The Elder Scrolls Online is out now; here's our Elder Scrolls Online review.
In a true Elder Scrolls game - and this new MMO has more in common with those than you might imagine - you can’t account for what the player is doing. That makes it tricky to compose for: bring in the soaring strings for a major story beat, and you might find the player has turned tail to hack at fish in a nearby stream instead.
Just as Zenimax Online iterated on the game’s design, so too composers Brad Derrick and Rik Schaffer worked on more than one version of its score - including, at one stage, a music system capable of “adapting to gameplay on a measure-by-measure basis”.
Zenimax and the game’s two composers began with the (Classic FM award-winning) established musical themes of the Elder Scrolls series - but then iterated “tirelessly” on how those tenets might stay fresh over hundreds of hours and change to suit the situation in-game.
As they experimented, the music team came up with a system which morphed on an almost-granular level to fit the player’s actions - but it became “almost prohibitively difficult” to work with, and “didn’t yield very satisfying results”.
“Buzzwords like ‘interactive music’ and ‘non-linear composition’ got thrown around a lot, and we experimented quite a bit with different systems,” say Zenimax.
“As it turns out, that degree of flexibility is fundamentally at odds with developing meaningful musical moments within the Elder Scrolls’ vocabulary.”
The composers also pushed to the other extreme - trying out a system which “prioritised musicality over adaptability” but “steamrollered over action in the game”. The score went through “many iterations” - Derrick and Schaffer wrote in one-measure chunks one month, moved to six-minute chunks the next, and 30-second chunks the month after that.
Eventually, they found the sweet spot: a traditional score nimbly structured to allow “left or right turns” at key moments as the player moves in and out of different scenarios. Individual pieces are queued based on biome types, locations and moods.
“Themes come and go, floating by, catching the player's ear then receding, evolving into the next theme,” write Zenimax. “Rather than hearing a motif over and over and growing weary of it, the player's ear latches onto phrases here and there that enhance the moment.”
The results are subtle and effective. But despite these efforts, it was Jeremy Soule’s familiar main theme, played during character selection in the main menu, which had the most profound effect on me during our time with the Elder Scrolls Online beta.
Which is your favourite Elder Scrolls theme? Feel free to ‘sing’ in the comments.