by Janice Lester
This summer Prey will be unleashed on a public with burnt holes in their flak jackets and battle scars on their mice. A tale of gratuitous outer-space carnage and spiritual absolution that is one of the most anticipated video game releases of recent years.
Prey's storyline follows Tommy, a young Cherokee and former soldier who has renounced his heritage and spiritual foundation. Kidnapped by aliens, bent on harvesting the Earth's peaceful inhabitants as a food source, he is imprisoned alongside his grandfather and girlfriend by their biomechanical captors. Breaking free from his confinement, Tommy is contacted by his late grandfather's spirit who urges him to re-affirm his beliefs as the only way to find salvation and rescue Jen.
Destined to shake-up the first-person shooter genre, this game won't be bursting onto the market in a hail of gunfire. Moreover it will be detonating a thermonuclear charge beneath its competitors and committing polygonal genocide. This is guns-for-glory on over-the-counter steroids with an orchestral soundtrack as revolutionary as its much-vaunted style of game play.
Written and produced by BAFTA® award-winning composers Jeremy Soule and Julian Soule, the music in Prey is being hailed as featuring the first movie-length soundtrack for a video game. With a running time of over three hours, the release of a two-volume soundtrack album looks set to demonstrate how high the bar has now been raised in video game scoring practice.
So high, in fact, that Prey is destined to effect industry-wide change: from defining a new standard by which music commissions for flagship interactive titles can be judged, to sounding a welcome death knell for the use of through-composed material. It is a key milestone and one that is the culmination of a decade's work spent to bring the true sound of Hollywood into the home. The result: a soundtrack which breathes color into a monochrome landscape. Indeed, nothing quite like this has come before in the games industry and, when Prey ships, the dust is going to take a long time to settle. So, reload and pack some stims because if you want an answer to where video game music goes from here... it's arrived.
Prey has had a long production history akin to that of many feature films. Indeed, the project languished in "development hell" for four-and-a-half years, eventually progressing as a co-production between 3D Realms Entertainment and Human Head Studios. It's to the credit of music supervisor Jeron Moore that Jeremy Soule and Julian Soule were brought on-board as Prey moved into full gear during 2005.
Scott Miller, 3D Realms' CEO, acknowledges that the importance of Jeremy's contribution to Prey is a testament to their shared vision, "It was a fantastic stroke of luck that Jeremy was coming off of the back of another project and was able to sit-down with us and bring to the game that level of Hollywood excellence he's renowned for. We had felt that it'd be very difficult to get him, but he was so enthused about the project from the moment we approached him, so in-tune with our needs that he ended up coming on-board straight away."
The decision to hire Jeremy can be seen as a just reward in light of his success, especially when noting that 3D Realms have traditionally employed in-house composers. He has penned original music for the Warner Bros. Harry Potter video game franchise, been the recipient of numerous awards and nominations alongside Julian - notably from the British Academy of Film & Television Arts - and scored projects across a variety of mediums. He himself comments that his involvement with the project was a fortuitous one:
"As Scott and I began to explore all the possibilities of music in Prey, it quickly became clear that a game of this magnitude simply would not succeed operating under the age-old industry standard of an hour's worth of music. We raised the bar to two hours, thinking this was quite an ambitious goal for the FPS genre. Imagine our surprise when we finally looked up and realized what we had was over three hours of music, which Prey takes full advantage of." [Play "Overture" MP3]
Given the longevity of the project one could say that the Soylent Green frosting on this savory sponge is neither Prey's ingenious plotline nor its groundbreaking level design - where hostile environments literally turn on their heads in a heartbeat. Rather, it is the game's music that provides the topping, although it often feels more like a glacé cherry than suspiciously tasty icing. Here, both composers deftly prove that their experience of conventional film music writing can ensure success in the field of video game scoring.
Prey's musical goals are realized using a combination of synthetic and live performance, as one might expect for a first-person shooter that pits adrenaline junkies against hordes of grotesque and trigger-happy extra-terrestrials. For fans of Jeremy's earlier work on Total Annihilation and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, then, the result is an aural upgrade. For everyone else (especially the music enthusiasts and their long-hospitalized bank accounts) it's the orchestral and choral love-child of two popular soundtracks: Jerry Goldsmith's Capricorn One, where thunderous bass trombone stabs and militaristic percussion abound, and "24" - a television series indebted to composer Sean Callery for its memorably tense electronic counterpoint. In this latter vein, the game owes much to Julian's co-composing sensibilities, who points out that "working on Prey was very much like scoring a whole season of a network drama in a few weeks. Thankfully, though, we didn't have to deal with constantly moving goalposts because everyone involved had a clear sense of direction from the start. Our initial enthusiasm for the project greatly contributed to the composition process, especially in the rich tonal palette we employed and trying to push boundaries around that. It was important that the purely synthetic timbres in the score became as integral to its structure as the more traditional orchestral doublings."
Central to the Soule brothers' musical effort is a heroic, low-register motif for French horn and trombone that asserts the spiritual aims of Tommy's quest (commenting, too upon our hero's affinity with both the spiritual realm and the elements). It is this primary four note antecedent upon which the game's motivic constructs rest and is first heard in its overture (a grandiose composition where renaissance brass, col legno violins - to the rest of us, that's hitting the instrument with the stick of the bow - and tribal chanting co-exist). A further demonstration that this shooter eschews convention to live up to its cinematic pretensions. Of course, all roads lead to here as Prey's myriad of fixed thematic ideas - being character-based, whether physical or emotional - contrast the sacred nature of Tommy's journey. This is especially evident in the triplet, unison celli motif for the alien's killing spree that is transformed from its subdued earliest appearance (in "Dark Harvest Begins", whose tonal palette is strikingly reminiscent of John Williams' work on War of the Worlds) to its last (the incredible "Raiding the Keeper's Fortress") both in construction and orchestration. [Play "Dark Harvest Begins" MP3]
That there are further examples of musical prowess littered throughout the game is assured. Indeed, the composers have banished the poisoned chalice of repetitive four bar phrasing and bargain bucket harmonic devices to underscore Tommy's journey. Of course, writing for picture requires the ability to adhere to fundamental rules of composition and this is done here in a reverential manner that avoids complacency. And, let's face it, when scoring video games in a linear fashion it can be easy for composers to embrace conceit: to favor state over sub-text and loop the event rather than the emotion.
As each on-screen melée test the player's wits, so too does a soundtrack that is as much of the experience as the texture mapping. If one thing is evident, then, it is that Jeremy and Julian are versatile enough to orchestrate themselves from the ground upwards, forsaking the need to rely on someone else to flesh out the writing as many of their peers do. Every pitch, every duration, every marking is placed deliberately - using an incredible virtual orchestra that draws much from the indigenous instrumentation of the Native American nations (noticeably with clay flute and percussion), thanks to the composers' shrewd use of the revered Voices of Native America sample library. A testament to the Soules' grounded compositional technique and a thorough understanding of the game's demands. [Play "Back to the Ancient Land " MP3]
What makes Prey an even more exhilarating ride is the vast array of weaponry at the disposal of the game's protagonist and the musicians. Nowhere is this more evident than in the orchestral tour-de-force that is "Splitting the Arrow". A standout cue from one of the game's pivotal moments, cleverly juxtaposing some of the game's primary themes (for reasons that I won't divulge), it hands a mouse and a full ammo clip to the Soule clan and sees them gun-down a raft of post-WWII USC film composition graduates whilst lobbing incendiaries at Béla Bartók. It's cerebral, it's war, and it's great fun! [Play "Splitting the Arrow" MP3]
With ardent PC and Xbox 360 gamers chomping at the byte for Prey's arrival, two volumes of music featuring Jeremy and Julian's soundtrack have been released in advance of the game's summer debut. Prey - Volume 1 and, unsurprisingly, Volume 2 showcase almost 145 minutes of courageous and thrilling music.
The albums are available exclusively for download at DirectSong.com, the gaming industry's leading music portal. Whilst you'll require Windows Media Player (version 7.1 upwards) to play the music and transfer it between devices (the tracks have built-in DRM), DirectSong must be applauded for offering their content at 320kbps - as close to the rawness of CD quality audio available today via digital distribution and surely a kick in the teeth for their competition. [Play Raiding the Keeper's Fortress" MP3]
One thing is for sure, with Prey, the art of video game scoring has no longer been left to battle its way out of the spirit realm with a fourteen year-old kid at the controls. There are some adults out there and they've got bigger guns.