Game Music Saturdays: Civilization V Original Soundtrack

I apologize for not finding a larger picture of the cover art, but I couldn’t find it. If you like big pictures, you’re out of luck.

Western-style video game music usually doesn’t appeal to me in any way. For most games, you get the standard “big orchestra set piece” feel like that of an action movie or the sort. There’s nothing particularly memorable about this, simply because every game does it. Am I going to remember the overture from Gears of War? Not likely. Video game music should have some unique element to it, right? In the same way that developers tend to look towards movies and television shows for inspiration in developing their narratives, so too do they completely transplant the musical cues as well – with mixed results in most cases. It expects and requires nothing of its audience; it serves only to highlight whatever occurs on screen and isn’t sufficient in itself. See the Assassin’s Creed soundtrack by Jesper Kyd; it’s just not very listenable unless you really, really like the way it sounds because it’s obvious designed around the game’s various sequences and game types. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it removes the interactive element that all good video games have – whether on a mechanical or intellectual level.

Civilization V’s soundtrack, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from this. Given the name of the game, the music has to represent a grab-bag of human civilization, with selective choices of various songs from world nations that fit their character. I can’t imagine how difficult the selection process had to be in that respect. Many of the tracks derive from some national song or cultural treasure in the real world. For example, America’s tracks work off the original “America the Beautiful”, and England’s music bases its movements on “I Vow to Thee, My Country”. Civ V ignores national anthems, but it’s probably due to the fact that most national anthems don’t make for the most interesting of musical depth (not that I’d name any to my audience; that would be quite rude). With that basis, Michael Curren, Geoff Knorr, and Ian Smith craft interesting, exciting, and exotic musical themes over both normal play and during war time. Each one captures the flavor of its civilization well enough to be recognized at first glance, or even provoke interest in the culture of that nation.

Having recently played a game as Oda Nobunaga, with samurai and Japanese work ethic galore, I obviously encountered the country’s themes startingly quick. Japan’s theme, “Rokudan no Shirabe”, by renowned 15th century composer Yatsuhashi Kengyō, gets two excellent mixes in this lot; heck, I listen to shamissen music every once and a while (Yoshida Brothers and Agatsuma, to name a few). However, it’s very easy to fall into that pitfall of “Eastern music sounds like this!” At that point, you get every stereotype in the book, showing the composers had little to no knowledge of what country they were trying to celebrate. That makes this one all the more special, a mixture of the traditional shakuhacki flute and the koto, a long stringed instrument with traditional western orchestra stylings. Take a listen:

It sure does take its time, but the juncture of East-meets-West makes for some really relaxing music. The war theme, on the other hand, slowly starts with the exact same instruments, but adds subtle taiko percussion that builds and builds into a mad crescendo. The pentatonic scale of traditional Japanese music certainly is an acquired taste, but this is an excellent bridge to appreciate how vastly different it is from American culture’s musical heritage.

Perhaps the true test of strength, then, is if these pieces hold up to continual play. Civilization V is, after all, a strategy game where each play takes dozens of hours. These themes play repeatedly on loop, and if they weren’t well-composed they could drive a person to madness. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. They tend to vary for some reason depending on what region of the world your host nation is from, so most times you’ll get an interesting variety. It was a little strange to hear a gamelan or erhu in the middle of a Japanese conquest, but that’s part of the weird juxtapositions that Civ games always have as an inherent part of their design.

These are fairly long pieces as well, most clocking at over five minutes or so, but they keep your interested throughout because you don’t know what to expect from these songs. Heck, how much world music do you listen to, if any at all? These strike me as classical crossover more than anything else, and even work apart from their inclusion in Civ V because of their origin. It’s a great introduction to the world music genre, let alone working as a game soundtrack.

If anything, it shows the wide diversity of musical traditions and their development, even some you aren’t familiar with. If God didn’t design humans to be unique individuals and culture unto themselves, would we ever have created such music in the first place? I think not. Although we are all one under Christ, we are all people of specific nation as an indelible part of our personalities. It’s easy to misunderstand each other, but we are all human in the end. Christians, for their part, are one with all cultures, able to move in and out of multiple spheres of influences. As Paul says in 1 corinthians 9:

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20  To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.

It is in rejecting other cultures outright that we’ve missed the purpose of these verses. We can retain our cultural influence while being Christians, but we don’t have to abandon it. Otherwise, why did God make you German rather than Egyptian, French rather than Malaysian? Christian can move and work in any situation, and Civ V’s soundtrack allows us to appreciate the diversity of God’s creation just a little bit.

Unforuntately, the only decently cheap way to get this soundtrack is through purchasing the Collector’s Edition or through buying the Game of the Year Edition on Steam (which gives you a digital version of the OST). Still, I’d recommend you do so! You get the game with it, anyway, and that’s always a good thing.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.