VGMusings #2 Enemy Zero Original Soundtrack

Enemy+Zero+cover

Note: Hey remember VGMusings? Well I certainly neglected to turn it into a regular feature. But today I’m here to amend that. On to the topic then.

Over a year ago, on February 20th 2013, seminal video game designer and musician Kenji Eno passed away. He, along with his development studio Warp, designed some of the most unique, most weird, most uncompromisingly personal, and most “out-there” games ever made. He was probably as eccentric of a video game designer as you can get, always willing to go to great lengths in order to ensure his vision is achieved, lengths that could have cost his career. 1up.com did one of the last major interviews with Eno back in 2008. And Brandon Sheffield wrote a great summary of Kenji Eno’s career on Gamasutra shortly after Eno passed away.

Eno’s most famous contributions are the D series of horror adventure games, or sometimes called the Laura trilogy of horror adventure games, since Laura is the given name of the blonde haired “digital actress” that starred in D, Enemy Zero, and D2. Being a musician, Eno also composed the music for D, D2, and several other of his games. But with Enemy Zero, Eno decided not to do the soundtrack himself. Instead, the soundtrack was composed by Michael Nyman, a renowned English minimalist musician, opera writer, and movie score composer of movies such as The Piano, Gattaca, and The End of the Affair. This is not the typical choice someone would expect to pick even today, let alone in the wilder days of 1996.

I never played Enemy Zero except once at a video game shop back in 97, back in the days when you could ask an employee to open up a copy of any game, put it in a console, and let you play it for as long as you want for free (I remember finishing Battle Arena Toshinden this way). At the time, 11-year-old-me decided he was too much of a coward to justify buying the game (all 4 compact discs of it). And so I never played it since. Cut to February 20, 2013. After Kenji Eno passed away, people on the internet mourned his passing by writing articles about him and his games or sharing links to some of his great soundtracks. So I stumbled upon the Enemy Zero soundtrack, listened to it, and loved it. I was hooked. It quickly became one of my all-time favorite albums ever. And it introduced me to Michael Nyman and made me a fan of his music in general.

Enemy Zero is like a lot of games at the time that tried to evoke Hollywood movies through the use of cinematic CG FMV cutscenes. And being a horror story set in space, there is a great pedigree of movies that Enemy Zero is following, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. But rather than going the obvious route and getting popular movie composers (such as Harry-Gregson Williams, or Hanz Zimmer, or Danny Elfman, or John Williams, regardless of how unattainable some of these composers were), Eno went with Michael Nyman, a classical music composer, a man who composed classical minimalist music after studying music at the Royal Academy of Music in London, a person who coined the term “minimalist music” during his music critique days. Michael Nyman is a composer’s composer. Sure, he has a handful of movie soundtracks credited to him now. But when Enemy Zero was being developed, Nyman had only composed for The Piano, the 1993 New Zealand romantic drama film set in mid 19th century, and nothing else, hardly “blockbuster Hollywood” material. And Enemy Zero is a sci-fi horror first person shooter set in a spaceship where you battle against invisible enemies. This is quite the thematic departure from The Piano, something you wouldn’t expect Michael Nyman’s style of music to fit. Yet in the 1up.com interview, Eno thought this contrast in style is exactly what he was looking for. Being the persistent man he is, Eno invited Michael Nyman to his hotel room and tried to convince Nyman for six hours to work on Enemy Zero until Nyman agreed, probably because he simply got tired of arguing and wanted to go rest in his hotel room.

And what resulted is a video game soundtrack like nothing else. Michael Nyman composed 14 tracks for Enemy Zero. And most of the fourteen tracks are variations based on one of four main themes (which I elected to call Laura’s theme, Love theme, Digital theme, and Enemy theme). And yet despite the short number of themes, each of the 3 or 4 variations on a theme is wildly different, not just simply in instrumentation and pace, but also tone and sometimes even the emotion they’re trying to convey. The same theme can be conveyed with just a piano, or with blaring horns and strings, or with an operatic singer to give it an intense emotional punch, almost as if the song is conveying a sort of narrative, like a real opera.

Note: As you may have noticed already, I have zero knowledge in musical terminology or anything related to the subject of music, or any subject at all. But I want to try my best to explain why I love this soundtrack. And to do so, I have to articulate the tracks in an in-depth manner. So please bear with me as I fumble my way through to explain the appeal of each track. I apologize in advance.

LOVE THEME

The first set of tracks is the Love theme set, consistent of tracks 2 (Aspects Of Love), 7 (Love theme), 11 (Agony), and 14 (The Last Movement). This set is one that exemplifies the Enemy Zero soundtrack best. “Love Theme” is the most basic of the set, being simply a solo piano affair that plays the basic melody. “Aspects of Love” sounds like if the piano solo in “Love Theme” was mixed in with strings at first. Then the violins take over & play the melody, and it doesn’t get any more complex in terms of instruments beyond that. “Agony” flat out turns “Love Theme”, from a slightly melancholic song, into almost an outright tragedy opera, with heightened violins & an opera songstress. “The Last Movement” turns things around, being in a much more positive & cheerful tone thanks to what sounds like a clarinet & more softer strings, fitting for what I imagine to be the ending theme (a happy ending I presume, or hope).

LAURA THEME

The Laura set of tracks also follow a similar progression as the Love theme set (at least in terms of the layered instruments, and not tone). Track 1 (Laura’s theme) is a solo piano affair in the same manner as track 7 (Love theme). Track 10 (Laura’s Dream) is a strings affair, with piano layered in midway through the track. And Track 6 (Lamentation) adds a songstress too, just like “Agony”. Although here the tone is more “heavenly” sounding and less like the tragic Agony.

DIGITAL THEME

The Digital set of tracks follows a similar progression. “Digital Tragedy” is the basic theme played with only a piano. And it already conveys a sense of dread even in its bare piano-only form. “Digital Complex” is almost exactly the same melody played with piano and violins. And “Malfunction” adds horns and also greatly expands the theme, extending it for around a minute more, and ratcheting up the uneasiness sensation.

ENEMY THEME

The last set of tracks is the Enemy set. This set doesn’t have a basic piano-only track like the previous ones. “Enemy Zero” is a high-tension, high paced, and very rhythmic track. This is all due to the violins & what sounds like a bass guitar (or maybe cello) maintaining a constant beat throughout the whole track, while horns play the melody part of the song. It gives a great sense of rush. It’s sort of like a battle theme in an RPG. “Invisible Enemy” is even more frantic than “Enemy Zero”, with violins that are even more intense, with crazy-fast strokes. And it’s also shorter too, almost half as long as “Enemy Zero”, like a more-punk version of it. “Battle” goes the other way, being slower than “Enemy Zero” and “Invisible Enemy”. But it incorporates more sweeping strings, giving it a more grandiose sound. It also goes slightly atonal at the end, to emphasize an unnerving sensation. It sort of sounds like it could fit for a final boss theme.

CONFUSION

Finally, there’s track 2 (Confusion). This is the oddest one out of the bunch, not having any sort of shared themes or melodies with any other tracks. It’s such a weird track, almost improvisational even.  I can’t really articulate it any better. I guess like its namesake, it is a confusing track. And yet it is such a beautiful one, most capturing of Michael Nyman’s style, as it’s very similar to his work in albums like Vertov Sounds.  “Confusion” is my favorite in the whole soundtrack.

And it’s a great soundtrack I love, despite not being familiar with the game itself. I only have a vague idea of what Enemy Zero is all about. But I don’t know enough to put each song in its appropriate context, or know where it appears in the game. And that’s fine, since the emotions conveyed in each track is pretty clear, even if I don’t know why or  what the source of these emotions is. And it’s just great music. So for that and many other reasons, I do really want to play Enemy Zero. Hopefully I will soon.

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