Atlantis: The Lost Tales Soundtrack, Pierre Estève / Stéphane Picq, 1997
By the second half of the 1990s, French developer Cryo Interactive had found its niche: lavishly produced, Myst-style adventure games. The reception of these titles amongst critics remained somewhat ambivalent, but there’s no denying that Cryo’s approach was effective. Their most significant success might well have been Atlantis: The Lost Tales. Reviewers praised Atlantis’ visuals and intense atmosphere, bolstered by panoramic 360-degree first-person views of the pre-rendered environments and significant amounts of pre-recorded speech. At the same time, perceived gameplay flaws once again often resulted in average scores. That didn’t stop the game from selling more than 300,000 copies by late 1998, starting a franchise that would generate four more titles in future years and outlast Cryo itself.
Scoring duties for the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack went to Pierre Estève and Stéphane Picq. Picq had been Cryo’s main composer since the company’s very beginning, writing the entrancing music for its breakthrough hit Dune. Estève was a more recent addition to Cryo’s musical team, approaching the developer in 1995 after working as a rock musician and composer for French television and radio. His first project with Cryo turned out to be Dragon Lore II: The Heart of the Dragon Man. Estève would create the music and sound effects for several other Cryo titles in the years to follow, even remaining with the Atlantis franchise after the developer had closed its doors in 2002. His anthropological interest in a vast range of musical cultures – witnessed by his solo albums Bamboo and Metal – was a perfect match for Picq’s eclectic composition style.
Importantly, in 1996 Estève founded his own label Shooting Star, thus making an album release of the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack possible. And what’s more, the game’s music ultimately received a 2-CD release – quite possibly the first multi-disc Western game music album! Unfortunately, what that physical release did not include was any information on the inspiration behind one of game music’s most audacious scores (a list of the many unfamiliar instruments from around the world used on the soundtrack would have been nice too). The later Bandcamp release specifies that “the main concept behind this double album was to imagine what would have been the music of a pre-ancient age Atlantean civilisation – a culture from which all of the others would have originated after the Fall of Atlantis and the dispersion of its people.”
It’s fair to say then that the creators of the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack had lofty ambitions – and they manage to realise them successfully. What will strike listeners first and foremost about this score are its sparse orchestrations – and the immense effect the composers derive from such a limited number of ingredients. Compositions like “Awakening” and “Dream of the Dolphin” carry their substantial running times with nothing but a single woodwind instrument performing sparse melodies, backed by whispered hints of synth pads and various struck metal percussion, ranging from chimes to gamelans. That sounds like a recipe deployed by no small number of hackneyed new age-albums – but Estève and Picq manage to make the formula work, and there are two reasons for their success.
One is the superlative recording of the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack. Solo instruments are placed in a vast open space where their pensive, moving melodies – often with a ritualistic bent – can unfold the full impact of their quiet majesty. At the same time, the enormous amounts of echo added to the instruments don’t detract from the clarity of their melody lines. Instead, listening to these cues feels like sitting right next to the musicians, with every single emotional nuance of the performances and the striking sound of these often exotic instruments captured in vivid detail. Such is the quality of the album recording that just the alternately earthy and otherworldly qualities of the instruments can carry entire compositions.
The second pinnacle of the score’s artistic success is how the composers are able to harness their music’s minimalism into an expression of genuine awe and spell-binding spirituality. Key to this is their liberal use of dissonances and chromatic, unexpected progressions, particularly in the chiming metal percussion accompaniments. All of the music’s elements might be easily accessible and distinguishable, but it still retains its sense of mystery, remaining just out of reach. It’s an impression that’s only appropriate for a score that evokes an ancient, foreign culture, which Atlantis does with rare authority.
That same effect is heightened by those pensive solo melodies that at times seem to ring out from across epic temporal distances, indeed taking on the character of pre-ancient music – take “Spitzberg”’s flute solo that calmly reaches out to the horizon and beyond. As Atlantis approaches a zen-like state of meditative peace through its painstakingly fashioned elements, it achieves a sense of transcendence rivalled by very few other game soundtracks. The project brief called for music of almost mystical stature – precisely what the composers deliver.
None of this means that the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack is an extended exercise in serene asceticism. Estève and Picq vary their approach to not just signify a musical culture that is broad enough that many others could have sprung from it, but also to sustain the album’s significant length. “Rhéa” and “Stonehenge” are unexpectedly lush creations, using wordless, seductive female vocals (miked more closely now to evoke an enclosed environment) as their basis. The composers then weave the voices into a fairly complex, hypnotic tapestry of hand percussion, warm woodwinds and almost foreboding metal instruments. Far from immobile and merely repetitious, the music uses subtle harmonic and dynamic shifts to create satisfying dramatic arcs.
Towards the end of the album, the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack grows sombre, now turning monolithic through the use of fuller, menacing timbres. “La Tisseuse de Destins”’s ghostly female solo voice hovers above a massive bass drone of unfathomable origin – somewhere between a synthesiser and a didgeridoo. The score’s pervasive feeling of mystery comes to a head, turning the listening experience into something more overtly unsettling. “Metamorphosis” deploys similarly creative musical means that border on sound effects in the most effective way. Here, the dissonant nature of buzzing instrumental drones haunts the entire composition. Their abrasive sharpness provokes visceral unease as vaguely Egyptian-sounding woodwind melodies try not to get swallowed up by the encroaching darkness.
Such unsettled ambiences turn into outright agitation on “Sunriders” (the ear-catching album opener) and “Am Ma Eya”, both surprising with male warrior chants and ceremonial, pounding percussion. On “Sunriders”, the martial bombast evokes the grandeur of the game’s historical backdrop, while “Am Ma Eya” is a rougher, more furious piece. The same musical elements appear in a very different mood on “Para Nua”, where the vocals have now turned into joyful African choral chants. That the Atlantis: The Lost Tales soundtrack can accommodate such varied musical cultures and still bring them together in one cohesive listening experience is further proof of the composers’ creative genius. Their unlikely success cements the score’s status as one of game music’s most enrapturing experiences.
- 01 - Sunriders Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 2:15
- 02 - Awakening Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 6:45
- 03 - Rhéa Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 5:09
- 04 - Am Ma Eya Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 2:30
- 05 - Crystal Winds Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 4:38
- 06 - Para Nua Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 2:48
- 07 - Back to Atlantis Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 4:42
- 08 - Spitzberg Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 5:12
- 09 - Stonehenge Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 2:35
- 10 - Dream of the Dolphin Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 5:03
- 11 - La Lune... Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 5:20
- 12 - Dark Spirits Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 3:05
- 13 - La Tisseuse de Destins Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 5:13
- 14 - Metamorphosis Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 6:32
- 15 - Muria Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 4:57
- 16 - Aube Estève, Pierre / Picq, Stéphane 4:01