Eternal Sonata: The Music Of Pillars Of Eternity

By Nathan Grayson on April 16th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Writing music for an RPG must be such a tricky thing. Especially when you’re working with a project as potentially massive as Obsidian Kickstarter darling Pillars of Eternity, you’ve got to breathe life into lilting melodies that rise and crash at the perfect moments, but drift and meander gently throughout. I mean, these songs are going to be on loop for upwards of 50-60 hours. If one is too loud or too fast or too insistent on taking center stage in an area where the player’s just doing their thing, it can easily break the whole illusion. Fortunately, Obsidian’s got plenty of experience with this conundrum, and it’s debuted a region’s entire song as a proof-of-concept.

Slight yet powerful when it needs to be, that song certainly establishes a mood. I doubt it’ll win a Grammy or anything, but I could see myself taking in idyllic sun-kissed vistas and chatting up villagers to it.

If you’re especially interested in how this stuff gets made, Obsidian audio director Justin Bell wrote a nicely detailed post about his process, and it’s enlightening reading, to say the least. The big takeaway for those without an eye for ear stuff, however, is that Obsidian is very much drawing on old Infinity Engine soundtracks for inspiration. Bell explained:

“Making Pillars of Eternity feel like a modern day Infinity Engine game is important to us, and music plays a big role in achieving that goal. But what does that actually mean in practice? Well if you were to loosely analyze the music from Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2 and Icewind Dale 1 & 2 for example, you would find a number of stylistic similarities between them. Without getting too technical, their music combines tropes found in European folk and pre-Renaissance modal music, and mashes that together with modern day orchestration techniques and film music aesthetics.”

However, it’s more than just a lukewarm regurgitation of genre and technique. Bell noted that this is merely an organizational “model,” not suffocating creative constraint. Eternity’s soundtrack will have its own unique flavor, though it’s not hard to detect notes of the classics in it.

What do you think? Is this up your alley, or are you disappointed that it’s not entirely dubstep punctuated by Inception noises and a kindly old man intermittently reading off a list of Game of Thrones spoilers?

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36 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    I could certainly wander the idyllic streets to that, setting me at ease before the battles ahead.

  2. Premium User Badge

    RedViv says:

    Sorry, I can only vibe with Japanese industrial post-punk with samples of BRIAN BLESSED reading excerpts from Tesco advertisements. (Pronounced: “I made the video into an MP3 this morning and listened to it on the way to and from work, which was really very pleasant.”)

  3. InternetBatman says:

    Two things. One is that there is constant whining about any soundtrack Bell posts on the PE forums, but this time he and another poster responded that the music is incomplete if you hear it without the environmental effects. It works far better if you do something like this (and then lower the sound of the rain).
    http://youtubedoubler.com/?video1=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DNFYv7JhV5Lc&start1=&video2=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DxoirXUhEpIo&start2=&authorName=

    Second, if you’re interested in Pillars of Eternity, you should probably be watching this kickstarter:
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1649838104/serpent-in-the-staglands
    It’s RTwP, inspired by Darklands, has an interesting skill system and work to show for itself, and created by a team that have already made similar games. It’s definitely one to watch.

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      “Inspired by Darklands”

      You’ve gained my interest with as much speed as any three words could possibly evoke there, matey!

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        Hmm, now I’ve watched it, it seems they’ve taken inspiration from the wrong elements of Darklands. Taking the graphics and combat gameplay, but losing the wonderful watercolour paintings, period music and historical setting is not the way around that I would have done things, put it that way. In a word, the whole production seeed amateurish, even down to the poor quality mic.

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      Drayk says:

      Love the mashup… I found the music quite generic but it blends perfectly with the rain and thunder sounds…

  4. Lemming says:

    Nailed it.

    Something like the music shouldn’t be open to backer opinion or scrutiny. You’ve got people who have no clue about how music – especially video game music – has to work, saying it’s not good enough.

    Unless it sounds totally jarring and out of place, then it’s demonstrably fine. Seeing phrases like ‘it’s too ambient’ just makes me imagine some very punchable faces on the end of those comments.

  5. Zyrusticae says:

    I’m afraid this track isn’t doing anything for me. Not a fan of the obviously synthetic strings (though I suppose that is something that can be rectified later in the production), but more importantly it’s just too far on the ambient side, more resembling something I would expect from a film score than an IE game. It’s really the first bit of disappointment I’ve had from the game so far in its development.

    Go back to the original Baldur’s Gate, and you’ll hear extensive usage of percussion in most of its tracks alongside a very strong melodic component:
    Safe in Beregost
    Exploring the Plains

    Not that I wish to disparage Justin Bell’s work before I can actually hear most of it completed, but I find myself wishing they would bring Michael Hoenig back for this run. It’s clear he had something going with his work in the old games’.

    • Kilometrik says:

      And i find Baldur’s gate OST insuferably cheesy, bombastic and overdone. Like listening to Power Metal for 8 straight hours. Although i actually find the whole of Baldur’s Gate 1 to be exactly that: cheesy and overdone, so who am i to judge?

    • ninnisinni says:

      Umm, sorry but: you don’t find the strings in the BG soundtracks obviously synthetic? I think they are more so in those OST’s than they are here (from what we’ve heard so far)…

      • Zyrusticae says:

        In all honesty: No, I don’t hear what you’re talking about here. The Baldur’s Gate soundtrack never struck me as overtly synthesized the way this PoE track does. This is probably at least partially because very few tracks in BG put a single instrument front-and-center the way this one does. When half your entire track is composed of nothing but those synthesized strings… I’m going to notice it, and very quickly at that.

        • ninnisinni says:

          Well, it’s interesting to hear your thoughts on it… although as I understand it, one of the stretchgoals achieved in the Kickstarter included getting live instrumentation for the soundtrack, so this is seemingly just an elaborate temp track.

  6. Artificial says:

    I quite like that to be honest, it appears to suit the setting well.

  7. WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

    It’s not bad, I got a distinctive Arcanum vibe from it.

    I do somewhat worry about the ambient nature of music from a lot of modern games, though. I remember an article published by Alexander Brandon talking about the transition between writing for Deus Ex and for Invisible War. I’m paraphrasing, but he said that Ion Storm asked him to write a more ambient and less melodic soundtrack for IW, because it was their first console game and research suggested that console players don’t like to have to deal with a melody and concentrate on the game. At first I just laughed at Ion Storm’s stupidity, brushing it off as an isolated case, but I think ambient soundtracks are becoming more and more common. As my A-Level music teacher once said to me of Tchaikovsky’s latter three symphonies, “they’re beautifully orchestrated, but you can still whistle the tune”, and I think that’s what a lot of more modern game music lacks.

    To take an obvious example from the “good old days”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Whhrh1Lgbs4
    Doesn’t get in the way of the game with bombast, but I can still whistle the tune 12 years later.

    • InternetBatman says:

      The problem with melodic soundtracks, especially in RPGs, is that the game might have two hours of music and 100 hours of gameplay. A song has to be absolutely perfect to work in that context, because you’re going to hear it 50 times. This is especially true of battle themes and loading music.

      This sounds absolutely amazing the first time:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U88zyFLzIXQ
      And less so the hundredth time. Whereas Fallout’s atmospheric music could still startle the player and be interesting 50 hours in.

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        That problem seems to have become more pronounced with the demand that all music be fully orchestrated. Case in point, Rome Total War had hours and hours of very high quality music by Jeff Van Dyck, which (for me) still hasn’t gotten old even after ten years thanks to its initial quality, but also the sheer variety in it. Rome 2, on the other hand, has (subjectively) music of inferior quality, but (objectively) far less music, undivided by culture, so of course it now grates terribly after a mere 40 hours of gameplay.

        Although, that said, I still can’t bring myself to mod out Morrowind’s music even though there are only about 7 exploration tracks. It just feels so integral to the atmosphere of the world, I can’t dispense with it. Fallout 1 and 2 I simply played 50s music over, however, because the score just bored me.

        • Zyrusticae says:

          I’m with you there.

          I find nothing engaging or interesting about heavily orchestrated ambient soundtracks. They simply bore me. They may perhaps complement the onscreen action well enough but I greatly prefer my music to be memorable on some level.

          I think FFXIV’s soundtrack is excellent and it heavily features prominent melodies front-and-center in the way JRPGs have done things since forever. I’ve played the game for well over a hundred hours now and I’m still not sick of it, whereas the soundtrack of Guild Wars 2 is something I can’t even remember a single track for how generic it is. It’s a curious example, too, if you consider that I greatly enjoy Skyrim’s soundtrack and it’s by the same composer. I think Skyrim hits that great sweet-spot between JRPG-level melodies and ambient orchestral that few other composers can manage (and even those who do, don’t always manage it).

          Quite frankly, exposure will make anything boring after a long enough time period. That’s simply the way our brains work. We adapt to our environment, which unfortunately includes blocking out normal, ordinary repeated stimuli in favor of things that are new and unusual. An effective survival strategy, but not great for our enjoyment of entertainment. But when it comes right down to it… I would rather something be exciting at first and then become boring over time, rather than it being boring right from the get-go.

      • Zekiel says:

        The problem with the BG2 opening theme was that it was so loud and DRAMATIC in the opening bars. 99% of the time when you loaded the game, you’d hear the first couple of bars, then click on the “load game” button so that’s all you’d ever hear!

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        Oozo says:

        That a great piece of music does not automatically make for a great theme in an RPG was extremely obvious in last year’s Ni no kuni. Effing Joe Hisaishi made the music for it, and it’s not something he phoned in… but the battle theme, for example, takes just too long to get going, considering that you will listen the overture literally hundreds of times, often ending the battle before the orchestra actually got started:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=136Oe37gzSs

        Kirk Hamilton wrote about that on Kotaku, worth a read.

  8. altum videtur says:

    Nice enough, though not on par with the work of someone like Motoi Sakuraba (Souls series).

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      RedViv says:

      *looks at news title*

      Heh.

      (Souls series would imply that he also worked on Demon’s, which he did not. Bringing up only that, when instead far broader works like Valkyrie Profile or Star Ocean would serve better, slightly off.)

      • altum videtur says:

        Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff-

        Yeah. I was mistaken. Shit. The difference between Dark Souls and Demons’ Souls is very obvious, but for some reason I just assumed Sakuraba wanted to try really divergent styles. As opposed to the first game not being scored by him (it was Shunsuke Kida, whom I have not heard of very much).
        Also I can really only make comparisons with games I know about. I heard of both Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean but never played them nor heard their soundtracks. Also assumed this site’s readership may generally be more familiar with the Souls games, though again that might have been dumb on my part.

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    JamesTheNumberless says:

    I, erm, didn’t like it :( I wasn’t really prepared for that. Maybe it doesn’t matter though, it’s just a village backdrop tune, hardly the main theme.

    I thought most of the IE games had some great music and some terrible music – what I really want from an RPG is music that changes dynamically according to the action. To think that we had this in the 90s, and then somehow lost it. Of course it didn’t help that music has always been woefully under-appreciated in games.

    Give me tinny midi tunes that reflect what’s happening in the game any day over perfectly mastered cinematic scores that don’t relate to what I’m doing but have hollywood production values. I’d like to hear more about how the music will accompany and enhance my experience, less about what its stylistic influences are or how long it took to tweak all the waveforms to perfection. grump, grump, moan, complain, sulk.

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      JamesTheNumberless says:

      Than again, I think all game music should be done by Barry Leitch or Robert Euvino and everyone else should just cut their hair and get a proper job.

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        Fuck yeah, Robert Euvino! His Stronghold soundtrack was a masterpiece. Caesar 3 wasn’t bad either.

        • teije says:

          I had no idea the music in those was done by the same person. Nice work indeed. I can hear the Caesar 3 music now in my head…

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    Reminds me of Safe in Beregost, but not quite as catchy

  11. Zekiel says:

    Hey that’s funny. I was listening to some of the Baldur’s Gate soundtrack just days ago. Brings back so many memories.

    This stuff for POE seems to be OK but not really anything special. Still, my opinion on soundtracks is they’re better bland and inoffensive than bombastic and annoying. (Some of the BG battle music was, sadly, the latter.)

    • ninnisinni says:

      I agree with you, especially on the matter of the BG battle music!

  12. Deviija says:

    I could hear the hints of Baldur’s Gate flavor in the song. Very strong hints, actually. I’ve always enjoyed the music in the Infinity Engine games, and welcome familiar threads into Pillars of Eternity.

  13. Juan Carlo says:

    Bland, orchestral, completely forgettable…..must be the in game background music to a fantasy RPG!

    This is why I always turn video game music off and provide my own. Those 60 hours you spend playing RPGS are valuable time that you could multitask by becoming acquainted with music that’s actually good. I usually listen to a new Opera or two everytime I start a new game, and by the time I’m done I have it completely cracked (the Opera, I mean).

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    strangeloup says:

    I must admit the title threw me for a minute, making me think that console-only JRPG of a few years ago Eternal Sonata was getting a PC release.

    Surprised at so many people making Baldur’s Gate comparisons, though. I think it’s a really nice piece of music, but more than anything it reminds me of Jeremy Soule’s superb work on the Icewind Dale soundtrack.

  15. Shryke8 says:

    This track does little for me. Sounds like it was composed with Scream Tracker or something (Nothing wrong with Screen Tracker – I listened to many a good .xm back in the day!).

    Another problem here, besides the production value, is that—like far too many other songs nowadays—it lacks depth. There’s not much to it. If you don’t like the timid, boring melody, there is nothing else to focus on.

    So, you say, “you’re just walking around a town – how complex of a piece do you really want?”. Well, complexity gives you something different to enjoy every time. It staves off the boredom for a bit longer. It’s like a classic book or movie – they are worth reading or seeing many times because you are able to glean something new from them each time.

    Another important aspect is frequent change. Why wait until the next track to introduce a new melody when you can work it into the current song?

    What the hell am I talking about? Here is one example:

    ://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-faOBb51rw

    You don’t like the lilting strings at the beginning? They only last a minute. Then it moves on to something else, to something very beautiful at 2:00, alternating between melancholy and hope, and then returning to the main refrain.

    Will I get sick of listening to this over and over? Absolutely. But I would rather enjoy listening to something however many times it takes to become bored rather than something that just repeats the same simple refrain again and again, regardless of how unobtrusive it may be.

    Actually, I’m ready for RPGs to move away from all the strings and more into instruments that were actually used in the medieval period. Seems to be very few game soundtracks that utilize these.