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 these often tiny projects. 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. Publisher Infinite Ammo’s courage was duly rewarded. Like the game, the Aquaria soundtrack met with an enthusiastic response from critics and gamers alike.
One thing that helped the Aquaria soundtrack to break through is 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 actually well suited to become a major plot point and gameplay mechanic.
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 a significant 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 cello rendition of the verse theme on “Remains”.
In interviews, Holowka cited Nobuo Uematsu and other SNES composers as musical inspirations. These influences are most obvious 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. Particularly during the album’s final third, he uses electronic 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.
Crucial for an album of such immense length, the Aquaria soundtrack successfully builds a narrative arc that hooks listeners and carries them all the way to the album’s conclusion. Arguably, the musical pillars of Aquaria’s 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. “Ending”’s resigned piano close and the following “Return” briefly offer redemption. Then vocal ballad “Lost to the Waves” brings the music’s persistent yearning to a head in genuinely affecting fashion. 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. Resolution is still out of reach, the journey must go on.
And then 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.
This playlist is a best-of selection of the Bandcamp soundtrack release.
- 01 Title Alec Holowka 1:36
- 02 Light Alec Holowka 2:00
- 03 The Traveller Alec Holowka 1:57
- 04 Home Alec Holowka 1:55
- 05 Technique Alec Holowka 1:29
- 06 Archaic Alec Holowka 2:15
- 07 Fatal Alec Holowka 1:30
- 08 Undiscovered Waters Alec Holowka 2:33
- 09 Remains Alec Holowka 2:22
- 10 Cathedral Alec Holowka 1:48
- 11 The Fall of Mithalas Alec Holowka 2:42
- 12 Heart of the Forest Alec Holowka 2:51
- 13 Hope of Winter Alec Holowka 2:54
- 14 Mother Nature Alec Holowka 1:48
- 15 Druniad Dance Alec Holowka 1:12
- 16 Bright Waters Alec Holowka 2:10
- 17 Above Alec Holowka 3:11
- 18 Moment Alec Holowka 2:12
- 19 Li Alec Holowka / Ian Holowka 1:31
- 20 Sun Temple Alec Holowka 1:55
- 21 Prometheus Alec Holowka 1:03
- 22 Lost Waters Alec Holowka 2:43
- 23 Arnassi Alec Holowka 2:29
- 24 Dark Places Alec Holowka 2:38
- 25 Gullet Alec Holowka 1:32
- 26 Icy Waters Alec Holowka 2:24
- 27 Sunken City Alec Holowka / Ian Holowka 2:57
- 28 Mother and Father Alec Holowka / Ian Holowka 1:38
- 29 The Body Alec Holowka 2:03
- 30 Fallen Breed Alec Holowka 2:24
- 31 Worship Alec Holowka 5:29
- 32 Ending Alec Holowka 3:45
- 33 The Return Alec Holowka 2:30
- 34 Lost to the Waves Alec Holowka 3:12
- 35 The Verse Alec Holowka 1:10
- 36 Fly Away Alec Holowka 1:05
- 37 Fear the Dark Alec Holowka 8:53