As I am a huge fan of everything related to Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster or the books of the Metro series, I decided to write about the music in the games which are based on these books and events. The most important and recognised are of course the games from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro franchises.
The Zone makes its own ambiences and noises.
In both you can play as a stalker, but not a person who harrasses innocent people. The pop cultural term “stalker” originated from the novel Roadside Picnic by the Russian science fiction writers, the Strugatski brothers, and refers to a military trained treasure hunter. Stalkers work alone or in groups or factions, exploring abandoned and/or dangerous locations for valuable artefacts that they might sell afterwards. The first games that introduced them to the players was the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy by the Ukrainian studio GSC.
The trilogy set in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone many years after the catastrophic power plant’s reactor explosion earned lots of fans and started the trend of commercial tours into the Zone. The fans wanted to compare the real landscapes of that place with the in-games images which turned out to be pretty accurate since the developers recreated many locations from the photos they took during their trip to the Zone.
So graphically and in the terms of gameplay and storyline those games were stunning but unfortunately I cannot say that about the music. There is almost no music in them apart from some mild synth ambient while we explore. The Zone makes its own ambiences and noises through the gusts of the wind, metal screeching, leaves rustling, animal sounds. The soundscape becomes more lively through the diegetic music like occasionally heard radio tunes or when the stalkers play the guitars. This is not a flaw since it adds a lot to the overall immersion and does not disturb us during exploration, however, in terms of scoring there is nothing to review.
Sad to say that, but the highly anticipated by me Polish game Chernobylite from The Farm 51 shares the similar problem. Again, the game has high level visuals, this time thanks to the photogrammetry technology, but the soundtrack seems quite disappointing. Almost nothing happens when we explore the Zone and since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games had their unsettling vibe both through visuals and audio, here the game leaves us with the feeling that something is being missed. Furthermore, while the player is under attack, the same pretty irritating track is being played. After the amazing score for this studio’s Get Even (by Olivier Deriviere) I have expected something more than simply background music.
Should the music in the open world/exploration games be more invasive?
The music of the Metro series is completely different. The amazing world of the trilogy developed by another Ukrainian studio 4A Games received the soundtrack it deserved. As we wander as a lonely stalker through the dark tunnels of the Moscow metro system, we feel the inhospitable atmosphere of the place through the dark ambient pieces. We empathise with the last people on Earth who survived the nuclear apocalypse and live crowded and poor at the metro stations. Alexey Omelchuk’s sad, meditative guitar pieces tell us the story of war and struggle to survive. The dynamic electronic-orchestral tracks played during fighting and between the chapters correspond with the story and experience, not to mention whole lot of diegetic music we can discover, like radios, people playing instruments or singing.
The last game I would like to mention is not actually about stalkers but it is set in an alternative totalitarian Soviet world, and it also has one location set in the Moscow metro. You are Empty developed by Digital Spray from Ukraine (again!) is a rough first person shooter with terrible mechanics but ironically this fact fits the coarse reality of the effects of the Soviet experiments on the humans and other living creatures. As we fight various forms of mutants in the streets of Moscow, we are accompanied with an interesting soundtrack. The dark, harsh synthesizers mixed with the orchestra sounds and guitars perfectly blend with that harshly designed world and show the creativity and courage of the composer, as it is shown in one of the tracks clearly inspired by contemporary classical music. Even if you would not be eager to play this game (it received 34 points on 100 on Metacritic) you should give the chance to its music at least.
Here the game leaves us with the feeling that something is being missed.
Listening to the soundtracks of the games I have mentioned brings up the conclusion. Should the music in the open world/exploration games be more invasive, attractive and catching the player’s attention or should it not distract nor disturb the player? After all, Metro 2033 and Last Light, Get Even or You are Empty have a linear storyline and world, hence maybe the different approach to their soundtracks by the devs. However, Metro Exodus has lots of open world and an interesting soundtrack. Personally I would prefer the open world productions’ music to be less background, as it is for example in Techland’s Dying Light, where it neither bores nor disturbs.