To this day, the Star Control franchise stands as my favorite game universe, and the one which almost single-handedly sparked my interest in digital sound and electronic music. The second title in the series became a hallmark in PC gaming upon its debut in 1992 for several reasons, not the least of which was its eclectic and innovative soundtrack. By taking advantage of digital sound modules rather than more expensive MIDI technology, it brought a unique quality of sound even to gamers without dedicated sound cards by allowing for the playback of sophisticated audio patterns even on the tiny unamplified internal PC speakers that came with most computers.
It sort of blew my mind even as a kid, despite the fact that I had only the vaguest understanding of these technical concepts. As far as I knew, the only thing those little speakers could do was make annoying beeping sounds. This was the catalyst that sparked my imagination about digital sound and changed the way I saw electronic music, and to hear these amazing sounds alongside such an epic and fun interactive adventure has always inspired me to expand on the themes explored in this rich story of interstellar exploration.
Music aside, the game's story had a unique tone, seldom duplicated in other stories, and one of the things I loved most about it was that we Earthlings were only one small part of a much grander story, and that our technology was woefully inadequate in comparison to many of the other alien species encountered. In the majority of science fiction stories, we Earthlings are accustomed to being a driving force in the narrative with advanced starships and incredible technology. That's all more or less the same in Star Control, except for the fact that there are many other races in the universe that were even more technologically advanced. Our defining characteristic was the initiative to adventure beyond the limits of our potential, a characteristic that eventually allowed us to outsmart our adversaries.
The characterizations of these alien species were genuinely unforgettable. In most science fiction stories, we're usually accustomed to seeing aliens portrayed by people in makeup mostly due to budgetary restraints, but the aliens in Star Control were so imaginative and biologically varied that it made you all the more curious about the different forms of life that could inhabit the universe. In addition to a whole host of aliens inspired by animals here on Earth, there were also sentient crystals, ambulatory fungus, talking plants and glowing jellyfish that floated in a gas giant. Many of the races had a keen sense of humor to involve the player and help drive the narrative, and their musical themes were a staple element of the gameplay. Everything from plucky rock tunes to ambient techno and atmospheric new age styles wove a musical tapestry of adventure, isolation, and mystery as you explored the galaxy. This game's soundtrack was also notable for not having a singular stylistic genre to define it, as it was largely a compilation of tracks from a variety of musicians.
Now fast forward from November 1992 to June 2013, when it was announced that Stardock Software had acquired the long-dormant rights to this franchise and revealed plans to faithfully reboot the series after a twenty year hiatus, during which time the rights had changed hands several times. Multiple software publishers held onto the property without developing any new titles for it, so the franchise essentially languished without a new installment for many years. Stardock announced almost immediately upon acquisition of the franchise that they planned to reboot the series and introduce an entirely new branch of the story for a new generation of gamers.
With the first chapter of this new series likely to debut sometime in 2016 or 2017, my excitement at this announcement was hard to define, but suffice it to say, it's considerable. Stardock has a solid track record of producing quality titles that other studios are often afraid to gamble on because they're considered risky investments, but I know the people behind the helm genuinely care about this franchise and will do it justice. In honor of that, I've established a collection of some of my music inspired by the legacy of Star Control.
Introductory Cinematic & Battle Sequence
I've always been spellbound with the art of music matched to visuals in film, and this was envisioned as the score to an introductory cinematic that introduces the idea that mankind is not alone in its fight to survive. This short proof of concept orchestral piece demonstrates musical ideas for cinematic conflict and resolution, drawing inspiration from various naval motifs used by James Horner in scores like Star Trek II, Avatar and Aliens, along with stylistic tributes to other space-inspired scores like Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek themes. As Earth is a participatory member in an alliance comprised of alien civilizations from many other worlds, we have the support of several other species on our side. This "Alliance of Free Stars", as it's called, fights for their freedom against a marauding interstellar empire that subjugates entire worlds and bends them to their will. Sort of a "join-and-live-free versus join-or-die" conflict, if you will. Despite being the outgunned underdogs, mankind's alliance with these other species provides us with a mutually beneficial protection where all worlds seeking independence fight together, and I wanted to convey the strength of that interdependence with this theme.
An avian species of mystics whose vague prognostications often foretold of events yet to unfold. While they were often quite silly and never ones to take themselves too seriously, they were nonetheless the spiritual guides on your journey and one of my favorite races from the story. While blessed with the incredible power to foretell the course of future events, they were frequently as confounded by the meaning of their visions as the player was. Nevertheless, they were always happy to see you and remained optimistic in the bleakest of circumstances. Even the threat of being annihilated didn't seem to get them down much. I wanted to create a theme faithful to the elements of their original music, with an upbeat tempo and fun instrumentation that sounds like a nest full of little birdies hopping about.
This track has a few instrumental callbacks to themes not just from Star Control, but to the classic and campy pulp sci-fi sounds of the middle 20th century (e.g. Flash Gordon). The Syreen's reputation for seducing other beings into a state of hypnosis with the call of their "siren song" helped solidify their status as the sex symbols of Star Control, as if their outfits weren't enough. You could argue that they're a direct sendup of the Orion Slave Girls from Star Trek, albeit with blue skin instead of green. Despite the difference in color, they share the same talent for captivating other species with their hypnotic green eyes and provocative, scantily-clad dancing. The Syreen culture is structured somewhat inversely to ours, with females fulfilling the more dominant social, military and provider roles usually held by males on Earth. The very first instrument you hear in this track is a stylophone, a small single-octave synthesizer with a simple analog tone that reminds me of the exotic trance-like sound that I often imagine being associated with the seductive lure of the Syreen.
A race of sentient fungus whose biology and origins were about as alien as aliens can get. With their name an obvious nod to their fungal physiology, their biochemistry also possessed an unusual silicate construction, suggestive of selective evolution or biological engineering which made them incredibly resilient to hostile environments. This enabled them to not just survive, but thrive, reproduce, and terraform entire worlds by implanting themselves into the cores of planets to cause volcanic upheaval, altering entire atmospheres into hellish landscapes of molten devastation. Their methods of communication were so abstract and bizarre that it was difficult to truly ascertain their motives. The idea that their existence is the result of biological engineering by an ancient race is one that makes sense, but these creators disappeared eons ago and left these semi-intelligent creations to wander the stars, eventually developing a bizarre religion in tribute to those who created them. Their original musical theme by Riku Nuottajärvi was a fantastically spooky and more atmospheric composition, and one of my absolute favorites of the series. My attempt is perhaps less ambient and more deliberately creepy-crawly and insect-like. This theme was originally composed on piano and later augmented with a variety of synthesizers to be even more sinister to convey the idea of something so genuinely foreign and strange that you simply don't know how to relate to it.
Melee Battle Medley
One of the more action-packed themes in Star Control II was the combat music during a "melee" battle sequence between two starships squaring off one-on-one in deep space. It was an intense techno-styled track with a red alert klaxon blaring in the background. This is actually a mix of two tracks with a transition between them at about the two-minute mark. The first half of the first theme is an original composition, but fans won't even have to be paying much attention to notice something very familiar about the second half of it!
An update of Riku Nuottajärvi's epic spacefaring theme from Star Control II, this is perhaps one of the most memorable themes from the game. This theme played while piloting your ship between the stars at many times the speed of light, racing against time and often against enemies in hot pursuit. The original musical arrangement has been preserved and significantly freshened. The original sound module, being limited by the playback technology of its time, had only four distinct sound channels that could be played simultaneously, meaning that only four sounds could overlap at any one time. This lack of polyphony made it difficult to overlay a percussion line or any additional effects into the track. That is no longer a limitation today, so the sound space has been significantly widened, stereo panning effects added, sample clipping corrected to eliminate clicking, a brand new rock and roll style drum line added, and some basic remastering applied to give this memorable classic a fresh makeover for the 21st century. Or should I say 23rd century?
This one is simply my own original idea for a possible Hyperspace theme. It has a faster tempo and a different style, but I was intent on preserving the same sense of epic adventure that the original had: the feeling of traveling through space at an astounding speed.
An orchestral interpretation of the delicate and haunting theme by Kevin Palivec originally used in Star Control II. The realm of Quasispace was a dimension which transcended the known boundaries of physical space, and was used to the player's advantage to travel great distances across the galaxy in incredibly short periods of time. As opposed to the very bold and adventurous Hyperspace theme, this melody had a much softer and mythical presence. I always felt it conveyed the sense that upon entering this "dimension above dimensions" and being bathed by its extraordinary and eerie green light that I had entered into a realm of the grandest cosmic mystery; a place where time itself seemed to stand still and give the impression that perhaps this was somewhere humans were not truly meant to be. This arrangement is adapted for violin, bassoon, contrabassoon, oboe, clarinet, harp, timpani, and cymbals.
Original audio copyright © 2015 by Martin Lettvin. All images property of original artists.