Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
Making music for VR, on the outside looking in, feels like one of those unfortunate “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenarios you’re unlikely to escape or otherwise avoid tackling. Produce something too mellow or ambient and critics may want to point to a game’s lack of engagement as damaging to the core mechanics; produce something bold or simply over-the-top and it might add further dizzying sway to a technology that still finds ways to incur motion sickness or at the very least a sore head (blisteringly-red marks on one’s face, an optional annoyance). Music, like many things, is subjective and one person will ultimately react differently — no matter the degree — to the next. Some will like what they hear, some won’t. Taste is varied; some may come to appreciate an otherwise undiscovered genre or method of composition, but perhaps there’s an alternate to be shared with the way soundtracks (or studio albums in general) can evolve over time the further one delves.
While there are a good-to-great handful of titles that do at least come off as enjoyable to play (if arguably still confined to the same structure that is wave-after-wave shooting) and warrant a genuine urge to return to for a second, third, thirty-second time, for the life of me I can not recall anything pertaining to the sounds incorporated into VR. Sure there are the effects, the sonic textures of such; on occasion you’ll hear a bit of the in-game dialogue with its mixed “perception” of what constitutes as light-hearted humor/banter. If you can make everything going on around the action, a bit more satisfying on the ear as much the eyes, there is a chance virtual reality can have its moments of appeasement from a musical stand-point. But what about something more long-term? Enter Raw Data; on the surface what looks like yet another run-of-the-mill, wave-based shooter with that most atypical dystopian premise as its narrative backdrop, has in fact turned out to be a satisfying and pleasant entrant for the world of VR.
Restricted it might be by the spatial limitations that VR controls often generate, like the gameplay, composer Jeremy Nathan Tisser’s vision for Raw Data‘s music, attempts to almost play on this preconceived standard for far-flung sci-fi without ever committing too heavily to a particular dominant theme or direction. You have the near-static buzz of electronics as you do the sweeping arrangements of piano and strings (the latter never shy of offering the occasional shriek of high-pitch tension), but taking what you hear on its own — outside the confines of the game’s enclosed surrounding and rapid first-person shooting — you’d be hard-pressed to denote this as anything remotely “sci-fi” infused. Perhaps we’ve gotten too accustomed to science fiction often being associated with luscious synthesizers and this enveloping sense of wonder and amazement that a loft of arpeggios can likely conjure.
Regardless of whether the basis for such a score is utopian or otherwise dystopian in suggestion, the “electronic” component has usually been the dominant force and the driving factor that governs every other instrument surrounding it. But what Tisser brings in the music’s early proceedings — especially with a track like Dynomo Extinction (the highlight, in my opinion) for example — is a kind of resistant urge to break from out the norm, be it structurally or focally. The only real distinct electronic component in this case, is the minimal and perhaps tinny presence of the percussion. But even then you can’t quite describe it as robotic or artificial enough to denounce this as the music’s mere futuristic requirement. It’s the orchestral layers and the arrhythmic flow at points that defines the piece more so and yet what futuristic connotations there are, actually come about through the tempo and pacing rather than the sounds being produced.
Raw Data‘s sound is after all, more intent on reflecting the strenuous and tense face-off that players can likely find themselves in. As a result, this more conservative approach to electronic instruments as well as the emphasis on pacing, ends up a better reflection than any colorful or vibrant synth play can bring. Personally I’m all for a composer dabbling in a little electronic wizardry from time to time (the textures you can carve out from but a stand-alone synth never ceases to amaze), but what’s immediately intriguing about Tisser’s approach for Raw Data is the blatant and very clear refusal to drown the player’s experience in sonic color per se. For an adventure or explorative experience that might have worked, but the gameplay here demands you to be stern with your shots but ready to survive no matter what — even if the events unfolding do become a little erratic.
But that’s exactly what Tisser gets right with the soundtrack’s overall direction. A sound that, oddly enough, feels torn itself between giving the player something to bull up their confidence, while at the same time, making sure they know of the very real danger standing but a few feet away from them…and getting closer and closer with every missed shot. That need and demand to reflect the thrill of gunplay, regardless if it’s static-post or not, comes about because of Tisser’s own emphasis more on progression than necessarily creating lead sounds with which all other layers/instruments are required to follow.
Then comes the change: so sudden a shift in tone and direction, even if the structural basis for similarly-sudden passages remains, the soundtrack steadily moves away from its sombre and subtle electronic usage of previous, into more tribalistic arrangements. The once tin-rattling percussion and lofty synth leads all but vanish — vocal chants bursting at the seems even if the brazen string arrangements still hold onto but a now-faint still of the soundtrack’s previous whimsical sentiment. The further you progress, the less synthetic and starry-eyed the soundtrack gets; lending itself more to this kind of introspective but organic variety of percussion instruments. There are of course the shunted passages and phrases that crop up from time to time, but it seems that the second half of the soundtrack is aimed more at maintaining a player’s now-settled mood of survival and warranted action. Or perhaps it’s simply an excuse for the climactic riff of a lead guitar — accompanied by strings and a more direct drumbeat — to give us that final jolt to beat the game’s final challenge, knowing full well we’ve come this far.
Overall it’s pleasing to find a soundtrack such as the one Jeremy Nathan Tisser has orchestrated that does a number of stand-alone things. That he’s crafted a sound that works in tandem with VR gameplay is no easy feat, but from an analytical and thus more musically-adept stand-point, it’s interesting to note Raw Data‘s sound isn’t tainted by its obviously far-flung, science-fiction aesthetic. From out the numerous influences and musical genres Tisser incorporates, what he manages to craft here is something whose intention is to accompany the player, rather than the setting with which they’re flung towards. Even if said accompaniment isn’t always positive or polite with its on-edge passages and less-than-calm motifs. It’s a much clearer reflection of Raw Data‘s engaging style of play though and gives VR, more importantly, a more fulfilling example for the technology itself to flaunt.
To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.