What is the sound of Falador? What is Sliske’s theme? Can you hum the theme of the elves? There is a big chance you did not know how to answer most of these questions. You may even find it silly I would ever ask something like this. Let’s change things up though.
What is the sound of Hogwarts? What is Darth Vader’s theme? Can you hum the theme of the Uruk-hai? If you are familiar with the respective franchises, there is a good chance the answers to these questions were very different. Why is that?
Music can play a large role in storytelling. It is an important tool in evoking emotional reactions from your audience, but it can also provide important context for a scene. The same scene with different music on the background can convey a vastly different message. Consider a group of people stuck in a cave. The music can be sad, making the scene sad. The music can be scary, making the scene scary. The music can even be triumphant, making the scene almost hopeful.
The same applies for games. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to have some quiet piano music in the background of an epic fight scene (yet it can be a valid artistic choice under some circumstances), and exploring an open world with continuously tense music gets tiring quickly. We expect music to fit the situation we are in, and we also expect music to fit with the world we are in. Accompanying RuneScape with an electric dance music soundtrack would be very strange indeed.
So not only is music itself important, variation within the music is important as well. Especially in the current day and age, games are expected to have different tracks for different situations. It is at this point, that things start becoming a bit patchy. Quite literally oftentimes, as the soundtrack could easily be just a collection of tracks that have nothing to do with each other.
Let’s look at a few case studies. In RuneScape we have two tracks, very similarly named Sea Shanty I and Sea Shanty II. I’ve listened to both, and while they both sound pirate-like, they have nothing in common. This as opposed to a very different area of the game: the Waterfall and Waterfall II tracks actually have the same melody. They have a slightly different vibe, but are still recognizable.
While it is nice to have consistency with an area, I think the true power comes with character arcs. When there is a melody or a certain musical feature associated to a concept (usually a character), this is often called a leitmotif. Leitmotifs can be as simple as a few notes in succession, and in many soundtracks they are not even directly recognizable. However, even subconsciously we are able to find similarities within tracks if the leitmotifs are incorporated well. By attaching a leitmotif to a character, we can use the leitmotif to make the music synonymous with the feelings of that character. Let’s say we have a simple melody for our main character. We could play the melody quickly, playfully, with a happy beat, or we could play the same melody as drawn out notes with a heavy string segment. You may be able to guess that in the first scenario our main character is happy, in the second scenario they are sad.
Leitmotifs are a common tool in narrative-driven games. Hollow Knight is an example with such a clever music design, it would take an entire article on its own to dissect that, and I could not do it justice with my limited knowledge of music theory. The Zelda series is another example with Zelda’s Lullaby and Ganon’s theme making an appearance even across games, both in obvious and subtle ways, to truly add to who the characters are and what they represent.
I’ve always felt that RuneScape could do more with leitmotifs. With the Sixth Age, we have some pretty solid storylines around pivotal characters. Imagine if we had gotten a leitmotif for all the main players in the Sliske saga. Saradomin, Zamorak, Armadyl, Seren, Zaros, Ichtlarin, the Dragonborn, and of course Sliske himself would all get their own theme. Dishonour Among Thieves would be a perfect opportunity to introduce Zamorak’s theme, whereas Seren’s theme would show up in The Light Within. Not only that, Seren’s theme would also play a pivotal role in the elves music, representing their close relationship. While we are talking about elves: imagine if the mourners had their own theme, and it turns out to just be a dark rendition of the elves theme. Mind blown!
Thinking about the RuneScape soundtrack in its entirety, I was able to think of two clear examples of leitmotifs that RuneScape does have. The first is what I’d like to call the Hero theme. It consists of the tracks Arise Hero, Arise Legend, and Hero’s Return, the latest being a CD exclusive. These represent our story as the World Guardian as we grow stronger and wiser. While Arise Hero and Arise Legend are triumphant, Hero’s Return takes an almost darker turn, describing the difficulties we’ve had to overcome. I love these tracks to bits, and I wish Jagex would make use of this theme more in the pivotal moments of our character’s development. Sadly the addition of these themes to the Heroes’ Guild and Legends’ Guild respectively was fairly recent, so I wasn’t able to experience these moments myself, but I hope new players will feel that this theme, and all its variations, tells their story.
The second example dates back a long time, and is used in one of the questlines that had me emotionally invested over a series of quests. I am of course talking about the cave goblin series, and in particular Zanik’s Theme. It is first heard in Land of the Goblins under the name Zanik’s Theme. This sets the baseline for several tracks in the rest of the quest and its sequel, The Chosen Commander, which starts with the track But We Can Fight. An almost hopeful track that represents the sentiment at the start of the quest series. Zanik’s storyline ends (yes, I refuse to acknowledge what happened in the Bandos quests, since that was clearly an imposter) with the track Godslayer, which has a triumphant tone perfectly reflecting Zanik’s new situation. There is one other track, and this is one of the more subtle adaptations of the track: Don’t Panic Zanik. It is a perfect example of what I mean with moulding that one musical idea to represent a state of mind, and may therefore be my favourite rendition. (It is also worth mentioning that this quest series has one of the best ever final boss music soundtracks in the form of The Chosen Commander.)
RuneScape isn’t devoid of leitmotifs, but the main examples that can be found in the game are relatively dated, or are new additions to the game that haven’t really taken to their fullest capacity yet. It is a strong tool, and especially as we move into a new chapter of the Sixth Age, this would be a great time to establish some musical ideas in the minds of players. The soundtrack has evolved to a point where player’s don’t instantly turn off sound. Updates such as the Land out of Time are as stunning in audio as they are graphically, but still do not use audio as a tool to build a character or atmosphere. I can only hope that the audio team will, and that we can have new emotional experiences like we had in the old days with Zanik’s Theme.