Music Notes: Uncharted Worlds (Mass Effect)

This week’s composition selection is “Uncharted Worlds” from Mass Effect. Written by Sam Hulick, “Uncharted Worlds” is used whenever the player is selecting a destination from the galaxy map while aboard Commander Shepard’s ship, the SSV Normandy SR-1. The music is used as the compositional basis for “New Worlds” in Mass Effect 2 and “The Vastness of Space” in Mass Effect 3 which play at mechanically identical points in their respective games. “Uncharted Worlds”, like much of Mass Effect‘s soundtrack, uses a marriage of traditional and electronic instruments to develop its science fiction tone. Developed originally for the Xbox 360 and released in 2007 on a large budget, there were effectively no technical limitations in place for the composition of the game’s soundtrack.

The galaxy map in Mass Effect represents adventure, space exploration, and possibilities. The music’s attempt to aurally accomplish these ideas begins by immediately setting up a Tron-like tone with its soft but stiff electronic eighth note main idea. After two quick entries and the introduction of a bass voice, the melody’s second half joins in not after, but at the start of the initial idea’s fourth entry, striking a sense of life into a work that could have quickly become robotic. While “Uncharted Worlds” then proceeds to fall victim to the common and uninspired method of simply adding more and more voices to itself instead of developing its musical ideas in an interesting way, there are still a number of rhythmic and musical workings at play that are worthy of study.

First and most obviously is the guitar figure that fades into recognition around the twenty second mark that serves as the only noticeable rhythmic break in the steady unmoving elements of the main electronic musical idea. While the guitar hits begin at the one and three beats (the beats that most people clap on), the echo effect applied to the instrument makes it feel like the notes are hitting just after those beats, giving “Uncharted Worlds” a important sense of danger behind the colossal steady structure of the rhythm that the rest of the voices adhere to.

Mass Effect
Mass Effect

A more subtle technique that allows “Uncharted Worlds” to give a sense of adventure and exploration to its otherwise rigid rhythmic structure and frankly boring musical structure is the complete avoidance of the tonic tone in its main melodic ideas. While the three electronic melodic voices appear focused on sounding futuristic or random by using stiff rhythmic entries, they are also careful to stay completely in the home key of Eb major with no chromatic modulations to speak of while also not including a single tonic, or “home note” entry. This is true of the flute’s melody as well. It is a thematically sound technique that successfully supports the sense of safety that the player feels while choosing a destination from the spaceship of which they command while also creating a subconscious reminder that the Normandy is ultimately not home and that the player’s destination is certainly not home either.

Although the bass voice does include a number of entries of Eb, the home tone, it begins with an entry on the mediant, a note that has a comfortable and sturdy place within the scale, but does not give a sense of resolution within itself. A closer look at all the main melodic voices reveals a tendency to begin with either the mediant or leading tone and then finish with the other. This choice helps to understand how such a chromatically safe composition can still invoke a sense of yearning or unfinished tension. While incorrectly stating the key as C major, this video is a great visual reference for these melodies. It is also a good way to measure what is and is not structurally successful about “Uncharted Worlds” because of the lack of variety in instruments used in the video.

Please use the comment thread below to add your own thoughts about “Uncharted Worlds” from Mass Effect. Did you stall while selecting your next destination just to hear it play out, or did you do the opposite? Also, please offer suggestions for future pieces. Reader suggestions may lead to more frequent columns!

9 comments

  1. I’ve never played a Messy Fact game or heard this music before, but I like it, reminds me of Tangerine Dream circa “Phaedra.” For some reason, it makes me wish more video game composers took influence from Phillip Glass. Wouldn’t that be fun?

  2. One of the genuinely great things about advances in modern gaming is that it has made some really spectacular soundtracks possible, even in otherwise lacklustre games. That isn’t to say that good soundtracks in bad games didn’t exist before (FF USA!), but with a rather limited array of compositional tools, recorded music or music with really high-quality samples just weren’t on the cards. But since the PS1 at least, the possibility of a full soundtrack of pre-recorded audio rather than synth means just about anything is in the offing, and that leads to really special pieces like this brief, but impressive, track.

    Ethos knows what a champion I am of the work of Philip Glass, but I’d say that this piece owes less to his influence than, say, a bevy of other modern composers who work almost exclsuively on synths. They do rely on overlapping repetitions, but that certaintly isn’t exclusive to Philip Glass–and his work tends more towards (whilst not entirely existing within) atonality, and relies less on a sort of lyric or romantic-style musicality which rests compositionally atop the repetition. Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori also spring to mind for their work in this vein (they did the Halo soundtrack). I remember listening to a lot of stuff like this back in the mid-’90s, and in fact quite a few tracks on the Unreal Tournament soundtrack sound like this–I believe that owed as much to the synth compositions of the ’80s as it did to the Euro trends of the ’90s.

    It occurs to me that Metroid Prime is another soundtrack of the time where there were a bunch of truly excellent pieces in this vein–I’ll have to pull one or two from there and consider throwing them to Ethos in the weeks to come!

  3. @Caspius – Beat me to commenting on the Glass comparison!

    I love Glass also, but his work has plenty of musical development whereas this track is more of a musical pile-on. Of course, “Uncharted Worlds” isn’t long enough to do the sort of long-form musical development that Glass is so deft at, but this track doesn’t ever inform itself. It all just is. I think this is the weakest track I’ve studied yet from a compositional standpoint, but it has a wonderful style and sense of mood and has more at play than I thought it would when I first set out to study it.

    This was the only pick of mine in which I had a hard time settling on a track. I was originally going to write about a Breath of Fire V track but the analysis just wasn’t coming together so then I proceeded to jump from Chrono Cross to Sword & Sworcery to various Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus pieces when finally the idea of studying “Uncharted Worlds” jumped out and hit the spot. I’m really trying to gather a variety of styles, composers, and degrees to which I enjoy the work so I look forward to what Caspius (or readers!) have in store for me.

  4. @Tanzenmatt – I think I owe it to the column to give an honest hack at a Sakuraba track.

  5. I agree on Sakuraba, Ethos. I love the Star Ocean soundtracks. All of 3 especially, considering I 100% it in 4 playthroughs. I

  6. Ethos slipping ‘hack’ and ‘Sakuraba’ into the same sentence. Wily!

  7. @Caspius – I wish I could claim intentional, but I’ll make a stretch and call it intuitive.

    @SN – A whole OST, if you can believe it! In fact, I chose a piece from its OST and then spent a few hours listening, studying, analyzing, and then writing about it in this very article that you’re commenting on!

    @TJack – If you have a specific track from the SO3 OST, please provide. I plan to always write fortnightly with alternating picks from Caspius and myself, but I plan to post reader suggestions in the margins, so more reader suggestions will mean more content.

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