The first-person stealth action adventure game by Bethesda Game Studios might not be ones first thought when it comes to music. It is a cold, dark and unsettling score that blended seamlessly with the gothic and Dickensian city of Dunwall, reminiscent of a 19th century London mixed with Half Life’s City 17. The music keeps the player in a constant state of unease, but what else would we expect from Daniel Licht, the composer for the very popular thriller series, Dexter.
He is known for his use of traditional orchestral instrumentation mixed with modern sounds that would be impossible to create in a live sense. For example, the heavy use of reversed string samples. The strength of Dishonored's music, however, lies in its implementation and its interactivity. Discordant brass and string sections rise in aggression and tempo the closer an enemy gets to you and fade back creepy wavering violins and pianos naturally. This is not only a great technique for building tension and creating atmosphere, it is also a gameplay mechanic to give aural feedback to the player so they can determine their proximity to a threat. In a stealth-based game with the limited view of the first-person perspective this is a very useful tool. It also allows the player to feel as if they are in control of the drama in their own game.
Aesthetically and fashionably speaking in Dishonored, steampunk is all the rage. Being that the core of steampunk is combining sci-fi elements to (mostly) Victorian and Edwardian styles this presents unique creative challenges and freedoms to a composer. Underneath the sinister cellos and violins lurks a cold industrial synth that weaves its way through the score adding a dark rhythm and an injection of science fiction to the musical proceedings.
In spite of the games grim demeanor the music is not all doom and gloom. There is warmth and heart to the pieces associated with certain characters. Our hero Corvo’s interactions with the empress’s daughter Emily are often hand in hand with beautifully melancholic violins that bring a sense of fragility and hope that is in stark contrast to the rest of the soundtrack. It also never feels repetitive. Multiple layers of different recordings blend with each other and drift in and out giving the player a constantly shifting soundscape as they clamor over rooftops and explore the rich and intriguing world of Dunwall.
Nevertheless, It doesn’t always work as planned. The musical stings that play whenever you are spotted by an enemy are very few in number. So unless you’re an expert at stealth games prepare to hear that same jarring harpsichord and cruel bashing of poor violins strings an infuriating amount of times. It can also be too sparse; I found there were moments when i would be playing with seemingly very little music, in modern games this can come across as slightly peculiar. When the music can play such a large part in the mechanics of the gameplay it is highly noticeable when there is not enough of it to fill the silence.
Daniel Licht has said himself that he did not score the individual cut scenes and that others simply reworked his score and applied it to the scripted cinematic events. For the most part this is completely unnoticeable and the score settles in exactly as expected and flows alongside the cut scene. However, in the modern age of huge budget orchestral pieces being played over every few seconds of even all the Call of Duty games, it left some cut scenes feeling empty. Large events would go with a basic musical accompaniment, only something that felt like it was there to set the mood rather than follow the flow of the on screen plot which it had been doing throughout the game so far. It seems petty to say it, but that loss of interactivity, even if it was just occasionally in a cut scene, is a little disappointing.
This may come across as bias, but I am a sucker for unusual soundtracks. I also respect that, in the modern era of gaming, interactive music scores are a staple but it is rare that is done this well, and even rarer still that it becomes an integral part to the gameplay. To me, it says that a soundtrack doesn’t have to be pulse pounding orchestral and brass sections playing as if it’s their last day on earth every five seconds. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be catchy or have memorable hooks; it can simply be there to serve a purpose. No, it’s not Hans Zimmer and no, you probably won’t be humming the tracks idly to yourself for days to come, but what makes a good soundtrack is its ability to blend seamlessly into the games world. I believe the score perfectly represents everything Dishonored is: cold, unsettling and unashamedly grandiose in its steampunk style.