in “Warsaw Uprising”. You’ll notice that Cris doesn’t rely on any electronic sounds – it’s all orchestral. Orchestral samples, but it’s still straight-up orchestral. It lends itself beautifully to the possibility of live performance.

In “Stick to the Shadows”, Cris uses sounds like bassoon, harp and marimba. These lesser-utilized members of the orchestra pleasantly stand out and draw me into the music.

Lest I forget to mention the delicate use of piano throughout the score, you hear it state one of the main themes in “Enemy Front”. You’ll hear it restate that theme (transposed) in “This is Warsaw Calling”, and several other spots including the credits (“A Story of Resistance”). In “We Don’t Need Another Dead Hero”, the piano takes on a slightly more ominous role than in other cues, like this spot.

That credit music, “A Story of Resistance”, might be my favorite cue on the whole collection. Why does piano affect us so much? Granted, I adore that instrument, yet I’m always surprised by how meaningful I find the sound of a piano to be. It’s unusual that Cris scored the credits, and I’m glad he did. In all the right ways, “A Story of Resistance” recaps main themes in new iterations. I say this with respect and awe: it reminds me quite a bit of John Barry’s music for Out of Africa.

Here’s the best part though: Cris had just recently finished scoring another World War II game, Company of Heroes 2. I’ve written about that score in the past; it’s a score I enjoy quite a bit. I couldn’t be more impressed with how different Cris’s scores are to Enemy Front and Company of Heroes 2. He’d just done one WWII title and could’ve easily, and probably successfully, recycled ideas and materials from one into the next.

Cris_Velasco                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Composer Cris Velasco

He didn’t do that. It speaks to his dedication to create unique scores for each project and demonstrates his compositional diversity and flexibility. The COH2 score is fabulous, and completely different than Enemy Front. It’s worth owning both, if only to hear how differently one can score war.

Cris will be one to watch as the years go by – it seems safe to say we’re just getting our first nibbles of his music. As I often say, I cannot wait to hear what comes next!

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

I was on vacation last week, and while it was initially perfect, it concluded with a rather horrifically expensive emergency home repair. Got in some gaming though, of course.

I finished Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs early in the week. I was thrilled with the game-play yet irritated beyond repair at the story. This love-hate dichotomy is indicative of my relationship with Ubisoft of late, and reveals a truth about the industry as a whole.

If the employees of the video game industry want to be viewed on equal footing with film and television, they have to step up their game (ugh sorry for the crummy pun). The story for Watch Dogs is a joke, full of holes – typical of a big AAA title.

**I’m going to start throwing out spoilers now, so continue as you please.**

The protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is an a-hole. As gamers, we’ve played the role of loads of a-holes, like Kratos (God of War), or any Grand Theft Auto game. Never once did I mistake Kratos or Tommy Vercetti for good guys, yet Watch Dogs tries to play Pearce off as a good guy on occasion. It rarely works.

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An exemplary citizen..

Nicky Pearce, Aiden’s sister, is infuriating. Ubisoft makes Nicky seem like a useless, clueless and weak human being. Throughout the game, Aiden promises her he’ll stop pursuing the persons who ordered a hit on him (that hit resulted in the death of his niece, Nicky’s daughter).

“Promise me you’ll stop,” she demands from Aiden, who quickly promises, although we know he’s lying with each empty promise. This lie happens several times throughout the game. Aiden is a selfish prick, hell-bent on vengeance.

I understand that Nicky is kidnapped for a good portion of the game; she catches onto the fact that Aiden is the “Vigilante” after he rescues her. This is problematic. For the duration of the game, Aiden has been the subject of every TV or radio news broadcast. He wears a stupid, stupid outfit, which no one else in the game wears. It’s insane to ask me to believe that she didn’t know, or that someone didn’t tell her. That sh*t irritates me in games.

Once she finds out and confronts him, she loses it for about a half a second. Then she’s cool.

Right.

Ubisoft goes to some lengths to make it clear that Aiden is a vengeful person, but that piece of his story breaks when we get to Clara Lille.

If I were to say to you, “Hey, friend, let’s put a female character in this game. She’ll be a badass hacker and we’ll call her Clara,” how do you imagine she’d look? If I explained to you that, at a certain point, Aiden and Clara would meet in person, how would you imagine that meeting would go?

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Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With Tattoos That Hacks Good

Clara, predictably, is gorgeous. Punk gorgeous. So, obviously, when Aiden and Clara meet, there’s this unnecessary and nauseating sexual tension between them immediately. I tell you, I roll my eyes every single time I think of that scene.

And then there’s this gem of a scene, where Clara is subjected to the condescending misogyny of T-Bone (another hacker).

From the opening of Watch Dogs, we’re introduced to a character named Maurice. Maurice is the dude who was hired to kill Aiden, but Maurice accidentally kills the niece. Throughout the game, Aiden uncovers audio logs of Maurice telling his story. Maurice was blackmailed by a gang to do the hit. He didn’t want to do the hit. When he killed the niece, he all but lost his mind from the guilt.

That last piece is of no matter to Aiden. He doesn’t care that Maurice is sorry. Aiden doesn’t care that Maurice was blackmailed into doing the hit. Aiden has no sympathy for Maurice.

But how did Maurice know where to find Aiden? That would be because of Clara. Clara gave Aiden’s location to Maurice (whether directly or indirectly) for the hit. When Aiden finds out Clara gave him up, he’s like, no biggie. It’s cool. You’re a woman. You didn’t mean it.

WTF.

Then Clara dies. Whatever. Of course she dies. It would be unpredictable if she lived, and god forbid Ubisoft ignores a trope for once. I can’t decide if this is what great storytelling is like in France and Canada, or if French and Canadian game developers think this is what we as consumers like in a story. Either way, it’s whack.

One more character, and then I feel like I’ve dissected enough. Let’s talk about “Iraq” – the leader of the “Viceroys” gang in Watch Dogs.

Firstly, that’s not how you pronounce “Iraq”.

Every time I heard them say “eye-rack”, I wanted to scream. Regardless, let’s also talk about how Iraq, the character, is a carbon fricking copy of Vaas Montenegro from Far Cry 3, the type of antagonist that kills his (always a he) followers at the blink of an eye, just because.

I can’t take stories like this seriously. No matter how fun the actual mechanics and game-play are, it’s never going to be enough to hold up a horrible story – an all-too familiar pattern in the gaming industry.

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Indeed.

Did you play Watch Dogs? I totally loved all the hacking. Did you dig it?

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Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

Jesper Kyd.

My writing could end there. Just: Jesper Kyd.

In 2007, I was in grad school, getting a master’s in music theory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The proud owner of a new PS3, I couldn’t wait for Assassin’s Creed. The trailer was mind-blowing.

As much as I adored the game, it was glitchy. Not Skyrim glitchy, but I did reach a point where the game broke and I couldn’t proceed. Due to that, I never finished it. Weird, huh?

I didn’t need to finish the game to fall in love with Jesper Kyd and his music.

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At the time, I’d never played Hitman, so his music was new to me. Kyd’s attention to detail greatly impressed me. His AC music in general creates an enrapturing sense of location – I go places when I hear his music, and I’m pretty sure I go exactly where I’m supposed to go: a trip to the Third Crusade, where the sounds of plucked guitars, recorders, percussion and men chanting abound. Yet Kyd’s modern twist on these sounds helps place me in the future, and it’s a lovely journey.

Ubisoft made a giant mistake by not continuing to use him as a composer. The music of the major AC titles by Lorne Balfe, Brian Tyler, and Oliviere Deriviere are reputable. I adore Deriviere’s Freedom Cry music above all, but I feel Deriviere and Kyd share some compositional characteristics.

Consider the success of Deriviere’s Freedom Cry. Deriviere chose to incorporate traditional Haitian music into that score. He took time with that music and created a sound unique to his abilities. Deriviere did not write a traditional orchestral score (which might have been just fine would’ve been amazing), but he also didn’t piggyback on the success of Kyd’s electronic prowess.

Above all, that might be the key to Deriviere’s achievements with that score: he became the first composer to capture a new sound for Assassin’s Creed in Kyd’s absence.

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As for Balfe and Tyler, I’m a fan of both composers and have written and spoken favorably about them each in the past. If asked to choose a favorite score by both, I wouldn’t choose an AC score by either of them. Balfe and Tyler are fantastic composers with much better soundtracks in their lists of credits.

I want Kyd back, and I know that’s impossible. I miss him, though; State of Decay and Borderlands aren’t enough at the moment. I want more. I even started watching Metal Hurlant Chronicles just so I could hear his music.

Luckily, there is more music coming from him, for sure. Kyd is always writing whether it’s for film, TV, games, or trailers, there’s always something to hear. Do be sure and listen!

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

When I hear music, I see shapes and spaces with defining characteristics. Often, I see the music in a line, moving up and down as it would on a staff, regardless of if I’ve seen the score before. The dimensions form from melody, harmony, dynamics, texture – all of the things that make a piece of music unique.

Mike Raznick’s music for Spate is a big, round space – like an older, cavernous warehouse. The floor isn’t flat though – as I said, this is a round space. I suppose if one encountered such a space in reality, it would be disconcerting, disorienting and disturbing. But that’s where the music lives in my mind.

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Within that round warehouse with round walls, a curved floor and a ceiling too high to see, exists a gripping sonic world.

I highly recommend listening to the soundtrack in one session. It requires a lot of patience and discipline to do that in this world, but I feel the payoff worthwhile. Much like Austin Wintory’s beloved Journey score, Raznick’s music evolves over time.

That payoff starts early. Once I heard the Prologue, I didn’t want to stop listening. Raznick drops tidbits of themes and melodies here and there, mostly using sweeping cello lines (gorgeously performed by Martin Tillman).

It’s not obvious from the start, but Raznick employed a string quartet that occasionally adds a double bass to become a quintet. One of the first tracks he wrote was “A Dedication to Rain” – a winding homage to precipitation and string quintets. From this point forward, strings take a stronger role as an ensemble in the soundtrack.

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You can hear this in “The Graveyard”. The strings are larger in number now, more like an orchestra, rather than a quartet or quintet. A violin (probably) plays harmonics, the cello continues his fragmented cries in the foreground and background – and the addition of a bassoon and an oboe adds a delightful contrast to the sawing sounds of the strings.

I think this expansion and contraction of players helps define the roundness of the space in which I hear Spate. In “The Cave”, the texture narrows considerably at the outset, with only bassoon, oboe and cello. But just like the soundtrack evolves over the course of 53 minutes, “The Cave” also changes and grows.

I’m impressed with the improvisatory feel in this music – it sounds spontaneous, with nothing out of place. Throughout the score, Raznick adds a female voice. In “Skybridge”, it’s as though she’s merely passing by, hearing a song she likes, singing along in the distance. I love the mix of that voice in this soundtrack. Seriously, listen to “Skybridge”.

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Spate is a dark game with a heartbreaking story and an equally poignant score. There is a glimmer of hope, particularly in “A Choice”. This piece doesn’t especially fulfill my hopes for a soundly constructed quartet, but the intent is there and it’s well done. Regardless, Raznick wrote a brilliant and edgy score, and I look quite forward to hearing more from him.

——————–
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

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