The spacefaring arm of the 4X genre has a long and extremely celebrated history on the PC. From the classics like Galactic Civilizations and Masters of Orion to the relatively more recent entries like Sins of a Solar Empire and Endless Space, each take on the premise brings with it a different balance of micromanagement and automation. Unlike the terrestrial entries in the genre, though, there aren’t many soundtracks that I can claim have been particularly memorable. With Stellaris, Paradox Interactive seeks to bring their own spin on both the mechanics and the music behind the genre. Paradox composer Andreas Waldetoft has combined sci-fi electronica with performances by the Brandenburg State Orchestral to give us a synthesis of genre that has definitely aimed to give us something memorable. For the most part, I think he’s definitely succeeded.
The opening track to the soundtrack is the aptly-named ‘Stellaris Suite – Creation & Beyond’. While this isn’t really an overture, per se, it does present a couple of the recurring themes that are present throughout the rest of the soundtrack. This track also shows how effectively a certain kind of song evokes a particular setting in a very particular way. In this case, the overall feel is very rooted in ‘military sci-fi’-style video games. It’s very reminiscent of the sorts of themes that are present in Starcraft, or Halo, or, most recently, Mass Effect. This last one is probably the most significant comparison because the overall style of both soundtracks are very similar. Both rely heavily on a combination of orchestral and pulsing electronic tracks with strong influences from all manner of science fiction. While I very much adore the Mass Effect soundtracks, when I listened to the opening track on the Stellaris soundtrack, I can very confidently say that Stellaris has the soundtrack that Mass Effect wishes it had.
The second track, ‘Deep Space Travels’ starts off with the same themes that the opening track developed, but then partway through sort of explodes into a bombastic organ-heavy theme reminiscent of Notre Dame or St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s obvious that if the first track represents the military might of a planetary navy, this second track represents the ever-present spread of influence through religion. In the last third, the track shifts to organ backed by electronica that is reminiscent of something that Dance with the Dead would put out. For all that Stellaris takes its sound from a variety of previous works of video game science fiction, it doesn’t really rely on any one source of influence and instead blends its various sounds into something pretty original.
The middle of the soundtrack is where things start to lull for me. I don’t mean this in the sense that the tracks aren’t good, because they are. For me, it’s more that they tend to be slightly different variations on the same couple of general themes. On further reflection, this does a lot in the soundtrack’s favor when it comes to being, well, a soundtrack to a game. Songs like ‘The Celestial City’ take the initial themes and alter them to be slower, less obtrusive background music. Likewise, songs like ‘Pillars of Creation’ and ‘Riding the Solar Wind’ are longer takes on the recurring moods of the album.
The more I think about the way the album is laid out, though, the more I appreciate it. A 4X game has a definite ‘middle lull’ in which the player is deeply focused on the nuts and bolts of creating an empire. In this part of the game, the player really gets into a kind of groove, similar to getting ‘in the zone’ when working on somewhat repetitive tasks that feed into each other. For something like this, the music can’t overpower the situation. A good 4X soundtrack will not snap the player out of that zone, but will instead encourage it with soft transitions and steady rhythms. ‘Gravitational Constant’, ‘Alpha Centauri’, and are perfect examples of songs that draw the listener in with a steady beat and soft, unobtrusive themes, and in fact, ‘To the End of the Galaxy’ sounds almost exactly like a certain song that one might have heard when scanning for palladium.
One of the tracks that really stands out to me is ‘Spatial Lullaby’. It’s a slow track, and it takes the theme of ‘sleep’ and uses it to evoke the feeling of a long space flight under the effects of cryogenic slumber. It’s also the first track on the soundtrack that uses vocals, though it isn’t the last. The operatic vocals in this track are used in what I think is an interesting and effective way. Rather than take charge of the track and pull the listener’s attention, the vocals sort of weave in and out of it. They become, effectively, another instrument in the orchestra just like the electronic aspects of the music start to be in the middle segment of the album. No one style of instrumentation among the vocal, the orchestral, and the electronic ever dominates for very long. The end result is a blending of style that, in my opinion, it takes a very skilled composer to achieve.
The crowning achievement of the entire soundtrack is the penultimate track, ‘Luminescence’. This track starts out with the soft electronic beats that have permeated the rest of the album, and then starts to layer the various styles and sounds of the rest of the album over them. By the time the vocals start to weave in about a third of the way through, the listener is already drawn into the beauty of the track. While ‘Luminescence’ is more electronic than organic in instrumentation, the track does play off of everything that’s come before while utilizing a theme that has only been used very sparingly throughout the rest of the album. There is a sense of sadness to this track, in both the vocals and in the overall feel. As the song goes on, it evokes the image of an endless space flight to the stars and of the feeling of leaving behind everything one has known to journey into the unknown reaches. It brings to mind the last cries of a dying star, something which can be heard for millennia after the star itself has long since ceased to exist.
With all the comparisons that I’ve made between the Stellaris soundtrack and the Mass Effectsoundtrack, it’s only fitting that they end in a very similar manner. The final track, ‘Faster than Light’ is a blending of the sci-fi electronic beat and organ music from earlier in the soundtrack. At the end, though, the addition of drums into the mix gives it the same sort of effect as the track that closes out the soundtrack to Mass Effect 3. In that case, the track was composed by a synth-rock band, whereas for Stellaris it’s one more facet of the solid talent displayed by Waldetoft throughout the entirety of the album. It’s an ending, but it’s not one that ends on any permanent note. Rather, it’s intended to be something that can loop back and display a continuity of style. In fact, the way that most of the tracks are arranged lends itself very well to being played on shuffle or repeat, which is quite perfect for a genre that demands many, many hours of playtime.
Stellaris is a soundtrack that blends many different elements into a cohesive whole that just works. Andreas Waldetoft and the Paradox Interactive sound team have managed to augment a very good spacefaring 4X game with a soundtrack that deserves to be up there with the greats. In fact, the whole soundtrack is a very good parallel for the entire experience of playing a 4X game. There’s the initial wonder of creation and exploration. There’s the middle that lulls the player into a groove that, when done right, leads the player along without getting into the way. And then there’s the end, where everything the player has built just comes together into this one shining bastion of civilization triumphing over all adversity. This is why it’s not a knock against the soundtrack to say that the middle section is ‘unobtrusive’. That’s the purpose that the soundtrack serves, and functionally it serves the gameplay very, very well. It’s those pillars of brilliance at the beginning and the end, though, that make the Stellaris come together into something truly wonderful.