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Grief brings us together, it’s part of the human condition and what makes us the creatures we are. Sadness is no stranger to video games either, the many flavors of sorrow have painted a picture of dejection on screens almost since games first became a storytelling medium. The entirety of the Shin Megami Tensei series and its spinoffs, a few of the Final Fantasy games, Metal Gear Solid, and the Silent Hill series are all perfect examples of the different shades of misery that developers have employed to give their games that extra punch, that permanence in the mind of people who play them by associating the games with a heartache leaves an impression on all but the most stoic people.

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“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea, I will always be with you.”

One might remember the Ar tonelico games, the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 RPG series that, while no stranger to despondency, wasn’t particularly acclaimed or even well known in the west as the games previously mentioned. The Ar tonelico series was, however, fairly unique in the way dealt with concepts that few games had dared to explore to such a deep extent back then. Morality, the power of bonds, the schisms between different cultures and societies, psychological voyages to deep within the minds of our protagonists that change the way the see their world, an absolutely biblical amount of side materials that explained the universe of EXA_PICO, and a veritably gripping story were all elements that felt right at home in Ar tonelico. It was then, once NIS America localized the games, that Ar tonelico gained a fiercely loyal and extremely dedicated niche following in the west.

The developing team at GUST had been silent about the Ar tonelico series since the game on PS3 had, for lack of a better term, completely flopped. But they broke the drought and the skies opened in 2012 in Japan with the release of Ciel nosurge. Ciel nosurge was an odd game, and perhaps its oddness is a story for another day, but to make a long story short: The game was not a continuation of the Ar tonelico series, as it took place before the events of any of Ar tonelico games. However, Ciel nosurge does take place in the same universe as Ar tonelico, it deals with a fair amount of the same elements and greatly expands on the mythos and history of the series. Considering how it was a “life-sim” (think perhaps a Tamagotchi with RPG elements), the west never saw Ciel nosurge. But not all hope was lost for fans of the EXA_PICO universe. Soon after the release of Ciel nosurge was finalized GUST announced that they were working on a sequel to the game that would be a bit more traditional in terms of a Role Playing Game.

Listen: Ciel Nosurge’s OST – Ra Ciel Fusor

And then there was Ar nosurge. The game was released stateside fairly quietly in September 2014 for the PS3, it wasn’t advertised very much, if at all. Ar nosurge was not your standard JRPG from the seventh generation, compared to games such as Xenoblade, Ni No Kuni, the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy and the dozens more that saw English releases during the lifespan of the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The closest comparison that comes to mind is Atlus’s masterful Persona 3 and 4 games from the PS2, seeing how both are immersive, text heavy RPGs that focus on character development.

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Ar nosurge’s male protagonists, Delta and Earthes.

Ar nosurge begins with an incredible opening, a tinge of malevolent tribalism in its notes. You can feel almost as if you’re being captured or drawn into this world that, according to EXA_PICO lore, lies beyond the Seventh Dimension.

Listen: Ar nosurge’s Opening – To The Songless Hill: Harmonics Pre=Ciel

The setting of the game is not as straightforward as one might think. We learn from the first pair of protagonists, rowdy Delta Lantanoil and his partner tomboyish Casty Rianoit, that the game takes place in the Soreil, a massive colony ship in the middle of an interstellar voyage searching for a new planet that its residents may call home. However, all is not well in town, as strange creatures known as the Sharl have attacked residents in the Soreil for unknown reasons. It is then, that the player’s adventure in the world of Ar nosurge begins, as Delta and Casty search for a lost friend in the vastness of the seemingly hostile and unforgiving Soreil.

The combat is fairly simple, nothing really to write home about and standard JRPG fare for the 7th generation of consoles. You have a limited amount of attacks, that once exhausted will prompt the enemy to take their “turn” and attack in return. If you have successfully destroyed all enemies marked by an exclamation mark, you will gain an extra turn and an extra set of attacks, thus making it possible to destroy the enemy without taking any damage. Once the player is well acquainted with the gameplay, the game becomes a relaxed, downhill coast.

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Ar nosurge in action, note the buttons corresponding to each attack on the lower right side of the screen.

However, one of the most remarkable and intense things about Ar nosurge is the absolutely beautiful soundtrack. The excellent song during the opening draws a picture that the rest of the game flawlessly colors in with a stunning plethora of emotional shades: a sensual passion, a deep and intimate heartache, the hooks of despair that sink into the flesh and rip through skin and tendon alike, a cold melancholy that gives you gooseflesh and runs shivers down your spine, and a pure fury that glows white hot and pristine like the beat of thunder.

Listen: Judgement in the Soreil – yal fii-ne noh-iar.

Ar nosurge’s soundtrack truly runs the gamut. The track linked above, “yal fii-ne noh-iar” is one of the pivotal moments early in the game, just after the second set of protagonists, robotic knight Earthes and the innocent maiden Ionasal, are introduced. The momentous crescendo in the song ties into the end of the first “phase” of the game. It is after this introductory part that the story begins to hit you with tragedy after tragedy. The game overall is extremely text heavy, and the player is expected to do a lot of reading to fully understand just what is going on, but the plot and the characters are engrossing enough that it doesn’t seem to be an issue. With time, one begins to think of the characters in the game as old friends, and care about their ultimate fates in or out of the Soreil.

Not everything is gloom though. Another great thing about Ar nosurge is how it still manages to have excellent moments of comic relief every so often; usually in the “Synthesis” screen, where the player creates useful pieces of equipment and items to help throughout the journey to save the Soreil.

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Don’t ask what Silent Green is made out of.

Without spoiling much more of the story, let it be said that Ar nosurge is not a perfect game, far from it. It clearly suffers from budget problems, as some enemies and NPCs are recycled throughout the whole game. It also has some pacing problems, as the game instills upon you a sense of urgency to finish the main task while at the same time punishing you for not taking it leisurely and crafting the best equipment before continuing. That is not to say that these faults make the game unplayable, or even bad. Ar nosurge is a complete experience, the amazing soundtrack, the touching story, and the surprises along the way make this game a must get for anyone who enjoys Japanese RPGs.

Listen: Ar nosurge’s third battle theme – Tsukuyomi.

Verdict: Recommended for JRPG fans, someone looking for more action or not wanting to invest 50 hours of their life towards a game might want to look elsewhere.

 

bernie stars

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Playing video games since he has a conscious memory, Bernard has fond memories of the Super Nintendo and the 16 bit MIDI symphonies emanating from it. Since then, he has acquired fairly atypical tastes in games and game music. Nowadays, you can find him dodging bullets and bobbing his head to the music in the Touhou Project, or fighting against gigantic monsters in Monster Hunter, God Eater, or Toukiden. Deep down, he believes portable consoles are king, long live the PS Vita and 3DS!

 

One of my favorite soundtracks I rarely discuss comes from Portal 2. I figure I forget about it because it’s so completely not orchestral music. But my, my… it has delicious counterpoint!

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Mike Morasky wrote it, and if you don’t know much about Mike, I imagine he’ll be your hero before the end of the day. I dunno, just a hunch. Here’s a taste from Valve’s website:

“Teenage guitar player in a bar band in Montana; award-winning experimental composer in Tokyo; audio hardware programmer in Silicon Valley; underground art rocker touring the world; 3D animator and director for television; electronic audio collage artist in France and Japan; visual fx artist on The Lord of the Rings and Matrix trilogies; AI animation instructor at an art college.”

Morasky

Yup.

There’s an overarching theme to this soundtrack worth mentioning, and forgive me for diving into the music theory waters for a moment. Major and minor scales are built from a series of half-steps and whole-steps. The scales aren’t symmetrical. For instance, the major scale consists of the following series of steps: whole whole half, whole whole whole half.

In the 20th century, composers started using symmetrical scales like the diminished scale (also called the octatonic scale, because it has eight notes instead of seven). The diminished scale can start with a whole step or a half step, but then it alternates until you get to the top. So, whole half whole half whole half, etc.

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The whole tone scale is symmetrical too, and is constructed only of whole steps, no half steps. This scale only has six notes, and all the chords you can build from it are augmented chords. It has an otherworldly sound. To me, an augmented chord (or a whole tone scale) sounds very open and wide, compared to a more crunchy, compact diminished chord or scale.

Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was into all of these scales, as were Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and a ton of the Russian composers. Bartok supplies some pretty amazing, concise examples. Here’s an example of the octatonic scale from Bartok.

And here’s an example of the whole tone scale, also written by Bartok. To my ears, whole tone sounds open, and the octatonic scale sounds closed.

In any event, with that sound of the whole tone scale in your ears, listen to Technical Difficulties by Mike Morasky for Portal 2. In fact, listen to the full soundtrack with that in mind (you can, to this day, download the entire thing for free on their site here). Morasky expertly chose that sound to weave throughout the game. It’s brilliant, and I love 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 cat June Bug 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.

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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.

strider A

Listen: Raid

Some things you can fake. Take for instance the feigning of interest in some long-winded conversation on beading and buttons. You’ve been cornered and there you sit… generalized in your remarks, nodding in larger, grander motions with your neck. Your hands move, you shift positions in your chair and lean forward, eye contact. By all accounts you are engaged, taut, showing palpable anticipation, and it is pleasing whoever is opposite you. This is a false connection between both parties (albeit one that feels real enough) and that’s fine. Nothing is on the line here and everyone loves a good show.

However, there are things you simply cannot fake. True story. Once I was compared to a fake Rolex watch. I looked, sounded and ticked like the real thing, but as it turned out passing through the metal detector, exposed my fraud. From precious to semi-precious, to clouded, muddied stone; I couldn’t ever be that genuine sought after prize. This anecdote proves that in some cases, either you ARE the real thing or you aren’t. Well, at least I had the look.

And that brings us to composer Michael John Mollo’s take on the world of Capcom’s legendary ninja Strider Hiryu.

Strider E

Listen: Coup

Close your eyes. Now imagine how you personally envision the music that would make up Strider in 2014. Whatever it is, it would have fallen doornail flat. Your mixture would have ended up a maligned, ill-conceived schematic of contrived homage. Your ideas reaching to strike a balance between a personality of its own and a nod that might find a mere wink of acceptance from the series original composer Junko Tamiya. I say this harshly because the entirety of Mollo’s LP for Strider is something I imagine ONLY coming from him. Something that is so gorgeous and well fitted to the universe of the Strider legend, it becomes absolutely integral, an ingrained piece of the series canon after a single, solitary flip of the record from side A to side B. While your musical take might have been passable, capable even… your salt, mine, anyone else is nowhere near the grain of Mollo when it comes to Hiryu.

strider B

Listen: Military

It all comes down to understanding. You may read a paragraph in a textbook, a passage in a novel, and think your paraphrase aptly summarizes and plucks the meaning from every letter. In reality, you are missing details. Something about it, those words, your words, feel grayer once the pen leaves the page. Then you start scratching your head. What were they saying? Mollo, however, KNOWS Strider. KNOWS those details that anyone else would have missed. He has swung that light-cypher, recalls the oddity of its texture, its uneven handling. Mollo’s sat and traveled with Hiryu long enough to know his flaws. Hiryu’s not perfect, but you wouldn’t know it until you’re standing physically next to him. To have a genuine comprehension of a person requires more than you can discern from hastily written Cliffs notes. Mollo knew that to reach the full summation of Strider as a man, one must stand inches from his breath, watch him shift just as he’s about to leap. The ordinary and the spectacular are things not lost on Mollo. Legends after all are just people carrying upon them a fictional paradigm. Mollo understood that to make their stature larger, you must tap into every conceivable avenue available however mundane the task they are performing.

Strider C

Listen: The Mechanical Dragon

Mollo is beyond the understanding of Strider, and that’s what makes his interpretation so faultlessly compelling. He is able to do anything he chooses. Each move he makes seems richer, more alluring than his previous play. He knows this world so well that he can let loose with his material; time signatures fluctuate rapidly, his tone shifts completely inspired, and his cross fades are playful. Mollo knows when to apply hard pressure, ease his hand if need be, and steer towards any bearing of his choice. Strider is so lively and brilliant a concoction that its closing shot remains as fascinating and impeccable as the album’s opener. Mollo is nothing short of jubilant on Strider and you can hear it. It is a picture that couldn’t be any clearer. Mollo loves Strider and it is this love that puts Strider as an LP into a class completely its own.

Strider D

Listen: Kazakh City

Strider in the hands of composer Michael John Mollo is as monstrous and bold as its namesake. It is doubtless one of the most intoxicating, exciting collections of music in recent memory. Mollo effortlessly plays all sides of Strider’s daunting field: paying sumptuous and expected tribute while expanding boundlessly upon the possibilities, the dimension’s within Strider Hiryu’s frozen world of ice, tundra, and mechanical Dragon. While there may have been many candidates to helm this score,  Michael John Mollo is most assuredly the ONLY REAL choice, the ONLY GENUINE article. Everyone else would have simply looked the part but like that Rolex, the tell is in how it ticks.

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love.  He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake.  Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

A month ago I began counting down the best music tracks from games across this generation of consoles. Today we have one more to add to that list.

In case you missed last couple of entries click: HERE

If you are just joining me in the countdown then click: HERE

5. Street Fighter 3: Third Strike Online Edition – “Theme of Remy”

Street Fighter 3 Third Strike

Listen: Theme of Remy

Without question, Street Fighter 3: Third Strike is a brilliant fighting game.  The meticulous and illusive nature of its jab mechanics alone is one of hundreds of systems in place within the game, with each one of its multiple branches measured, tiered and rated through some perfectionist, critical red-eye.  Success is calculated in the frame-by-frame, and not through obligatory, slack-jawed execution.  Movement to either side of the screen is pass/fail, Silver or Gold, and sacrificing precious strikes in favor of form and temperance is the doctrine by which it grades.  This isn’t slam poetry nor inebriated karaoke.  Watch yourself.

The question then becomes: could the game have achieved its balance, wit and flavor without the score from composer Hideki Okugawa?  Absolutely not.  Okugawa provides the only outlet of creative expression allowed by Street Fighter 3: Third Strike’s wizened, embittered high council.  Okugawa was given no formal restraints and thus crafted a boldly layered, hallucinogenic death disco.  Outlandish, capitalized, and furious; Okugawa’s themes are the work of an unfiltered, burgeoning genius.

When Capcom optioned Third Strike for an all gloss HD remodel back in 2011, complete with all new musical accompaniments, I had reservations… that is until Simon Viklund (Bionic Commando Rearmed) was attached to fill the slot left vacant by Okugawa.  Viklund effortlessly manipulates the spirit of the titles strict adherence to both time signature and ticking metronome with a much-needed dose of post Y2K acid-house thump.  What once belonged to Okugawa found new permanent residence in the hands of Viklund.  Simon Viklund could have filled all of his contractual objectives through re-enactment and tracing, by simply gliding over Okugawa’s old hits note for note.  This would have been fine, if not spectacularly sterile, and Viklund would never have been content with such a limiting exercise.  Instead he set fire to the idols of his own youth, turning dials on a whim, and accelerating the already frantic pace of the originals.  Viklund saw no need to reupholster, and his all-new additions re-stylize and reinvigorate the troubled murmur of heart found in Okugawa’s near-obsolete, sputtering battleship.  Viklund’s forte with these old classics seems to hinge on lengthy, pointed observation, but then wisely, he ignores his own notes, as he opts instead to tear apart the foundation with his bare hands.  A successful renovation requires the signature mark of its creator and here on “Theme of Remy”, Viklund showcases the deafening sound of a night out with his shiny shoes, proving there’s no party like the after-party.

Stay tuned now through November 22nd for the remaining 4 entries in my list of the best musical tracks from this generation of consoles.

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love.  He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake.  Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

December 31st, 2011 and things are quickly moving far from the expected close to an average New Year’s Eve.  In the span of one night, less than eight hours, one of my very best friends will be married and one of my old roommates will be murdered.  This is also the night I realize that I am in love with someone who is inconceivably out of my reach and hundreds of miles away.  It is 4 am that morning and as I am booting-up the Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s menu for the first time… I am given this startling and heartbreaking news (my roommate’s death) from my sister who is quite literally standing on a volcano in Hawaii some 3000 plus miles away.  My sister is emotionally unraveling on the other end of the line.  I can hear the desperation in her voice.  She wants to control the situation wholesale, manipulate the night’s horrific events, anchor them with safeguards.  She can’t.  Our friend is gone.  What’s left is a terrible feeling: having no control is real paralysis.  It’s something that also reminds me that life can be much more than cruel; it is largely evil.

Deus Ex Z

Listen: Main Menu

The multiple major turns of that night altered everything.  For the first time in years, I was completely lost.  Realizing that everything is fragile and is made to spoil upon mere contact gave me reason to retreat.   Coming to terms is a brutal process for anyone, that unbeknownst to me, is something I left almost entirely in the hands of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s composer Michael McCann.  His score followed me everywhere for months.

Deus Ex Y

Listen: Icarus

Upon its outset, the score for Deus Ex: Human Revolution is concerned with fact, with answers… it wants them, and someone living in the past like Adam Jensen (our game’s protagonist, and at this point in our story… myself) is by definition existing in abstraction.  Nothing in this state can be measured, read or prodded with any amount of accuracy.  Searching for hard data here would be like asking ears of corn to make exact change.  Answers similarly will be hard to come by as the days spent in a cycle of this nature revolve around ritual.  Cornerstone to the passing of these hours is a focus on the splicing together of old images.  Those past experiences involving whomever, or whatever, now newly colored with some form of bias.  Where the original event ended in tears, or disagreement, the reassessment now grasps to find the positive slant.  This is Michael McCann’s daunting insertion point into Deus Ex: Human Revolution: to articulate the paralysis of consequences, of choices, and finding enough strength to move beyond the specters of looming emotional wreckage.  It is something you might have not expected if you were going by box art and static images alone.  This is not a game of mercenaries, nor is it splintered factions blindly moving forward with heavy weapon.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the story of a very broken man, trying to meet the middle ground of accepting what he’s lost and salvaging whatever is left of the pieces that remain of his old life.

Deus Ex X

Listen: Home

Set against a limping Jensen, it is astounding to hear Michael McCann’s vision of the future world.  McCann’s gorgeous destitution can be found in every pore of every building, every vacant hallway.  The score serves to make each moment something to analyze.  McCann realizes that so much of what is going on is mental, and he tackles the games set pieces with such a degree of organic and metaphysical concentration that while you know Jensen is half machine, there is also nothing irregular, or unnatural in his blood.  Nor is there anything amongst his surroundings that was made by any other process than by hand.  You become connected to everything and everyone in the world as you can easily see them being connected to you.  McCann trades the bellowing toll of gargantuan symphonies and their signature mark of the fantastical for something with unparalleled grit.  The music keeps everything grounded.  It harnesses, maintains even, its glaring weaknesses, in place of some sterling armor.  One shot to the wrong part of the body is enough to kill, and the events unfolding inside this Detroit could very well be happening inside the home next to yours.  McCann creates his tension with a visceral, mortally wounded despair that is intent on staying with you.

Deus Ex W

Listen: Everybody Lies

Don’t let me mislead you because when action is called for, McCann has few, if any, contemporaries that can even pay compliment to his brand.  Propulsive and seedy, McCann can be absolutely terrifying in encounters.  Bullets remaining is only part of the focal point here though, it’s the emphasis placed on the doubt and on the demons that come with leaving an opponent to bleed out that make it something without measure.  McCann wants to understand the plight of his enemy, he wants to hear out their cause, peruse their pamphlets of propaganda.  The enemy has been bred and built to stand for something averse to McCann, but is it enough of a reason to stand behind a wall waiting for a lucky shot.  McCann’s playground of physically violent cues is of the few that take into account the entire sphere of its malignant consequences.

Deus Ex V

Listen: The Mole

Wisely, McCann composes fragments of music that are revisited and carefully, CAREFULLY distributed throughout the album.  By doing this, he creates moments of dignified time.  Giving you a brief pause to look back at whatever you choose, what you’ve done, who you’ve met and most importantly… to think.  It is something I rarely see game composers tackle: the moment alone.  Listen intently to the refrains found in The Mole, a gorgeous string of 7 notes that not only creates the well of regret Adam Jensen is drowning in, but it also becomes his ally.  This theme is central to everything in the game and has the gut-wrenching ability to provoke any number of unexpected emotional responses from its audience.  Michael McCann’s approach on Deus Ex: Human Revolution is something that is so plainspoken and honest that it makes you want to reach out to him, to communicate and project your own failures upon his tablature.  I have never seen it done quite the way McCann does it.  The score exists solely to tie itself to the user, and that gives it an uncanny ability: the prowess to count itself among the records that could save your life.  No score this generation can even come within reach of McCann’s own Bridge Over Troubled Water.  Nothing here is too much.  Nor does it sound forced.  Nor seem added for trivial flare.  This is as confessional as McCann could ever hope to be, locked away in some dreary cabin pining for the love of his life, or grieving for the loss of family.  It cannot be manufactured.  McCann isn’t drawing you silhouettes, he’s painting exhaustive, painstaking portraits.

Deus Ex U

Listen: Hensha Daylight Part 1

Michael McCann’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution compositions are by far this generation’s most brilliant musical pieces.  It is rare to find something this revealing, uncensored and heartbroken anywhere.  This is such a personal statement that those who actually play the game and hear his chorus will likely be transformed by it.  McCann went beyond every parameter set for him, laying waste to even the greatest and most celebrated of cyberpunk, sci-fi recordings.  This is indeed the genre’s new benchmark, and nothing can touch it.

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love.  He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake.  Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

MLL Digital Cover

Listen: Echoes of the Past

Ten years ago… I got thrown out of a club.  It wasn’t something I did habitually… or ever.  I hadn’t had a single drink, swallowed any pills, threatened the bartender or leered at any disinterested women in close proximity.  No.  I was violently heaved from the premises as I casually danced with a plastic tree.  It seemed the most obvious choice as I wasn’t about to you know… ask someone to dance (I try to go through my life annoying the fewest amount of street pedestrians as possible).  So I chose this immutable, inanimate mock up of a coconut tree.  Now, mind you, I was completely isolated from everyone, and there was nobody for a good 100 feet on all sides.  Then out of nowhere these two HUGE bouncers grab me one on each arm, dragged me outside and flung me into the street.  Not the sidewalk… the street.  On my way through the air, I hit one of my co-workers who was on her way to meet up with our group.  I never went out in Austin when I lived there.  The ONE time my friends invite me to come out, and not 20 minutes into our night, I get tossed out into traffic.  There is something though that will never leave me about that moment and the reason this story bears repeating here: hitting the pavement, and more importantly the grime, I became equated to nothing in someone’s eyes.  The catapult to the road left me lying in the street face down in muck.  You never feel like a zero, until you meet the being Zero – his filthy asphalt, the upchuck that dotted his landmass.  It’s a very important thing to understand when approaching Metro: Last Light, and composer Alexey Omelchuk’s lavish spectacular of ponderous basalt and weighted granite.

Metro 1

Listen: Halls of D6

Omelchuk certainly knows how to shovel the grim, and rightly he should, as it is core to the game’s tenability and central in defining the level and pitch of discomfort in players.  When it goes below the surface, you can feel the traces of light lose their incandescence.  Omelchuk deftly references the disorientation one might feel amongst a world bathed in soot.  It’s more than just survival.  It’s knowing what not to touch, and that every step carries with it the ability to incapacitate and disfigure.  What’s incredible is how Omelchuk seems to count off: “Two steps to the left and a slide against that wall will reach our encampment.. 7 steps and a turn and I’ve…”  Omelchuk has dedicated himself to decoding the variations of Metro’s prodigious grayscale and in doing so, provides a recollection of his wanderings down to the subtle shudder of his eyelids when startled by his own breath.  Few composers could ever hope to match his sense of instilled, constant panic.  It’s a much more basic fear he’s channeling too, much like the timidity of a child who has yet to discover there is nothing inherently dangerous about the dark.  The emotion Omelchuck derives is the one that lacks the confidence of age, the absence of reassuring mantras, and the perspicacity to discern what is real and what is phantom.

Metro 2

Listen: Vessel of Sin

To call Metro: Last Light all blacked volcanic rock, would do total disservice to it, as Omelchuk has crafted not only its unforgiving austere soil, but also the surrounding worldview, its shifting culture, and the local’s harried diction.  It grounds itself in reality, through random distribution of disparate temperatures.  In one moment the cradling of a stricken comrade in his labored moment of passing, the very next a burlesque peepshow, the next showcasing a typical Friday night or an ice cream social – it‘s unclear which.  It’s jarring on paper, but the movement from boardwalk to disease provides Omelchuk’s bi-polar anecdote with a persuasive and effectual power.  Omelchuk came on the scene much earlier than anyone else here, and as the structures collapsed and people reached desperation, they turned to the man for guidance.  Omelchuk is both fastidious and exhausting when he speaks of those early years, but nonetheless, his collected charts and history are fascinating to behold.

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Listen: Chase

Given the astonishing amount of Omelchuk’s work on Metro: Last Light, you might be tempted to think that somewhere along the line he loses grip, or perhaps stalls out under the shattering weight of expectation… but to Omelchuk neither length, subject matter nor conjecture from stockholders ever seem to derail his resolute vision, or cloud its potency.  Omelchuk does something completely brilliant to maintain his hold: he plays every piece here like rock groups play in crowded clubs.  He mutates, never musing too long on one single musical passage or another; he plays the radio hits for his casual audience, and never forgets his more dedicated fans; he goes dark with songs so off the radar you actually had to be there the day those 7-inches were cut.  Metro: Last Light plays like the very best double albums you own: something that sprawls, but is genius and cohesive in all of its motivations.  Omelchuk is an entertainer, and never has it been more obvious than on his lengthy thesis for Metro: Last Light.

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Listen: The Last Stand

Omelchuk is everything the universe of Metro requires, but he’s infinitely more than that sum.  His charisma goes beyond the empty application of hand gestures and the brow-beating of his flock.  It takes more than the spirit to lead those who might follow him to his mountaintop.  It requires familiarity with those constituents, with the water they drink, the children they rear, and the strength of hands to lay upon them.

Purchase the soundtrack today on RIGHT HERE on Sumthing.com!!

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love.  He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake.  Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs comes out today, and even if you’re too scared to play it, you won’t want to miss out on one of the most incredible game soundtracks of the year, written by Jessica Curry.

Amnesia

Listen: Full soundtrack streaming here

The music is, at times, so beautiful it breaks your heart.  Other times, it’s so terrifying that it nearly breaks your spirit.

Mind-blowing fact: the music budget for Pigs was less than the music budget for Dear Esther.  Curry did more with less than just about anyone else I can think of, other than John Cage.

But let’s talk about the music.  I’ll start with what’s melodic, or close to it.  We’ll get to the scary stuff in a bit.

Honestly, though, one of the most impressive aspects of the entire soundtrack is how Curry is frightening even at her most gorgeous musical moments.

Pigs is set in Victorian London, a time when art song was at the peak of its popularity, and everyone had a piano.  It was fashionable to have one, in fact.  Nearly everyone was, at the very least, an amateur musician.  People got together so they could play music.  It’s why music by composers like Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and others was so popular – it was for everyone, not just for the pros.

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Curry reflects this historical fact brilliantly in the score, with musical gems like “Recital”, or “In Lily’s Honour” (both of which share a theme).  These are simple melodies, and it’s easy to envision novices sitting down to play this type of music together.

Music boxes were really popular in the Victorian era as well.  Check out “Music of the Spheres.”

Subtleties like this add an immense depth and maturity to the score.  This is not work by a self-taught musician, but from a studied professional.

“The Children” also features piano, along with a boy soprano (who happens to be Curry’s son).  Again, this is a simple song (even though the harmonies are beautifully complex), with an understated sorrow to it.

Not once do I feel Curry is hitting me over the head with her intentions.  Well…. maybe just once, but it’s so perfect I really just want to give her a high five.

I’m speaking of “Mors Praematura”.  The piece starts with heavily-bowed strings. If you could put an instrumental sound effect to someone plodding through thick mud in big boots, it would be the sound of these strings sawing back and forth.

And the singer, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, nails the idea of someone who thinks they’re great but is just a tiny bit over-the-top.  You know who I’m talking about.  It’s that lady in church who’s maybe like 5 or 10 years past her prime, yet who insists on singing solos for every single holiday, with a vibrato that has a mind of its own, and a somewhat unpredictable concept of melody.

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“Oh joy, Beverly has prepared a song.”

In all fairness, L’Estrange is a trained classical singer, and Curry had to coax her to sing a little…. off.

L’Estrange sings similarly in the main Pigs theme (called “A Machine for Pigs”), but another shining star of the soundtrack comes in “Dieses Herz”.

With “Dieses Herz”, Curry is referencing art song and its ubiquity in the Victorian era.  More specifically, she is imitating German Lieder.

So these are basically songs written for a voice to sing with a piano.  Simple concept.  Lieder were hugely popular in the Victorian era, helped by the fact that Franz Schubert wrote more than 600 of them before he died at the age of 31.  Curry puts her own twist on the genre, but honors it with German lyrics.

Now let’s talk about the creepy shit, because there’s plenty of it.  Having spoken to Curry twice, it’s difficult to understand where that comes from due to her my-cup-runneth-over-with-kindness-and-warmth type of personality.

There are so many different kinds of scary music.  The two notes from the Jaws soundtrack by John Williams are scary.  Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz is scary.  Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki is scary.

The Penderecki is evident here – Curry’s music is a kind of audio torture.  She creates sounds that make us really uncomfortable.  Check out “The Descent Begins”.  Metallic sounds that put us on edge.  Nothing about it sounds welcoming or warm.

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It hurts so good!

A different kind of discomfort rattles my bones in “New Year’s Eve”.  The plodding strings are here, too, playing so passionately it conjures images of some type of freaky, drugged-out zombie orchestra.

Spend some time with Curry’s score.  I encourage you to own this one if it’s within your means, especially if you’re a composer.  It’s an impeccable study of a musical nightmare.

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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.

When I think over my collection of music — I’m talking all of it, not just video game stuff — only one soundtrack comes to mind that is composed of two volumes unrelated in theme or sound.  That soundtrack for the anime film, Appleseed, contains electronica and vocalized tracks on one CD and an orchestral score on the other.  Lost Planet 3 presents a different listening challenge, if you will, because both volumes are composed by the same person, whom I adore: Jack Wall.  The man who won my heart with Myst III and IV, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect, left me mostly puzzled here.

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Jack Wall – Lost Planet 3’s composer

The first volume, nicknamed “Alien Country Music,” is supposed to reflect the music that the main character, Jim Peyton, listens to in order to remind himself of home… in the future.  Supposing that country (or any other current music form) never dies, I’d say Jack has succeeded in conveying a country feel without being polarizing towards the larger fan base.  It’s Country Lite, in a sense, and it’s largely effective at being inoffensive.  If I was on the ice planet, EDN III, I would not be opposed to a coworker putting this stuff on while we worked.  I imagine future-me to be more of an electronica guy, whatever wacky things those folks would be producing then, but it’s smart of Spark Unlimited to ask the composer to eschew the obvious.  Leave the techno off the radio, and put the Tron-like florescent colors on the enemies instead of every single usable element.  Unlike what I experienced with Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, the country music presented here is not so “alienating,” nor is it presented alongside overly long and confused suites.

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Whistle while you work

The country track that struck me most was “Someone Like You,” which is a rather romantic song for the volume.  It features a sweet arrangement of guitar, violin, and accordion that left me feeling vaguely reminiscent about old friendships and good times.  The song is hard not to enjoy as it softly asks you to dance, melting the room away.  And when you two are ready for something a bit more enlivening to bring everyone back on the floor, “Stompin’ Ground” chimes in as the full-on jig.  Quick guitar/banjo work and a team of violinists saddle you up to the side of your best buddy in the saloon with all the expected hootin’ and hollerin’ you’d expect.  There’s even the breakdown with the bass drum and some old fashioned clappin’ to situate you in the right mood.  It’s cheeky and corny, but begrudgingly makes me smile.

Though I don’t know what incident would cause a lead character to listen to a song about himself, “The Ballad of Jim Peyton” touches on the same charming feelings as “Someone Like You.”  Expressing less nostalgia and more calm reflection, this guitar-driven track displays a lot of talented complexity in its plucked strings.  As you grow used to the acoustic sounds, the electric guitar makes itself noticeably more present for a brief reprieve before giving the show back to the other instruments again.

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Moving to the second volume, the “Score,” as some would call it, Lost Planet 3 actually starts sounding like a slightly scary space adventure. “Lost Planet 3 Theme”, the 18th track on this two-hour soundtrack, begins the mystery of discovery for this prequel.  Undulating strings, a chilling female vocalist, and a reaffirming brass section set the tone for the adventure, and the melody carries over into the next track, “New Surroundings.”  The latter brings the sound firmly into the future with electronic musings and plodding programmed synths in the background.  Between these two, an appropriate sense of exploration and reservation is established, setting the stage for tracks to come.

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Though there are a number of ably composed tracks to fit this adventure, “A Pack of Goonroe” stands out with its unique tribal feel.  Of course, most songs with a didgeridoo feel tribal by default, but Jack brought me back to Haven in Myst IV: Revelations (listen to “The Predator”), with an evocative set of percussion to back it up.  Though brief, this song gives the greatest sense of being somewhere unfamiliar and possibly being stalked by a creature among the foliage, of which there would be little on an ice planet.  The most striking track from the score for me was the last one, “The Forgotten.”  Using more synths and electronic beats, it acts as a perfect foil to the orchestral theme in the beginning.  The listener is left with a sense of beauty — surrounded in space with ice crystals and barren caves and shocking prisms of color.  In all its subtlety, Wall has crafted an expert end theme that stands out among the pack.

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“Disturbing a pack of Goonroe is ill-advised.” – an excerpt from Jim Peyton’s Didgeri-Don’t’s

Ultimately, my ambivalence about this soundtrack comes from my own expectations from Jack Wall as a composer.  No song, save for the struggling “In the Bayou,” is bad at all.  It’s all rather good.  But the things I’m used to listening to from him communicate more fantasy and more wonderment.  I’m used to albums full of songs that each command presence, which he normally does without delving into histrionics — a masterful feat.  While his latest installment may contradict this a bit, where expectation fails me, Wall’s offering ultimately succeeds.

The Lost Planet 3 soundtrack is available now on iTunes and Amazon.  The game is also available now at all major retailers.

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Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer.  When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences.  He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).

BCR 6

Listen: Heat Wave

Richard Hell, co-founder of seminal New York punk-rock band Television, was recently asked about his long-fractured relationship with song-writing partner Tom Verlaine, and if the two men still had any contact with each other.  Hell replied: What level of connection there is, is just some kind of inevitable consequence of the friendship that we once had.”  Hell continued: “But yes, sure there’s a connection in the sense that we spent so much time together and did so many things together in a period that was really crucial to me.  He is just necessarily built into who I am.”  That last line really struck me, as it perfectly articulates the full-measure of two people going beyond mere symbiosis: it gives credence and proof to the abstract idea in which two individuals are created to complement each other.  No matter what happens, Hell concedes, in some small or large part, Verlaine is a part of him.  It’s how I thought best to describe the marriage that Simon Viklund and the 8-bit music of Bionic Commando have shared for the better part of twenty-five years.  A partnership was formed quite unexpectedly from some now-antiquated 13” tube television languishing in a corner in Viklund’s now defunct, childhood bedroom.  Commando’s choppy, condensed mono flourished, and repurposed itself inside Viklund’s 8-year-old mind.  It remained there, in the lowest form of function, hibernating, nourishing its seed, reinforcing its walls, drip-feeding Viklund its life-force, whispering in his ear, forcing its chords from his mouth: It was never far from his thoughts.  It would be twenty years of tossing in his bed at night, fevered by the pitch of Commando’s saturated Vocoder strings.  He lived with this burden, but Viklund’s day was coming.

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Listen: Rise of the Albatross

When Viklund finally stepped up to put his guitar monitors through the rigorous paces of the entire re-worked score two decades later, the results of his preoccupation, his obsession, were quite unlike anything before or since.  Simon Viklund knows the notes of Bionic Commando, their finite symmetry, and the speed of their progression better, perhaps, than he understands how to siphon air from his nose.  No man, mammal, or extraterrestrial within screaming distance of some lachrymose black hole could better Viklund’s results.  Viklund is Bionic Commando, and for its continued existence, Bionic Commando is Viklund.

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Listen: Main Theme

On Bionic Commando Rearmed, Viklund works far beyond the regular scope of typical gentrification.  Viklund fuses the original’s dying archaic motor and its fading response with wholly reinvigorated elements.  He goes miles beyond simply replacing parts.  Viklund’s score becomes a litmus test of boundaries.  How far can he eschew these songs before they lose their original membrane?  This is all very delicate work.  Keenly aware, Viklund is cautious to preserve, but eager to extend his mercurial influence over the proceedings.

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Listen: Leap of Faith

Viklund has a knack for distilling the original soundtrack’s vaguely drawn choruses out from its layers of bleep and monotony.  His ability to dissect and reassemble the 8-bit loop, from which all those original tracks were spawned, generates some of the greatest hooks in modern video gaming scores.  At each repeat, Viklund raises his stakes, making each corner brighter, more taut, robust and in all respects thoroughly unyielding.

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Listen: Power Plant

Bionic Commando Rearmed’s soundtrack is no simple homage.  It’s the sound of true spiritual release, and the culmination of one man’s arduous decades of labor – his perilous germination.  Though Viklund may have had differences with his lover over their years, he has no desire to expunge or separate her tendrils so deeply imbedded within his chest.  This connection is one of permanence, and chief among his concerns is the monument they are to jointly leave behind.  Make no mistake: Viklund’s Bionic Commando Rearmed possesses the strength on which Viklund may rest his legacy.  It’s built into who he is, after all.

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Purchase the Bionic Commando Rearmed soundtrack here!

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love.   He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

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