So in my scant bits of free time and frequent bouts of irresponsibility over the last few days, I’ve been replaying the God of War series, having recently picked up the third entry and wanting to revisit the earlier games before finishing off the trilogy. For those of you who might not consider yourselves gamers, the God of War series is about an ancient Greek psychopath named Kratos who at first sets out to murder Ares, the God of War, then later Zeus, the King of the Gods, and then still later, well, everyone else.
One of my favorite things about this series is, of course, the soundtrack. Written by a team of talented composers (Gerard K. Marino, Ron Fish, Mike Reagan, Jeff Rona, and Cris Velasco), it is undeniably epic sounding, and listening to it for long periods makes me prone to bad decisions. It makes me want to kick down the doors of the restaurant across the street and demand a flagon of mead and their saltiest wenches, and after they attempt to explain that Mexican restaurants don’t serve mead I would smash the salsa station with a warhammer and then laugh heartily like a pirate for ten minutes. A pigeon flew by my window while I was listening to the soundtrack and immediately transformed into a fire-breathing condor with a 90 foot wingspan and bowie knives for feathers. It then picked up an ambulance in its gilded talons and made off with it, presumably to take it back to its lair and impregnate it.
Anyway, as I was beginning each of these games, I noticed something kind of interesting about the opening menu music. Check out the first track you are introduced to in the original God of War:
And then the theme from the title screen of the sequel:
Have you staved in the windshield of your neighbor’s car with a bastard sword yet? Good. Proves you were listening. But now listen to the opening track from the final game in the trilogy:
Notice anything different? To me, this final title track sounds a lot darker and more ominous than the previous two. By the final game in the series, Kratos is basically murdering his way through the entire Greek pantheon on his quest for revenge against Zeus, and that’s what I love about this track. It really sounds like a madman is stalking toward you, about to land the killing stroke.
This is my point though; that track wouldn’t have been half as effective at painting that atmosphere if this had been a stand-alone game. Because God of War is a franchise, the composers were able to play off of our aural expectations from the previous two games. Is the track still appropriately epic? Does it still fit in with the choral-focused nature of the music from the previous games? Sure. But instead of completely blowing our speakers apart as soon as we spin the disc, God of War III’s soundtrack makes a more subdued statement, using the music from the rest of the franchise as a reference.
Games tend to form into franchises, even more so than in Hollywood. If a game is popular and sells well, it’s nearly unheard of that we won’t see a sequel (or seven). And with each new installment, players expect improvements in graphics, storytelling, and gameplay. Far too often though, music isn’t expected to live up to these standards; if we hear new tracks in a sequel that fit the character of the previous games and maybe reuse some of our favorite themes in new ways, that’s considered good enough. And often, it is; some of the greatest soundtracks in gaming have done just that. But the composers of God of War chose not only to build on the legacy of their work in the third title, but made reference to it in such a way that helped tie the whole narrative together.
This is what I would love to see more of in game music, and what I strive to do in my own work; more cohesiveness and self awareness in music for franchises. Soundtracks that take advantage of what came before not only to build new musical ideas, but to make a statement that relates to the series as a whole and helps it grow.
Another great example of this is the difference between the music in Portal 2 an the original. Both soundtracks (by Kelly Bailey and Mike Morasky) are amazing. But what I love about the second game’s music is that, just like the gameplay and the graphics, the soundtrack expands on what the music in the first game was capable of, and more so than just in terms of thematic and compositional techniques. In the original, the player had little effect on the music he or she heard, other than the usual shifts that accompanied changing location. In the second game though, there are numerous player actions that also add layers to the soundtrack. For example, throughout later portions of the game, you end up solving a number of puzzles through the use of these colored gels (a blue one that makes your character bounce when you impact against it, and an orange one that increases your speed when you run along its surface). What’s great about this is that you hear these different substances reflected in the soundtrack when you use them. See the video below to get an example of what I mean; you really only have to watch the first 30 seconds or so to see what I’m referring to.
I know it’s a small touch, but it has large implications. Few games allow the character to interact with them on a musical level as directly as Portal 2 does here. Not only did the composers build new themes off of those in the first game, they implemented music in an entirely new way. They looked at what the franchise had done so far, and much as God of War did (and many other ongoing franchises are doing more and more frequently) they truly considered how the soundtrack play off of and surpass what had come before.
Got any thoughts about this? Any other series I didn’t mention that used music in unique ways as the franchise progressed? Do you too dream of making a public spectacle of yourself in a Mexican restaurant, and want tips on how to do so? Hit me in the comments!