Recently I’ve been playing through the expansion Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. While clicking my way through one of its uber-gothic levels the darndest thing happened, the soundtrack stopped me in my tracks.
Even for me, a confirmed fan of game soundtracks, it is very rare for me to actually stop playing a game because the soundtrack has just captured my full attention.
And yet that’s what happened when I the dark brass chords gave way to a melancholy violin solo which more than subtly resembled the “Old French Song” from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young.
It was a moment of intimate sadness in the middle of the destruction, quite a departure from the music that we’ve previously heard in the series, and it made me sit up and realize just how different the soundtrack to this expansion is.
History of music in Diablo
Of course to appreciate that, we first need to go back to how it began. The Diablo series has always had one of the most unique and distinctive soundtracks in gaming.
For the original Diablo in 1996, composer Matt Uelmen created a groundbreaking and experimental soundtrack which built a gothic ambience by interspersing acoustic metal guitar with heavier industrial rock sounds, think Trent Reznor.
The best way to describe that original soundtrack is insidious. With the emphasis on atmosphere over melodies, you almost never even noticed the music while you were playing the game, but if you ever walked into a room where someone else was playing, you could instantly tell that they were playing Diablo, and even loosely where they were up to in the game.
The most iconic theme of the series is “Tristram”. The title refers to the extremely unfortunate little medieval town that the first game was set in. So unfortunate in fact that you revisit the (still overrun with demons) ruins of Tristram in the following two games.
The musical motif for Tristram frankly isn’t much of a theme in a traditional sense, it doesn’t have a strong melody. In fact it is mainly known for its opening series of echo guitar chords.
Just the first strain or two of these are enough for millions of gamers to immediately identify the series, I can’t think of many other games that can be identified so easily, from so little. This was how the original soundtrack was; it worked on a sort of psychological level.
Diablo II starts out near Tristram and rehashes a lot of the original motifs and feel in its first few hours, but then moves the action across continents into deserts and jungles. These new locales allowed Uelmen to show his versatility and creativity as he explored some considerably more exotic sounds while still staying within a fairly industrial soundscape:
Diablo II: Lord of Destruction
While there had been some orchestral music within Diablo II, it was in the expansion, Lord of Destruction that things took a grander turn. Uelmen had the opportunity to stretch his wings with the Slovak Radio Philharmonic. Borrowing ideas from Debussy, Orff and particularly Wagner, he crafted a rich new sound with much stronger melodic material. We’ve come a long way from guitar chords and an effects pedal.
Although is it just me or is there a decent touch of Carmen in there?
It is something of an understatement to say that a lot changed in the 11 years between 2001’s Lord of Destruction and 2012’s Diablo III. But I believe that three events in particular are very significant in terms of the soundtrack,
- The Lord of the Rings films redefined the look, sound and feel for visual adaptations of fantasy
- Blizzard released World of Warcraft, leaving them flush with cash and a larger complement of composers on staff
- Matt Uelmen left Blizzard.
With no Matt Uelmen, the task of preparing the Diablo III soundtrack was handed over to the multiple composers on Blizzard’s staff, led by World of Warcraft veteran Russell Brower. With a lot more money and experience in putting together epic fantasy music from 7 years of WoW the Diablo III soundtrack was very orchestral. But it wasn’t quite the Wagnerian/Dubussy chromatic approach of Lord of Destruction, instead the dominant scoring idea seemed to be to give things a smoother Howard Shore treatment.
It was a change of direction, but it would be unfair to say that they were unfaithful to the original games. In fact they retained some very strong references to the earlier sounds of guitar and industrial rock.
Now with the history covered, we can finally get to this new soundtrack.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
For Reaper of Souls Blizzard decided to go back to appoint Derek Duke as a single composer to take charge of the project. From his official interview
If wowwiki is to be believed, Duke has worked extensively on World of Warcraft. He seems to be somewhat of a dark, broody specialist with credits almost exclusively coming in horde, undead and cursed zones. This has to be an almost perfect background for someone to come in and take over the mantle from Uelmen.
What I like most about Duke’s approach in Reaper of Souls is that he was prepared to recapture some of the surprise and experimental qualities of the original games. He moved away from Diablo III’s faithful recreations of the sounds and themes. Instead the signature sounds of Reaper of Souls are a heavy dose of choral music interspersed with 20th century composition techniques.
The Reaper of Souls
The title track is a bit atypical of the pieces I’ve been talking about here as it is the soundtrack of the opening cinematic. It is useful to discuss though because it introduces a number of ideas that will be used through the rest of the soundtrack.
The cue starts with a very in-vogue film music sound of slow deep brass chords over a murmuring string ostinato, very much like Zimmer’s The Dark Knight. At around 1:15 the cinematic goes into full animation and the music plays around with a descending semitone motif before settling into some classic horror-movie textural strings at 1:45. But this is all just filler before the big theme exposition at 2:26 when Tyrael drives his sword into the ground, it’s very Warcraft, a big bombastic brass fanfare over aggressive strings and percussion. In the final minute we’re back to horror music strings and (not in the video, but in the OST version) a cheeky classic Diablo guitar chord.
In the same official interview referenced above Duke refers to the big theme in this piece as the “inevitability” or “Chains of Fate” theme. Given that it appears the same time as our antagonist Malthael (The Reaper) I think we can put two and two together on what the inevitability is. We’ll hear it (usually in a simplified form) at least three more times in the soundtrack;
- The trumpets, very slowly, 1 minute into Westmarch
- 2:40 into Chains of Fate
- The low brass and strings all through the Ancient Ruins of Dholmur
We’ve also heard something very similar earlier in the series, as with so many things, it dates right back to Tristram;
A Mortal Heart
At the beginning of this article I referred to a violin solo reminiscent of the “Old French Song” from Tchaikovsky’s album for the young. That solo comes at the end of the track titled Abattoir. There is also another, more substantial violin piece called A Mortal Heart. This piece seems to predominantly play when the character is walking around bone-filled subterranean catacombs as well as during the final credits sequence. It’s a piece in simple binary form, possibly the most classically structured piece in the history of Diablo. The A theme it starts and ends with is made up of haunting descending and ascending violin scales over a gentle bed of piano chords. The ascending theme sounds to me like it is really the “inevitability theme” but resolving upwards into a harmony rather than downwards into a dissonance, which makes sense for the piece played after the defeat of Malthael.
For the middle theme it breaks into a ¾ waltz. The string section and a flute playing a melody that sounds like it belongs in a circus of the damned, it’s quite unlike anything you’ll hear elsewhere in the game.
For the final word on the use of violin solos in Reaper of Souls I’ll again defer to the official interview with Duke:
The Guise of Man
The most unsettling and aurally challenging piece in the soundtrack goes by the title The Guise of Man. This opens with an atonal line in the strings, I suspect (but cannot confirm) that it may be 12-tone. It feels like something out of Berg’s Lulu Suite, a lack of tonal centre leading to a very uneasy and unsettling feel. After about 90 seconds, the melody gives way to a textural section of glissando strings, drones and cluster chords. These effects are found in most sample libraries now and are go-to film music effects now, but Duke describes them as aleatoric sections, which means the orchestra performed them as live takes based on options provided to them in the score. This would explain why they sound intense and sophisticated, like the modernist music of Penderecki as opposed to your typical modern horror soundtrack. As the piece goes on, these textures remain as more and more atonal elements are added. By the end it’s a terrifying cacophony.
Despite the fact that many Diablo players will have been exposed to this sort of textural orchestration in movie soundtracks, this is still a sound that a lot of people genuinely struggle to listen to, so to use it as essentially background music for a game is a brave decision.
Chains of Fate
Another example of a 20th century music technique finding its way into the game, Chains of Fate is pure minimalism in the style of Phillip Glass. Bearing the name Chains of Fate, it does of course contain our familiar theme around 2:10.
There’s been quite a few pieces with choral elements previously in the Diablo series, but nothing quite how it is used in Reaper of Souls. Duke has written 6 primarily choral pieces based on “sacred texts” from the world of Sanctuary.
Paths of the Drowned, Twisted Labyrinth and In Arius all use tight, dissonant female harmonies very reminiscent of the some of the elven songs in the Lord of the Rings films. Skatsimi does a similar thing, but with male voices.
All the previous pieces do have instrumental elements which bring a menacing sound to proceedings. By contrast, Y’Anu Gujava is a pure haunting chorale.
Wrath of Angels
One of the two pieces not credited to Derek Duke (the other being Ancient Ruins of Dholmur) is The Wrath of Angels. Composed by Neal Acree this is the big finale of the game. It starts out in full Dark Knight mode, big chords over a low string ostinato. To really bring the point home though it shifts in the last 40 seconds to an epic Orff-esque choir + full orchestra with snare drums and trumpet fanfares. There may be no better way to put an exclamation point on a game.