Disclaimer: I have no musical background beyond listening to songs. I cannot play an instrument, cannot read sheet music, cannot tell you what the different notes are called, so I ask only that you humor me like the musical ignoramus that I am while you read this article. Also, there are spoilers for the games I discuss below. You’ve been warned.
From time to time (fewer and further between as the years drag on), I play games and, on occasion, find myself enjoying the music that plays whilst I do so. And so, I had the brilliantly asinine thought of writing an article about the music in games as someone who couldn’t tell you much about a song beyond, “oh hey, I like that,” and maybe offer some ridiculously nonsensical reason for why I might like or not like a song. So, I decided to pick out three separate cases that I found memorable to my dull sensibilities about music in games and shall analyze them as only a monkey who knows next to nothing about music can. Those games are Planescape: Torment, Castlevania, and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
No, this isn’t an article about games that utilize music in their mechanics, like Dub Wars. This is just an article about why I like certain background music in the above three games.
Planescape: Torment (PS:T)
Yep, that game is probably older than some of you. I know. I’m digging up a fossil here, but then we live in a society that still thinks dinosaurs are worth spending millions of dollars to make movies about. (For bonus points, sing “I’m a dinosaur!” to the theme song of Jurassic Park.) So, for your listening pleasure, here is the PS:T soundtrack in full.
During the opening two minutes of that soundtrack, you’re hearing the main theme of the game. Overall it has a mysterious quality to that is characterized by soft sounds, creepy notes, and deep, ominous tones; all of which are very fitting for a game that focuses on the philosophical journey of a guy who keeps waking up on a slab in the morgue of a city between the planes of existence and his search to figure out who he is, and was. This game never forsakes the mystery of that search, leading the player through a maze of factions and intersecting lives, many of whom the Nameless One (your character) has interacted with previously.
From the first five seconds we are greeted by a hollow bell and the kind of creepy sort of organ-ish notes that one might associate with a gothic, dark, crypt-like setting. Then, starting around 10 seconds in, we get the narrative notes weaving through these overtures of dread and mystery like our Nameless One will do. We hear the intermittent beat like footsteps, building up to the unveiling and peeling back of layers through revelations and memories regained at 20 seconds, capturing a similar cymbal-like sound that accompanies such memories throughout the game. The deep pounding and the elevation of these notes after 20 seconds imparts to us that this is a powerful rich telling one of one being’s many experiences that matter not just on a personal level, but on a grand scope, with heavy implications and consequences for the world(s) around him, before fading again around 1:40.
Like an opera, several places and characters have their own themes, one which we (as the player) encounter fairly early on when we meet Deionarra, who plays a major part in the Nameless One’s understanding of himself, and is, after Morte, one of the most significant NPC’s the player will encounter. At 3:15 in the soundtrack, we get her theme. It is a slow, haunting, yet beautiful theme, whispering to the player from across meaningful eons of past experiences, communicating heartfelt emotions as a spirit, a lost love might from some distant past in our lives.
At 7:53, we get Ignus’s theme, another character that the Nameless One has encountered in his past. Ignus is a man eternally on fire, and initially we meet him roasting in the Smoldering Corpse bar (named after him). Ignus’ story draws us to him like the proverbial moth to the flame, but just like the fire he’s engulfed in, it burns us when we discover just how he came to be like that. His theme music appropriately communicates this in the resonance it has with the PS:T main theme in the initial seconds, indicating that he is a part of the main narrative of the story, and is a relevant part of the Nameless One’s being. Starting at around 8:13, we get a hideous bloom of sound that strikes out with punctuating threat, like a flickering tongue of flame leaping from the fire. Then, around 8:28-8:52, we get the sinister undertones that feed this flame, warning us of this in waves… over and over, as if the fire rises and then falls, ever threatening, ever present. Without giving much of Ignus’ backstory away, this theme fits him entirely too well.
There are many more examples to draw from which I encourage you to explore from the main soundtrack and play PS:T if you haven’t already. It’s text heavy and story driven, and it’s possible to get through a large portion of the game without combat. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you should get yourself a copy. In terms of soundtracks that pull their weight to contribute and enhance the narrative, much like an opera score, in terms of places, people and their respective significance to the story, PS:T’s soundtrack stands as a fine example, in my opinion, of music done effectively and well.
Castlevania (the original title)
Castlevania’s soundtrack offers us a different aspect of what game music can do for a game, setting the tone and pace that fits the way Castlevania can (and perhaps should) be played. Starting at 0:08, we get the “Vampire Killer” theme, which is the very first theme any player of Castlevania will encounter upon beginning the game (not counting the opening 7 second start screen bit). It is rapid, upbeat, and speaks of adventure and action. Starting at 0:15, the theme begins to interlace some intriguing notes, lending a kind of “searching” mystique to Simon’s quest. Then, around 0:22, it weaves in tones that are apropos to a gothic environment with the deeper tones, representing the creatures that Simon Belmont will encounter in this first stage of the game, and the castle itself. We are not here for long, however, before the game swings with new heart back into its upbeat triumphant notes at 0:29.
We get our first boss music at 1:08, and it is suitably different, saturated in dread with none of the upbeat quality of the previous sixty seconds. It is incessant in its organ-like tunes with the underlying bass, smothering the player in the atmosphere of the oppressive confrontation with this embodiment of evil. Upon clearing the boss, we get the stage clear theme which is cheerful and congratulatory as it should be.
Again, beginning with the “Stalker” theme at 1:35, we get the adventurous sleuthing, pursuer quality of a vampire hunter on the hunt, keeping after his prey after a successful boss battle. He’s ready to do this once more. And then at 1:47, a similar turn happens like in the “Vampire Killer” theme at 0:15–the music twists and turns. Simon is encountering obstacles and monsters which make the path he takes anything but straightforward. The peril of these monsters and their onslaught is nicely captured in the downswing of notes at 1:55, with the climax of that conflict represented by 2:05-2:08, before the theme repeats.
Many of the level themes follow a similar formula, mixing their ever-present rousing melody of action that motivates the player to keep pushing forward, with the unwavering throngs of obstacles, traps, monsters and other perils that Simon and the player must face on his journey towards Dracula. Given that this game is entirely about a single hero making his way through a gothic gauntlet of monstrous foes, the melody matches and tells the story almost impeccably, while adding its spirit to the gloom of the game without undermining it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition (The Battle for Haven theme)
Here I’m just going to talk about the music for one particular part of the game, Dragon Age: Inquisition: The Battle for Haven, which is actually divided into two separate parts. The first part is where the Herald (soon-to-be Inquisitor) holds off the assaulting force and attempts to bring down an avalanche on Corypheus’ approaching army with catapults and saving people from the burning wreckage of buildings after. The second part involves a desperate last stand against Corypheus’ forces and ultimately against Corypheus himself (and his pet dragon). Each of these two parts has a separate, different theme.
The context for this theme is that Corypheus and his army have arrived, and he’s not particularly pleased with the Herald for turning either the mages or templars to his/her side. Given that Haven is not a fortress (in Cullen’s opinion), the Herald is instructed to do whatever s/he can to stop or at least slow down the advancing forces. Add to this the fact that Corypheus is an ancient magister of mythic history who was actually there when the Tevinter Imperium’s magisters attempted to actually physically walk into the Golden City of the Maker (the equivalent of sacrificing enough people to open up a portal into heaven), only to find it — according to Corypheus — already black (hence the name, “Black City,” which is always seen in the Fade off in the distance). The very fibers of culture, belief, history, and significant figures are tied together in this one climactic battle that pits the Herald against an adversary from out of the heart of Chantry lore. The stakes don’t get much higher than that.
Suitably then, you can hear the epic strings building in a march of sharp, poignant notes, with the cymbals in action around 0:20 with the slowly rising crescendo continuing to build up with the addition of the brass before dropping back a bit around 0:40. The strident notes, striking like the swinging and clashing of enemies you would expect on the battlefield continues its inexorable march, for the duration of the theme, never relenting, with very few overall structural changes. This fits, because largely, the first part of this battle is about holding the enemy back. It’s a dramatic, but determined plan in action to put a stop to the advance through calculated strikes by the catapults. Eventually, you make it to the final catapult, crank it back, and then this happens.
The plan changes to getting the main gate closed, rescuing people from burning buildings and attackers, and then getting everyone into the Chantry. The same theme the prevails throughout the first part of this conflict plays as you do this, all the way up to this cutscene. The situation becomes clear: as if the ancient magister and his army of corrupted soldiers were not enough, he may have an archdemon as well. Those of you familiar with the Dragon Age series will recognize this beast from the first game Origins as the “big bad” that you fight at the end, the source and catalyst of the Blight, leading the darkspawn. This effectively doubles down on an already dire situation and the stakes jump to unprecedented levels. In any Dragon Age player’s mind, this is likely to feel like the most dreadful battle imaginable at this point. A way of escape is revealed, but someone is going to have to go back out there and fight that thing and Corypheus and his army. It looks hopeless, with the only remaining option to bury Haven, and you, along with Corypheus and as much of his forces as possible in order to save the remaining population as they make their escape. As Cullen says when you part ways, “If we are to have a chance–if you are to have a chance–let that thing hear you.”
The theme changes to
for this second and final part of the Battle for Haven, with the Herald and the remaining survivors, their backs against the wall, fighting for their very lives.
Up until 0:10, this theme feels similar to the first, and then after the initial seconds, it changes into a swelling brass section that conveys the epic and dreadful circumstances that now surround the Herald and his/her party. The cymbals and drums crash in at 0:20 to ramp things up even further, and again at 0:30. And then at 0:40, the spirals into the desperation that envelopes this last gasping battle against overwhelming odds sink into the melody and take us through the harrowing fight that the Herald and his/her party struggle through. A fight that includes tougher enemies than before, a fight that comes 25 minutes or more into the ongoing battle, and lasts for at least that long until your confrontation with Corypheus himself. You are bloodied, exhausted, weary, down on health, potions, and team members, likely, and then, struggling with your last breath to the final crank on the trebuchet, you come to this cutscene, just when you think you can’t take anymore.
After his archdemon-dragon scatters your party before you can launch the trebuchet, Corypheus himself strides out of the fiery explosion towards you with the most crisis laden part of his theme playing, a musical introduction to the being who will be your ongoing nemesis until the end of the game. The strings and brass make it clear with their punctuated bursts and the drums with their pounding beat that this figure is meant to inspire awe and terror in you when you first encounter him in these moments. He’s older, bigger, stronger, and he commands an actual dragon like it’s a dog. The size comparison doesn’t even become clear until he lifts and holds you by your wrist off the ground. You are outmatched. Ominously so. And the only recourse you have is to bring the whole goddamn mountain down on both of you.
There is never a moment during the entire battle of Haven that the music fails to convey the struggle, desperation, odds, and crisis of what you face here at the end of the game’s first act. Without the music, however, the scenes would feel laborious and hollow, devoid of the impact that these themes make on us as players.
Whether conveying the vigorous, upbeat courage of Simon Belmont as he barrels headlong into Dracula’s castle against his hordes of minions, or the struggling desperation of a Herald who may be the last hope of the people gathered at Haven, or the core qualities of the being and the personal relationships others have with the Nameless One, music can and–in the best cases–does heavy lifting in the experience of the game that we’ll very seldom see, but always hear, feel, and remember.
I invite you to respond in the comments with your favorite musical themes and accompaniments in the games you’ve played, and why they are significant to you.
Additionally, Mitch also wrote an article on music, so if you liked reading this one, hop on over to get his perspective on the ways music can matter in games!