In this series of posts, scattered over a vast period of time, I’ve been discussing the particulars of one method I use to motivate myself to write: listening to music. I’ve found that this is one of the very best ways for me to break through writers block. I am, in many ways, a “visual writer,” meaning that I put onto paper pictures I see in my head. Scenes play themselves out, like miniature movies. Music can become the “soundtrack” for those movies, setting the stage and moving things along. The story sometimes dictates what music I choose, and, often, the music shapes the tone of what I’m imagining.
The Mass Effect series is one of the finest contributions to science fiction that I’ve seen in the recent past, perhaps even in my lifetime. There is a depth of realism, action, and history to its universe that rivals the best of the “star” series–Star Wars/Trek/Gate. I think its unfortunate that more sci-fi lovers don’t know more about it. It’s besetting “sin” is that is it is a computer game, and unless you are a gamer, you will likely never really get to experience it.
That is why I think this installment of “Music to Write By!” could be particularly useful. Unless you are already acquainted with modern games, chances are your idea of computer music was formed by something like Super Mario Brothers (click here for a sample).
If that is your idea of computer game music, you’d best forget it quickly. As I discussed in my post on Oblivion, they’ve gotten much, much better. They’ve moved from 4-bit graphics and plinking away with old midi files to million dollar budgets, professional actors, and full orchestras. To give you a sense of this in the context of Mass Effect, here is one of the (many) trailers for ME2 that are available. And yes, that is Martin Sheen you hear.
There has been an equally impressive improvement in music. The very best are fully and completely produced by professional composers–in this case the now legendary Jack Wall–and performed by the best musicians. Oblivion, Halo, Skyrim, and Mass Effect all have soundtracks that stand fully on their own, completely apart from the game itself.
I would also add that in most computer games, at least the first person shooters and the RPGs, as a player you are continually being pushed along to some particular goal. This means that the music tends to be both potent and focused. Instead of an end in and of itself, it supports the action–your action–as you complete the game. In terms of getting things accomplished, I find this actually gives it an advantage over other kinds of compositions. For example, I love listening to Loreena McKinnett, but at times her music and her words are so good that they distract me from what I’m doing. I want to listen to her rather than complete my task. Therefore, for my purposes at work and as an author, I find game soundtracks (and most film scores) extremely useful because they help me focus on the task at hand.
The score for ME2 is a combination of live orchestra and well-made electronic music. The former gives it an epic, film score sound while the latter imparts a techno, futuristic flair. Many of the tracks are “about” one of the main members of the team that Commander Shepherd (the main character) assembles and leads during the course of the game. Appropriately, each track seems to have its own unique personality. My personal favorite is “Tali”* though “Samara” and “Grunt” are both high on my list too.
True to the game’s status as a cinematic hybrid, other tracks are written to go with certain scenes or situations. These play in the background of the various cutscenes and are essentially stereotypical film scores. Two excellent ones here are “Suicide Mission” or “Crash Landing.”
One warning, though: Unless you’re already really addicted to the music from the game, make sure you download the the official soundtrack, and not the one labeled “Atmospheric.” The “atmospheric” music is intended to serve as a background for periods of extended gameplay as opposed to specific, preset scenes. Since, of course, the composer has no way to know how long a player might take accomplishing a task or indeed what the player is doing at all, these tracks are all very open-ended and repetitive–they can get old very quickly.
So, in a nutshell….
Album: Mass Effect 2 Original Video Game Score
Artist: Jack Wall
Genre: Film score
Spectrum: Epic Sci-fi
Pathos: Heroic, futuristic
Good for: For obvious reasons, this works very well with stories featuring futuristic, tech settings. It is excellent for epic combat or perhaps a “space western.” I also find it very useful for general work, since its driving beat keeps me focused and on task.
Want to purchase this album? Click here.
*Yes, Tali is one of my favorite team members. No, I’m not a member of the on-line “cult” of Tali’Zorah. For those uninitiated in Mass Effect, the character Tali, voiced by Liz Sroka, has managed to acquire a massive fan base dedicated to her beyond all reason or expectation. Some of them really go overboard on various message boards.