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Soul Reaver

Shuffle or Boogie? – Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Jake Wilson

Jake Wilson

A musician and composer who occasionally likes writing about video games...
Jake Wilson

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Soul Reaver

Hello and welcome to the first edition of ‘Shuffle or Boogie?’ in which I examine a video game soundtrack for your reading pleasure. In this debut installment we’re taking a look at 1999’s Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

When thinking about video game music, it might be easy to get caught up in the idea of the epic orchestral style we might expect to hear in Hollywood movies such as Spiderman, Batman, or Transformers. Whilst orchestral composers such as Harry Gregson-Williams have had their hits (Metal Gear Solid) and misses (Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare) I find that the most memorable soundtracks are often written by someone who has worked with the rest of the team to create something from the ground up that fits the tone and setting of the game.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is a perfect example of this. The well-respected writer/director Amy Hennig (later responsible for Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series) worked closely with composers/sound designers Kurt Harland and Jim Hedges to make sure the game’s music matched the ravaged world of Nosgoth. Soul Reaver was also one of the first 3D adventure games to use event triggers to subtly change the music on the fly, therefore augmenting its atmosphere and gameplay.

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Though Kurt Harland is a member of the surprisingly by-the-numbers New Wave band ‘Information Society,’ in 1997 their album ‘Don’t Be Afraid‘ had taken a different turn and had a more industrial sound rather than electronic. Hennig’s enlistment of Harland started with the composition ‘Ozar Midrashim‘ from this album. You might recognise it as the main theme of Soul Reaver and its motifs have been used in various tracks in every subsequent Legacy Of Kain game.

Jim Hedges was the audio programmer for Soul Reaver, and worked with the game’s code to create the triggers that could dynamically change the music. In an interview with the trio for the ‘Interactive Audio Special Interest Group’ Hedges explains this complex system:

We used an in-house developed adaptive audio MIDI driver, which replaces the Sony driver entirely. Signals from the game, based on location, proximity and game-state set special music variables, which are read by the driver and used to effect changes in the MIDI data. How these signals are interpreted is controlled by an extensive scripting language with standard branching, logic and arithmetic functions. This scripting language is written using MIDI text ‘meta’ events. These text commands can be written in a standard text file, or interspersed with other MIDI data in the MIDI bytestream. Some of the changes to MIDI data available are: muting/unmuting, transposition, pitch mapping, sequence start/stop, volume/tempo/pan changes etc.”

By analysing the instrumentation of the tracks, we find that they usually have around three states: neutral, combat and Spectral Realm. Neutral is the most sparse of the three, often laying down the percussive and rhythmic elements as a base with minimal melody. Combat states often add more intense percussion and higher pitched stabs and melodies, maybe adding lower brass sounds too to fill the empty space in the bottom end.

The Spectral Realm states are the most claustrophobic. They use a disjointed array of elements from the neutral and combat states, usually on top of a harmonically dense drone. These musical states often dictate the flow of the gameplay as you delve into the eerie spectral realm then emerge again into the physical world. A cycle much like the wheel of souls the Elder God perpetually spins.

There are some special musical triggers too such as in the encounters with Raziel’s brothers which serve as the game’s boss fights. One that sticks out in my mind is probably the fight with Dumah, from which you can flee and return to later.

Something to note about the tempo and rhythm of the percussion is that it seems to match Raziel’s shuffling steps perfectly. Perhaps unintentional but I always felt this enhanced the feel of Raziel’s movement by again binding music and gameplay.

vamp

Kurt Harland gathered inspiration from architectural drawings and lore based on the various vampire clans of Nosgoth. Amy Hennig described their back story to Harland and he did a fine job of matching his work to accommodate the world of Nosgoth. In the same ‘Interactive Audio Special Interest Group’ interview Kurt Harland states:

For any given area, we took the history and nature of the creatures living there as the first inspiration for the soundtrack. For example, one of the regions of the game was inhabited by a race of mechanical-engineering-oriented vampires. Based on their goals and behaviors and on the intended smoky, mechanical environment in which they lived, I composed sounds and music which were thick, slow, and thumping, like big machines far away.”

The Melchahim are often found among the tombstones of the Necropolis. Their theme uses bone crunching sounds and a melody played on the almost bone like marimba.

The Zephonim are a spider-like race who entomb their prey in cocoons. In their home, the Silenced Cathedral we hear spindly pizzicato strings accompanied by high-pitched drones on the violin.

The Drowned Abbey has the most intrusive and dissonant theme which stands to reason. It is probably the most complex area of the game and is one of the few areas where all of Raziel’s abilities must be combined to find your way through. Sometimes you must swim through long underwater tunnels to go further and deeper into the Abbey.

Kurt Harland’s legacy shines through to the later games in the series but this game seems to get it spot on in how the areas of the game feel so distinct. What the developers were unable to show graphically, in regards to the habitat of the various vampire clans, is made up wholly by its score and in turn it’s shifting atmosphere.

Although it is not my favourite soundtrack of the series, it is certainly the most important and serves as an example to all composers who blindly follow the standard ‘orchestral score’ aesthetic without taking into consideration the deep lore a game can possess.

DeadSun-Location-UnidentifiedNosgoth-01-Robotnik

In the advent of the leaked footage for the cancelledLegacy of Kain: Dead Sun it’s really hard for me to understand just what was going through Climax Studio and Square-Enix’s minds. It is undeniable that they set out to copy many elements from the Batman/Arkham games; they should have known better because Legacy of Kain has always been able to stand up in its own right as a unique and enjoyable experience.

Square-Enix should have also known better; as usual it is crystal clear what the fans want from them: a conclusion to Kain’s storyline! I am skeptical as to whether it can even be done without Amy Hennig’s guidance.

‘Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun’ seemed visually and aesthetically pleasing that’s true but I think that what it lacked, was soul.

If you would like to read the full interview with Amy Hennig, Kurt Harland and Jim Hedges you can find it here.

About Jake Wilson

A musician and composer who occasionally likes writing about video games...

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  • Mr0303

    Soul Reaver was one of the most revolutionary games for its time. The visuals, the gameplay (environmental kills and realm shifting), the level design, the top notch voice acting, the multi-layered characters and writing and as seen above the music. To this day Legacy of Kain is my favourite game series.

    To comment on Dead Sun – it is obvious that Square doesn’t know what they are doing as seen from Nosgoth. For this game they instructed Climax to make a new protagonist (possibly to accommodate newcomers to the series) and he and the vampire have an interesting dynamic similar to Raziel/Kain. This could’ve been an interesting reboot as a lot can be done with the Nosgoth mythos. I don’t mind that they copy some of Batman’s fighting mechanics since they are pretty good. In any case this game would’ve been a better option than the MOBA we got.

    While the best concept for a new LOK game is continuing the story from Defiance, I don’t think it is much needed. Defiance ended on a really powerful moment and only few questions remained unanswered – giving the player a chance to finish the story in his mind.

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