Musical Musings

Here’s something different for you this Friday, dear readers: A music-analysis essay! Well, my attempt at one, anyways XD I don’t have much of a grounding in music theory, but I was asked to write on it by a friend of mine. I showed him my previous entry on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and he asked me why I wrote so much concerning Hitler. I asked him if there’s anything he’d like to see, and he said music! So I thought I’d give it my best shot and write a music post, though he’d probably be able to do much better…he has some formal music training. Still, I hope he and anyone else coming across this entry will find it interesting, at least 🙂

One series of games I’ve been playing a lot recently is the Warhammer 40k Dawn of War, and one series I used to play a lot was Castlevania. One subject I was and still am quite interested in is religion. I’ll talk about all three of these here, specifically the different ways in which Warhammer and Castlevania games make use of religious music. Both do, after all. It may sound strange to readers who aren’t familiar with the properties, so let me give you a brief introduction to both.

I described the Warhammer 40,000 universe in a bit more depth here (my entry on grimdarkness XD). To offer a shorter, quicker recap, the setting of 40k is incredibly dystopic, where mankind is ruled by a terrible galactic Imperium which kills billions of its own citizens a day but still isn’t as bad as the various space aliens and extradimensional terrors which would otherwise consume everything. The Dawn of War games (DoW I and II, and their expansions) take place within this scary backdrop, and revolve around the toughest of the Imperium’s soldiers, the Space Marines. Now, the thing about the Imperium is that it’s also a theocracy. All of its citizens, administrators, and soldiers (in theory, at least) worship the Emperor of Mankind as a God, and the religious structure of the Imperium itself is loosely based off of medieval Catholicism. The language of the far-future Imperium is often represented as Latin, there are big gothic cathedrals (some of which are attached to incredibly big robots—this should give you an impression of how over-the-top 40k’s setting is XD), and the Space Marines themselves have some similarities to medieval knights. Some space marines, such as the Black Templars, *really* play into this, as their armor has things like a knight’s crest and they even use (futuristic) swords and shields, but most of the Marines have this aesthetic to some extent. They certainly recall the portrayal of the medieval knight as a crusader or holy warrior. In all the Dawn of War games, your marines say stuff like “Faith is my shield!” and “Heretics will be purged!” which are the sorts of things you’d expect to hear from the deeply religious.

Castlevania, on the other hand, is quite different. Its first game released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The original Castlevania had nowhere near the elaborate setting and backstory of Warhammer 40,000. It was pretty simple: You were the whip-wielding hero Simon Belmont (in future games, you’d play as his ancestors or descendants), and you had to navigate through a series of side-scrolling, platforming levels to eventually defeat the evil vampire Dracula and stop him from terrorizing medieval Europe. Pretty much all the Castlevania games followed this basic formula, though some don’t have a whip-wielding or Belmont-descended protagonist (such as Alucard from Symphony of the Night or Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia), and of course many of the recent games are 3D rather than 2D platformers.

Given the differences between the two game series, you may expect the 40k entries to be the more religiously-tinged of the two, in terms of aesthetics, concepts, and of course music. You’d think Warhammer would have more religious music, right? While gospel tunes would obviously be too upbeat for such a grimdark setting, old-time medieval hymns and Gregorian chants ought to fit right in, especially given how much 40k likes to use Latin in its descriptions. Ironically enough, however, the opposite is true: Castlevania has a much wider array of ‘religious’ hymnal music, and even the relatively few ‘hymnal’ tunes or chants found in the Dawn of War games aren’t as true to the Catholic source material as Castlevania’s.

Now, a brief digression on how I’m using the terms religious music, hymnal, and so on. Again, I’ve no grounding in music theory, so I can’t define liturgical music referring to its specific, technical dimensions of tone, tempo, composition, and so on. However, even I can fall back on a combination of Wikipedia and “I know it when I hear it.” I think religious music is songs like this:

Lots of choral singing, backed by an organ, and most importantly, slow-paced with an intent to evoke calm and reflection within the listener.

And this:

A Gregorian chant without any organs or instrumental accompaniment, but sung in a liturgical language (Latin) and also methodically paced, its intent being to evoke calm and reflection in the listener.

Now, let’s look at some of the music in the Castlevania and Dawn of War games to see how well each captures the emotions the religious songs I’ve posted above try to evoke.

These tunes from Dawn of War I and II are pretty emblematic of the music of the games as a whole: (Space Marine theme from DoW I) (Space Marine theme from DoW II)

As you can tell, both pieces are very militaristic with few religious elements aside from some chanting in the second one. And even with the chanting, the tempo and background rhythm of the music is clearly meant to evoke a military march, not the calm and contemplation encouraged by actual religious music. There is one song with perhaps slightly more religious content: The theme of the Sisters of Battle from the Dawn of War expansion pack, Soulstorm. The Sisters of Battle are literally nuns, though in the universe of 40k they’re a martial order which sees war rather than peace as their religious duty. They have power armor and weapons similar to the Space Marines, though they’re not as strong. Check out their theme:

There’s an organ, and even some chanting in Latin, but the rhythm of the music is very militaristic, like the Space Marine themes, and instills dread in the listener rather than awe or reflection.

There are a handful of songs in Dawn of War which really capture a religious theme, but there are very few of them. One of those few is this, IMO:

From what I understand, this is a genuine Gregorian chant, and captures the same emotions of calm and reflection ‘official’ chants are supposed to do.

Now, let’s look at some selections of music from the Castlevania games. It’s very, very varied, of course, ranging from jazzy/funky pieces like this one to hard rock like this. However, it also has a tremendous amount of genuinely religious music, in my estimation. Check these out:

The menu screen from Rondo of Blood (and several other games) use an actual Christian hymn, the Kyrie Eleison, as their themes.

“Gloomy Memories,” from the Dawn of Sorrow OST, isn’t exactly a match for the religious music I’ve shown above, but it comes close and captures a melancholic, sort of contemplative feel, at least moreso than most Dawn of War music.

The password screen of Super Castlevania IV also seems somewhat hymnal in composition and intent, to me.

The beginning of this track from Lament of Innocence, “House of Sacred Remains,” would not be out of place in a church service, though I suppose I must note that a lot of this churchy-sounding music is more baroque than ecclesiastical, i.e more melancholy than what you’d see in a real religious service. Still, it captures the reflection and calm encouraged by liturgical music quite well, in my estimation—before the more eclectic main tune kicks in, of course, at around the 1:30 mark.

And, of course, one of my favorite Castlevania songs and pieces of music, period–“Requiem for the Gods” from Symphony of the Night:

Again, more melancholic and generally Baroque than specifically religious, but it comes close to catching that religious theme, IMO.

As you can tell, Castlevania, in general, seems to have more music of a genuinely religious nature in more places than Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War. I could only find one track in the DoW games that wouldn’t seem out of place in a religious context, while there are several among many Castlevania games which would—at least to an extent; as I admitted above, they wouldn’t fit in perfectly. XD

It may seem somewhat ironic—at first glance—that a series of platforming games about killing vampires has more convincing religious music than games set within a galaxy-spanning medieval Catholic-inspired theocracy. On closer inspection, however, this actually makes sense. Allow me to explain.

The Castlevania mythos, despite ostensibly just being based on some guy fighting Dracula, is suffused with religion. As most of my readers are no doubt aware, in classic tales vampires loath religion and are repelled by religious iconography. In Castlevania, this is a gameplay mechanic; the protagonists of most games can pick up items like crosses to increase their power against Dracula and his minions. Naturally, semi-religious music would also be appropriate in such settings, to represent the protagonist’s struggle against the forces of literally ungodly evil.

In the Warhammer 40k universe, however, religion is actually not that important. Despite the aesthetic trappings, like the giant-robot cathedrals and the Space Marines talking about faith all the time, the setting revolves much, much more around warfare, militarism, and combat—religion is more just a ‘flavoring’ than any significant part of gameplay, for either the computer or tabletop games. The portrayal of the Imperium as a dysfunctional theocracy is mainly there to make it seem even more dystopian to the player, as most of the (Western, first-world) audience will almost certainly consider religious fanaticism to be undesirable. Thus, the compositional reasoning behind Dawn of War’s music makes sense. While genuinely religious music would immerse the player further in Castlevania’s setting (emphasizing the holy nature of the protagonist and the aversion to religion vampires have in the classic mythos), it would be more of a distraction in a Warhammer game, which is more about war, war, and more war than any cultural mythos.

Also, I’ll admit that I may be comparing apples to oranges here—Castlevania has been around much longer than the Dawn of War series of games. There are two Dawn of War Games (but with several expansions), both of which were first released in the 2000s (though 40k computer games have a much longer history, as old as Castlevania’s, the Dawn of War games are the most successful, which is why I chose to focus on them). Thus, the Castlevania games have much more music overall, and it’s understandable they’d have more religious music as well, starting from a larger and broader musical base.

So, what can we learn from all this? I suppose it that’s you can’t necessarily tell what kind of music a given game will have just by looking at its boxcover or artwork. You might expect a game with an armored nun on its cover (like Dawn of War: Soulstorm) to have more religious music than a game with some beefy dude with a whip fighting monsters, but as I’ve proven above, the opposite is true. Not that I’m knocking either game series, of course, I like both Warhammer and Castlevania—just making a comment on what I found interesting about their music. I hope you found this entry interesting too!

Anyways, next week (or maybe even sooner) I think I’ll do a post on another series of games. I’ll be discussing the Ys (pronounced eece, like fleece) games, a venerable and very popular series produced by the Falcom company in Japan (The only property that has more games than Ys over there is Final Fantasy!). I bought Ys I and II Chronicles on Steam and really enjoyed them, and I’m gonna start on Ys Origin and Oath in Felghana soon. Please look forward to my posts on them!


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