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Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter Update #76: Justin Bell on the Music of Pillars of Eternity

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Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter Update #76: Justin Bell on the Music of Pillars of Eternity

Development Info - posted by Infinitron on Wed 16 April 2014, 00:22:09

Tags: Justin Bell; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity

This week's Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter update is by Justin Bell, the game's composer. As you might expect, the update is all about the making of the Eternity soundtrack. It also includes a sample piece - an ambient theme from one of the game's towns. I quote:

Making Pillars of Eternity feel like a modern day Infinity Engine game is important to us, and music plays a big role in achieving that goal. But what does that actually mean in practice? Well if you were to loosely analyze the music from Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2 and Icewind Dale 1 & 2 for example, you would find a number of stylistic similarities between them. Without getting too technical, their music combines tropes found in European folk and pre-Renaissance modal music, and mashes that together with modern day orchestration techniques and film music aesthetics.

You’re probably thinking... “Where’s the human side of all this? Where’s the emotion? The music for the IE games is so much more than simply a mash-up of musical elements!”

Putting it in such cold and analytical terms doesn’t really give those soundtracks the justice they deserve, does it? Still it’s important for me as the composer to understand things in that way, and here’s why. An incredible teacher of mine used to say, “When in doubt, use a model”. Another incredible teacher would likewise say, “Never proceed without a plan”. What they were both saying is that if you’re going to take a journey, you need to understand the path and know your destination to the best of your ability. Even if the plan needs to change at some point down the path, always think it through first.

Luckily for me both are pretty clear. In that sense the soundtracks for the IE games are both my model and my plan, at least to a point. I’ve made a couple minor structural modifications to the formula, which I’ll describe in greater depth further on.

Drum Roll Please...

The first region I focused on was Dyrford, and I’d like to share the music that I wrote for the town of Dyrford with you. I hope you enjoy it!


Dyrford Village ambient music.

Modifications to the Formula

While we are following in the footsteps of the Infinity Engine soundtracks in terms of style and implementation, we have decided to tweak that formula a bit. Most of the in-game tracks for the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games are between 1-2 minutes in length, and in some cases those tracks loop immediately. There are some inherent risks and benefits to looping a short piece of music immediately.

One of the risks is that the music could eventually become annoying to the player if heard too many times in a row. We call this “listener fatigue”, and from a usability perspective, it can negatively affect the way a gamer will feel about a game. It’s a psychological effect; the fact that the music is short and repetitious can make long playthroughs tedious. On the flip side, a benefit to having short loops is that we can write more unique pieces of music, which will by nature increase variety throughout the game. Approaching it this way would allow us to make specific areas feel “special” because they will have unique music.

We’re going to balance those two considerations for Pillars of Eternity. Music will always loop, but it will be longer in areas where the player spends a lot of time (like quest hubs) and shorter in areas where the player doesn’t (like some dungeons).
Ooh, nice. That track is definitely more Icewind Dale than Baldur's Gate. Which is a good thing in my book.

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