Assassin’s Creed II has a brilliant soundtrack that captures the flavor of the Renaissance almost perfectly. Spanish guitars sprinkled everywhere, a nice series of tones there, ethereal vocals here, and you’ve got the making of a captivating experience. It had its darker moments, of course, but everyone remembers this:
Yeah, that is absolutely awesome. The soundtrack defines the game in many respects.
What gets less props is the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Jesper Kyd’s earlier work was amazing, sure, but this sounds desolate and disturbing.
I don’t think any game has had a soundtrack that I would define as “claustrophobic”. This is dense, scintallating music that creates a dense atmosphere. As the story has become more serious, so too does the game. The corruption of Rome by the Borgia has become a suffocating influence; as an opener, this sets a tone for the rest of the album perfectly.
This is not the years of Ezio’s fun and games; this is war, whether open or covert, and the game lets you know about it time and time again. Although we gets strains of Venice Rooftops throughout the soundtrack, the oppressive war-like atmosphere almost always dilutes its impact. “Master Assassin”, for example, builds and builds to a magnificent crescendo with dominating percussion and the sounds of some kind of weird whistle that comes out of nowhere. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you listen to it.
“Cesare Borgia” start with warlike chants and moves into strings playing notes that always threaten to resolve, but never do. The addition of a few monk-like chants continue the eerie sound, with light piano work added to the dramatic progression. “Infiltrating the Borgia Castle” combines all of these elements given previously, pumping the already tense instrumentation into full-blown conflict. I can say, having played many of these segments, that they absolutely add a great deal to the story and your personal experience with the game. It’s much more stressful to, say, avoid detection with ratcheting stakes when the music compliments what happens on the screen. The haunting, yet soaring vocals hearken back to the previous game, yet they are stifled by the overwhelming percussion.
Of course, the theme appears again in “City of Rome”, which may be the lightest sounding track on the album aside from “Echos of Roman Ruins”. It has the original Assassin’s Creed II theme battling the theme of Brotherhood for dominance, with moments of levity and delight, and others where the pounding drum takes over.
However, in a flash we’re back to the dominating presence of the drums, the marching beat of an army going to war. Kyd adds electronic effects in “Countdown” which exacerbate the building explosion. Even “Battle in Spain” retains the same feel as the game’s finale reaches its huge moments. Honestly, this isn’t a casual listen by any stretch unless you like dark and depressing music. Why should it, though? Game music, by its very definition, requires the music to match up with the game. If we’re describing a game with a dense and complicated plot like Brotherhood, than the music (in whatever context it appears) should support the game and exemplify its themes.
We could say, most definitely, that this soundtrack rings as absolutely repetitive. Would these tracks work outside of the game itself? From my experience, hardly! Having played the game, however, I can place all the music within its proper context when listened apart from it. In that does Brotherhood’s music elevate itself above a traditional movie score. Yes, it sounds like a war movie, but this isn’t a game about total war per se. Rather, it’s underground warfare, deception, and political ploys that make up the vast majority of events. The music, then, presents a lyrical underpinning to the themes of the game. Like Machiavelli would say, “No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution.” The constant beat emphasizes the planning and excecution of acts of subterfuge and espionage – exactly what we have here. Moments of constant planning and tension make their way towards a great and powerful conclusion, punctuated by the dynamic nature of the soundtrack.
Even the Psalms have songs like this. Check out Psalm 58:
Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods?
Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men?
2 No, in heart you work unrighteousness;
On earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.
3 The wicked are estranged from the womb;
These who speak lies go astray from birth.
4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent;
Like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear,
5 So that it does not hear the voice of charmers,
Or a skillful caster of spells.
6 O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth;
Break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord.
7 Let them flow away like water that runs off;
When he aims his arrows, let them be as headless shafts.
8 Let them be as a snail which melts away as it goes along,
Like the miscarriages of a woman which never see the sun.
9 Before your pots can feel the fire of thorns
He will sweep them away with a whirlwind, the green and the burning alike.
10 The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 And men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
Surely there is a God who judges on earth!”
That’s pretty darn violent. There’s plenty of double crossings and betrayals in the Old Testament; give it a look. But there’s a time and a place for this sort of thing, and if it’s your current mood, I don’t see why “dark” music doesn’t have a place. Certain not in a worship service, but maybe by yourself! Brotherhood’s brooding isn’t bad for being different from its predecessor; it goes for the dark vibe, and that is sometimes necessary.