The Lord of the Rings is probably the greatest film trilogy ever created (don’t tell George Lucas that I said this!). There are many reasons why my wife and I have spent dozens of hours of our lives watching the expanded editions: the detailed costumes and set design, the amazing actors, and the deep themes that stir the heart and the blood. However, the movie itself would only have half of its soul were it not for Howard Shore’s masterful soundtrack. Borrowing from Wagner’s use of leitmotifs, little recurring musical themes that call one’s attention to particular people or things, Shore breathed life into Middle-Earth in a way that only music could. The One Ring’s theme conveyed danger and mystery. The fellowship’s theme stirred up feelings of hope and adventure. Without the music, the story of the Lord of the Rings would have a body but lack a soul.
A JRPG at heart, Ys VII’s real time combat system feels more like an action-adventure a la Legend of Zelda but incorporates a party system that allows you to switch out party members on the fly. The story follows a path well trodden by other JRPGs—stranded on an island after a shipwreck, you are tasked with searching for other survivors and building your home base as you seek to discover the mysteries hidden before you. It’s certainly keeps you entertained with its whimsical characters and entertaining combat.
But the music is the glue holding the magic together. The other tracks fit the mood where they appear: no piece of music feels out of place. The soundtrack breathes life into the action on screen as opposed to many soundtracks that simply fill in the silence. And while music from other games is usually one genre (DOOM is straight metal while Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has a pounding electronica soundtrack), Ys VIII pulls from any genre that it needs to convey the meaning of the moment to the player.
Unlike film scores, music designed for games must deal with player agency; composers have to take into account the various actions the player might take. In Skyrim, I could be walking along a path, the music gentle yet evoking feelings of heroism and courage. Suddenly, a giant strolls into my path and the music flares up: it’s do or die.
Ys VIII, although still having to deal with player agency, opts for associational themes rather than the ebb and flow of musical pieces. For example, if I’m in a cave, percussion instruments following a certain riff begin to beat. If I’m on the beaches in the southern part of the island, roaring guitars push me forward like I’m the star of a hit anime. And all of these pieces create a musical tapestry in tandem with the themes playing out on screen: notes “twinkle” with the stars as my characters discuss their hopes and fears before bed, soft piano and string accompaniment begins as Adol Christin, my main character, sees glimpses of the past in his dreams. The game could portray these scenes without this score, but I wouldn’t have the same irrational, emotional bond with its characters and themes.
Pascal declared that “the heart has reasons which reason itself does not know”, which is wholly apt when describing the affect of Ys VIII’s score on the player. Great soundtrack composers know that they need to embody the heart of a movie or video game and communicate effectively its themes without the advantage of exposition. Ys’ soundtrack reminded me that no matter how good a game is in presenting its story, certain deep emotional ties can only be provided by other, almost unreasonable ways.