Charlie Armour is a man who is, seemingly, always working. Although occasionally award winning, he remains both prolific and yet under the radar. A truly diverse composer working in a range of styles, there's few projects it would feel weird to find his name attached to, and yet the soundtrack to “Rabbit Hole Studio's” hauntingly dystopian new game “The Lost Gardens” seems to be strangely appropriate.
The game is described thus: “Forgotten and lost to time, a mysterious entity known as The One has awoken you; an ancient robot known as The Caretaker. You are tasked with reclaiming the world from a being known only as Fear before he finishes draining the world of life.” Playing as a top down adventure game with plenty of runny, jumpy, shooty stuff, the setting for Charlie's soundtrack is both a kinetic and a deeply atmospheric one. A mixture of a movement, exploration and tension. So how to approach this?
The backbone of most of the music in “The Lost Gardens” is either a walking piano line or the string equivalent, usually playing out a melancholy or thoughtful pattern. A sense of depth is being conveyed, should I say. The underlying feeling of isolation that this game has, is perfectly translated in these moments. You can sense the mood of being the lone traveller often.
One of the things that helps elevate this experience above other video game soundtracks is that there is a real element of musicianship and therefore humanity. The piano lines are played delicately and precisely and so this gentleness in delivery translates through to the game as a more personal experience.
Additionally, there is a light application of production to add to the atmosphere. As has long since been understood in soundtrack writing, a classical score is often enhanced by the correct moody, or dramatic production but poor production can lead to some pretty horrifyingly tacky results as well. Video games are often a prime showcase of such errors.
“The Lost Gardens” mainly relies on fairly standard techniques such as light reverb, ambient sounds and reverb tricks, but they are used subtly and achieve the desired result without detracting from the mood of the music. It's complementary rather than overpowering.
When Charlie wants to change up a piece he does this mostly from adding extra instruments, often bolstering the string section. Isolation is translated through long mid-tone violins, danger through low cellos and aggression through staccato hits. It's an age old method but one that works.
Whereas a lesser writer would fall back on these techniques to simply be their piece, Charlie has given each instrument a sense of purpose through writing some great sections. Modern soundtracks now often aim away from good writing in favour of just creating a certain signature sound, but “The Lost Gardens” feels like a very musical game as the chord structures and moving note patterns swoop and play underneath the events. There is no reliance on tiresome refrains, but instead, structured and affective writing.
A section of the OST labelled “Down In The Swamps” plays on both the instrumental and production methods in unison, and in a fun way. For all it's atmosphere, this is still a game with a cartoonish leaning and a story about an adventuring robot. It probably serves the purpose very well to occasionally lighten the mood. Charlie takes to this opportunity with some fantastically playful background sounds of swamp creatures, from growling monsters to beeping bugs. Meanwhile, the music bounces along in a rather unthreateningly spooky way, as though more in line with a children's Halloween special.
Being an awful gamer, I haven't played this section of the game, but I can already tell it's fun, and likely quite kinetic.
I would give special note, however, to the piece “Lost Voices of The Forest”. An echoing sea of sound and distant voices, as the name would suggest. This soundscape creates a truly dark and disturbing tone that perfectly offsets the more playful parts of the game. Throbbing synths, pitch distortions, fading noises in the near and far scope, the whole piece pulses with an energy. The myriad of sounds fit perfectly together to create one oozing gel of atmosphere. In this piece especially, Charlie shows his ability to take things in a different direction entirely should it be required.
It seems, whilst focusing on the soundtrack element of this game in such detail, that we could miss the point though. Charlie's mission here appears not so much to be re-inventing the wheel as taking surgical expertise to perfecting its roundness. Although this is an approach that I perhaps didn't initially expect, it was a wisely chosen one that seems to have served the project perfectly. Imagine, if you wouldn't mind, that I asked you to take something you love and break it down in to it's component parts without context: It may then sound somewhat lacking. Masses of football fans like watching millionaires kicking a sack of air at a net, movie lovers like watching trained fakers pretend to recreate false stories, beer is just fermented vegetable juice. Components without context are often meaningless. In that light, it's fair to say that what Charlie has actually produced is a modest soundtrack that knows the needs of it's contextual focus. One that supports the video game that is, after all, the subject matter of the listeners' attention. Rather than striking all the biggest and brightest notes, he has focused on striking the right ones.
I was reminded of watching Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar”, scored by Hans Zimmer, who had collaborated with Nolan before to achieve incredible results. “Interstellar” was the point, to me, when it seemed they had become too comfortable. Suddenly Zimmer's blasting pipe organ work seemed to over-power some of the scenes and distract from what it was supporting. Although such a rich comparison between indie game and international blockbuster may seem ignorant, I think it makes a valid point. Charlie has achieved a delicate balance here that is often lost in either the inexperience of smaller writers or the comfort of larger names.
A well crafted, effective and delicate soundtrack that appears to be one of a great game's strongest assets.
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