Afrika Soundtrack, Wataru Hokoyama, 2008
You wouldn’t necessarily expect that one of the best orchestral game scores of the new millennium was written for what’s essentially a photography simulator. But that’s precisely what Afrika, an early PS3 title, achieved. The game itself garnered a fair amount of pre-release hype. The prospect of traversing the majestic landscapes of the African steppes and carefully ligning up shots of its exotic animal inhabitants had a fair amount of gamers and bloggers excited at the prospect of this relatively fresh gameplay idea. Ultimately though, Afrika’s reviews were fairly polarised. Some critics enjoyed the languorous gameplay, while others felt the game lacked substance.
Thankfully, there was little such ambivalence about the quality of the Afrika soundtrack – despite its scarcity. The score was only available as a pack-in bonus when purchasing the game, presented both on CD and in Dolby 5.1 on a supplementary DVD. Still, word among film music bloggers quickly spread, each new review praising the quality of Wataru Hokoyama’s creation. In the end, Afrika won Best Video Game Score at the 2008 Hollywood Music Awards, as well as three Game Audio Network Guild Awards.
Indeed, Hokoyama’s makes a most auspicious game score debut with the Afrika soundtrack. Born in Japan and musically trained in America, Hokoyama had worked on smaller TV and film projects prior to Afrika. Luckily for Hokoyama – and listeners – the game’s developers were clearly aware of how important music would be in successfully transporting listeners to the game’s faraway setting. Developer Rhino Studios made a sufficient budget allowance to have Afrika recorded by the Hollywood Studio Symphony at the Sony Pictures Studios Scoring Stage.
The money was well spent. Hokoyama writes the kind of grandly sweeping, gorgeously melodic score that soundtrack fans had more and more trouble finding in Hollywood movies around the time of Afrika’s release. According to interviews, Hokoyama’s ambition was to “make the music sound like a huge Hollywood movie score” and he definitely succeeded. As so often in these cases, John Williams’ influence – particularly of his late 80s and early 90s works – is hard to ignore. That being said, the Afrika soundtrack is less obviously shaped by this stylistic influence than say Medal of Honor and there are arguably traces of John Barry and Elmer Bernstein in Afrika’s musical DNA as well.
All these stylistic antecedents are an indication that Afrika isn’t breaking new musical ground. Ethnic instruments specific to the game’s location are somewhat sidelined. “Masai” and “Hatari” are brief percussion-only interludes that introduce some cultural authenticity to the score. However, these two cues don’t gel particularly well with the rest of the soundtrack, which is almost entirely rooted in Western orchestral styles. The two sound worlds – orchestra and local instruments – only mingle to a significant degree on “Base Camp”, one of the Afrika soundtrack’s most light-hearted pieces. Its unusual combination of timbres combines glockenspiel with various light percussion instruments. The result is a creative blend of sounds that is intriguing enough to carry the slightly repetitive track.
Otherwise (disregarding a few smatterings of percussive colour here and there), Afrika is a strictly orchestral affair. The score turns the game’s safari into an almost quaintly romantic, old-fashioned undertaking. Its stylistic familiarity invites listeners to readily marvel at the wonder of Afrika’s unusual (by Western standards) location and sights. What’s particularly striking here is Hokoyama’s brilliant handling of the orchestra. With the confidence and skill of a true master, Hokoyama makes striking use of all sections of the ensemble. He creates wonderfully colourful, dense orchestrations that carry his warmly flowing melodic material with the utmost brilliance. Particularly fun are “Savanna” and “Afrika”, where Hokoyama piles up such an amount of busy orchestral ornamentations that these turn into riotous counterpoint underlining the main melody.
Speaking of which, Hokoyama’s melodic skills are never in doubt either. Opening track “Savanna” quickly introduces the score’s main theme, a majestic, long-winded French horn melody that effortlessly evokes the wide open, awe-inspiring spaces of the African savanna. At the same time, this pastoral melody has sufficient forward motion to suggest adventure rather than just passive contemplation. Cycling through variations of the main theme, “Savanna” ends with a blast of orchestral colour and energy. It’s the most spectacular scene setter one could wish for.
The main theme returns in various disguises throughout the Afrika soundtrack, if not exactly on every track. The woodwind-heavy “Heaven” presents particularly lyrical, luxurious renditions of the theme, while “Jambo Jambo” is more animated. Here, Hokoyama graces his main theme with particularly florid, polyrhythmic counterpoint that feels like several competing musical lines playing at once. It’s as if the music can’t contain its giddy excitement, both rushing forward and clinging on to its majestic tune.
A marked contrast to the main theme and its measured progression is a secondary theme that Hokoyama introduces on “Safari”. This vigorous staccato tune has a far more adventurous streak and can’t help but recall Williams’ Indiana Jones scores in its audacious swagger. The theme – once more surrounded by wonderfully busy counterpoint – isn’t heard again on the Afrika soundtrack. That is, until final track “Afrika” uses the theme to take the score to a spectacular conclusion, pulling out every single stop Hokoyama can find within the ensemble. It’s impossible not to get swept up in “Afrika”’s whirlwind orchestral bombast that still moves lightly and with grace.
Other compositions that rely on new melodic material provide necessary variations of mood. The charmingly bumbling “Okapi” gives the Afrika soundtrack a comedic touch, with delightful writing for bassoon, trumpet and tuba that combines humorous intent with harmonic complexities. “Night Safari” predictably thins out textures and slows its string material down to a crawl, producing one of the few occasions where tension creeps into the score’s otherwise good-natured demeanour. And “Big Five” brings out a different side of Afrika’s epic tendencies with the score’s most imposing brass melody. It all adds up to what despite its short running time is one of the richest, most extravagantly orchestrated game scores ever written.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Savanna Wataru Hokoyama 3:39
- 02 - Base Camp Wataru Hokoyama 2:56
- 03 - Safari Wataru Hokoyama 2:51
- 04 - Mission Wataru Hokoyama 1:47
- 05 - Jambo Jambo Wataru Hokoyama 2:02
- 06 - Heaven Wataru Hokoyama 2:10
- 07 - Okapi Wataru Hokoyama 1:29
- 08 - Night Safari Wataru Hokoyama 2:14
- 09 - Big Five Wataru Hokoyama 1:50
- 10 - Sunset Wataru Hokoyama 2:45
- 11 - Afrika Wataru Hokoyama 3:47