Sierra Entertainment (2001)
2) The Demise of the Zephyr
5) The Tarant Sewers
7) Caladon Catacombs
9) Battle at Vendigroth
12) The Isle of Despair
15) Radcliff's Commission
16) The Vendigroth Wastes
19) The Wheel Clan
20) The Void
21) Kerghan's Castle
- Game website [offline]
- Composer website
- Liner Notes
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Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
In a market filled with predictable fantasy role-playing games, Sierra Entertainment’s title Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura offered a refreshing change. Although it stayed true to the idea of an unlikely hero rising to save the world, it added an interesting twist: technology versus magic. That means you still had wizards and fighters, but you also had technicians and scientists; you still had weapons like swords and bows, but you also had pistols and rifles. It's this conflict between “magic users” and “technicians” and the varied gameplay that evolves from it that fascinates game players to this day.
The most surprising element of the game is its musical score, though. Most fantasy games have a big and epic symphonic sound to underscore them. At that time, this was mostly achieved through the means of synthesizers for game development budgeting did not allow for the hiring of a live orchestra. Not content with the limitations of synthesizers and the underachieving emotional expressiveness in computer generated orchestras, composer Ben Houge chose a different approach that would allow him to work with real players while keeping budgeting constraints in mind. He wrote the entire score for a string quartet; four players; four instruments. Having been a co-composer and sound designer at Sierra for a couple of years, it was Houge’s first project of his own. He sure took an unconventional approach. Did it work? Yes and no.
The style of the game resembles that of 18th Century Europe and the score perfectly reflects that. In a mixture of Renaissance and medieval music, Houge’s score fits the game’s timeframe like a glove. What becomes immediately evident is the composer’s strong focus on early period music in the orchestration of the pieces. They are constructed more simply and not as virtuous or feel-good as the typical Romantic string quartet writing. Still, it's important to point out that while instrumentation derives from chamber music the themes and motifs have a very movie-like tone to them. The main theme (“Arcanum”) is an ambiguous and dramatic piece suitable for a movie, perhaps even more so than for a concert hall. Similarly, the different motifs and thematic material the score has to offer clearly resembles movie music writing and its leitmotif technique. What is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the score is its ability to create a wide range of emotions. The small ensemble of strings manages to let you feel alone and lost in the wilderness, thrilled and frightened when fighting foes in dungeons or amazed and curious when exploring cities.
Arcanum is rich on themes and motifs. Its main theme is very ambivalent, letting room for many interpretations: something Houge probably aimed for. Aware of the fact that the player can choose between a good or evil character, the theme is neither heroic nor evil, neither very sweeping nor very dark, but all at once. It's quoted quite a few times throughout the score in different variations, most notably in the opening cinematic “The Demise of the Zephyr” and in the beginning of “Radcliff’s Commission”. Another motif is tied to the location of Vendigroth. It's first heard in “Battle at Vendigroth” and later reprised in "Vendigroth Wastes”. The cities don't have their own distinct themes, but all share similarities in terms of musical texture.
You cannot deny that Houge’s approach is unique and exciting. It's great to hear how much passion and skill the four players from the Seattle Symphony put into the music. Obviously, the more creative and unconventional an approach gets, the more vulnerable it is. Same is true for Arcanum, for the strictly string-lead score does have its faults. First of all, and this might strike you as being the most important objection, it somehow falls short in doing justice to the epic feel of the game. Something must be said for the variety and colourfulness a fully orchestral score can provide, which Houge fails to deliver. This is nowhere more regrettable than in the introduction movie of the game that sets up the storyline by presenting an air battle sequence in which orcs in strange flying contraptions attack a zeppelin. You simply cannot shake off the feel that the music doesn't do enough and takes away the action and excitement of the scene. Plucking strings aren't as exciting as pounding drums and snaring brass. What’s more, the music never truly reaches the heart of the game: the battle between magic and technology. Houge mentioned in an interview that he wanted the string quartet to stand for the Industrial Revolution while the structure of the pieces resembled Renaissance and its magical associations. What might sound rather convincing in theory, did not translate all that well into the actual music. The string quartet perfectly symbolises the technological side of the conflict, but it fails to evoke magical and spiritual touches. The track for the Elven city called “Quintarra” is one of the few cues where percussion is added to summon an additional orchestral colour, in this case a magical touch. The addition of other instruments or sounds would not only have brought something magical into the game, but would have made the score more diverse. The constant, strictly string oriented music tends to tire you out over the course of the game and you run the risk of losing interest in the music because of the monotonous musical canvas; this even more so for the out-of-context listens on album.
To sum things up, Arcanum is truly a special and unconventional soundtrack, not only for role-playing games, but for games in general. And while the concept of a string quartet has its flaws, it is an intriguing and inventive approach that deserves the appreciation of every video game music listener.