Alternate title: How the Mass Effect Soundtracks Tell the Story of the Entire Trilogy Single-handedly
Disclaimer: yes, this post is geared more toward my fellow gamers, being as I'll primarily (probably exclusively, to be honest) be using Mass Effect as an example. But even if you're reading this and have no clue what I'm talking about, you may still find the concept interesting!
This is something I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the past, and it's fresh on my mind as I'm re-playing the Mass Effect trilogy for the nth time in anticipation of Andromeda's release in 22 days (but who's counting?). Being a hardcore fan of the series, I have of course purchased the original soundtracks for each of the three games, listened to them until my ears bled, and now casually hum along to the music while I'm playing. To start with, it's just great music. Plain and simple. Before I first played these games, I'd never realized how much game music had evolved over the years (of course, my previous gaming experience was still very limited at that point so I didn't have much to go on, but I digress).
One thing I've noticed as I've listened to the music and played the games over and over is the fact that each soundtrack has subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) nuances that totally capture the essence of the game. Of course I suppose that's always the point when you're scoring any sort of movie, show, or game, but in this series, I feel like it's particularly well-done. The music evolves along with the storyline in such a way that, in my opinion, someone could listen to the soundtracks in chronological order and understand the gist of the story without even touching the games.
The majority of the tracks on the Mass Effect 1 OST have a very electronic sound, and many of these are fairly upbeat as well, though from more of an intensity standpoint than an inspirational one. There's a sense of urgency. You spend the majority of the game trying to figure out why you're fighting what you're fighting. There's a mystery to be solved, and that's where some of the other tracks come in. They've got a slower tempo and a more mysterious, intriguing, and sometimes even creepy sound. I think this matches up well with the whole exploration element of the game, and not just exploration done by Shepard, but exploration done by you as the player. At the beginning, you get thrown into the story and have to work a little to learn and familiarize yourself with the environment. For example, when you arrive on the Citadel for the first time, the music evokes a sense of wonder. Still other tracks, many of which are derived from the game's main theme, have a very heroic, noble sound. These three elements I've mentioned create a perfect overarching "space-marines-fighting-bad-guys-and-saving-the-galaxy" theme. This game introduced players to a lot of things they'd never seen before, and I think the score is a really good representation of that.
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2's OST is just as perfect, but in different ways. Once again, a lot of the score has kind of an electronic sound, but there's a much darker, grittier undertone than there was in the first game. Think about how the game starts. You as the player were all excited for this sequel where you get to come back and revisit all the characters you came to know and love, and BOOM, all of that is taken away in the first five minutes. Shepard misses out on two years of galactic developments and then is asked to work with total strangers. You don't know who you can trust, and many of the people you meet aren't sure if they can trust you. Everything is different, and at least when I play, I get this feeling of legitimate discomfort throughout the first chapter (you can tell I really get into the whole RPG thing, huh?). Even the goal of the game is different. Sure, you eventually learn the truth about the Collectors, but at first, you're kind of thinking "What does this have to do with what I was trying to accomplish in the first game?" I think the music, while not unpleasant to listen to, does a good job of reflecting all of this disappointment and uncertainty. Many of the soundtrack's character themes have kind of a harsh, intense sound. There are a few more orchestral elements than there were in ME1, but as I mentioned, everything is still very electronic. Even the more inspirational pieces, like The Normandy Reborn, have kind of a synthesized sound.
But then, as you get closer to the end of the game, the musical themes change. You've just spent ~30 hours learning to trust these new characters who were once strangers, and you've all been working together to achieve this common goal. You're all facing these impossible odds (it wouldn't truly be Mass Effect if you weren't facing impossible odds!) and you've finally reached the point where you have to knuckle down and DO THE THING you've been working toward for the entire game. That calls for a more heroic score, right? The whole Suicide Mission sequence has, in my opinion, some of the best game music ever. The electronic sound is still there, but the orchestral element is stronger than ever. I actually play the above track while setting up the gym before volleyball games because it's so inspirational -- nobody else knows what it is, but they think it sounds cool. Still, I've always thought there was kind of a sad undertone ("sad" isn't actually the right word, but I've never been able to adequately describe it) in this piece, maybe because even though you've just accomplished a huge feat, you know the real war has yet to begin.
Mass Effect 3
The third installment has by far the most emotional, sweeping soundtrack of the entire trilogy. The tracks are primarily orchestral/instrumental rather than synthesized, and I think that represents the scale of the game. Everything you've done -- the decisions you've made, the secrets you've learned, the people you've met -- throughout the other two games becomes significant in one way or another. This calls for an entirely different sound than anything we've heard so far in the series. As a whole, I've always thought the soundtrack had a very tragic theme. Even the heroic parts still have an "I-know-what's-at-stake-and-that-this-might-not-end-well" undertone. The opening sequence of the game is a tear-jerker (see above). Hopeful pieces still sound sad. Then of course there are the legitimately tragic parts (<-- I've always loved that music and I'm bummed it's not actually on the soundtrack).
Despite all of that, I'm a firm believer that all of these scenes wouldn't have the same emotional impact on the player if they'd been scored in the same intense, electronic style of ME1 and ME2. The orchestral score gives them so much more meaning, and even if the outcome is saddening, you as the player still feel like you've accomplished something. One of my favorite tracks (and quite possibly my favorite scene in the entire trilogy) utilizes a familiar theme from ME1, but the sound is so different that I actually didn't even realize it was the same melody the first time I played. Listen to the difference between ME1's "Spectre Induction" and ME3's "The Fleets Arrive."
I love how that theme brings everything full circle. As one YouTube commenter put it, the two scenes use the same theme because Shepard's Spectre induction was the moment the Reapers lost the war. I'm glad that's the theme that was used when the fleets arrive. When a piece of music can make you clamp your hand over your mouth and burst into tears (no joke -- I did that the first time I played) you know the game designers have done a good job.
Anyway, thanks for reading my random musings. Next time you play these games or listen to the soundtracks, think about this. Listen to the way the music tells the story. Taking the evolution of the soundtracks across this trilogy into consideration, I can't wait to hear what Andromeda's music is like.