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OST Case Study: Dishonored


In 2012 Arkane studios released their much anticipated 1st person stealth adventure game, Dishonored. Set in Dunwall, a dystopian port city with strong 19th Century London and steampunk influences, the player is thrust into the role of Corvo Attano, a bodyguard of the empress framed for her murder. The game also utilised a system called "Chaos", if the game was played stealthily and with few casualties, the overall chaos would stay at a low level, but if the player decided to kill everyone in sight and not sneak around at all, the chaos would become high. These outcomes meant that future levels would include a different number of enemies and different endings could be reached. The music of the game was composed by Daniel Licht, the composer for the TV series Dexter and the games Silent Hill: Downpour, and Silent Hill: Book of Memories. Licht's work on Disohonored is inspired by the Dickensian setting, with soft drones and ambiances accompanied by harsh tones of classical instruments played in unconventional ways.  It's integration into the world is also rather interesting, as it doesn't directly reference what's on screen, but rather becomes an ambience that can sometimes deceive the player. When combined with the game's striking visual style and world steeped in lore, Dishonored's score really shines. 

One of the core elements of music is timbre (pronounced: tam-ber, weird I know). This refers to the quality of a musical sound, independent of it's pitch or intensity. Essentially, it's like describing the flavour of a sound. For example, one might describe a heavily distorted guitar as Harsh, coarse, gritty or piercing, or an oboe as woody, reedy or croaky. In Dishonored, Licht does two things to give his pieces a great variety of timbre; firstly, he uses conventional instruments in unconventional ways to great effect, secondly he uses some more unconventional instruments in order to create some effective sounds. 

Throughout the score, there are a few sounds which stand out to me which take full use of timbre. There are many electronic tones which creep into the mix at points, and these always provide that extra colour that couldn't be provided from acoustic instruments, their alien nature and vagueness add a great sense of mystery to the music. One of the key instruments of the score is the Violin. It's used in various different ways throughout the score but one of it's most effective uses is in the Main Theme, as it plays harmonics and sliding the notes up and down, mimicking the cries of the whales the city of Dunwall uses as their energy source. The hammered dulcimer is really in the spotlight of this score though, being used very liberally throughout. It's tinny, ringing quality cuts through the mix and really ties everything together. It's sound is somewhat reminiscent of it's descendant, the harpsichord, and this parallel helps solidify the similarities and differences of the real world London, which saw great growth during the time of the harpsichord and the alternate universe city of Dunwall. Most of the sound adds to this, in fact, as the real world stringed instruments accompanied by modified and electronic instruments gives a sense of distant familiarity which really helps to build the world the player is exploring. 

The way the music is implemented is quite unconventional but yields some surprising effects when playing. Most of the time, all the player will hear are diegetic sounds, sounds which are coming form the environment they are in. This is fantastic for a stealth game, as the player has to constantly be aware of their surroundings and since a TV or monitor don't give full 370° vision, sound is the best way to inform the player of what is going on off camera. But where most games will use this to reinforce what the player is doing within the world, Dishonored does just the opposite.  When the player is exploring a particular section of the world or hiding underneath a dining room table, music may fade in. The effect the music has depends on the player's mental state at the time, if they are freely exploring then it may give them a sense of drive and purpose as they edge closer to their goal, if they are trying to stay hidden in a claustrophobic space, it may give them the sense that something is happening and they might get caught. This unorthodox implementation of the music really shows that Licht and the entire sound team put a lot of thought into how sound and music works with Dishonored and created an auditory experience that immerses the player into the experience the game is providing. 

The music is especially designed for this as well. Sure there's music for when combat breaks out and that is percussion heavy and it builds the sense of tension and adrenaline within the game, but the other than that the music is ambient, sparse and mysterious, which compliments the setting, characters and overall atmosphere than prevails over much of the game. 

Overall, Dishonored's music and sound show that the team put great thought into how it would affect the players experience. The unpredictability of the music and it's mystique allow it to continue surprising the player and keeping them on edge and always aware of what is happening in the game. Also, the designers knew when to keep music out of the picture, which makes it so much more effective when it creeps up on the player. The use of unusual timbres gives the score plenty of character and makes the world so much more believable. 

What do you think? Should music have played a more prominent role in the game? Did the unpredictability keep you on edge, or make you feel unimportant? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

If you want to hear more on Dishonored's music, check out this episode of Top Score!
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About Oscarnoone of us since 5:23 AM on 02.25.2014

Hello I am Oscarno and welcome to a rad Video Game Music blog on Destructoid!

I'm way into Video Game Music, and with these blog posts, I hope to provide an investigation into and discussion about Video Game Music and how music affects video games as a creative medium.

I write weekly, usually posting on Thursdays. Most weeks will be OST Case Studies, looking a the music of a particular game and pulling it apart to find why it works so well. Sometimes, however, I'll just post a shorter opinion post or perhaps an article looking into other areas of Video Game Music.

If you wanna talk to me or follow me on Twitter ,you can.(but tbh it's pretty boring)

Also you can check out some of the music I make on my Soundcloud!