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Oscarno avatar 4:26 AM on 03.20.2014  (server time)
OST Case Study: SimCity

In 2013, Maxis released a much anticipated sequel to their highly regarded SimCity franchise, however, upon it's launch, SimCity was harshly critiqued (and with good cause). Because of it's intrusive (and frankly unnecessary) always online requirements, players found themselves unable to play their new, shiny copies of SimCity. Needless to say, the game was not well received and has been slated ever since. But I believe that SimCity has one of the best video game soundtracks of all time

Yup. You read that right. All time. And I'm going to prove it to you. Not only does this soundtrack hold some substantial musical merit on it's own, but it's integration into the game creates a symbiosis between the player and the game. 

(Now I have to say before I get started, I have not played SimCity 2013. In researching for this article, I've watched a fair few hours of gameplay along with a bunch of reading, so I believe my claims stand up, but if you disagree with anything I bring up, I'd love to hear your feedback)

The score for this game was written by Chris Tilton. Tilton had previously worked as an assistant to Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Lost) during his work on the TV show Alias.  Throughout his career, Tilton has worked on many projects under different roles. He has orchestrated various films such as "Star Trek" (2009) and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011) .  He has composed for the TV show "Fringe" along with many video games including: "Black" (2006) and "Fracture" (2008). Nothing in my opinion, however, stands up to his most recent work, SimCity.  

SimCity's strongest point is it's theme. I'm not saying this because it's catchy, or because it's innovative, but because it's EVERYWHERE! If you pick any point in the entire soundtrack, there will probably be some reference to the main theme in the somewhere. Be it a tentative chord progression, or a bold brass triplet, Tilton has managed to squeeze every last drop form this theme.  When anyone who studies music looks at a Beethoven sonata or one of Mozart's symphonies, they'll most likely point out the way these composers play with their main melody and twist and mould it into an entire piece. I would argue that SimCity does the same.  Each new track is a new movement which is constantly shifting and moving with the players interaction (but we'll get back to that later).  

SimCity truly does benefit from having a strong central theme. This is because the game itself is focussed around a single, central goal: Development.  Sure there are smaller, sub-goals such as trying to build a university or cleaning up after a disaster, but the central aim stays the same, and the music reflects this. 

Not only does the music keep the player reminded that they have the same goal as when they first started, it keeps them updated on their progress. As the population grows and the city expands, so does the music. In the early stages of the game, the music only has a few instruments, playing sparsely  with not much weight, but as the city becomes more significant, the music grows to a full orchestra. I would go as far as to say that this music personifies the city the player is building. The music represents the city and describes it's communication with the player. When the player decides to zoom in for a close look at a certain part of the city, the music will become more guitar based and intimate, but if you zoom out to the region view the orchestra will return as you look at the grand scale of your achievement. Not only this but most tracks have an alternate Night Mix, which moves from a focus on orchestral instruments to clean electric guitars with reverb, and an overall quieter, more subdued tone. (Also the recent cities of tomorrow expansion adds more synths and futuristic timbres to the mix)

A lot of the dynamic shifts in music within the game are thanks to the texture of the score. Texture as a musical term refers to the number of instruments and the range they have (for example a full orchestra all playing at once has a thicker texture than a solo flute). The texture is constantly changing depending on the size of the city and the zoom level, but there are some parts of the overall texture which stay consistent throughout which really lend this game's soundtrack it's character. The music will rarely feature a prominent, unified percussion section. It instead has many percussive instruments playing many different rhythmic patterns all at once. Small triangle chimes and shaker shakes and all manner of things consistently line the score. This ends up sounding like tiny construction workers all over the place. Similarly, in the more still moments of the game the score may only be a solo flute with some block chords accompanying, but in the more large moments of the soundtrack, there are so many instruments playing so many different, intertwining parts that sometimes it's hard to keep track of it all. It all so perfectly encapsulates the hustle and bustle of a busy, developing city and when combined with the dynamic response to the in game actions it really brings the city to life in a way I don't believe any other other game has ever achieved. 

It is a true shame that SimCity's excellent soundtrack was hidden under a pile of controversy and corporate mischief, but perhaps given the game's recent offline patch, perhaps it is the perfect time to jump into SimCity and experience the glorious score for yourself.

What do you think? Are there any other games that have great soundtracks that were ignored due to them being a mediocre, or unpopular games? Should SimCity be given a second chance? I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, you can check out this interview with the composer, or this blog post from the games audio director. Also you can get the album on iTunes.
Thanks for reading.

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