Emperor: Evolution of Soundtracks

Video game soundtracks. What’s a game without one, huh?

Let’s be honest, a lot of games owe a lot more to their soundtracks than to their gameplay. So, in honour of these, I present to you something that you might never have heard of:

Emperor: Battle for Dune.

This game was released June 12th, 2001 by Westwood Studios – The same people behind the legendary Command & Conquer series. It was a sequel to their previous games called Dune 2 and Dune 2000 and was based on Frank Herbert’s Science Fiction universe Dune. Like the C&C games, Emperor (as I’m going to refer to it from now on) is a real time strategy game and was the first game of its genre to implement 3D graphics instead of relying on sprites. This was the first attempt at what is now a norm within the RTS genre, but back then, it wasn’t very popular and the game was quickly forgotten – so much so, that it can now be found on abandonware!

This game did something else that no other game before it had ever done, and something that I haven’t seen anywhere since! I’ve looked around, but I can find no instances where any developer has mimicked what Emperor did.

Emperor has three playable factions: House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Ordos. The three factions play differently and have a completely different feel to them, because they are meant to be as different as can be.

House Atreides: The noble warriors. This faction is represented by the colours blue and white and are portrayed as noble heroes fighting for good.

House Harkonnen: The exact opposite! This faction is all about being evil. That’s their entire thing! Nothing short of evil brutality, represented with orange and black/grey and portrayed as savage brutes.

House Ordos: The mysterious. These guys are straight-up weird! They’re greenish-pale in colour and are all about cloning and are just about as alien as this game has to offer.

The reason I just gave you a tiny description of each of the three factions, is so you can better understand what I’ll be talking about regarding each faction’s soundtrack.

The soundtrack was split in three sections, one for each faction – that’s not unusual at all. However, what makes this particular split so interesting, and something I’d love to see more of, is that each faction’s soundtrack was made by a different composer. The three being Frank Klepacki (the man behind the timeless Hell March), David Arkenstone, and Jarrid Mendelson.

And because of this split in factions and split in composers, the soundtracks are wildly different from one-another. Varying from what I would call “classical soundtrack” to heavy metal and all the way to techno.

Here’s an example to help you better understand:

House Atreides (Frank Klepacki) – More classical soundtrack sound. Feels like a battle hymn, right?

House Harkonnen (David Arkenstone) – A more metal feel to it. Feels heavier stronger and more intense in nature.

House Ordos (Jarrid Mendelson) – Electronic, chaotic, freaky. Sounds rather noisy.

As you can clearly hear, I hope, there’s a very distinct difference between all three factions and you know what the faction is about based solely on the sound of their specific OSTs. But since it’s made by three different composers, there are no similarities between them, making them a lot more distinct. You know you’re playing as House Harkonnen when that heavy tone starts playing! This is important because it’s highly unusual and, well, I’ve never seen anyone talk about this before!

Now, I know – before you comment on this – I am well aware that other games with different factions have very different soundtracks based on specific factions … But none like this! Let me exemplify from another game that was built from what was learned from Emperor, Command & Conquer: Generals. It has 3 different factions, each with their own unique playstyle and everything – just like Emperor. However, while the music is also very different, it’s made by the same duo of composers and, sadly, ends up sharing quite a few similarities:

USA

GLA

I don’t know how well-tuned your hearing is when it comes to music, video games and movie scores in general, but the overall sound of these two factions are highly similar. The familiar bass and guitar sounds are very near one-another in these two soundtracks. Of course, they are quite different – I mean, one is meant to illustrate military might, the other is meant to be illustrate rebellion. However, as I mentioned, the overall feel and sound is a lot less varied than those found in Emperor. Is that just me? You’re welcome to comment, so I can get a better feel for what other people perceive and hear. After all, I can’t speak for you, only tell you about my own perception.

Sadly, this concept of different factions having different soundtracks seems to have been abandoned completely since the early 2000s and that’s a real shame!
The only games I found in my research of games that still make different soundtracks for different factions were Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty (2010) and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008).

Let’s continue talking about Command & Conquer games and their soundtracks, although, do note that they are far from the only ones.
The next big instalment from the C&C franchise was Tiberium Wars from 2007. When you listen to this game’s OST, it’s clear that there’s one general tone and theme throughout the whole thing. Three factions, one soundtrack. This was the rise of “battle-activated-score”. The idea is, that when you attack an enemy or you were attacked, a different score would activate, something more intense and battle-heavy, to set the mood. Now, this didn’t always work out and sometimes made the game feel rather stupid for thinking that an enemy scout dying was worth activating a bombastic score, but it also changed the way that the soundtracks felt. No longer where you able to know who and what you’re playing just based off of the score, and that meant a lack of variety! Now, don’t get me wrong, Steve Jablonski and Trevor Morris, the composers for the game, did an amazing job and the game itself is phenomenal! But gone where the days of Emperor and it was very obvious, and, to me at least, very disappointing.

As for the two exceptions I found, Red Alert 3 continued the battle-activated-music, while Starcraft 2 kept the style of old, so to speak. Both games had three factions, both games had faction-specific soundtracks, but none of them had a soundtrack that even stuck with me – it didn’t have any impact, nor did the soundtracks for each faction feel particularly different from one-another. So, I’m back to where I started – wishing that game OSTs could evolve instead of change. Learn from the past and include it in the present – and future.

Okay okay, no need to be so harsh, just because I’m so passionate and critical about video game music, doesn’t mean that it isn’t evolving! I mean, look at how much effort and money that goes into creating the perfect score nowadays! That shit was not the norm back when I was a kid, damn! But what I’m saying is: I want more composers like Mick Gordon.

Who’s Mick Gordon? – He’s the award-winning mastermind behind the soundtrack for DOOM 2016.

Doom 2016 didn’t have several playable factions, it had the Doom Slayer and the demons – done! However, what it lacked in factions, it had in level design and variety. There are three different areas throughout the game:

The Industrial Zone

Hell

The AI Core

As you might be able to hear, each one of these areas have their own particular sound. The industrial zone is more heavy metal, bombastic, brutal. Hell is a lot more eerie and usually plays more with strings and ambient sounds. The last area is a lot more technological and thus, the music is more electronic. I’ll also add this, the song that combines all three elements into one, I hope you can hear the distinct changes in style within this masterpiece.

What Mick Gordon did so well here, is that he, being the first composer I’ve stumbled into in a long while, other than the duo behind Halo’s OST, who managed to elevate and evolve the soundtrack of a game. The overall sound and feel are very similar, but the subtle differences highlighted in each zone accentuates the zone’s specific nature and thus, making the place instantly recognizable to whomever is listening. It reminds me a lot of how expertly crafted Emperor’s soundtrack is and how easily recognizable it is, when compared to many other games.

I also mentioned the composers for Halo (the Bungie era games) earlier, these men will forever stay in my heart as being the creators of my all-time favourite soundtrack and the reason why I love video game music in general! Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori. If you go back to the first Halo game, Halo: Combat Evolved, you might be able to hear the three different factions within the game, just by listening to the score.

The UNSC

The Covenant

The Flood

Each has their own distinct sound and this was made around the same time as Emperor. What these two composers did for this soundtrack was astonishing. They managed to make distinct soundtrack differences for each of the three factions in the game, even though they aren’t playable, and they did this in an FPS, a genre that rarely had different themes and sounds for the different factions back then, which made it stand out compared to its contemporaries.

When you listen to most current AAA-games’ soundtracks, there’s something awfully samey about the experience. Just like a lot of blockbuster movies, the AAA-soundtracks have stopped experimenting, so to speak. Either there’s not enough difference between the different game genres, or there’s too much similarities to blockbuster movies. I mean, yeah, I’m aware that now, more than ever, AAA games have so much more money and resources being used on the soundtracks, which is amazing. However, on the other side of the coin, with more money being spent, risk is rare. There’s so much to do, so many ways to evolve in regards to video game soundtracks, but unless someone decides to take a risk, we, the players, will miss out on exciting soundtracks that try something new.

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Video Game Think Piece, I think.

Hi there, and welcome.

I’ve now finally created my own platform, after several months having no idea where to throw all of my think pieces and ideas – usually just throwing them out or deleting them shortly after writing them – I can now finally share my writing.

Who am I?

I’m just a nerd, nothing more, nothing less. I have studied English at a university level in Denmark and I like analysing video games for fun. Nobody listens, however, because – well, be honest, if you had to listen to someone drone on and on about a large variety of video games and make random analyses constantly, you would probably stop listening as well! Other than that, I’m obviously a gamer with experience in a large variety of game genres.

But this is already enough about me! This is not what this blog is made for … I’m here to share my thoughts about video games, I’m here to share my experiences with video games, and … Hopefully, I’m here to show people a different way of viewing video games as a medium.

I’m not planning on going full-on academic writing on this, because, frankly, I’ve rarely met anyone who would even read that.

So, without further ado, here’s my first, fully-written think piece, and remember: it’s a think piece, not a full-blown academic article, I’ll be coming back to some of the games and themes mentioned here at other times. For now, however, enjoy!

I’m sure you’re all gamers with focus on one or several areas, some of you are fanboys of particular genres, some just casually check out games and some do it for work. Maybe you’re the type to call yourself “PC Master Race” unironically! … Well, whatever you are, you’re all gamers!

I’m here to celebrate and talk about some games that I’ve loved my entire life. Games that taught me about the medium, games that evolved with me, games that helped me through thick and thin, so to speak!

Do you remember your first ever video game? The game that made you go “Wow! This! This is what I want all the time!”

Mine was a PSX “forgotten” gem called Air Combat. I was a refugee at the time and I had barely gotten to know the language of my current home country by the time I saw a Playstation for the first time. Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t my first ever video game, that honour (probably) goes to one of the arcade fighting games or a silly racing game on my dad’s computer at home. But it was the first video game that made me go “WHOA!”. Not having a PSX or access to one anymore, I decided to play it again a few months ago via an emulator, and I still remember every single mission by heart! If I could get the music to work on the emulator, I’d wager that I could play it blindfolded! xD

What I’m trying to say is, I fell in love! That was the best thing I had ever played, ever seen! It held its status for a while, until I stumbled into Command & Conquer, when my family bought a new PC and I was allowed some time on it. Command & Conquer Red Alert, to be more specific, became my second obsession, but before it took a solid hold of me, my mother bought an Xbox for my brother and me late 2001, early 2002 (can’t remember exactly), and with it – Halo: Combat Evolved.

I’ve been an avid fan of that franchise ever since – having almost all the books, all the games, everything I could get my poor hands on! And it’s all proudly displayed in any home I move to.

But this was all just background, to give you some information of who I am as a gamer: I’m both a console gamer, as well as a PC gamer. I love action-fuelled FPS games, RTS and arcade simulators all the same! ESPECIALLY if the story is engaging.

30 FPS? 60 FPS? 120 FPS? Who cares! Does it play well and have an engaging story?

I say this because Gaming has become something else today. Something … Less. It has become so much more difficult to just play a game. Now, a game is a time investment. I can’t just jump in, play something and then log off (well, yeah, I can, but the games are designed to make you stay as long as possible, that’s what I mean). Microtransactions, Live Services …. I … I just get tired even talking about it!

And I know, I know! The Indy market is where it’s all at now! That’s where all the creativity is now! That’s where people go to play games made from passion!

But I’m really sorry, I know how much everyone seems to love Indy games! But most of the time, I find myself buying them just to support the creator, but never touch the game itself, because it all feels the same. It feels like “played one big indy title, played them all!”. Thing is, I’ve always been a fan of the so-called “AAA” titles. I know that it has changed meaning now, but there’s so much in these games that people don’t talk about! So much that’s worth talking about, but it’s buried by the news of publishers being assholes, crunch-time reaching insane levels and so on and so forth. I mean, I even had to abandon some of my favourite games because of their publishers and the politics around them because I don’t want to support it!

I remember how frustrated I was for almost a year where I didn’t touch Destiny 2! Why? Because of Activision! I returned to the game about a month after Bungie split from Activision. In the meantime, all my friends where talking high about how much fun the Forsaken DLC was and how much better the game had gotten. Great! But I couldn’t give my money to Activision! I just couldn’t! I haven’t bought anything from neither Activision nor EA for quite a while now, apart from Star Wars Battlefront 2, on 75-80% sale, because my friends talked me into doing so! xD (I might talk about that game at some point in the future)

None of this hate from my part should go to the devs! By golly, those people work so darn hard to create something amazing!

Now, let’s take a step back and look at some games.

How many here have played, or even know of, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. If you don’t know it or haven’t played it – I highly recommend it! It’s cheesy and made with so much love!

The game is fairly standard within its genre. It’s an Arcade Simulator at its core and it truly plays like one! Wanna fly around in the latest overpowered real-life aircraft and destroy every enemy in your path? Wanna fly in with literally hundreds of missiles and bombs to sow havoc on your enemies? Go play Ace Combat 7! It’s gorgeous and it’s impressively well made!

But that’s not all. I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about the way the game is presented, the way the devs created a story through in-game dialogue, through music.

Honestly, if you’re interested in more details on that, I’ll link to the short-ish piece I made on Reddit back in January or February, when the game was still new.

Let’s take it to the next step – Command & Conquer. What happened to that franchise? Simple – EA happened! They wanted to port it to the mobile market, they failed, and from that failure, they gave us Tiberian Twilight, which we just don’t talk about! NO! Don’t you dare say a word about this abomination that doesn’t exist! – Then they tried to give us a F2P version with microtransactions (Generals 2) – they failed! Then they just straight up abandoned the whole thing … Until recently when they gave us a mobile game.

Once again, no hate to the devs! Based on my playtime in Generals 2 (Also just redubbed Command & Conquer – the F2P version), they did some great work! It was fun! It was engaging! But it was clearly F2P! Not because the devs wanted it that way, but because the publisher wanted something different from the franchise!

Now, you might say that I can’t just blame publishers for wanting money for the project that they gambled a lot of money on, and you would be right! Absolutely! They should get paid for their work! However, as we’ve seen time and time again – if you stick with your fanbase and give them what they want – what they hope for – what they expect, you get paid (Just look at the game called Warframe)! If you burn your fanbase and attempt to trick them into paying you more, you’ll lose them! But what do I know – I’ve spent my life studying and mastering language, culture and multimedia, I don’t know shit about business! xD

But let’s stick with C&C for a little while longer.

When was the first time you ever actually listened to video game music? When was your first experience with video game music that took it a step further than simply 8/16-bit sounds?

For almost everyone I’ve ever talked to around my own age, it’s almost always the same answer! Command & Conquer: Red Alert. Oh, come on! You know you can hear Hell March playing in your head right this second! Who couldn’t? I mean, I knew about the song and heard it several times before I even knew the game! That soundtrack was astonishing! And I’ve heard so many referencing that soundtrack as the dawn of video game music as a “thing”! And why wouldn’t they? Unless I’m completely mistaken, and do correct me if I’m wrong, it was the first video game of that scale and sales numbers to truly have music in it, music that was in the front of the gameplay (Of course counting Command & Conquer as a franchise here, not JUST Red Alert). Now it’s the norm.

Next time I truly saw music used in a video game to such an effect was, you guessed it, Halo: Combat Evolved. The score was absolutely fantastic! Could you imagine Halo without that score? I sure as heck can’t!

All these games are huge in scale! Two of them being part of video game history, as trendsetters, as games that established the norm of their genre. Halo: CE changed console First Person Shooters forever! Command & Conquer set the norm for what and how Real Time Strategy games are made and played. Sadly, I don’t know enough about Ace Combat to say anything there, but I’d be willing to assume the same, since they’ve been at it since the 90’s and are still making new games.

So … Where does that leave us?

Where am I going with all of this?

Well … Let’s take a look at some of these games and I’ll tell you!

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown released in January of this year, and while it’s an absolute gem of a game, having no microtransactions, but boasting the typical Asian video game style DLCs galore, by itself, it’s almost too good not to play! The developers managed to combine sound effects, OST and gameplay to create something truly magnificent, something you never see in Indy titles! – Which, side note, is why I can’t personally put the same effort into Indies. I love what they are, I love what they can do for the industry! But big dev teams with the time and resources to do so, can do something that none other can – what I call Invisible Art.

Here’s a little taste of a that Reddit post I made about the design of Ace Combat 7, it was posted on the Ace Combat subreddit:

“But let’s go back to Lighthouse [Mission name] .. Not only does the mission dialogue do a magnificent job establishing the player as the ultimate badass, so much so that even the elite [enemy] squad can’t help but acknowledge our amazingness, but the soundtrack and story driven dialogue amplifies that. So, the 10 minutes are up, the Arsenal Bird [Boss] arrives, we see how invulnerable it is, how powerful it is!

And the music switches from a hopeful and heroic tone, to a more melancholy, yet still hopeful tone. Slowly building up as the Princess and the Queen are talking over the radio. And then it hits … The moment I’m sure most, if not all of us, went “holy shit” at! The princess smashes shit, the drones are throwing volleys of missiles at you, the music slows down and … The shield is broken! The music rises with a heroic choir and you’re finally able to swoop in and annihilate that darn bird!

Those 10 seconds are some of the best seconds of games as art that I have ever seen in my entire life! It was shock and awe in the most badass way! And if you take out just one of those things from the equation, it falls short! Imagine dropping that white phosphorous on the civilians [From Spec Ops: The Line] without any of the other enemies there, or without the cutscene prior. It wouldn’t have had the same effect!

What AC7 does so freaking well is it’s use of mission design, choreography of enemies, timing of the soundtrack and the mission chatter! Together, they make an almost perfect campaign.”

This is what I mean when I talk about “Invisible Art”. Design that is so well choreographed and timed, that the only way to truly experience the beauty of it, is by playing it yourself. The devs didn’t focus on trying to sell this as something that would look amazing during a stream, quite frankly, I think most people would get seasick from watching a stream of this game! xD .. But instead, they created a dance for the player to partake in, one that culminates in a symphony of destruction and beauty!

DOOM 2016 does something similar. Instead of being focused on creating things that would look good and get you, as the player, to buy stuff, the devs instead focused on creating an experience that felt fast-paced and intense! They created a song, a dance, a choreography for the player to partake in! And in doing so, they created a god-damned masterpiece! While playing it, you don’t get the feeling that you have to do X, Y or Z – nah! You’re there to dance! You’re there to kill and look damn good doing so!

Remember the first time Battlefield 4 showed off its engine with the skyscraper crashing in the middle of the multiplayer match! That sense of awe, that sense of wonder and amazement! THAT is what I play video games for!

Remember those first few steps on the ring in Halo: CE. Looking out across the water and just ……. Losing yourself in the moment!

When was the last time you played a video game that gave you that feeling? When was the last time you felt wonder because of a game?

From time to time, this does somewhat happen to me in Indy games. Not too long ago, I played through Ori and the Blind Forest with my GF. The way she looked at the visuals grasped me and I went on that journey with her, because she was so taken by the beauty of it. Me? I saw a puzzle in front of me and the experienced gamer in me was already analysing the best course of action! … That’s why Indies don’t work on me as well .. They’re gorgeous, but they are almost always puzzles, and I dislike puzzle/platform games because it’s just a quick challenge I have to get past, nothing more, nothing less…

Now, there is no conclusion to this whole thing, that was never the point. Instead, it’s a brief look into how I perceive video games and how I talk about them. It’s a little look at what’s to come, some of the things that I’ll be writing about in-depth. I hope you enjoyed the read, and I hope to see you again.

And remember – Video games are artistically and academically beautiful.