Monday, June 6, 2011

The Music of Mass Effect: Part 1

A good film or game score (and there are plenty of bad ones out there) works in tandem with the visual elements of the story. It reinforces what you know from watching and from playing, it guides your emotional response, it sets the pace and rhythm, and sometimes it's a great big black Sharpie drawing connecting lines all over the story for you, if you've the ears to hear it.

The Mass Effect titles bring us into a pretty damn epic space opera.  But although Commander Shepard's story is continuous across all three acts, each game has a different tone, a different scope, and a different enemy.  And in fact, although (if you import your saves) it's the same Shepard, due to circumstances beyond her control she is in many ways a different person from game to game.

Obviously in June 2011 I can't speak for Mass Effect 3, which will not only be a new arc for Commander Shepard's story but which will also be composed by someone who was not involved in the first two.  (Long-time game composer Jack Wall worked on the first two; film composer Clint Mansell has been brought on board for the final chapter.)  But over the course of the first two acts, Wall & company did some remarkable storytelling with sound, both for player-controlled sequences and for cut-scenes.

Reader warning: This discussion is going to span across a few posts (there's a lot to talk about here) and will contain plot spoilers for both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.  This is also a set of posts aimed at non-musicians, and will intentionally use very high-level, descriptive terms rather than delving into the minutiae of theory and composition.

We're going to begin by talking about selected tracks from the first game and the ground rules they lay out for us.  Once we understand how the first one works, we can then look at how the second game manipulates these themes and tells us how so much has changed in this story.

Mass Effect begins with Commander Shepard, Alliance Marine.  She (or he, but I tend to think of my Shepard so I'll be using female pronouns) is the best humanity has to offer, and offer her humanity does -- to be the first human Spectre, a badass special agent, tasked with bringing in the current most badass special agent, gone rogue.

She is, in no uncertain terms, a space hero.  The way she conducts herself is up to the player, but both paragon and renegade choices add up to, "Effective, heavily-armed badass who is leader of an effective, heavily armed team, on a mission."  This is, of course, in a technology-heavy future and the primary enemy she is fighting throughout the game is also tech-based (AI-driven robots).  And so, the mixture of electronic, vaguely unsettling sounds with military, even patriotic orchestral sounds in the Mass Effect Theme suits the game and the character very well.

The key take-away from this track (as it relates to everything else I'm going to write, and to our discussion of Mass Effect 2) is to note how well the main theme flows.  The whole piece is in a reasonably gentle 3/4, and although the initial minor opening feels sinister, once you get to the main statement of the actual theme at 1:11, you can very easily imagine fluid motions to go with it.  The line of the phrasing is smooth, uplifting, and unbroken.  (For me, it conjures up the rounded, constant fluidity of, say, someone performing a tai chi exercise, and if I were to imagine a film shot to go with it, it could be a slow 360 pan of Shepard looking heroic.)

Interestingly, the theme also brings in the whole "space navy" element of Shepard's story.  The snare crescendo gaining momentum at the end of each measure and fading into decrescendo at the beginning of the next carries the piece forward like waves beating on the shore.  This theme (both halves) gets a lot of use in the Mass Effect score, in myriad variations.  Although we're not going to discuss it much today, the first half of the theme seems to reference humanity, Council races, the Citadel, the Normandy, space, and in general the "good guys." Yes, it comes up a lot.  It's handy, because the rhythm, instrumentation, and notes can all be broken out separately and used for hints here and there -- more on that another time.

The heroism in the main theme, along with its companion the ominous tech synth of doom, returns, as one might expect, for Shepard's "Spectre Induction."  (The music and cut-scene begin around 3:05, which is where the video should start, but one never knows.  To listen to just the music out of context, click here.)

The other major theme I need to bring up in this post (because there's simply not time to examine them all at the moment) is for Saren.  His theme is also what the player hears if Commander Shepard gets killed (the game over screen), which is fitting both from a "how it sounds" perspective and also from a "well, now the bad guy's won, nice going there, everyone's doomed" one.

Saren's theme is... well, there's no doubt this is your bad guy.  (He looks like a bad guy, too.)  It's an ominous, electronic sound, deliberate and tireless -- this bass line is coming to get you, and your kids, and also every time you encounter this guy he's going to be slightly more crazy robot and slightly less angry turian.

The designers of Mass Effect have said that they deliberately played with the synth sounds we all learned in 80s science fiction films like Dune and Blade Runner.  I feel that Saren's music is where you hear that the most clearly: Saren's Base, in particular, carries that sound.

Of course, Saren's only half of our one-two punch of OH CRAP enemies.  His "ship" is worse for us all by far than he is.  Sovereign's theme, unsurprisingly, is untouched by Saren's:

I love what this theme tells us about Sovereign.  For starters: his (its?) music doesn't appear for anyone else.  The Reaper is his own entity.  Secondly: listen to that immensity!  Straight synth isn't going to hold an entity of this size or an enemy of this scope.  The music breaks into full choral mode that conveys the sheer size, physical and logistical, of this problem.

But my favorite part is how the music represents the most chilling aspect of a Reaper: indoctrination.  By hanging around the Reaper, you begin to believe anything, including the futility of your own cause.  In quoting what is essentially a bastardized, broken version of the main theme back to us (starting at 00:17), the music itself participates.  "You, too, will fall, broken and conquered" is what Sovereign's theme announces to the player.

Naturally, Sovereign's theme and Saren's come together, once and for all, in "Infusion," where Saren's monstrous corpse, reanimated by Sovereign, stands up to try and kill you again.  It is a tiring fight.  (My party did their job admirably.)

And after the boss fight, why, you have "Victory," of course:

This is about as straightforward a statement of victorious heroism as you get, in music.  It marches forward in a bold and dramatic straight 4/4 time, with military snares in the backround and a solid, repetitive bass emphasizing the downbeats.  Shepard, the Alliance Marine, has indeed vanquished her nemesis (her named, known, easy-to-spot nemesis).  Saren is down and Sovereign with him.

Of course this is tempered for a moment as Shepard's team (in my case, Wrex and Garrus) sits in the wreckage of the Citadel Tower.  The galaxy's heart of power lies in burning tatters, and the team does not know what has become of their beloved commander.  The music, remaining in a steady, pulsing 4/4, goes very quiet, very simple (moving in half notes through minor scales, for much of it) and very sad.

But Commander Shepard didn't get to be a cosmic badass by lying around dead in burning rubble!  Oh no.  She emerges, victorious (if slightly damaged) and the music pops right up for her, that passionate 3/4 main theme again, all brass, snare drum, and triumph:

But at the end of Mass Effect, after the Council is settled and the battle is won, we turn to Mass Effect 2.  And from the menu theme music alone, we can tell how very different this game will be.

The entire difference between the music of Mass Effect and that of Mass Effect 2 hinges on exactly one person: the Illusive Man.  Although Saren, the Geth, and Sovereign are constant threats throughout Mass Effect, the galaxy outside of Shepard continues to exist without caring that much about them.  The Citadel, Council races, Normandy, and so on are each allowed their musical moments.  In Mass Effect 2, such moments are a luxury.

Come back for part 2, and we'll examine how The Illusive Man's influence underlines the entire game, and how he quite literally changes the tone of all things.  In part three, we'll be able to loop back around to tackle some of the incidental music found on the Citadel, the Normandy, out exploring space, and so on, from both games.

[Edit: Part 2 is here.]


  1. Personally, the end scene of Mass Effect was the capstone of everything I hated about the game. The cheesiest, most telegraphed moment in the entire game. I didn't feel victorious. It felt like I was watching an un-ironic Starship Troopers (the movie) moment. Someone deliberately and bluntly trying to play with my perceptions and emotions through music. I don't dislike film music per se, but that ending score is every film music stereotype I've heard from the composer in the house, rolled into a kickball and thrown at my head.

    Of course, that only serves the thrust of the second game even better, but until I played that, I hated it. I still don't like it, but it works really REALLY well as a setup to the second game.

  2. Of course, that only serves the thrust of the second game even better,
    but until I played that, I hated it. I still don't like it, but it works
    really REALLY well as a setup to the second game.

    That's exactly it: the first game, in the soundtrack, has a lot of good, servicable, but highly derivative moments.  But I love what's done with them in ME2.  Absolutely fantastic how they're shifted under your feet, and I was blathering about it all week and weekend to my patient, non-musician husband.

    The trick is, I couldn't write that post without first laying out the baseline in this one. ;)

    The ending scene that I linked did feel cheap, to me.  The fight with Saren and Sovereign had been pretty good but Shepard was barely two seconds shy of waving a damn American flag over her head when she ran out of the rubble in that iconic shot.  (Plus ME2 was already installed on the machine I was playing ME1 on, so there wasn't exactly any real suspense; it was all manufactured.)

    But as a set-up for the second game, I love the first game, so that's the context I give it. ;)