Essential VGM #1 – “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion”
Few pieces of music have the capacity to both encapsulate a moment in the listener’s life while immersing them in a whole other world at the same time. ‘All’s Well’ by Jeremy Soule for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion does just that. For so many people, the story is the same. “Oblivion was my first Elder Scrolls and I didn’t know what to expect. But when I left the Imperial City Sewers, I fell in love.” My story isn’t all that different in many respects.
A Country in a Box
When I discovered Oblivion, I fell in love. I found it for £10 in a local game exchange shop. I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down to play it that day. Needless to say, my eyes were opened. This intricate world, filled with unique characters – each one with a story and a life of their own. Dark secrets as compelling as the sprawling forests were beautiful. And it was in Cyrodiil that I fell in love with video game music. And one piece in particular draws me right back to that time in my life and the cities of Cyrodiil that I came to know so well.
All’s Well is delicate and sweet. You hear it in the cities and towns of Cyrodiil, a musical signal. “Here, you’re safe. Here, you can rest.” Unless you’re a lawbreaker, then it’s all over.
A Three-Part Serenade [Analysis]
A deep string drone fades in for two harps to set the scene. Twiddling, the lead, basking in a bed of reverb, plucks out the tender melody of a home well-kept and lovingly preserved. Beneath, the second harp moves gently laying the rhythmic foundation in accents. And when the lead rises, the counterpoint does so too. The strings behind dance up to a higher sustained note.
When the flute arrives, it brings with it the whim of a butterfly, fluttering over the city walls to rest on the nape of a flower’s head. Flitting, like the harp in lead before it, it continues to drive home the busy, fickle nature of the proud cyrodiilic people at rest in their homes, away from the world. When the flute takes centre stage, a harp supports it as it supported the lead before, in accents, continuing on and giving body to the notion of stability in the cities of Cyrodiil.
Soon, the lead harp from the initial passage falls into its familiar melody. But this time, it rests in the background while the foreground is occupied by the reverberating flute in legato. But in time, the supporting harp brings itself to the forefront as lead for but a moment before seamlessly lulling into chordal arpeggios over which the higher harp lead takes precedence.
Finally, our initial twiddling harp melody returns. Gentler this time, it’s statement is made. This time, we hear it ebbing and flowing like countryside winds curving over great valleys only to reach the towns as a breeze, rising and falling, the breath of the realm. Behind, the strings roll back into their drone as, together, all sounds fade to silence.
A Legacy Without End
In video game music, the intention is always to support and enrich the content of the game. In some cases, the composer does their job so well that they elevate the game beyond reasonable expectation.
There’s no debate. Soule’s contribution to The Elder Scrolls series has made it what it is. It would not be what it is today without Soule’s music. It has elevated these games into timelessness. A gift to the industry and a gift to all those who keep coming back time and time again, even after so many years.
Oblivion is an incredible game with or without the music (I tested this when I used to get up super early to play it but put it on mute so I didn’t wake up anyone else in the hours). And although Skyrim is the game that the world continues to talk about and play (and Bethesda keep on re-releasing) Oblivion, and Soule’s music, will always have a special place in my heart.
And whenever I’m walking a quite road in the fading light of the day, I can’t help but hear the delicate harp of All’s Well in the back of my mind.
In a world as tense as ours today, this game and it’s music has been my happy place more often than not. And it stays with me now, over a decade later.
A New Era (Updated February 2022)
I’ve always loved Soule’s music for the Elder Scrolls series. The Oblivion soundtrack has been one of my all time favourite soundtracks and I promise that’s not just for nostalgia reasons. But playing The Elder Scrolls: Blades (a mobile game set in the same universe) recently has made me excited to see what other composers will bring to this rich and vibrant world of stories and player-crafted memories. Specifically, I’m excited to see what more Inon Zur might bring to the Elder Scrolls, if he ends up composing for The Elder Scrolls VI.
Zur always delivers. There’s no debating that. And after Brad Derrick and Rik Shaffer’s contributions to the Elder Scrolls universe for ESO, it’s exciting to see different creative contributions to a world that has such a special place in my heart.
Suggest a track for Essential VGM
Which video game music do you think is Essential listening? Comment below and include a link! All suggestions will be considered for future posts.
Jeremy Soule’s ‘All’s Well’ on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/7MWYv1m0d023BdbLyG6NQE