Saturday, November 19, 2016

Musical Themes in Civilization VI

The main theme to Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, “Baba Yetu”, composed by Christopher Tin, is one of the most memorable main themes to a videogame I’ve ever heard, and with good reason. It’s a great song, and is thus far the first and only piece of music composed for a videogame to win a Grammy Award, but have you ever thought about what those words mean or what they say about the game itself? Music is one of the main methods of establishing the tone and themes of a game - a strong main menu theme can say a lot, and “Baba Yetu” certainly is that.

“Baba Yetu” - which means “Our Father” in Swahili - is a translation of the Lord’s Prayer used by christians in East Africa. Swahili is a lingua franca in East Africa, which means that relatively few people speak it as a first language, but it’s often used as a go between for people that otherwise wouldn’t have a common language. It was often used when trading with Islamic Arabs along the Indian ocean trade routes in the pre-colonial era, and thus the language includes many elements of Arabic, including a fair amount of vocabulary. The end result is that “Baba Yetu”, as made for Civilization IV, feels like a celebration of all the cultural elements that led into its creation. The Civilization series has often come under fire for portraying a eurocentric view of the world, with a heavy focus on European civilizations and a generally Western outlook. Civ IV pushed to fight this perception - mostly successfully, in my opinion - and “Baba Yetu” was a huge part of that. Between being the first installment in the series to prominently feature religion and allowing citizens to convert nationality from culture pressure, one can easily imagine an east african city with Islamic influence being converted to Christianity as happened (is still happening!) in real life.

Civilization VI, however, is a different game with a different focus, and its main theme, “Sogno di Volare’, reflects that. This song is based on a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” It is steeped in the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, and particularly in da Vinci’s efforts to create a flying machine. Much of the Renaissance was about rediscovering the works of the past (particularly of Greece - “Sogno di Volare” reminds me of the story of Icarus, flying to the sun only to fail and fall to the sea, recast as a success) and using them to push towards a better, more wondrous future. As Christopher Tin said on a reddit AMA, it is also evocative of a strong sense of exploration. Civilization VI as a whole feels much more aspirational and it views human progress as a net positive to strive for, even more so than other entries, and “Sogno di Volare” is indicative of that.

My favorite aspect of the Civilization VI soundtrack isn’t the main theme, though, as great as it is. It’s the way the soundtrack adapts to your play. Each civilization in Civ VI has a different base theme, often based on a local folk song or similar of that culture, that develops complexity as you progress through the different technological eras of the game. It even incorporates the themes of the other civilizations you meet and the eras they are currently in, weaving a brilliant tapestry of the story of your game. I absolutely love this idea. It’s a great way to represent a civilization building on its own base ideas and on its interactions with other civilizations, and results in some wonderfully varied music. It also ties in neatly with the mechanics of the game, where the map evolves through play as you place buildings and wonders throughout a campaign, ending in a map absolutely transformed from humble beginnings. Another example is how civilizations maintain part of the bonuses acquired from earlier government types when switching, leading to an endgame where you can track your path through the different types of government simply by looking at your bonuses. It’s not often I see such a clever interweaving of soundtrack and mechanics, but in Civ VI this works brilliantly.

Not every soundtrack can be as integrated into the way the game plays, and music in games can take a lot of different forms, from backing soundtracks to diegetic examples in universe, but it all has essentially the same purpose: to aid in conveying the tone, atmosphere, and overall aesthetic of a game. It’s often not given much consideration by players, but it’s vital, and when it’s great it can elevate an already good game into something unforgettable. I hope next time you’re playing something you can stop and listen to the music and appreciate something you’d never noticed before.