I needn’t remind you how essential nostalgia is to the effect of a good piece of music. Hit play and suddenly you’re there again, transposed, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t see it because you can sure as hell feel it, echoing around in the chambers of your frontal lobe. Yes, Blade Runner fans, I’m talking about memories. And when it comes to cyberpunk, we’ve all been there before. It’s part of our collective consciousness, and it’s been bleeding into pop culture and movies and games ever since the first fictional console jockey bypassed the first prototypical ICE to jack into the first hypothetical cyberspace. We all know this song and dance.
The genius of Michael McCann’s soundtrack for Deus Ex: Human Revolution is how he fuses familiar elements of the science-fiction/cyberpunk musical paradigm into something beautiful, compelling and all too human — without making it into an “electronic” album. It’s the kind of music that can conjure up a glittering cityspace or a grid of data in the matrix without a single visual cue or a frame from the game itself. It also sticks with you, which is not exactly rare for video game music, except when it’s done in a way that sets and recalls mood instead of annoying you with the same hook fifty times in a row. Good game developers understand that a game’s effect lies in the experience of being part of it; good game composers have long since evolved past the point of simply writing catchy background jingles and instead aim to make the score an organic extension of the game experience. It is this practice that McCann’s score excels at.
The main theme, “Icarus,” is a text-book example. It opens with murmured minor-key meanderings in the deeper registers, above which rises a plaintive female voice like bright city lights against a dark landscape. The vocals are reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard/Dead Can Dance — half singing, half crying. Abruptly, a series of churning synth arpeggios appears, which vividly evoke Vangelis’ composition for the end credits of Blade Runner. These synths are the only real “electronic” element to this song, but as other organic elements such as strings and horns gradually emerge, their repetition anchors the music to this aural post-human aesthetic. The music builds with an inexorable momentum as textures shift and mutate, fleeting fragments of musical ideas that never coalesce into something you could whistle on your way to work, but can only be felt, experienced. Then, finally comes the inevitable climax, and we are left with only the synths again, “like city lights, receding….”
The same interplay of electronic (synthesizer) vs organic (strings and vocal) elements can be found in most of the other pieces, from the moody bass-driven “Detroit City” ambient piece to the pulsing tones of the “Main Menu.” Other pieces, like the ones intended for “Hengsha“, are punctuated by plucking notes on what sounds like a shamisen or some other kind of Asian stringed instrument and the atonal chanting of monks.
Still other songs are forays into more traditional territory, like the ethereal “Limb Clinic,” which conjures harmonic overtones of something magical with the epic sweep of a Tolkien movie, or “Home,” a hauntingly beautiful string dirge that plays when the shades first come up in Jensen’s apartment. There are echos in “Home” of fragments played on an out of tune piano — another homage to Blade Runner. The influences are never hidden but directly alluded to.
McCann is frank about what parts of the genre’s auditory memory he borrows from. Influences range from John Carpenter and Dead Can Dance to the inevitable Vangelis to the ambient texturing of Ennio Morricone. He also acknowledges the thematic uses of the various instruments to represent the mechanical and emotional aspects of the story, with the vocals and strings representing the leitmotif of the religious and spiritual themes.
As these themes become more prevalent later on in the story, so too do the synth instruments defer more and more to the “acoustic” ones as the game progresses, with the balance tipping dramatically in favor of the vocals and strings towards the end. The final track, “Endings,” has overlapping voices soaring and weaving above the same melody played by the synths in the opening track, now taken over entirely by strings.
Throughout the game, the vocals also serve to allow Jensen to “emote” without making him emo. True to the hard-boiled roots of the cyberpunk form, the pain and suffering felt by the main character is alluded to more than explicitly mentioned, and the game alludes to them in the form of brilliant scenic clues like the broken mirror in his apartment — and the music. His loss, which is more extensive than he initially realizes, and his yearning to regain something irrevocably lost are given voice, so to speak, by the use of female vocals, which have a long history of being used as vessels for conveying powerful emotion in the operatic tradition. It’s a well-known fact that people identify better with music that has a vocal component, even if the words are incomprehensible, and here the voice tracks serve to further humanize Jensen.
But it would be unfair to call this soundtrack simply a collection of ideas and influences. It is a perfect example of concept meets execution. It’s a score that manages to be “electronic” without deteriorating into a tech demo. It’s a meditation on a world in which accelerating technologization still cannot overcome the human element. It’s just as compelling as a standalone album as it is in the context of the game.
And when the music ends, one thing is certain. You will remember it — as an echo of a wailing voice, an out of tune piano, or Namir’s words to Jensen: “Men like us…we never get back the things we love.”