Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Dragon Age... in a rap song?

Dragon Age Origins is one of my all-time favorite games. After playing (and loving) games like NWN and NWN 2, Origins felt like a grown-up version of those RPGs. Although I missed the character creation options of D&D-style games, the game made up for it by offering an absolutely amazing, immersive, epic story with truly heart-wrenching player choices. (Not all of them were equally heart-wrenching, though - I very much enjoyed punching Isolde in the face in my first playthrough of the game.) All in all, for me it was the perfect mixture of humor, tragedy, camaradery, mystery... and swooping.

I've heard it said that the soundtrack, composed by Inon Zur, is a bit of a hit and miss. If I regard the soundtrack as a standalone collection, I'd say this is true in part - while there are many absolutely beautiful pieces such as the main theme, Battle of Lothering Village, and Lake Calenhad Docks among others, the battle tracks can sound a little bit dragged. Furthermore, I feel that the best music gets very little listening time in-game, and many have wondered, for instance, why the aforementioned Battle of Lothering Village only plays to killing a few bandits and wild animals in a small area at an early part of the game. (There is no way to know, but perhaps the developers initially thought they would include the actual battle of defending Lothering from the darkspawn, and the track was composed along those lines?) On the other hand, many pieces accompany the game very well, and Zur is very good at conveying emotion.

Dragon Age Rap

A few years ago, I made an instrumental tribute piece to this game, but I always felt that it deserved more. So, when a friend of mine, Radek (who is a rapper) and I began talking about doing a collaboration, it was pretty clear that it should be tributed to Origins, seeing as it was a favorite of the both of us. The problem for me, though, was creating a background track that suited rapping vocals but still channeled enough of the spirit of Dragon Age to be recognizable. So, I decided to take the melody and chords from the game's soundtrack but add a modern beat with some modern instruments to accompany the strings and brass (it kind of is my style anyway). See if you can spot these themes in the track:

0:00 Main Theme / Ferelden at War (melody)
0:26 In Uthenera (ostinato)
0:32 Party Camp / Character Creation Theme (chords)
0:48 Battle of Lothering Village (chords and short french horn passage)
1:36 In Uthenera (melody and chords)


I knew I bit off quite a big chunk by attempting to do vocals originally sung by the amazing Aubrey Ashburn. I know I'm not a Great Singer and my voice is not necessarily suitable for such work - it's "cool" with a straight tone, and very different from Aubrey's rich, classical sound. But doing only instrumentals gets boring and I still like to challenge myself to get better at singing, as well. I'm actually quite proud of managing the beginning part as well as I did, even though I'm well aware that it is not perfectly executed. Besides, I absolutely LOVE composing and singing harmonies. This one has a four part harmony at the end.

Radek, of course, did amazing work as usual, creating a set of lyrics that convey the game's most important aspects, and then delivering them with such precision - I could not speak that fast even in my native language! If you're interested in rap covers and video game themed raps, make sure you check out Radek's YouTube channel!

A Word About the Future

In addition to this Dragon Age tribute, I have also been working on two more songs and one instrumental piece. Unfortunately, I have been suffering from a cold which has played havoc with my voice, preventing me from both practising and recording vocals for a track that is otherwise ready to go. In any case, I'm still hoping to upload a song tributed to Robin Hobb's amazing fantasy tetralogy, the Rain Wilds Chronicles before the end of the year. (More) dragons, how exciting!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

An Ode to the Game with a Silly Name

Ah, Neverwinter Nights 2. My memories of this Obsidian game and its first expansion, Mask of the Betrayer, are both warm and painful. The original campaign (OC) I loved because I had never felt so personally involved in a story — and hated because some of the elements felt (and, in fact, were) incomplete. Strangely, though, the missing bits really inspired me to fill them in by writing fan fiction, which I haven't done before or since.

Although I liked the OC's warm atmosphere, I really did not mind the shift to a darker mood in Mask of the Betrayer, in fact I very much enjoyed it. The part of me that is into disturbing stuff really got a kick out of meeting Gulk'aush. And if I felt that my character had been dealt an unfair hand in the original campaign, then... well, multiply that by ten, and you'll have Mask of the Betrayer. A plus in my book ;)

My only gripe with the expansion was a certain mechanic implemented in it that made me feel like I had to rush through the game. While in principle I think it was awesome, in reality it made me feel like an important part of playing the game — the exploration — was really hampered by the feeling of having a time bomb ticking inside. That, and changing Bishop's voice. I know it was only a few lines, but still, *spoiler alert* if I had to watch my almost-lover being dissolved into a living wall of tormented souls, at least let him do it with his usual... wolfiness. Blech.*end of spoiler alert*

Poor Bishop. *sob*

The Music

I don't make tributes to games that I feel do not have great music - and I really liked the music of NWN2. Of course, some of it was reused tracks from the first game, composed by the awesome Jeremy Soule. The original tracks, at least so the internet tells me, were composed by David Fraser and Neil Goldberg, and some of it was truly, tear-jerkingly good.

The music in Mask, on the other hand, was the handiwork of none other than Alexander Brandon, with whom I had my first experience in elementary school when I was playing Jazz Jackrabbit (Tubelectric really made a lasting impression on my younger self and, I suspect, played a part in my obsession with ostinatos... or perhaps it's the other way around). While the music in the OC was pretty much the usual fare of fantasy RPGs, the music in Mask took a more creative approach at times. I suppose with a story that takes you an a multi-planar journey involving gods (both alive and dead), you don't have to limit yourself to the ordinary when composing, either. The music really works in setting the mood and several pieces on the soundtrack have become my all time favorites.

Death God's Vault

You might be wondering, why is she only talking about the OC and Mask? Doesn't she know there are two more expansions to the game? Well, yes. And Storms of Zehir actually has some really awesome music, as well. But the sad truth is, I simply did not feel that the story of SoZ had enough pull to make me want to play more than a few hours. And Mysteries of Westgate I never even played. More importantly, though, unlike the subsequent expansions, the first one was a continuation of the story of the original campaign and makes for a better, more cohesive tribute piece.

My NWN2 Tribute: Before the Wall

So, my tribute is to the story of the Spirit Eater — hence the title — but of course there would be no Spirit Eater without the Knight-Captain of Crossroad Keep. Therefore I have included themes from both the OC and MotB. I did my best to replicate some of the sounds (e.g. the bowed cymbal) and the atmosphere in Brandon's work but for the most part, I just took the melody and ran with it :p On a technical note, I think I'm slowly learning how to portray power without having all the instruments playing at the same time.

See if you can spot these themes in the tribute:
0:00 Death God's Vault (NWN2: MotB)
0:41 Immil Vale Combat (NWN2: MotB)
1:35 Ruins (NWN2:OC Main Theme)
& Githyanki Theme (NWN2:OC)

I did plan to do vocals for this and even wrote a full set of lyrics. I found out the hard way that I had not left enough space for vocals in the track, though, so I left it as an instrumental. I'm sure most of you prefer a nice viola section over my singing voice, anyway ;) (I might do a version with a simpler background track to accommodate for vocals, as I think it might suit the lyrics better, as well. So, more on that later!)

In the meantime, though, I'm working on a few projects - another Dragon Age themed song that's going to be a little different, and something inspired by literature rather than video games.