Ben Houge – O.S.T. for Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001)

It has been said many times and in much more convincing ways than I could phrase, that video games are a nascent art form. I believe strongly in this statement, and have tried, with my limited means, to argue this point many times. In my time trying to research some finer points on this issue, I’ve ended up playing old games of all sorts, and this is how I came across this wonderful collection of songs written by composer Ben Houge for a unique computer role playing game which came out in 2001 – Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

Source: timeoutshanghai.com

I feel I need to talk a little bit about the game itself in order to provide some context to the music which came with it. You see, the game takes place in a world where Jules Verne-esque technology (a source for so much of what is being called “steam-punk”) coexists with “thaumaturgy”, that is to say magic or magick. As the character the player controls explores the world and unravels the yarn of the story, he must come to choose between the two. The world is made to perfectly capture that unique blend of high civilization and savagery the early nineteenth century had, that exciting, odd charm one can still feel while browsing through a technological museum. I certainly had an unmistakeable thrill while visiting the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris, France, at the recommendation of a dear friend, and the game brought back those same chimes down my spine as I was playing it. However, it wasn’t only the story, the dialogue, and the art design that had that effect. I believe it had mostly to do with the music.

This game has a truly unique soundtrack – scored by a professional composer for a string quartet, I believe this collection of songs can stand on its own in any concert venue, regardless of the initial intent and purpose. These pieces are little classical music gems, wondrous constructions of harmony and tempo, fascinating discussions between four noble instruments. The mood is set instantly, with tremendous accuracy – intimate, enthralling, quiet and yet fascinatingly expressive. The music acts almost like a quality of light – the golden, sepia-like shine so easily associated with old photographs and antiques inherited from grandparents, the inviting, mysterious glow of the afternoon sun through the tiles of the roof, in the attic where all sorts of fragments of a more personal history reside. These notes shift from a certain independence from any sort of dramatic storyline to definite connections to what seems to be an inferred narrative, while always maintaining this soft, antique, emotional mood with such delicacy and grace it’s hard not to actually feel moved at some of the pieces.

The composer, Ben Houge, made the entire soundtrack available for free download, along with all of the scores for all the songs. In fact, the pieces have been performed, by a string quartet, at the launch party of the game, over ten years ago. As far as I know, it is the only time when this music emerged into the air in a concert venue, which is truly sad, since it’s one of the very few instances of truly well done minimalism being so easily available to aspiring players for free. I’ve actually been trying to gather some people in order to play it in my town, but since I can’t play any of the instruments of a string quartet, my word has little persuasive power in this case.

Nevertheless, I believe in the solid emotional communication this music proposes, I’m enthralled by its antique yet thoroughly modern charm, and by the mix of magic and rationality behind it. I leave you with a couple of samples, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have! See you soon!

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