Playing RuneScape with the music off. It is quite a trope that is still present in the RuneScape community. It is not without reason: technical limitations with running a game in the browser back in the day meant that only a MIDI synthesizer could be used to play music. Despite that, it is at this time that some of the major building blocks of the RuneScape soundtrack are built: Newbie Melody, Harmony, and The Village all stem from this initial era.
We have seen many evolutions to the RuneScape soundtrack. The RuneScape soundtrack now sounds much more professional, and has even started to include vocals in several places. Let’s look back at the past year to see what the current state of music is.
The first update adding significant music in 2018 was Pieces of Hate. You can find a music medley on the official RuneScape Soundcloud. While the music is sufficiently pirate-y, just listening to the medley also reveals one of RuneScape’s soundtrack biggest weaknesses: lack of identity. Sure the music sounds pirate-y, but what is it that makes this tied to the pirates story-line in RuneScape? Can you think of the theme of the elves, the gnomes, or the dwarves? One of the few quest lines where I think Jagex got it right, is the cave goblin series. I think most questers among us would instantly recognise Zanik’s theme from a plethora of soundtracks, of which But We Can Fight is by far my favourite rendition.
Compare RuneScape to say the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. You will instantly recognise the theme for hobbits, Gondor, or Rohan by its central theme. The Fellowship of the Ring has its own theme, and the variations on it throughout the movies reflect how the fellowship falls apart, and comes back together again (a great video on this can be found here).
Within RuneScape, only the cave goblin series does that. There is the series of tracks “Arise Hero“, “Arise Legend“, and “Hero’s Return” that are definitely among the best tracks in the RuneScape soundtrack, though sadly not used in any meaningful way in the game (thought they did use it to make this awesome trance remix).
The next big music update was Solak, the Guardian of the Grove. Apart from Solak, we saw other big combat encounters being added with Elite Dungeons 1 and 2 getting their own soundtrack as well. What I have found is that RuneScape’s boss music is almost consistently among the best of the game. Both the music from the Temple of Aminishi and the Dragonkin Laboratory have their own style and character, and create an amazing atmosphere for tackling some of the toughest bosses in the game. In the boss tracks specifically you can see a move towards a more electronic style, especially for boss fights like this, moving away from the more classical instrument based tracks. This change has been ongoing for several years now, and has given us masterpieces such as Angel of Death – another boss track – along the way. A good track to use as a contrast is Rage of the Red Axe, now five years old, which shows the beginnings of experimentation with new concepts.
Skipping past the player-owned farms update, which had music that would not sound out of place in a Mario Kart game, we skip right ahead to the update that embraced music and sound the most: The Needle Skips. While the music in itself may not be too special, it rounds off the atmosphere incredibly well. The tracks become progressively darker as you solve the mystery using the Needle. This is where the music team really shines: lifting up a RuneScape story to a true immersive experience.
Of course, there was more. 2018 saw the release of the official RuneScape Orchestral Soundtrack album, composed by James Hannigan, also known for the famous Soviet March from Red Alert 3. Responsible for earlier orchestrated versions of RuneScape track, this must have felt like coming right home. Recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he delivered a re-imagined soundtrack. I am absolutely in love with A Hero’s Return and Born To Do This II, but listening to the entire album still leaves me a bit disappointed. While both A Hero’s Return and Born To Do This II have a hint of the RuneScape main theme, in general the album feels like a lot of disconnected tracks. Especially the Prifddinas tracks sound incredibly generic to me, and I feel that is a missed opportunity.
Finally, as a highlight of the year, I got to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra perform some RuneScape soundtrack pieces live at RuneFest. The lack of a choir and the bad acoustics made the performance a bit underwhelming, but there is just something special about seeing a piece performed by a live orchestra. It’s an experience that just cannot be emulated by a digital track.
In the end, RuneScape is still evolving. While the soundtrack is still lacking identity, it is beyond denying that some tracks have started to mean something on their own by the merit of nostalgia. The ever increasing quality of boss tracks in RuneScape, the ability to completely engage players using a quest soundtrack, and renditions of our favourite tracks performed by a real orchestra have made 2018 into a great year for the RuneScape soundtrack. The music team truly deserves recognition for the atmosphere they bring to the world of Gielinor. I’m right there with you if you say you can’t here another rendition of Elven Sunlight, but RuneScape has proven that it’s worth turning on the music, at least sometimes. As we approach the 18th birthday of RuneScape, it is clear to me that its soundtrack has matured in production quality. I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.