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Grey Goo was one of my most anticipated games of 2015, so this time I’ll be talking about Frank Klepacki, his work up until now and how this new game’s audio shapes up. Frank Klepacki is a Las Vegas based composer and sound director. His story begins at only 17 years old when he joined the company that many might describe as the masters of real-time strategy: ‘Westwood Studios’.
Born to two musician parents in 1974, Klepacki started out as a drummer when he was 8 years old. His attempts at forming bands in his teenage years proved difficult as he found it hard to relay his song ideas to other people. This led him to use software to input his musical ideas and hear them back.
His cousin Lewis Castle first introduced him to Westwood as a games tester where he began to receive some mentoring from the then audio director of Westwood. 1990’s Dragonstrike was the first game he worked on as a composer; its repeating drum patterns and fast paced arpeggiated melodies make me think of some kind of 8-bit power metal, a possible influence of this time in Frank Klepacki’s life. The Mission 3 theme especially, is something I imagine would go down well as a cover for the band ‘Dream Theater’ (or indeed their spin-off band ‘Liquid Tension Experiment’.)
Following on from this was another Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game Eye of the Beholder II. This soundtrack is decidedly more ambient, dark and I suppose more typical of the fantasy games of the time. Klepacki had started to use a much wider array of synthesised instruments, with the intro track alone using very well designed counterparts of glockenspiel, harpsichord and tubular bells.
In 1992 he worked on Dune II, a game based on Frank Herbert’s series of novels. The game laid the foundation for many RTS games that would follow, including Warcraft and Starcraft. The soundtrack features a lot of saw synths with marching style drums but this fits well with the desert world of Dune. I have a feeling the composer Stephen Rippy may have taken influence from tracks such as ‘The Prophecy – Part I & II‘ when he worked on the soundtrack for Age of Empires in 1997. Some of the melodies in Dune II and in the later Age of Empires soundtracks are somehow halfway between playful and disconcerting.
Klepacki continued with a similar approach to game music for 5 years but then in 1995 there came a massive shift in both the style and the quality of his work. It’s hard to say why Command & Conquer’s soundtrack was so different; it makes great use of samples, drum loops and heavy guitar. Perhaps after working alongside Paul Mudra and Dwight Okahara on their previous games, Westwood decided to give Klepacki full creative freedom on this project. There were also the technological advancements of music to consider. With the growing prominence of digital recording, it was becoming more viable to have recordings of real instruments and samples in games.
One of my favourite and most notable tracks from the Command & Conquer series is ‘Mechanical Man‘ which takes a sample from the 1970 album ‘Lie: The Love and Terror Cult’ by infamous serial murderer Charles Manson. A strange album to have in your collection, yes but nonetheless a great album with strong politically charged lyrics.
Klepacki continued to compose for Westwood right up until their final game Earth and Beyond in 2002, after which they were dismantled by EA. The story doesn’t end there though as a good chunk of the Westwood team responsible for Command & Conquer went on to form ‘Petroglyph Games’ and they brought Frank Klepacki with them.
LucasArts employed Petroglyph to create the Star Wars RTS Empire at War. Of course, with John Williams being one of Frank Klepacki’s main influences for his soundtrack work, he stated that he worked hard to make sure every track was up to scratch. They were big boots to fill but he did a fine job.
The use of harp glissandi and harsh, loud brass on the track ‘Corruption Has Begun‘ for instance is a perfect example of Klepacki’s homage to John Williams. Unfortunately, as with John Williams, the human ear can only take so much of constant intruding brass so high in the mix; it all gets a bit obnoxious after you’ve been playing for many hours and is therefore my least favourite of Klepacki’s work.
Petroglyph cast the net rather wide for the next few years, trying their hands at an XBLA board game, multiple short lived MMOs and of course, a MOBA. The soundtracks to these games, although generally following in the same vein as Kelpacki’s later work on Command & Conquer are incredibly well produced.
When taking a look at Battle for Graxia I felt a bit like Frank Klepacki’s music was not matched with a fantasy MOBA style game and you can probably hear that for yourself in the track ‘Electrified.’
This brings me to Petroglyph’s latest game Grey Goo. This may seem a bit anti-climactic but I’m actually in two minds about the aural experiences in Grey Goo. Yes, the music itself is incredibly well composed, produced and fits the tone of the game perfectly but there are also some glaring issues I would like to address throughout this review.
Each of the game’s 3 factions have their own set of compositions, which is a refreshing change to having a large amount of songs coming on in a random order. These tracks also play dynamically when entering into a larger scale fight on the battlefield. A few times this got me really pumped, and the music was a massive contributor to some of my favorite moments of playing Grey Goo. That being said, I found there to be a massive difference between the Human and Beta faction’s music. A lot of the tracks from the Beta faction went over my head completely with only one particular part standing out for me; that being the cello motif in the track: ‘Wall Defense.’
The Beta have the most organic feel, being the least technologically advanced of the factions. Their tracks probably make the most use of acoustic instruments like strings and percussion, whereas the human faction has some of the most “dancey” electronic tracks and is the most intense of the three. The Goo, as with the gameplay, throws a curveball with their tracks; they blend orchestral styles with dubstep, though the amount of dubstep wobble is just enough to remain tasteful and actually made me like the sound of dubstep….slightly.
I felt the same way about another recent soundtrack – Far Cry 3 by Brian Tyler…perhaps dubstep in games is a better use of this bizarre genre because you certainly can’t dance to it.
I find the main theme (which is heard whenever you’re selecting missions and on the main menu) to be one of the very few Frank Klepacki compositions I would describe as terrible. If only because it uses the incredibly obvious and over used motif of strings playing staccato semiquavers, then introduces a slow and strong brass melody in a lower register. It’s something I like to call the “Spiderman soundtrack technique,” and it has been used in hundreds of films and games including Transformers, Arkham City, and to my dismay…the otherwise great Tomb Raider reboot.
Another major issue I have is with the sound direction, or rather the lack of it. The game’s audio is incredibly unbalanced both with headphones and studio monitors. There are a lot of sliders in the options menu which is great, but often audio contained within the same slider, such as dialogue, can have massive volume spikes.
There are numerous audio bugs too; the worst of which being when you receive multiple objective markers on the map. Rather than coding a single sound for any amount of new objectives, the new objective sound will play for every single map marker added simultaneously. In short, it’s flippin’ loud! The first time this happened I almost had to bat my headphones from my head to get the sound away from my ears as soon as possible. When designing audio make sure our ears aren’t gonna be bleeding after some time playing.
Another mishap with the Grey Goo soundtrack itself is its Steam price of £5.59. The soundtrack has 31 songs but we’re only allowed 10 and only in heavily compressed 192kbps MP3 format. To me this is inexcusable; especially as the game install holds all the tracks anyway in the .BINKA audio format. However, this is possibly the fault of the publisher and/or Steam for allowing MP3s to be uploaded for sale….are they all still wondering why piracy happens?
Despite these misgivings, Grey Goo has a good number of tracks which immediately inject any match with the right pacing and mood. I found the Human campaign to be the most enjoyable and this may be partly down to its outstanding music. Frank Klepacki is a credit to both the game and music industries and his views on the detrimental effects of pop music and MTV to the industry in particular, are spot on.
Frank Klepacki, has been doing this for over 25 years now and hopefully he won’t be going anywhere any time soon. To close, here is a great interview with the man himself: