Aquaria Soundtrack, Alec Holowka / Ian Holowka, 2007
By 2009, the indie game resurgence had already begun to make its mark on the gaming market at large. However, indie games’ impact on game music took longer to materialise. Existing digital distribution channels like iTunes and other online music stores didn’t cater to the requirements of these often tiny projects created on very limited budgets. True, Bandcamp had been around since 2007. However, it hadn’t yet turned into the foremost distribution outlet for Western game music that it is now.
In this environment, the release of the Aquaria soundtrack was a watershed moment for Western indie game music. At the time, a 2CD album release for a Western indie game soundtrack was unheard of. What made the album release more surprising still was that it happened two years after the game itself had been released. Publisher Infinite Ammo’s courage was duly rewarded. Like the game, the Aquaria soundtrack met with an enthusiastic response from critics and gamers alike.
What probably helped Aquaria to break through is the fact that the game placed music front and centre. It all starts with the ‘verse’, a twelve-note melody that game developer and composer Alec Holowka came up with. Using the verse theme throughout the soundtrack, Holowka realised it was well suited to become a plot point. The verse became the only part of a lullaby that the Creator, Aquaria’s god-like antagonist, remembered. He proceeded to create Aquaria, threading the verse throughout the world’s fabric. This also explains how Aquaria’s protagonist Naija is able to manipulate her surroundings by singing short tunes.
Weaving music and narrative together so closely naturally has consequences for the Aquaria soundtrack. The most obvious one is the constant presence of the verse theme. In its most common representation (often on flute), it is an expansive, calm melody tinged both with melancholy and hope. It establishes a sense of yearning early on, representing both cautious optimism for the future and a pensive, elegiac relationship with the past. Both aspects perfectly mirror the game’s narrative that circles around the loss of memory and hope for self-realisation.
Outside of conceptual such considerations, Holowka’s theme is also simply a beautiful, immediately memorable melody. Writing a nearly two hour monothematic score – as Holowka attempts here – is an immense challenge. What secures his success is both the appealing nature of his main theme and his ability to integrate it throughout the Aquaria soundtrack in sufficiently varied disguises. A particular highlight is the yearning celli rendition of the verse theme on “Remains”.
“The Traveller” appears early on the album and features the verse theme in very prominent fashion. In the process, it reveals a lot about Aquaria’s musical influences. The theme’s tone and musical arrangement – wistful flute lead over soft snare drums – can’t help but recall “Terra’s Theme” from Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI. Remember that both melodies underscore amnesiac characters trying to reassert their identity and find their place in the world. No surprise then that at a piano jam to celebrate the album release, Holowka merged “Terra’s Theme” and the verse theme.
There is indeed a pronounced SNES/JRPG influence running through the Aquaria soundtrack. In interviews, Holowka cited Uematsu and other SNES composers as musical inspirations. These influences are most strongly felt in the way Holowka mixes orchestral and pop elements throughout the soundtrack. Many tracks are gently driven forward by a soft drum kit, while graceful, quickly accessible melodies – often performed by orchestral solo instruments – are layered on top. This familiar combination gives the music immediacy, colourful variety and gravitas when pulled off as well as it is here. “Mystery” even revives the time-honoured JRPG tradition of the solo music box track.
It’s the orchestral elements that come to represent the soundtrack’s warm and sentimental side. It’s during the verse theme’s renditions on oboe, flute or horns that it rings out most clearly and draws listeners into the world of Aquaria. Once this connection binds listeners and music, Holowka establishes interferences that turn the usually idyllic ocean waters into hostile territory. Most of Aquaria’s battle music unfortunately is relatively non-descript, too repetitive and thematically thin to really impress. Holowka is more successful when he introduces electronic elements to chill the music’s endearing embrace. Particularly during the album’s final third, he uses these non-organic sounds to turn Aquaria’s waters colder and harder to fathom.
For example, “Dark Places” buries its melody underneath chiming sound effects and electronic rhythms. “Gullet” is more abstract yet, with its lonely tinkling sounds and a deep bass line that pulls the music to the bottom of the ocean. Melodies don’t entirely disappear from these tracks, but as on “The Body”, they have turned eerie and forlorn. One of Aquaria’s best genre mixes is “Sunken City”, which combines the music’s typically elegiac string melodies with a trip hop drum beat. Surprisingly enough, the drums – weary but with no choice but to carry one – only intensify the music’s pensive mood. Combining orchestral, pop and electronic elements is then another method that helps Holowka to sustain the soundtrack’s considerable running time.
While the verse melody ties Aquaria together thematically, the game’s narrative also gives it another, second function. The spoken word introduction on “Intro” sets up the verse melody as a force (very much in the Star Wars sense) that binds all things together. Through the verse, “my story will become your own”, Naija addresses the listener. In other words, it is first and foremost Aquaria’s music that builds an emotional connection between the game and its users and listeners. It’s rare to see any visual piece of art – game, film etc. – to point out the narrative importance of its accompanying music so much.
It’s also entirely appropriate. Few game soundtracks create a sprawling, yet consistent musical world that’s utterly compelling as well as the Aquaria soundtrack does. A quick comparison with another ocean-themed indie game – Abzû – proves insightful. Austin Wintory’s masterful score for that game is a more experimental and abstract affair than Aquaria. It’s less obviously melodic and more concerned with the careful layering and exploration of orchestral textures. Abzû retains a fascinating aura of intangibility, of melodic and emotional ambivalence.
The Aquaria soundtrack is clearer on its narrative intent and what it wants listeners to experience. The musical pillars of its underwater world are fairly conventional. Generally you can expect serene compositions, expressive woodwind melodies backed by soft strings, with embellishments from piano, string pizzicati and light metal percussion, while occasional choir pads and bell strikes address the ocean’s majestic expanse and sometimes forbidding depth. But such familiarity simply allows Holowka to emotionally involve and move listeners without delay.
Just how powerful the Aquaria soundtrack’s narrative arc is becomes clear at the album’s end. Simply put, it is one of the most powerful finales in Western game music. The initial grand orchestral gestures of “Ending” make way for a resigned piano piece that recalls how much of this game and music’s story was that of one individual’s personal quest, no matter how immense the music’s scope became at times. “Ending”’s close and the following “Return” briefly offer redemption.
And then “Lost to the Waves” brings the music’s persistent yearning to a head in genuinely affecting fashion. Jenna Sharpe’s flawless performance on this orchestral pop ballad carries a haunting, heart-breaking melody that is impossible to resist. It’s the sound of the setting sun flooding the sky with golden light one last time before the lapping waves grow darker and darker. Faintly alight with glimmers of hope, “Lost to the Waves” prepares the ground for the soundtrack’s final seconds. “Fly Away”’s closing, rising horn melody feels like a necessary, but ultimately accepting good bye. Resolution is still out of reach, the journey must go on.
This is where the emotionally draining but satisfying album arc would end in regular circumstances. But there’s still bonus track “Fear the Dark”, sequenced at the end of the Bandcamp release. It’s the sort of big, sweeping pop orchestral closing ballad that Western game composers unfortunately attempt so rarely. Impeccably arranged and constructed (and at times exquisitely overwrought), “Fear the Dark” is a nearly nine-minute behemoth that rises and falls with the confidence of a passionate, grand operatic aria. No need then to assume that indie scores feel smaller than their mainstream cousins. Aquaria’s music tells a story that warrants the soundtrack’s immense scope, which rivals almost anything Western game music has produced.
Purchase on Bandcamp.