Stormblood: The MMO as Musical Theatre

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“Video games aren’t movies.” That’s a line of criticism that those who prioritise mechanics over narrative like to level at cutscene-heavy games, particularly those by creators such as Hideo Kojima and David Cage.

And while it’s true that making effective use of games as a form of interactive media tends to emphasise actual interaction over passively watching cutscenes, one can hardly deny the spectacle offered by strongly movie-inspired titles, and the flexibility that entirely computer-generated scenes and characters can provide creators.

Which makes it all the more unusual that so many games focus on movies as their primary inspiration rather than other forms of media. Sure, some role-playing games might be rather operatic in tone, visual novels are effectively “Books Plus” and rhythm games provide a new way of experiencing pieces of music, but video games have never embraced the idea, of, say, musical theatre.

Or so you thought…

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Enter Final Fantasy XIV’s A Realm Reborn incarnation, and with it composer Masayoshi Soken. Although much of A Realm Reborn’s base game made use of existing tracks from Final Fantasy XIV’s version 1.0, as the game developed, Soken was given more and more freedom to express himself through the game’s soundtrack. And what he ended up producing is absolutely a piece of interactive musical theatre.

Your first encounter with this aspect of the game and its soundtrack is with the battle against Titan, one of the Primals that threaten the realm. Titan is, not to put too fine a point on it, furious, and his music reflects this with a multi-phase composition that gradually grows in intensity over the course of the fight, culminating in bellowed orders to “bow down, Overdweller”.

It might not register immediately the first time you undertake this fight, but the battle against Titan is just the first of many examples in Final Fantasy XIV that see the game’s soundtrack being more than just a musical accompaniment to a piece of content; here, the music is quite literally Titan expressing his rage, in character, through the music, to the player character and their allies. It’s loud, it’s chaotic, and it reflects both the tone of the narrative at this point and the mechanics that the players are having to engage with to complete the fight. It’s not unusual to see Titan parties chaotically scattering around the arena in an attempt to dodge the Primal’s deadly attacks, and the soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment to this.

The first of A Realm Reborn’s content patches introduced a battle against Good King Moggle Mog, a character that had previously appeared in 1.0 but was now being resurrected as an endgame encounter.

Moggle Mog’s theme includes a bit of fanservice-baiting in the form of extracts from the traditional Moogle theme we’ve heard in numerous other Final Fantasies, but in its second phase it moves into a full-on musical number featuring the various members of the “Mogglesguard”, again addressing the player character through song, and once again reflecting the chaos of the encounter.

Leviathan, introduced in patch 2.2, took a bit of a different approach, with a rather understated opening that segued into a heavy rock number for the second phase of the fight.

The lyrics this time around are delivered from the perspective of Leviathan’s followers rather than the great sea serpent himself, and are filled with both rage and devotion for their master. The unrelenting fury of this song reflects the very aggressive nature of the battle, with players being thrown around on the deck of a floating platform as Leviathan slams his tail down on his assailants and summons deadly tidal waves to wash his foes away.

Ramuh, introduced in the following patch, took a different angle again. This time around, in narrative terms, Ramuh is not trying to kill the player characters out of malice; he is testing them, and simply wants to protect his “children”, the sylphs.

The musical result of all this is a rather mournful, slow tempo song delivered by a female vocalist: again, one of the Primal’s followers rather than the Primal himself — and once again, it reflects the overall tone and pace of the battle, which is rather more contemplative and mechanics-focused this time around, particularly in its frustrating Extreme difficulty variant.

The battle with Shiva, introduced in patch 2.4, marked a return to the aggressive style of some of the earlier tracks, albeit sharply contrasted with a rather noble theme for the first phase of the fight.

The aggressive, angry lyrics of the second phase are delivered directly by Shiva herself this time around, reflecting her relentless pursuit of her goals, and her unwillingless to let anyone, not even the goddamn Warrior of Light, stand in her way.

The extreme contrast in style between the two halves was intended to be a reflection of the duality of Shiva’s nature, which is explored in both patch 2.4’s narrative and onwards throughout the entirety of Heavensward’s main scenario quest.

And speaking of Heavensward, you don’t get any clearer example of Soken realising his vision for the game’s soundtrack with the gloriously theatrical, exaggerated nature of the theme for Ravana, the first Primal you battle against in the game’s first expansion pack.

Ravana’s theme once again represents the Primal singing their thoughts and feelings directly to the player characters, and interestingly, this time around the lyrics actually make oblique reference to the mechanics of the fight, with mentions of roses of conviction, hate and conquest, all of which are moves Ravana will unleash during the battle.

Heavensward de-emphasised the use of Trials for main story content somewhat, making them part of a more self-contained side story involving the Warring Triad from Final Fantasy VI. Each of these encounters began with a remix of Final Fantasy VI’s The Fierce Battle, before switching to the opponent’s unique song in the second half.

Sephirot’s theme is probably the most aggressive song in the game, taking the form of a piece of heavy, industrial metal designed to intimidate the player — and the player characters — into bowing down before the sheer might of The Fiend. While perhaps not the most memorable song on the soundtrack from a melodic perspective, it certainly makes the encounter as a whole one to remember.

Sophia’s theme, meanwhile, is a more contemplative number that delves a little into the lore of the game rather than being a straight in-character song like many of the others.

The lyrics tell the tale of a Meracydian girl whose father died in the ancient civilisation’s war with the Allagans, and whose mother has been abusing her. After invoking the name of Sophia, the Goddess, in an attempt to restore equilibrium to her life, let’s just say that things do not end well for anyone involved.

Heavensward’s main raid dungeon, based around recurring Final Fantasy summon Alexander, has a strong mechanical feel for the most part, often coupled with garbled, heavily processed lyrics delivered by the technology-obsessed goblins who form the main antagonists for this particular story arc.

A highlight of Alexander for many people was the moment depicted above, where four separate robots combine together to form “Brute Justice”. Players saw it coming a mile off, but it nonetheless made a lot of people very happy indeed thanks to a distinctly 1970s anime-style number, again with goblins on main vocals as their ridiculous mechanical creation attempted to flatten the player characters.

It may be early days for Stormblood at the time of recording, but the soundtrack has already started very strong indeed, even with the standard dungeon boss theme: a piece of music that combines dramatic Western-style orchestral work with Japanese and Indian instrumentation to reflect the cultural influences on Stormblood as a whole… and then the lyrics kick in.

This is probably the first instance in the game where there’s a convincing argument for the lyrics actually being delivered by the player characters rather than their opponents; there’s an ensemble of male and female vocalists, signifying both the fact that this theme is most frequently heard during multiplayer encounters and that player characters can be either gender and any one of a number of different races.

The alternative argument is that this song represents the assembled masses of people, tired of Imperial oppression, who are rallying behind the Warrior of Light’s efforts to liberate the realm. Either works for me.

Perhaps the most inspiring song in Stormblood comes with the second of the new primals: Lakshmi. This song, evocative of traditional Indian music to reflect the Indian-inspired culture of the lamia-like Ananta people, reflects the Qalyana tribe’s belief that Lakshmi will provide them with everlasting beauty, and Lakshmi’s desire to see her people enraptured as “dreamers” under her thrall.

And just to lend a little further credence to the “Final Fantasy XIV as musical theatre” theory… when Lakshmi stuns the players for her ultimate attack, they’re forced to, you guessed it, dance.

Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack, like the game itself, is continually growing, changing and evolving, but Soken and the sound team seem to have found themselves in a position where they’ve established a very clear aural identity for the game. So much so, in fact, that many players actually find it a little jarring when they encounter a boss battle which doesn’t have lyrics… but if you just think of these as instrumental dance numbers — which they are, since completing the encounter successfully relies on everyone knowing the “steps” of where to be, when to be there and what to do when they get there — the theory very much still stands.

It really is a pretty remarkable experience to be part of, and it helps to make Final Fantasy XIV a standout entry in a series that is already known for some of the most memorable tunes in all of gaming. We can only wonder what spectacular songs and dances the Warrior of Light will be a part of in the future… but at this point, I think we can safely say that the soundtrack for the game is in very safe hands.

More about Stormblood
More about Final Fantasy XIV

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