My Favourite Video Game Soundtracks - Part 4
In part 4 of this series of blogs exploring video game soundtracks I've been inspired by, we take a further look at the Assassin's Creed games; this week focusing on the music of Black Flag, Rogue, Unity, and Syndicate.
ASSASSIN'S CREED BLACK FLAG
Yo, ho! Yo, ho! A pirate's life for me. The fourth mainline game in the series saw the player step into the boots of Edward Kenway, a privateer who ends up becoming a pirate, in the early 1700s. Brian Tyler (he co-composed the music for Avengers Age Of Ultron with Danny Elfman, who we mentioned in part 2) wrote the soundtrack this time and, much like with Balfe Lorne, we can hear Tyler's classic hollywood roots throughout this score.
There seems to be a pattern occurring wherein all the main themes we've had in this series have been very strong and are perfectly utilised in later parts of the score. Black Flag's theme is no exception, with another instantly recognisable motif surrounded by rich harmonic texture and instrumentation that includes dulcimer, strings, guitar, ukulele, percussion, and synthesizer,
While 'Pyrates Beware' is a lively introduction to the game, featuring folky strings, 'On The Horizon', for me, is a better showcase of the instrumentation Tyler is using in this score, giving all the aforementioned instruments a moment to shine in the 3-minute song. Its introduction also features another motif that reappears throughout the score, played on fiddle. This motif is later used more expressively in 'In This World Or The One Below' and again in 'The British Empire'.
"The Ends Of The Earth' loses the score's instrumentation for drums, electric bass, guitar, and vocals, which come together to create a prog-rock feel that fits surprisingly well into the soundtrack. This alternate instrumentation and texture is heard again later on in 'Modernity', which adds piano and gritty synth effects to the mix.
'I'll Be With You' uses 6 minutes of time to create a soundscape that features percussion underlying spanish guitar, kalimba, and pan flute themes before moving into a heavier texture with electric guitar and strings. This spanish influence is heard again in the aptly-named 'The Spanish Empire', a progressive song that features more amazing spanish guitar.
Aside from the main theme, my favourite song in this soundtrack is probably 'Life At Sea'. It mixes the electric guitar and bass with the more traditional instrumentation to create a texture and harmony perfect for sailing the sea to, with a jolly-sounding dulcimer motif.
ASSASSIN'S CREED ROGUE
Being released on older generation consoles at the same time as the next game in the series was released on the newer generation could lead some players to confusion and think this isn't a mainline game but, when it acts as a bridge between AC3 and Unity, how can it not be? Anyway, Elitsa Alexandrova accompanies our journey through this game with a strong soundtrack that, for the main theme, reuses the 'Ezio's Family' motif before moving into a new variation of Black Flag's motif from 'On The Horizon' that is, again, sprinkled throughout the soundtrack.
One such track is 'No Hope' which uses 'stuttered' synthesizer and guitar mixed with strings, percussion, and vocals to create a tense track whose instrumentation reminds me of Kyd's soundtracks from the earlier games. In fact, the whole soundtrack has a distinct 'Kyd' feel to it with splashes of Lorne and Tyler here and there in the use of percussion.
'Northern Lights' is one of the more minimal and tonally interesting songs of the soundtrack. It uses synth pads and effects mixed with percussion, strings, and guitar to create an ethereal sound that reflects the coldness of the North Atlantic Ocean and the mystery of what lies above and below. 'Animus Black' and 'Animus White' use a similar instrumentation to create a modern sci-fi soundscape that I find quite interesting to listen to and yet disturbing as well.
ASSASSIN'S CREED UNITY
Unity, for me, is a severely underrated entry in this long series of games. It was the first to be released on the new generation of consoles at the time (xbox one and playstation 4) and debuted with a horrendous amount of bugs and glitches that often left players unable to finish the game. Since I came to this series much later though, I was playing through a fixed game that ran quite well despite having long loading screens. I was amazed by the visuals, which still look amazing 7 years later. This is also perhaps my favourite soundtrack of the whole series, masterfully written by a trio of incredible composers: Chris Tilton, Sarah Schachner, and Ryan Amon.
Again, like Rogue, Unity's main theme opens with the 'Ezio's Family' motif and then builds into its own using strings, brass, piano, synthesizers, and percussion. The heavy use of synthesizers in this game is part of what makes this my favourite soundtrack but it's also the great use of classical instrumentation and french pomp that's added. These moments can seem quite Romantic in style but technically 1789, the game's setting, is too early for the Romantic period.
This is probably the first of the series where I enjoy relistening to the chase and fight music tracks as they are more than just percussive layers. This time, there is more emphasis on melody and harmony in these songs with 'Chase By Chase Basis' being a highlight, interweaving motifs throughout. Another such track is 'Storming The Guilty', with a strong emphasis on the percussive sounds found in the piano's timbre.
While 'On Father's Watch' adds a new theme for the game, this beautiful piano motif is made more of in 'Versailles For Sore Eyes' which also contains a slight variation of the motif used in 'Chase By Chase Basis'. 'A Leap Of Faith' then allows the synthesizers more room to shine, creating a sort of variation of the main theme with the traditional instruments that are added.
'Rather Death Than Slavery' is the first of Schachner's songs on the soundtrack, blending the soundtrack's instrumentation and theme with the French national anthem. Where Tilton's songs are quite minimal in texture, Schachner makes use of a variety of instruments (including harpsichord) to create a dense and constantly moving texture, best heard in 'Chandeliers And Carnage' which also makes great use of the period's musical style, as I mentioned above. 'Danton's Sacrifice' should also be mentioned here as well for its fantastic french pomp style.
Disappointingly, my favourite song of the game's score isn't even on the official soundtrack release. I only know it as 'Helix' but it's used in the pause menu of the game. I love it's minimal synthesized ambient soundscape. I have a fondness for all the menu music from these games but this one is definitely my favourite.
ASSASSIN'S CREED SYNDICATE
Of all the soundtracks within this series, there are two which, for me, stand out as being different to the rest in some way, usually through instrumentation and tonality. Syndicate's, composed by Austin Wintory, is one of those. Despite being set in 1868, the musical approach to this is very much a mixture between Romantic and the experimentation found in some 20th century classical music. The dissonance heard in some of the songs can be jarring but also reflects the grit and chaos of an industrial and corrupt London that still shows elements of beauty behind the smog.
'Bloodlines', the game's main theme is a solemn affair, with strings and piano playing a bittersweet motif that, again, like previous games reappears throughout the soundtrack. The final song of the soundtrack is the first and only song of the score to use the 'Ezio's Family' motif, blending it with a reprise of the 'Bloodlines' motif.
This is the first of the series' soundtracks to use vocal lyrics in the original music. An example is 'Peace And I Are Strangers Grown', a song that starts so hopeful and beautiful and ends sad and broken; I can't help but feel moved by it. Like the shanties heard in the previous games, this game features vocal songs that, instead of heard on a ship, are found in the pubs, known as 'murder ballads' which Wintory composed with musical comedy trio, Tripod. One such is 'Give Me The Cure', a raucous song with dark lamenting lyrics.
I might be a bit biased but as a clarinet player, I love hearing clarinet take centre stage in some of these songs. 'Soothing Syrup' is one of these, with a lonely melody that gets ever darker as the song progresses, before the strings take over for the intense finale. Another example of the amazing clarinet playing also features more of the female vocalist; 'Destruction Is Our Delight'. The modulation in this song is so good. More fantastic modulation can also be heard in 'Too Dreadful A Practice For This Open Air'.
Remember how, in the second part, I talked about the Fable and Halo games? In both, there is a dominant use of vocals, both solo and as choirs. 'Cathedrals Of Steel' uses a female chorus to create a melancholic harmony that is used when you, the player, sets foot into a factory full of children being forced to work. It brought tears to my eyes the first time I ventured into one of these places and the music successfully reflects this harrowing sight.
COMING TO AN END
Next week's blog finishes off our tour of the Assassin's Creed soundtracks. We'll be looking at Origins, Odyssey, and the latest in the series, Valhalla. Don't forget that these brilliant soundtracks are all available to listen to on most streaming services, including Spotify, iTunes, Youtube, and Amazon.