Sunday, July 21, 2013

Soundtrack Suggestion: The Last of Us - Gustavo Santaolalla

The Last of Us
Composed by Gustavo Santaolalla

The Last of Us is one of those Playstation 3 games that just makes you stop for a moment and appreciate how far we have gone in the video game industry in making games strike a much more powerful emotional resonance to the player.  And this magic, admittedly, is greatly in part due to a very effective score.   For those who don't know the game, The Last of Us is an action-survival horror game by Naughty Dog (creators of the Uncharted franchise) which has been gaining a lot of raves in the video gaming industry.   It is the story of Joel, a man who is escorting a young girl named Ellie across a post-apocalyptic United States of  America.  The two face many dangers in their journey, especially from zombie-like things that have been infected with a fungus.    While many games out there might appreciate going guns-blazing into a combat scene, this game rewards careful use of stealth, strategy, and gumption.

And boy, does the game have a very GENEROUS soundtrack to explore.  Gustavo Santaolalla has created a world of sound that immerses you deep in a world of danger and does not relent until all fifty-five minutes have passed.  Given how he was the man behind the masterful score of Brokeback Mountain and Babel (both of which won Academy Awards), there is no doubting that this soundtrack was one worth checking out.

The soundtrack clearly focuses on the Guitar as the main musical presence in each track.  The Quarantine Zone (Track 01) opens with an almost mellow tune, but shifts to something more menacing at the two minute mark.  The strings begin to squeal and almost snarl with a dangerous touch, reminding you that things are not all well and safe where you are.  The Last of Us (Track 03) is a powerful evocative piece that works very well as a key leitmotif for games.  The song has a hopeful edge amidst its dark and dreary aural landscape without turning into an overpowering western theme.  Even the percussion instruments in the song are subtle enough to just add enough meat to the music without turning all "Holywood".  Forgotten Memories (Track 04) and The Outbreak (Track 05) can easily be used in a variety of games where a sad yearning exists.    Both carry a heavy emotional burden yet are generic enough to work in a variety of genres.   Smugglers (Track 12) sounds nicely active without being stereotypical, almost giving me images of an active montage as the characters prepare for an attack or something like that.  It even has nice peaks in the audio that trick the player into thinking the fighting/action moment has started, then shifts back to the beat.

Interestingly, The Hunters (Track 07), By Any Means (Track 10), and Infected (Track 17) which are clearly tense-moment tracks sounded less intense than I expected.    Even the track entitled, I Know What You Are (Track 15) which is mostly just a massive growing pounding of drums, seems... weak.  Have I just been spoiled too much by the audio overload from Silent Hill scores?  I guess I was expecting more in an age of performances like STOMP and the like.

The Last of Us (A New Dawn) (Track 19) is a tricky bastard.  It opens nicely thematic and solemn, but shifts by the one minute mark into a more aggressive pounding beat.  Its a great track, but one some GMs might find tricky to use in a game.  The Path (Track 22) sounds like a piece that would very easily slip into the Silent Hill soundtrack.  It even ends with a haunting touch.

The Last of Us track suggestions:
WTF moment: Smugglers (Track 12), The Last of Us (A New Dawn) (Track 19)
Tense/mystery moment: The Hunters (Track 07), By Any Means (Track 10), Blackout (Track 24), Breathless (Track 26), All Gone (The Outside) (Track 28)
Combat music: I Know What You Are (Track 15), Infected (Track 17)
Hopeful moment: The Quarantine Zone (Track 01), The Hour (Track 02), The Last of Us (Track 03), Vanishing Grace (Innocence) (Track 09), The Last of Us (Goodnight) (Track 14), The Path (Track 22), All Gone (Alone) (Track 23), The Way It Was (Track 25), The Last of Us (You and Me) (Track 27), The Path (A New Beginning) (Track 29)
Drama/sad moment: Forgotten Memories (Track 04), The Outbreak (Track 05), Vanishing Grace (Track 06), All Gone (Track 08), The Choice (Track 11), The Last of Us (Never Again) (Track 13), Home (Track 16), All Gone (Aftermath) (Track 18), All Gone (No Escape) (Track 20), Vanishing Grace (Childhood) (Track 21), Returning (Track 30)

Overall, I like the soundtrack.  It offers a lot of options and can be used with many games.  I hate how most of the tracks are named the same, making it harder to recall which ones you want to use.  I feel slightly underwhelmed with how the fear and panic was approached in the soundtrack, given the game has a zombie + survivalist vibe to it.  I had wished the panic and fear were translated into the music just as well as they were in the game.

Best Used In: An easy target for this is games like Apocalypse World and games with a western touch such as Serenity, Deadlands (or the upcoming Margaret Weis Firefly rpg), but I can see these soundtracks working as well for other games that have a heavy emotional thrust to the narrative.
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