The String Arcade: an album review

The String Arcade is a Kickstarter-funded project, now complete and releasing officially tomorrow (February 11th). If you’re quick and put your order in now, you can save a few dollars on the already-reasonable prices. If it seems odd for me to suggest ordering before I’ve even started talking about the music, bear in mind – as I am – that 100% of profits from the sale of this album are going to the Alameda Music Project, providing up to 75 kids in California with free music tuition (the plan is to expand even further). Is that reason enough to order? Arguably, yes; but on top of that, the album itself is excellent.

The videogames tackled range from the classic to the modern and, as such, include The Legend of Zelda and Sonic 2 as well as FTL and Portal 2. It’s important to realise however that this isn’t really a collection of music from videogames; it’s a collection of music about videogames. Each piece tells a story. Tempos are urged forward or held back and keys changed, depending on whether that stage of the piece wishes to convey happiness, trepidation, determination, or more. Generally speaking the album seems to have been recorded in a minor key, lending it that haunting, mournful quality that strings slip in to so easily. This does nothing to stagger the storytelling of the music, and as such The String Arcade could be said to have more in common with opera or ballet than videogames.

A perfect example is the Minecraft piece, a game which lends itself to the album perfectly. It begins with a metronomic procession of short, sharp notes for players toiling away at the start of the game, working away at mining and building before they can do anything else. The music is soon layered, mirroring the game experience; and then the brief hits of music give way altogether to longer, prolonged notes that paint a picture of the end of the day turning into the calm, yet unknown, night. Then, at the end, strings are tentatively plucked as the cycle begins again…

My personal favourite has to be ‘Echoes of Ecco’. A sweeping composition with an undercurrent (pun not entirely intended) of sadness, it even employs the simple yet perfectly appropriate technique of dragging the bow across the (violin…?) strings to emulate a dolphin’s cries just before the two minute mark, and again at the end to finish the story. Elsewhere we have ‘Turret Suite’ for Portal 2, which sounds much like a piece composed for a court; which surely reflects the turrets’ relationship with GlaDOS quite accurately.

Pay a little extra for the physical edition of the album, and you’re rewarded with two bonus tracks based on Tron Arcade and Altered Beast. TSA have had fun especially with the latter, taking a theme that the original composer never dreamed of being performed by strings and making it their own. Indeed, it almost seems to be the rule that the older the original, the more enthusiastic the reinterpretation. ‘Dance of the Space Bugs’ for Galaga is performed with so much majesty – and, quickly, energy – that it practically demands somebody take this music and set it to players acting the story out on stage.

I could talk about the Plants vs Zombies track ‘Grasswalk’, but why would I when I could simply point you towards the official free download (or instant stream if you prefer)? I could talk about all the other pieces I haven’t discussed yet, but all I really want to say is: buy this album and discover them for yourself. You will not regret it. Sure, there are perhaps some odd omissions (no Stacking? No Mario ghost houses???), but with any luck we’ll see a second album, and all will be well. As it is, what we have here is a collection of music that can be enjoyed by anybody; regardless of whether or not they’re familiar with the games or, indeed, with any games at all. You’ll be listening to these pieces time and time again. I know I have.

Critical Hit

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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