Originally published on Pixelitis.net on May 14, 2013.
(Editor’s note: From Metal Gear Solid to Tenchu, everyone’s got at least one videogame tune stuck in their heads. Enter Liner Notes: a Pixelitis feature in which our writers discuss their favorite videogame soundtracks.)
Forget that Sam Fisher had ever turned into a disgruntled ex-agent with nothing to lose. Before all that, the wise-cracking stealth operative snuck his way into one of 2005’s greatest games, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.
Ubisoft Montreal tapped Brazilian electronica maestro Amon Tobin to craft the music for the third entry in the stealth action series. You could tell that the company was proud of the soundtrack, given that the album was released two months before the game was even out.
While Jesper Kyd of Hitman and Assassin’s Creed fame handled the orchestral tracks played during the game’s cutscenes, Tobin focused primarily on the tracks played during gameplay. What resulted was something fascinatingly unique: an eclectic mix of jazz, breakbeat, trip-hop, drum ‘n bass and the native sounds from his Brazilian origins.
What made his work on the game so unique was the method in which it was employed within the game: each track utilized different parts that varied in intensity. These parts were weaved in by the developers to dynamically change depending on what occurred onscreen.
Demonstrating this wouldn’t be any fun without subjecting your ears to this masterpiece though, so join me as we affix our nightvision goggles and do some split jumps to the tunes of Chaos Theory.
Although Tobin has now expanded his work on videogames with titles like inFamous and Splinter Cell: Conviction, Chaos Theory served as his first foray into that world — and what a damn good start it was!
In contrast to his previous albums, the trip-hop artist hired a full live band to perform the music, which he then subsequently remixed, adding electronic sounds and ambiance to generate something incredibly appropriate for the stealth genre.
Dynamic layering makes game soundtracks even cooler.
Kicking things off is “The Lighthouse,” which incorporates an infectiously groovy bassline that immediately gripped me and wouldn’t let go.
As you listen to this, there’s one vital thing you have to realize: the way the music plays on the CD, while excellent in its own right, isn’t exactly how it would play out in the game.
Each track in the game features varying levels of intensity that directly correlate to how dangerous the given situation is. If Fisher is simply exploring, there may be some ambient electronic sounds permeating the atmosphere, or simple silence. But once an enemy guard hears or sees something suspicious, that playful bassline will kick in, with the background synths and percussion intensifying as that guard gets closer to spotting Fisher.
If the player successfully evades the guard, the music will revert to a more subdued nature, but if the guard is alerted to your presence, the music will explode into an outburst of complex beats and frenetic basswork. It makes for an exhilarating way to play a stealth game — the music perfectly complements what’s going on as you play.
“Ruthless” and its reprise feature in the Penthouse level in the game. For the moments in which Fisher gets close to a suspicious guard, the chiming bell samples are played straight and then reversed in a strange combo that is then layered with some bass riffing and string backup.
During the alert phase, you’ll be blasted by some rapid drumming complete with jarringly heart-pounding crash hits and impressive drum fills. It’s a surefire way to get your adrenaline pumping when you know you’ve screwed up somewhere.
This track doesn’t actually play in any of Chaos Theory’s levels, serving strictly as menu music. Those of you who played the game online will remember this moody and extraordinarily chilling track playing as you patiently waited for the matchmaking to set you up with an online match.
The track, featuring a combination of a mellotron, strings and a lone saxophone, does an excellent job in instilling this sort of creepy paranoia within the player.
“Kokubo Sosho Stealth” also handles this feeling of paranoia exceptionally well. It’s a perfect fit for a game that’s rooted in sneaking around and avoiding detection.
I recall the Displace level as a particularly challenging part of the game, and the tune for it appropriately takes that into account.
From the percussion that kicks in when guards get spooked to the groaning of the low, bassy tones, this track gets your attention. The track featured in the official soundtrack is actually missing one particularly cool bass riff that stuck out for me during the “alert” phases I went through (and believe me, there were a lot of alert phases). That riff means business.
And I know the word “intensity” gets thrown around a lot with this game’s soundtrack, but nothing adds more suspense to nearly getting caught than a barrage of truck horn sounds that amplify as those enemies get closer to you. It’s nuts.
Even the soundtrack’s liner notes have character.
The liner notes of the album also contain a brief yet interesting story about the live band he hired. Tobin spares some details in tracking down a legendary bassist named Nacho Mendez in Mexico and getting flutist Eiji Miyake to gel perfectly with the rest of the musicians despite his lack of English skills.
Even more impressive was a magical moment in reuniting the Modungo brothers, who had been in a squabble years ago over writing credits from their earlier works, and getting them to work together again.
Chaos Theory’s soundtrack is out there and it’s decently priced. Give those ears of yours some love and get it.
To top it all off, I still regard Chaos Theory as the magnum opus of the Splinter Cell series. No other game in the series has managed to come close in its gameplay or musical execution. My only hope is that more games offer the sort of dynamic shifts and layering that titles likeSplinter Cell and The Legend of Zelda series have been doing for quite some time.
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