The Elder Scrolls: Retrospective
This is a long, rambling, walkthrough of the soundtracks to all the Elder Scrolls titles up until and including the fourth. If you love Oblivion, I would take a deep breath before reading its section and my very unpopular opinions on the game.
The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda is one of the most well-known intellectual properties of today. Arguably the most prominent open world RPG series, it’s the recipient of plenty GOTY awards and general fan recognition, also resulting in its developers gaining video game fame similar to BioWare. Tentatively, they’re called the patron saint of single player RPGs. Do I agree with that sentiment? No. They’re the patron saint of their own games like any other company. But I digress.
We start all the way back in the early ’90s, with…
The Elder Scrolls I: Arena
Back when I was a single-digit brat who had a strange penchant for watching age-inappropriate films without flinching, 3D was slowly making its way into computer games. It would still be one year before the legendary Shivers by Sierra would come around and traumatise me for life and eventually turn me into the dark smile that these days expresses itself through an internet blog with a funny name and jokes that only I seem to understand.
The first instalment of the Elder Scrolls series, Arena, came out the same year as the game that today arguably marks the true beginning of the first person shooter, Doom II. During this time, several developers were experimenting using the first person perspective in a fantasy setting. My favourite game of this kind from this era is easily Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honour, published by 3DO and developed by New World Computing, both of which are long since defunct, also responsible for the Heroes of Might and Magic series (that is still going on to this day) that is set in the same universe.
Even though I never played Arena, the music is instantly recognisable to me, owing to a day I spent only listening to a playthrough of it on YouTube because I found the music to be oddly calming. The music is composed by Eric R. Heberling, a name that is virtually unknown these days, but he’s responsible for the music of many titles from the early days of computer games.
However, this is so long ago that the music has aged past the point where there’s any point in taking a closer look at it. This fact aside, I did so anyway. Below is a short (2:36) crossfade of a few select tracks from the score. We’ll be looking a bit more at the first song in line, which contains a theme that is present throughout the soundtrack.
Above is a transcription of the theme present in the first track. Perhaps there is not so much to say about it, except that the use of major chords is quite typical of the time. In recent days, major chords are often resigned to short appearances to heighten drama in between all the moody minor chords, but here we have a theme based entirely around major chords.
Like mentioned, the score hasn’t aged well at all. It’s from those days when MIDI was still a bit hoity toity and thus composers would sequence mixes of really ambitious arrangement sizes that simply do not sound very good, to put it bluntly, even as the general MIDI samples have improved over the years. But hey, let’s not dwell back here in the past more than is necessary. Most of you are probably skimming right up until Jeremy Soule comes into the picture, and yes, that’s where most of our attention will be focused. Right, then, let’s briefly look beneath our feet as we hop over the sequel to Arena.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
Stuffed full of cartoonish nudity, here is Daggerfall, set in the land of the Bretons and the Redguards, if I’m not mistaken. Boasting a massive world map and over half a million NPCs (admittedly randomly created), it was quite something when it was released back in ’96, although I was still hospitalised from my Shivers trauma and could only communicate through twitching my fingers, hence it flew right below my radar.
The music is once again composed by Heberling, and it shows, as, among others, the theme we just peeked at in Arena is present in Daggerfall. This time the arrangements are more modern however, and are more conservative in terms of size, allowing the melodies to stand out more without the odd chortling of rapid string lines fighting for space in the mix.
The Daggerfall soundtrack has aged much better than that of its predecessor, owing to better MIDI sequences and less crowded arrangements. It’s still not quite near the standards of today but if your blood contains a couple notches of nostalgia for the old days, you should be able to find some enjoyment from the music.
Above is a transcription of the primary theme from the third track. Written in 6/8, F Minor Dorian, this melody is very pleasant and quite lyrical. It’s composed as background music for a city covered in snow, and once the harp comes into the arrangement this is spot on, visualisation-wise. One interesting aspect of this theme is the counterpoint (the lower melody line in the sheet music above) which has some measures full of tuplets. Without the waltz-rhythm of the backing percussion and pizzicato strings, these make the song quite unintelligible.
For those of you who are wondering, a tuplet (indicated by the number 2 written below and between the notes) in this case refers to two eighths in the space of three eighths, in other words they’re played as dotted eighths. The reason for why it’s notated this way escapes me currently.
If you’ve previously listened to what I would tentatively call my discography, and you’ve been paying attention so far, you might recognise a certain similarity between the first track of the SoundCloud above and one of my own reinterpretations of the Elder Scrolls main theme, written for a now discontinued mod for Oblivion, High Rock, included below for good measure.
Now, then, enough of all this old stuff. Let’s move on to when the series really started getting interesting in terms of music. That is, with the arrival of the man responsible for what is now one of the most well-known main themes in all of gaming.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The 2002 to sequel to Daggerfall, most commonly referred to simply as Morrowind, is to many people a candidate for the best RPG ever made, if not best game ever made. Set in the eastern part of Tamriel, in a desert land plagued by sandstorms that reduce your movement speed to nothing and flying miscreants called Cliffracers that compensate for their complete lack of will to live with an absurdly powerful reproduction instinct, the player is thrown right out into the world without so much as a slap on the bum, eventually discovering his fate as the reincarnation of the hero Nerevar and the prophecy that foretold of his coming.
I could spend all day talking about why I think this is the best iteration of Elder Scrolls lore to date and how all the flaws of the game count for next to nothing when compared to the undeniable immersion that it has, but such a digression is best spent for some other night after those of you who are yet to play it do so. Get it for the PC, download any of the thousand graphics-enhancing mods out there and enjoy one of the best stories written for interactive media.
Now, it was big news when it was announced that Jeremy Soule would be composing the soundtrack for Morrowind, since during the early 2000s he was still considered to be gaming’s greatest musician, a title that I personally don’t think he ever earned, to be quite frank. If anyone deserved that honour ten years ago, it would be Nobuo Uematsu. In any case, Soule had just worked on scores for famous titles such as Dungeon Siege II and Icewind Dale, earning him well-deserved recognition for some truly great soundtracks and a reputation for using too much reverb.
I have always very much enjoyed Soule’s style of music and I am to this day genetically incapable of listening to the main theme, Nerevar Rising, without standing upright and taking off my hat, admittedly owing partially to the game as a whole and the thorough enjoyment I took from disappearing into it. I am serious tough, there are no words for how much I love Nerevar Rising. It will be first in the SoundCloud below.
In recent years, I’ve become intimately familiar with Soule’s compositions and arrangements from both a theoretical and a practical perspective, owing to the rather substantial amounts of music I’ve composed for various Oblivion mods. We’ll get to that later. For now, let’s listen to some of my favourite parts of the Morrowind score. I’ve been rather conservative in picking which parts to include here, lest I would’ve just daisy chained together the entire soundtrack and uploaded that.
First however, let’s talk about the overall style of the Morrowind soundtrack. Soule has composed a number of tracks that all go in the vein of what Igor Stravinsky started almost one hundred years ago with his pivotal composition The Rite of Spring. Admittedly much more modern in its execution, Soule has written one or two central themes for each of the tracks and has filled the remainder with stray pieces, coming and going, letting the music trail off from the leash of leitmotifs and ACACBC form composition.
The result is a collection of tracks that aren’t always directly distinguishable if you were to start listening in the middle, as they all have parts that are only played once, parts that even share relatively little of their harmonic and melodic quality with the rest of the themes. This freer and arguably more classical structure stands out from Soule’s previous work even though it’s clearly a natural progression of his usage of primary and secondary melodies, as well as non-melodic parts and non-linear harmonic developments.
His very potent talent for downright catchy and alluring melodies shines through even in the secondary parts, contrary to the very real criticism one often puts forth against this relatively sporadic style of composition, in that a lack of recurring structure consistent through the majority of the piece will cause parts of the music to become stale and uninteresting owing to the lesser extent of attention that can be given each melody. In other words, having more melodies results in an overall drop of quality.
Soule has managed to avoid this, luckily, and presented melodies that are either great or good, without ever dropping into half-arsed territories or resorting to cadential melodies in places that need more. This is an admirable effort, and combined with Soule’s ability to create lifelike performances using sampled instruments, the music is very much alive at all times, admittedly with a very sombre and mellow character to the majority of the music.
These are the songs included in the music file above. They are in chronological order, using the remastered titles. An asterisk indicates that we’ll be looking closer at the included part (i.e., I have transcribed sheet music for it).
- Nerevar Rising*
- Over the Next Hill
- Peaceful Waters*
- The Road Most Travelled*
- Blessing of Vivec
- Shed Your Travails
- Bright Spears Dark Blood
- Nerevar Rising, Final Chorus
Yes, this is where it all began. The famous song that is now getting its third (yes, there was one that didn’t end up being used) reiteration, or rather has gotten its third reiteration with the advent of Skyrim coming out this year. More on that later.
An elegantly simple melody, always starting and ending on the tonic, using mostly second steps and rarely changing direction. Together with the big, airy drums that sound like thunder in the background, it is the embodiment of an RPG main theme. Three repetitions with increasingly complex and dramatic arrangement resulted in one of the best main themes ever written.
I reckon that part of the reason behind its success is this simplicity. From a musical theory standpoint, the melody is almost textbook. Compare the pattern to arguably the most well-known song of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, He’s a Pirate, as well as the main theme to The Time Machine (also by Badelt), Professor Alexander Hartdegen, and you’ll see what I mean. However, let’s not dwell on what makes a good song lest we get stuck here until the end of time.
This snippet from Peaceful Waters is another good example of effective simplicity. Here we also see a bit of Soule’s tendency to utilise large leaps in his melodies, something we’ll see more of in Oblivion, in the fifth measure, jumping up and down in minor sixths before rising up and ending in an upwards three-chord progression in C major. The arrangement is quite heavy, with thick harmony in the strings and the brass, deftly avoiding the 300Hz mud that easily accumulates in the low-mid register.
The dramatic build-up owes a lot of its force to the rising and falling that takes place in the first four measures and is then carried out in full in the fifth measure. The first C major starts off quite strong, and then descends and relaxes on the A in the melody, after which it rises up to the F and then recedes back onto the E, only slightly below. This pattern is picked up again in the fifth measure, which then rises twice in a row, first to the C major and then to the D major, after which it finally relaxes on the E major.
The Road Most Travelled
This one is undoubtedly my favourite of the Morrowind explore tracks. It starts with a set of thick, warm drums beating in the rhythm with some harmony sweeping in to establish the key. Then it goes wild and lets out a darn catchy melody that is excellent for tapping your foot to. It certainly evokes a sensation of travel, however it does not fit all that well when you’re slowly dredging yourself through yet another bloody sandstorm.
And with that, we shall take leave of the desert land of Morrowind and move on to a game that has been modded to death and back a few hundred times. That’s right, we’re going to talk about the game that has a suspiciously suicidal Captain Picard in it, a world where natural selection didn’t produce more than one voice per race and a world that someone thought was perfect for endless videos of a digitised Chuck Norris making like Microsoft Sam while acting out his secret wish of challenging Sean Connery to a fist fight.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Now it’s 2006, the Mayan doomsday is nigh and Bethesda releases the game that would go on to become a huge hit to steal hundreds of hours away from players. One year after its release, Oblivion had already sold over three million copies, and these days it’s the game that is to RPG fans what Halo is to FPS fans, and even though the latter is easily the more shitty of the two, Oblivion as a game from a non-nostalgic point of view is just not very good.
Suffering from mediocre quality across the board, somehow I wonder if Bethesda had run all out of ideas making the two expansions for Morrowind (Tribunal and Bloodmoon). The immersive quality that easily made up for all the flaws present in Morrowind was all but gone, and the series had taken a step down in terms of quality. The story was about as imaginative as Lord of the Rings would be, had it been written yesterday, and my suspicion that every single talented writer had moved on to greener pastures was confirmed when Bethesda would later take one of the greatest intellectual properties ever designed, turn it into staggering mediocrity and give it a storyline with an end that would only be at all reasonable if the entire thing was just a sketch in Monty Python.
The sacrilege that is Fallout 3 aside, Oblivion had one aspect that was most pleasing to enjoy; the soundtrack, once again composed by Jeremy Soule, or as I like to think of him the patron saint of rewriting the same song over and over again. Indeed, the new version of the splendid Nerevar Rising is ironically in line with the downgrade consistent throughout the rest of the game when compared to Morrowind. The flowing theme had been replaced by an exuberant brass fanfare that is in such a hurry that it blows past the main melody and then repeats it over and over again in mildly uninteresting ways.
That depressing yet somehow funny stroke of bad luck is luckily not representative of the score as a whole. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Oblivion’s music is better on the whole than Morrowind’s, setting aside the fact that the light-hearted tone isn’t as evocative as Morrowind’s sombre quality. Soule treats us to over an hour’s worth of both dramatic and very calming music, with a wealth of memorable melodies that we might one day hear being used again in Skyrim.
Most people are probably unaware that Soule had a near-death experience before composing Oblivion’s score. He lost control of his car while driving and for a few seconds he thought he was going to die. He thought to himself that he’d had a great life and that it was all right. When he emerged from the accident with mere cuts and bruises, he poured the beauty of life into the music for Oblivion, hardly feeling the need to revise any of his first attempts, saying that “what you hear in the game is pretty much what I wrote on the first go.”
I can certainly see (or rather hear) this sentiment (life being beautiful and all) translated into tones as I listen to the music he wrote for the fourth instalment of the series. Oblivion has so much music that I had to be even more conservative this time around.
- Glory of Cyrodiil*
- Minstrel’s Lament
- Auriel’s Ascension*
- Wings of Kynareth*
- King and Country
- Harvest Dawn
- Watchman’s Ease
Glory of Cyrodiil
One could argue that this particular piece isn’t very original at all, owing to the very, very simple melody of the first four measures (starting after the first double bar line), however this assumption is assuaged by the coming parts which while still simple offer a spot of complexity and interest.
This piece has one of my all-time favourite recorded pianos. It clings almost like glass as the keys are played, a most wonderful sound. This part was also the very first bit of the soundtrack that I actually noticed for real back when I was playing the game, admittedly the second time. The music didn’t phase me at all the first time around but I know I had some other quite enervating things on my mind at the time.
Wings of Kynareth
This is Wings of Kynareth, a strangely alluring piece of music that very clearly demonstrates Soule’s talent for using large skips in his melodies. Take the chord markings in this one with an extra pinch of salt as there is a lot going on in the background. The bass line moves around a lot and the harmony is almost incredibly thick owing to a huge airy choir shouting behind the arrangement. A harp also lightly taps the beats and adds an extra sparkling bit of harmony.
The structure of Oblivion’s score is closer in principle to the ACACBC form and each track contains fewer individual themes and melodies than in Morrowind. This makes for a more even and predictable listening experience, and with songs as pleasing as these, that is certainly a plus. Too bad that the music implementation is rather poor and when the music type changes from type to type, a new track is played instead of resuming the previous one that was interrupted. This will result in stray wolves coming out of nowhere to rob you of choruses.
Soule surely found himself a style that has an ethereal quality to it, with thick, lush flowing melodies and sweet harmonies that go well with the green forest that covers almost the entire game world. I do however think that this kind of music would be better suited to another kind of game, one that would benefit from a light-hearted tone. Oblivion on the other hand announces itself as an epic fantasy tale, but the rather laughable attempts at depth, darkness or even keeping a straight face come off as quaint and juvenile given the immature mechanics that make up most of the atmosphere. If you’ve played it, all I need to say in order to illustrate this is, “I SAW A MUDCRAB TODAY.”
Now, before we end this subject, let’s take a quick look at what’s coming our way towards the end of 2011. I swear, once they realised Skyrim was six letters they picked the eleventh of November just so they could do that thing at the end of the trailer where “Skyrim” turns into “11.11.11”.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Set in the land of people who breathe snow and effectively serve as their own suns, the fifth instalment of the Elder Scrolls series is coming after many years of waiting. We’ve been shown trailers, with gameplay, we’ve seen them show their voice acting and, most importantly, we got to hear the new main theme that Soule has been working on. If you haven’t heard it yet, you can do so here.
The male shouts in the beginning sound a lot like the “epic shouts” patch from Tonehammer’s Epic Tom Ensemble. Clearly, Soule has tried to combine the fat drums from Nerevar Rising with the violent staccato strings from Reign of the Septims. I wonder if the arrhythmic beats of the drums at the start are intentional. Whichever the case, they sound awkward, and the drums are not as rich as they were in Nerevar Rising. Quite frankly,the opening is quite weak.
Just like in Reign of the Septims, the melody has been diluted to give way for more bombastic action which is most fitting for the setting, if a bit stereotypical. We’re not all big lumps and varyingly brobdingnarian clones of Conan the Barbarian up here in the north, you know, and we don’t drink mead anymore.
Whatever the case, Sons of Skyrim isn’t a bad title theme by any stretch of the imagination, I’m just not sure that Soule is the right composer for this game. The atmosphere this time around shouldn’t be all efflorescent and wonderful, but rather harsh, cold and uninviting, and I’m yet to hear Soule provide that kind of hostile atmosphere with his music.
I think Skyrim could benefit from having both Inon Zur and Soule working at it. Soule will take care of the melodies while Zur handles the ambient music as well as the arrangement of all the music. This would give us both the memorable tunes and the right sensation while playing it. After this success, they would found Soulzur Music together, of course.
Do I think Skyrim will be a good game? Well, I don’t doubt for a second that it’ll probably be just a big a hit as Oblivion was, so there’ll be plenty of people playing it and plenty of people creating mods for it. In the end that’s all I really care about.
All the best,