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:
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:
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.
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.