Arcanum at 60

[Update: In addition to the PC Gamer citation, below, Forbes listed Arcanum as one of the 12 best video game soundtracks of all time in September 2012.]

The March 2012 issue of PC Gamer magazine includes their list of the top 100 games of all time, and Arcanum, for which I composed the soundtrack and designed most of the sound effects, came in at #60. Here’s the entire citation:

Arcanum is a thesis in player-character depth. My first trip through, I murdered Virgil the second he showed up, then went lone-wolf as a half-elf magic user with a penchant for cheap harlotry and booze. My second romp: I rolled as a charismatic capitalist gnome, collecting NPCs to do my technological dirty work. Having the Industrial Revolution stirred in with a reactionary, magic-using population is a setting unrivaled in RPGs. And that music…”

I was really thrilled to see the music called out explicitly (emphasis theirs). I think the only other soundtracks that received mention in their list were Peggle (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy) and Homeworld.

The Arcanum soundtrack is the biggest game score I’ve composed, and it’s been great to see the consistent interest the music has generated over the years, from Paul R. Coats’s saxophone transcriptions shortly after the game was released to the Lively Arcanum group that has been performing this music around Moscow and St. Petersburg more recently (I think this is their official website?).

The music has enjoyed a busy second life in the concert hall. I’ve presented the music live in a number of situations, beginning with the first Sound Currents concert in Seattle with odeonquartet in 2003, and later as part of a game audio panel at Cornish College of the Arts (also featuring Marty O’Donnell, Alistair Hirst, and Scott Selfon). I arranged a string orchestra version that was premiered at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig as part of the “Third Symphonic Game Music Concert” 2005, and last November I presented it alongside some of my more recent ambient electronic work at a concert with students at St. Olaf, a pairing that I felt quite complementary. It’s been played on the radio a few times, and I once got a BMI report informing me that it had been played on television in Finland.

I’ve received a steady trickle of fan mail, and one particularly touching note came from a first lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan who wrote about the cathartic role the music played for him. It’s really an honor to feel that my music has impacted people’s lives in this way.

I believe that the main reason for this music’s durability is that it was composed with a clear vision, a direct response to the unique environment conceived by the game’s creators, Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, and Jason Anderson. In Arcanum, a Tolkienesque world of magic has undergone an industrial revolution. To evoke this historical anachronism, I composed music inspired by the modes and contours of early sacred polyphony, but orchestrated it for string quartet, an ensemble that came into its own around the time of the Enlightenment. This decision stood in contrast to the common choice of epic, orchestral music for role-playing games, and I feel its popularity is linked to its unconventionality.

Last week I was talking to some new students about their first writing assignment for the spring semester. Before they composed a note, I asked them to write down on paper their concept for the music. I want to get them thinking about what the music is meant to convey and what means might best convey it, while at the same time to discourage the kinds of habits that are easy to cultivate when writing with the fingers instead of the head. For a game soundtrack as much as for the concert stage, music that endures must have something to say.

If you want the full scoop on the Arcanum soundtrack (including links to recordings and scores), check out my Arcanum soundtrack page. I’ve also compiled other reviews of the Arcanum soundtrack over on my press page for your convenience.