(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works in the game.)
The video-game-industry is ever so striving for innovation and one of the oldest goals to hit is the concept of Virtual Reality, or short, VR. The idea and early experiments have been around since the 80’s (leading us to films like “Tron”) and a variety of big arcade games in the 90s. The graphics might have been clunky and the gameplay itself very simple and not all that perfect, but the novelty kept players interested.
One could compare VR to the 3D of the movie-industry: It has always been around but it took ages to perfect it. For VR came the extra challenge of affordability. It was possible to have yourself projected into a game via special goggles and glove-like controllers. But would the average gamer be able (or willing) to pay for such costly things? In order to get over that obstacle, VR had to be more of a gimmick. Of course, it’s fun to not just shoot at zombies on your monitor screen with your mouse and keyboard but to actually have them walking around you and be able to make 360° turns just through your head-movement. But when every game released for that console is the same thing, would it justify the price?
Now, in the year 2018, VR is on the front run much more than it ever was. While still not quite affordable for everyone, Oculus Rift as well as HTC Vive or PSVR, are much easier to pay for than in the past and a number of games are available for it and enjoying quite some success.
Most of these, however, are still more in line with the casual arcade games of yesteryear: You may shoot a bit, walk through a haunted house or just have some comedic simulations which borderline on parodies and while all these are great fun and offer wonderful opportunities to “let’s players”, there hasn’t yet been that one AAA-title to really strike home. Developers are still struggling with certain boundaries. After all, the player can’t just walk freely around in these worlds for the danger of walking into their living-room walls or stepping on their cat. Thus, creative minds are always trying to push for innovation in order to get the most of the format.
Enter best-selling VR game Raw Data
One of the most interesting projects in that regard is “Raw Data”, a VR-shooter developed by James Iliff, Alex Silkin and Nate Burba, who were intrigued with VR since their childhood and wanted to take the technology as far as possible. “Raw Data” is a cyberpunk game set in a dystopian future where a company called “Eden” produces sentient robots that go crazy and you find yourself in the HQ of that company trying to find out, what happened, discovering a variety of uncomfortable secrets. It’s a huge success, pulling in a million dollars already before its release and is one of the best-selling VR games out there.
Watch the Official Trailer for Raw Data below:
The music is composed by Jeremy Nathan Tisser, who has scored other games like “Trick Lab” and worked as a copyist for “Jurassic World” while also learning much from “BioShock” composer Gary Schyman. [Read our interview with Jeremy Nathan Tisser from 2015]
For “Raw Data” he chose to approach the game level by level, which, to be honest, filled me with a slight fear. Many a times have I stated that I think soundtracks (be it for films or games) should form a cohesive whole, telling one story. Too many soundtracks these days feel like a bunch of unrelated tracks thrown onto one CD with no overarching thematic identity.
Thankfully, Tisser did not forget that he is scoring one big game and not several smaller ones. He is experimenting with different styles and sounds for specific levels, but there is a distinct overall sound to “Raw Data”. Multiple layers of drum loops, futuristic synthesizers, and aggressive drones may be a somewhat clichéd soundscape for dystopian settings, but they are for a reason and judging by everything I’ve seen, they are a good choice. After all, Tisser adds some things to spice it up, depending on what the level deals with.
Rocking guitars meet sophisticated orchestration
The most prominent extra-ingredient might be the electric guitar, performed by AJ Minette of The Human Abstract, which gets introduced in “Rigid Automo” and then continues to rock in some tracks like “QuantomOS” until blowing a full-on solo in the second half of “Adam X10 & Finale”. It’s awesome, especially when the horns and strings add an old-fashioned power-anthem into the mix.
Listen to a selection of the Raw Data’s soundtrack below:
Speaking of horns and strings… the orchestra in this score is something that needs to be addressed. The actual writing for the orchestra is pleasantly interesting and sophisticated. “Cataclysm” perfectly showcases the talent that is resting inside Tisser with frantic string-movements under an array of brass clusters with the occasional woodwind-accent (Yes, you heard right) and even some glockenspiel. Sadly, the compositions themselves get a bit lessened by the fact that all of it sounds fake.
Listen to “Cataclysm” by Jeremy Nathan Tisser below:
Now, obviously one can’t blame Tisser for not having the money to get the LSO or something. After all, “Raw Data” is not made by some huge game developer and so nobody can be faulted. On the contrary, one should applaud Tisser for not letting this intimidate him. Many composers would have just stuck to the percussion and low strings, knowing that high strings, brass and especially the woodwinds will most likely sound like the samples they are, but he still went for it.
Also, one could make the point, that for a game focusing on the problems of AI with some religious undertones (the company is called “Eden” and the mainframe “Adam”) having even the organic parts sound like artificial ones makes some sense.
It just hinders the listening experience a bit, but sections like the first minute of “Vapor Exploit” remain astoundingly well written, no matter whether an orchestra or a computer performs it.
The mentioned religious aspects are also something addressed by Tisser in his soundtrack, most notably in “The Attunement Chamber” where he utilizes a didgeridoo and throat singing to allude not to Christianity (like the names above) but Buddhism, which fits perfectly into the setting of those levels, which take place in a sort of underworld, as Tisser described it (more shall not be revealed here for the sake of spoilers, but the interview can be found here).
Listen to “The Attunement Chamber” by Jeremy Nathan Tisser below:
The same goes for the track “Teleshift” which uses the same flavours, the chanting heard being an actual Maori funeral poem, thus mixing many cultures to allude to the global world of “Raw Data”.
In these tracks, the industrial style takes a backseat, with much less heavy drum loops. It does return, though, in “Watson Genomics”, a highlight of the album, which mixes the two styles and has some nice flutes.
“Dynamo Extinction”, “Skybound” and “Vapor Exploit” go all out on the machine-driven aspect of the games, even implementing sounds of cranes. A James Horner-like rumbling piano really drives the thought of clunky robots home, supported by beeping synth-arpeggios. The occasional choir-burst then reminds you of the stakes and religious ideas. If you listen closely, you can make out the always-popular blaster beam as well (though it does tend to disappear among the synths).
Watch Craig Huxley perform on the blaster beam during a recording session for Raw Data:
Lacking thematic narrative
The one thing this score does lack, despite its conceptual engagement, is a thematic narrative. I have talked at length about how a game is obviously not to score like a film since you can’t have one six-minute sequence be scored to picture. After all, the composer does not know which character will do what at what time for each playthrough is different, so it doesn’t make sense to throw a bunch of leitmotifs into it.
However, multiple games have shown, that you still can implement musical identities into your video-game in order to help tell the story (best shown by Austin Wintory in games like “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” [interview] or “ABZÛ” [review]), yet “Raw Data” is pretty sparse on that. There is a four-note main theme that gets introduced in the first track “Raw Data Main Theme” and gets some reprisals and we also get a rhythmic idea, which owes a lot to Brad Fiedel’s “Terminator”-scores, so it’s not completely themeless, but a bit more would have certainly helped.
Another nuisance is the dialogue-snippets. Ever since Tarantino put his own spoken dialogues onto his soundtrack albums, many CD’s imitate that and it really is nonsense. “Raw Data” falls into the same trap and especially the voice of what seems to be a robot sidekick is really irritating. Fortunately, the spoken tracks are sperate and can easily be thrown out when you make a playlist, unlike some other scores, where the dialogue is either playing in a track before the music plays…or actually OVER the music. “Raw Data” has only two instances where music and dialogue mix: “Eden Nocturne In C-Minor” and “Adam X10 & Final”. In the former, it does somewhat fit, since this seems to be a source cue where some in-game character plays the piano and holds a monologue. It’s a pretty piece and the monologue fits. It may not be a song but it’s still a good lament, keeping the immersion up. Also, the instrumental version is included on the album as well, so no complaints here.
The vocals in “Adam X10&Finale”, however, are more distracting and are exactly the latter of the two worst-case scenarios I mentioned. In this five-minute track, there is a whole section where various voices (some distorted) talk to each other. If I want to listen to this, I will just play the game. This does NOT belong on the soundtrack.
Thank god, the voices stop in time to let the epic guitar-solo play in peace.
Lastly, there are some bonus tracks. Most of them Nocturnes by Frederic Chopin, which is always welcome, but in addition to that we get the music from the official release trailer (also done by Tisser) as well and another source cue in form of the “Eden Corporation Jingle”, a little fun titbit.
Listen closely and you won’t be disappointed
All in all, “Raw Data” is a very solid score. At first, it does sound very generic and simplistic, due to the overproduced and loud synths- and drum-loops, a shtick that’s done to death in the genre, and cheap sounding samples without any clear themes. Yet, if you make the effort to look under the surface, you will find some intriguing conceptual ideas whenever Tisser addresses on specific aspects of certain levels, making the music much less interchangeable as one believes, as well as the orchestral writing, which is way more intelligent than I thought at first.
This score won’t break new ground or get showered in prizes, but Tisser is someone to keep an eye on. The right project might get brilliant stuff out of him.
Jeremy Nathan Tisser’s soundtrack for Raw Data is available for download via Steam. You can find out more about on his website jeremynathantisser.com. Raw Data is also available for purchase on the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and the PSVR.