Welcome back to Sound Test, where we examine the impact of a good soundtrack on the presentation and overall experience of your favourite games. Contrasting the aggressive stylings and hellish soundscapes of Doom, this time we’re digging deep into the acclaimed arrangements of Keiichi Okabe and his work in the Drakengard sequel series, Nier.

It’s no secret that a little bit of quality or thematically consistent music can go a long way to improving the enjoyability of a game, but too often are these musical pieces pushed aside due to their affiliation as a secondary asset to a seperate medium. It’s rare, then, to see a game’s music so often touted as one of the headlining aspects of the experience. Hard cut to 2010 and the international release of Nier. Among the discussions on Yoko Taro’s ongoing existential narrative allusions and writing slant toward unhappy endings and taboo commentary, topics of the game’s music – courtesy of Keiichi Okabe – continually came up on forums and comment sections alike.

A brief google will show that composer Okabe has a fairly consistent career in doing music for video games and anime alike, working on the Tekken series, Working! and Star Driver shows, and a host of others. Despite this, it’s his work with his studio, Monaca, and collaboration with Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi, and Takafumi Nishimura of Cavia, that have garnered him the most praise. His work extends to most of Yoko Taro’s works in the Draken-Nier universe since the third entry, defining the melancholic and grand soundscapes that elevate the game’s presentation.

Okabe and Monaca’s approach to composing music – which is highly prevalent in the case of the Nier games – do not come from an inciting idea or external direction. Rather, the focus was on enhancing the visuals and world holistically. As he discusses in his interview for Playstation, ‘…what we were aiming for is to write music that supplements things like games and video, visual pictures in a way, to create a sense of the world and work in harmony with those elements’. He goes on to say, ‘…rather than creating the music from scratch, we seek inspiration from the original project itself – whether that’s animation, a video game, or the sense of the world, etc.’.

This approach shines through clearly as you travel the world of Nier, with soft and gentle music punctuated by swells that never quite reach aggressive. The music’s tonality and arrangements feel large and open at times, but never drop that sense of irreverence or underlying sadness. The gentler moments are tinged in subtle ways, with an appropriate palette of percussions, pianos, acoustic guitars, and what sounds like violins and woodwinds, utilizing only the sparsest of dominant melodious lines. The music adds to the hopelessness of the world, peaking with epic flourishes that make your task feel as indomnible as it should.

In creating music for the game series, Okabe looked to the west for direction. While discussing Nier: Automata with Playstation blog he explains, ‘…when I first started composing, I was largely influenced by western music and would also try to mimic it. But the more I did that, the more I felt that my own style was very Japanese. I began to wonder what sort of music I could really make, and through trial and error, the music for the Nier series was born’. The result of this are tracks that feel worldly, devoid of a single salient cultural identity, and instead feeling as part of the world it was created for.

One of the defining elements of the original soundtrack (OST) is the heavy use of vocal choirs. Boss fights and certain story sections are laden with these large chants and orchestral structures. During tense moments this works in place of heavier compositions by being tonally consistent yet still creating a sense of urgency. In exploration segments, this crafts a feeling of history and, as mentioned before, reverence; as if we are on holy ground. Furthermore, this helps build crescendos naturally with a sense of continuing catharsis as opposed to a more typical tension and release.

One frequent addition to the music is vocals from Emi Evans, a Japanese singer/songwriter who also works in video game music. Her vocals are a notable highlight, adding a layer of empathy to arrangements where instruments alone could not quite reach. For the first Nier, she used a unique approach in which for her various roles in songs were inspired by different world styles, from Portuguese and French, to Gaelic. There were also many versions of the songs written in various languages, an effort rarely taken by composers for the medium.

One question on the fans of the first games mind prior to the release of Nier: Automata in 2017 was would the game’s OST live up to the first. Worries of a decrease in quality shifted to excitement with the announcement that both Okabe and Evans would be returning to leave their mark on the sequel.

The world of Nier: Automata is distinctly more futuristic. While I won’t be touching on the overall story or lore here, it’s worth noting that this change in setting did have a minor effect on the music. You can hear an increase in electronic sounds, but not nearly as much as you’d expect. In fact, many of the new songs feel as if they would fit comfortably in the original’s OST without change. This is likely due to Okabe’s approach to Nier as a whole, which was to focus on using vocals to portray emotions and cohesion in atmosphere – you can read more about that in Okabe’s interview with Dualshockers.  While it is relatively consistent with the first release, there is a new found sense of polish and confidence in the music that permeates each track that can easily be heard.

This change also didn’t have as significant an impact on Evans vocals either. When discussing the differences between her approach from one game to the next with The Koalition she explains:

‘I don’t think I did anything that differently, just more confidently. With Nier Replicant, it was my first time being asked to sing in made up languages and a lot of the time I felt like I was fumbling around, not really sure if what I was singing would be acceptable or how my lyrics would go down. But this time, I already knew the world of Nier and had faith in my system of lyric writing and ever since I found out that I would be taking part in Nier: Automata, I had set about researching and collecting new languages (including some endangered ones) which I wanted to try out’.

The dialogue around the game’s music continues, and speculation of a third Nier game and new soundtrack loom over recent interviews. In regards to the first two OSTs, countless articles have been born from its greatness taking up spots on game journalism websites based simply on the music alone – from Polygon to three separate ones on Kotaku; discussions continue in places like Reddit and Steam; Nier: Automata even took home best OST at The Game Awards in 2017. If this near – pun partially intended – universal acclaim proves one thing, it’s that this music is worth looking into even if video games are not something you enjoy.

You can listen to both the first and second soundtrack on YouTube, iTunes, and even surprisingly Spotify, or order physical copies via CDJapan and Amazon. There are several social media pages for both games, though you’re not likely to learn any new news from them. Your best bet is to keep an eye on your choice of gaming site, as they will be sure to post about even the slightest hint of a new game/soundtrack on the drop of a tweet. Do yourself a favour and give this a listen the next time you want to put something in the background, you won’t be disappointed.

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