It’s hard not to look at early Bioware, at the first Baldur’s Gate (1998), Knights of the Old Republic (2003) or Neverwinter Nights (2002) without nostalgia. In their time, those games were a gold standard for the RPG genre and that made us remember them as excellent, engaging adventures.
Massive inspirations drawn from Chinese culture and mythology.
It seems that the studio’s following game, Jade Empire (2005), whose soundtrack we will describe here, was a crowning achievement of sorts – narrative systems from KotOR, oriental fantasy drawn from Chinese culture and amazing combat were a foundation of a well-told story about destiny, ultimately being studio’s last great game before even better Mass Effect series and later problems that followed.
Mentioned games instantly bring fond memories regarding their soundtracks. Michael Hoenig, Jeremy Soule, Jesper Kyd in cooperation with Albert Olson and post-industrial artist Raymond Watts were setting the bar high for upcoming composers already in the 90’s and early 00’s. What’s interesting about the following years is the beginning of studio’s work with Jack Wall, generally recognized by his scores for Mass Effect and later games. However, what we love about him, which is his composing and arranging style, was quite noticeable early on, and Jade Empire is a major proof of that.
To some degree, he definitely had a tougher task ahead of him with Jade Empire than with Mass Effect. A space opera is somewhat easier to include within modern illustrative music aesthetics, which love to merge orchestral and electronic elements together. We can find traces of that in Jade Empire, but the games immersion within far eastern elements, massive inspirations drawn from Chinese culture and mythology, and of course the necessity to do research on the orient was a more daunting task.
I’d say Jack Wall came out victorious and that’s a not a statement conditioned by nostalgia. The composer did not fall into kitsch, which can be heard in a plethora of other oriental soundtracks for films and games alike. It is, of course (like in other cases, such as Prince of Persia games), a marriage of western style (marching, brassy melodies typical for Wall) and eastern elements (a whole set of Chinese instruments). But Wall is never using these folk instruments unsparingly or negligently, he’s only accenting in such cases, so the most ‘epic’ parts are left to the main story points, and the folk pieces to the rest of the game.
The game’s main theme (Jade Empire Main Theme) is a piece typical for Wall, with full orchestra playing a sublime theme, whose arrangement barely signifies the game’s setting with the inclusion of dizi flute. As far as it’s place is ornamental here, pipa and guzheng in Hills And Fields, Dance Of The Babbling Broo, Fallow Ground are central instruments to the piece. In tracks like these, which luckily take up a majority of the 70minute soundtrack, Wall does something different and truly shows his prowess as a composer. Even Fist, Test Your Mettle, Into the Fray, Fury, Hammers and Thongs – pieces based on rhythmical repetitions on percussion instruments such as China cymbal or bangu – are tracks not typical for Wall and it’s great to hear things like this, even though they may seem banal. After all, what matters most is that they work within action sequences context quite well.
Wall also included erhu, a string instrument, that just may be an idiom of Chinese music. The Tea House barely accentuates in presence, but it’s given the spotlight in Ballad Of The Drunken Revelers, an excellent piece with a lot of fairytale-ness and truly Chinese sound to offer, similarly to A Night Out or Wine and Women, where we can hear a good amount of theatricality and majesty of traditional Chinese music.
Of course, such great pieces are fairly singular. Other part of the score is a mentioned mixture of western and eastern elements, with better or worse results. Wall uses folk instruments in such pieces as ornaments, which somewhat decreases the album’s overall originality to match the game’s conventional scoring requirements. So, a dark ambient track for any fantasy game contains a bit of guzheng (Last Rites, Internment), but sometimes you can’t say it’s Chinese at all (House Of Spirits, The Dark Land). A full set of Chinese instruments can be heard in Ill Winds, but Torment, The Way Of The Closed Fist is a piece dedicated to a rather boring orchestra. Of course such a division exists to meets those requirements, and it works for the game, but I must honestly say that I am spoiled by tracks where Wall creates Chinese music so fluently. They make the rest of the score sound obsolote, so it’s kind of a perk within a flaw.
Wall does something different and truly shows his prowess as a composer.
So that’s why I’d dare to say that Wall had beaten a lot of Hollywood soundtracks that try hard to be Chinese and what usually ends at bland pop that merely appropriates folk sound to no significant effect. I respect that he rarely truly merges both of these separate stylistics, letting each other exist within its own realm and respecting folk elements, even though that does not always work well for hearing the soundtrack separately.
What should matter is if the music works great within the game, and it does, but as an album it has some minor hiccups. Overall, Jade Empire’s score efficiently creates this oriental, fairytale atmosphere without falling into empty eclecticism and imitation, what plagues almost every ‘easternized’ soundtrack.