Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
Olivier Deriviere’s official soundtrack for The Farm 51’s Get Even can be seen, stand-alone, as a humble if-not-so exuberant celebration on how well neoclassical music has integrated elements of electronic music. Not to mention the way ideas on dark ambiance, formlessness and minimalist structures could themselves carry a piece through. While early classical music often used the concept of Romanticism to create sweeping emotional tirades, the neoclassicist philosophy is usually one that discards the need for sensual complexity, homing in on the more personal and at times, existential component of music. It was only a matter of time before both these fields of music — the reinvention of “classical” phrases and the growing appeal of more underground forms of electronic music — would inevitably fuse, lending itself to artists and musicians who can find a happy medium between instruments and machines. Between physical objects and processed sound.
An act that Scandinavian composers have taken to over the past few years with surprisingly effective results. Borrowing the vibrancy and gut-wrenching effect string instruments (for example) can bring, yet allowing for the automated and robust sequencing of drum machines and synthesisers alike to further blur the line between previously-perceived “traditional” and “electronic” compositions. Deriviere may not incorporate as much of the same persistent 4/4 sequencing or glitch-like experimenting with textures in his own work here, but the appreciation for treated sound and bass more prominent in a composition, clearly harkens to this line of thinking.
From the very first track of the soundtrack’s just-short-of-an hour length, Deriviere’s approach is one of borrowing from electronic music’s cold but calculated dictation of rhythm, yet blending that with string arrangements that feel overly-broad or vast in scope, but in fact come off far more individually harrowing and anxious in due course. There are no complex phrases or grandiose melodies here: just the weighted, emotional pressure of layer-upon-layer of strings — tied together by percussion that either ticks on like a clock or maintains persistence like a heart-beat — serving perhaps as the only real physical reference in what is a more abstractedly-shaped soundtrack.
Yet Deriviere’s balancing of strings and electronic percussion isn’t what makes Get Even’s music so effective to hear and better still, compounding on the listener from a sensual stand-point. A common feature within the ordering of Get Even’s soundtrack is the constant shift between these classical-styled compositions and the more rigid and experimental treating of sound that seem to swap places at every other change in track. The second track evokes almost a completely different reaction from the listener given its impending and somewhat gruesome tone but, more importantly, its fracturing nature as a piece that sounds and feels like it’s only just maintaining form. A trait many dark ambient or otherwise experimental electronic artists/albums often tend to lean towards conceptually, but the added bonus here of course is that Deriviere plays into Get Even (the game) as this player choice-driven experience based around the concept of fractured memories, lapsed knowledge and more importantly, tackling the anxiety of not knowing the whole truth.
There are times in certain tracks where particular elements and layers run asynchronous to the piece presiding over. Though they may keep to a waltz timing for example, there’s a greater reinforcing of the notion of trying one’s best to find common or perhaps solid ground amidst a scenario full of disorder and uncertainty. Be it because the player is required to make what might be difficult choices or simply the burden of the situation is too stressful for the characters in the tale. What might come across as disjointed or lacking some defined musical direction — be it with the way the soundtrack shifts between strings and electronic textures between tracks, or simply in these stand-alone compositions themselves — is in fact an interesting audible translation of the game’s premise of a dire situation beginning to take its toll on one’s mind or emotions. Yet, throughout it all, having the willingness to figure out what’s going on and the courage to determine whether your actions ended up with the genuinely better result.
Some of the best modern albums of the past have been born out of this withdrawing of structure and the liberty at which one has when you have a scrapbook-like assemble of small, incomplete “ideas”. Of taking these small passages or shortened musical phrases — even completely unrelated ideas — yet finding a common ground between them all. Be it through desperation or some greater intent to find meaning in an otherwise complex real-World issue. A way to carve out such things as rhythm, tension or simply a profound emotion despite how juxtaposed the sounds present are. At its most extreme, Deriviere is certainly unreserved in how quickly he shifts the dynamics of particular instruments — at times doing so in the same track — not to mention the expressiveness of the textures on show. At one point the soundtrack dives rather wildly into pounding electronic rhythms and crunchy percussion textures, you’d be forgiven for losing any and all awareness of the violin assembles previously offered up.
But perhaps that’s why Get Even’s music has lingered far longer in my mind than music to other games released so far this year. Not due to the all-round quality or execution of its compositions. And not because I appreciate those composers who can wrap their head around the daunting task of combining orchestral and sequenced notation into an emotional whole, more than those who needn’t concern themselves with such a proposition. Strangely, what Olivier Deriviere carves out here is something that can be listened to with or without the context of the game it’s connected to. I won’t deny the soundtrack’s startling shift between its two conflicting styles — classical multi-layered strings and impending electronic textures — may put off those used to records with more steady transitions, but the good thing here is that Get Even seldom lends itself to an easy transition in-game.
Paving the way for an experience riddled with anxiety, uncertainty, an ounce of discomfort, but amidst it all, a faint trail of salvation to make it feel like the answers are within noticeable reach. Get Even’s music is the perfect accompaniment; pleasantly apprehensive, comfortingly haunting. Oxymorons aplenty, but the repeated listens of such a score, made possible through Deriviere’s evident skills — without over-indulging — are richly deserved. A soundtrack I can experience be it playing through the game or away from my dedicated screen, worrying less about how I’m going to progress in the game and more about how I’m going to progress in this daunting reality that is real-life.
To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.