Every other Monday, Michael Lawson takes us into the world of video game music, through soundtracks, retrospectives, interviews and more. Ears open, folks!
Skyrim is such a huge game with a massive budget, high sales figures, and a hardcore fanbase. People look to games like this to figure out where the industry is going. Sometimes that’s great, but other times it can be cause for worry. With the music in Skyrim, it is a mixture of both.
The game is extremely immersive, so much that after a good playing session it is like unplugging from the Matrix. I get so into it, my head inches closer and closer to the monitor until I see nothing but the world. Unfortunately, some design flaws in the music rip that to shreds from time to time, and I’m thrown back into my computer chair.
Before I get too involved in criticism, I have to say that the music is beautiful. The composer, Jeremy Soule wrote some gorgeous stuff. He’s been called the John Williams of video games, and just might deserve it too. There is just so much that is good that I can’t possibly talk about it all right now, so I’ll just have to cover the basics.
The main theme is fantastic at making a point. As the Dragonborn, you pretty much go around yelling at things, and there’s a bunch of dudes yelling their hearts out in this song. It is exciting, musical, and so powerful all at once. Heavy orchestral hits and shouts of the choir are awesome, and the melody is memorable.
It helps that you’ve probably heard the melody before. Well, the first part of Dragonborn is a variation of the previous themes of Oblivion and Morrowind, but the Elder Scrolls theme comes back note for note, just in a different key. It sounds awesome, as if all of Tamriel knows and loves the song, and adapts it into their own style.
Usually, anything in the fantasy genre comes with stock renaissance music, and Skyrim is no different. The pub music of A Winter’s Tale, and The Bannered Mare are classic examples of renaissance music, with a splash of baroque and modern instrumentation. It fits the mood so well in the game, I found myself just talking to guests at the inn and taking in the atmosphere.
On a somewhat softer side, The Streets of Whiterun is moving with an excellent solo violin and what sounds like a piano or hammer dulcimer in the background, and sweeping strings as the backdrop. It is a little more modern as music goes, but that helps form the music of Skyrim into something standing out from the rest.
Then there are the exploration songs. With Skyrim being such a huge game, you spend a large chunk of time getting from one point to the next. The developers were kind enough to make this an interesting adventure, with little secrets to discover, landscape to covet, and dungeons to explore. The music makes the whole experience even better.
Walking around at night is accompanied by Secunda, a beautiful piece with a very light piano taking the forefront while strings and horns set the backdrop. The song is very peaceful, but there are hints of something more sinister, fitting perfectly with the night landscape.
Far Horizons is another favorite exploration piece. It starts with a french horn and moves to strings and later, the flute. Each instrument holds the perfect rounded sound that isn’t distracting while you’re climbing mountains fighting trolls or just picking flowers for potions and/or decoration.
One reason the exploration music works so well is that it is so long, but it never really settles. A track called Under an Ancient Sun is a great example of this. The song is in the key of E flat, but practically the only notes played are G and B flat. Your ears keep searching for the E flat, but the song is almost four minutes long, and it never resolves.
With the instruments hanging onto these notes and alternating back and forth, there is a strong sense of unrest. This anticipatory feeling keeps your mind in motion, and hopefully your character. It makes you feel like you can’t just sit down, you’ve got to do something, even if that means wandering aimlessly.
What gives the soundtrack that exploratory feel is the movement of third, fourth, and fifth intervals from note to note. Just imagine a documentary about the mountains of America. The soundtrack probably includes music like this because it sounds so open and free.
It may be a broad explanation, sure, but that is exactly what most of the soundtrack has; music to listen to while exploring. The unrest and open sounds encourage what Bethesda seems to be going for in the world design. They want you to adventure out and discover.
The problem with the music in Skyrim isn’t really even the music. It is the integration of music into the game. Considering that the video game field is constantly evolving, changes in the use of music in games continue to happen. Skyrim just seems like a step back in that regard.
There are games with a strong cinematic appeal. Games like Uncharted or Call of Duty have soundtracks that can pretty easily match the action when it comes to scripted sequences. In these cases, composing for video games can be similar to composing for movies. The composer works closely with the developer to get a track that fits the moment.
In games like Skyrim, where action changes at any point in time, and there are almost no scripted events, getting a soundtrack to match can be difficult. Games like Red Dead Redemption pull it off by using only one key and one tempo through most of the songs. With such unpredictability of action, I really wish Skyrim had done the same.
You can be walking along at night, stalking through the shadows with a light piano or harp as your soundtrack, when suddenly the music switches keys, tempo, tone, and instrumentation because a bandit has seen you and wants to put an arrow in your face. The first piece might have been in the key of A flat, and the battle song Steel on Steel, in G minor, cuts the mood like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Fights with dragons remind me of the Final Fantasy series. You hear beautiful music in the overworld when suddenly you’re thrown into a fight with the battle theme. Once it is over, you hear the victory music, signifying the end of the battle and return to exploration. Skyrim does this beat for beat, with exploration music, dragon music, and dragon-soul music. It gets old.
This formula is outdated, almost archaic. Players don’t need to know when the battle begins or ends. They need a steady flow that doesn’t distract from the overall aesthetic of the game. The exploration music could build as instruments are added to form the battle theme, and the tempo could increase as the action gets more intense. Currently, the music of Skyrim is united by melody and style, but unifying the key or even tempo would do much for the whole experience.
I firmly believe that an excellent game is one that fully utilizes my imagination and makes me forget that I am just a human controlling a computer program. The sudden changes in music that remind me of my humanity and drop me out of the experience are what makes Skyrim less than perfect.
It is a great game with excellent music and it will stay installed on my computer for many years to come. As such a monumental game, one that defines modern RPGs, I wish more had been done with the music that wasn’t such a shift in direction. Maybe next time, Bethesda.