Checking the Score: Pillars of Eternity

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity was one of the most highly regarded RPGs of this year and deservedly so. Without being entirely imitative, it reminds gamers of the classics from the genre like Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. Excellent writing and story, coupled with deep game mechanics kept fans engaged for hours. Pillars of Eternity composer Justin Bell is aware that game music can become repetitious. Traditionally, music for video games has been written in short cues that will be heard over and over as areas are replayed or experienced in the game. As Bell notes on the Obsidian blog:

There are some inherent risks and benefits to looping a short piece of music immediately. One of the risks is that the music could eventually become annoying to the player if heard too many times in a row. We call this “listener fatigue”, and from a usability perspective, it can negatively affect the way a gamer will feel about a game. It’s a psychological effect; the fact that the music is short and repetitious can make long playthroughs tedious. On the flip side, a benefit to having short loops is that we can write more unique pieces of music, which will by nature increase variety throughout the game.

Based on the Infinity engine — the same engine that powered some of Obsidian’s classic games — Pillars of Eternity has a score that relies on shorter musical ideas. Where a game like Everbody’s Gone to the Rapture can have 3-5 minute musical cues that are experienced once in the course of the game, some of Pillar’s music will be heard over and over and most of the cues are around a minute long and might be described as “ambient.” They don’t draw attention to themselves but set the scene and the mood.

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As Bell — a young composer and graduate of UCLA — suggests, this opens up the score to a wider variety of moods, colors, and styles. Listening to the score, one hears suggestions of classic fantasy scores for games like Morrowind but echoes of modal Renaissance music, European folk songs, Bach chorales, and dramatic film music. The harp and solo woodwinds play important parts in the palette of colors but there are “battle cues” that rely on the full force of the sampled and live orchestra orchestra.

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The use of digital samples versus live musicians will be the topic of another article, but suffice to say when budget allows, composers vastly prefer to work with studio or orchestral players. Being a relatively low-budget, Kickstarter-funded project, the score for Pillars of Eternity relies in part on sampled instruments. This is rarely discernible in the more intimate cues , but the bigger, more epic orchestral cues sound less sonically convincing. According to the composer, around 40 minutes out of the hour long score was recorded by a 60-piece live orchestra.

The Pillars of Eternity score is available on iTunes and Spotify.