Enemy Zero Soundtrack, Michael Nyman, 1996
Few video game auteurs have left an oeuvre as intriguing – and divisive – as Kenji Eno. Eno fittingly came to prominence during one of experimental game design’s heydays – the mid 1990s. His company Warp became best known in the West for its D series of horror games: D, Enemy Zero and D2. Only very loosely connected with each other, these games proposed innovative gameplay and story ideas – arguably to various degrees of success. However, these titles did ultimately cement Eno’s name in game history for their unbridled audacity.
It’s certainly not Enemy Zero’s story line that is its most innovative component. The game’s narrative – a spaceship is overrun by murderous xenomorphs – takes entire portions of Alien and mixes in bits and pieces of other sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner. Far more interesting is the game’s central game play mechanic. The rampaging aliens are invisible and the only way to find and shoot them is to rely on a sonar-like system that indicates their location through changes in pitch and frequency. It was an ingenious idea that some reviewers found was implemented less smoothly than it should have been, making for one hell of a difficult game.
Usually, Eno wrote the music for his games himself. However, on Enemy Zero he outsourced scoring duties to a composer who was a less than likely choice for a survival horror game soundtrack: Michael Nyman. A renowned minimalist classical and film composer, Nyman had risen to mainstream prominence through his collaborations with director Peter Greenaway. Being able to bring Nyman on board was arguably quite a coup for Eno. This was only a few years after Nyman’s score for The Piano had sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the composer was at the height of his name recognition.
What Nyman ultimately delivered is a product that is both groundbreaking and deeply familiar. One might assume that working in a genre Nyman had never remotely touched before – sci-fi horror – would encourage him to explore new aspects of his signature minimalist style. That’s not the case on the Enemy Zero soundtrack though. The work is very much in line with Nyman’s previous movie scores that intricately layered classically-inspired motifs, ostinati and drones in unusual tone colours, often driven by breathlessly motoric rhythms. But then again, Eno hired Nyman because he liked his previous works, so a repetition of what’s been heard before is no surprise.
On the other hand, within the realm of game music, Nyman’s score is unique and arguably the only example of this particular brand of orchestral music. It is music that is not that unusual in itself, but certainly is within its context (of underscoring a sci-fi horror game). But how does Nyman’s cerebral, if accessible style work within a genre such as survival horror that is usually home to far more dissonant, harsh sounds?
As it turns out, Nyman’s score – one of his most melodic soundtracks – is a fine match for the game and its genre, but it shifts the focus away from some of the elements survival horror scores usually highlight. Just look at the various themes running through the Enemy Zero soundtrack (it bears mention that this score is significantly more thematic than Nyman’s previous movie works). Out of the three themes presented, it is the love theme that receives the most attention. It’s not a narrative element that horror games usually highlight, but there is a love story running through Enemy Zero and Nyman chooses to emphasise this aspect of the story line, rather than the alien terror and horror.
Presented like all three themes in a piano-only rendition that feels a bit lightweight to hold attention, the love theme is actually first heard on “Aspects of Love”. The composition is a thickly flowing string adagio full of heaving emotions and with an appropriate sense of foreboding. A strained, nearly tortured rendition of the theme on accented string chords opens “Agony”. The cue returns the melody at a time of crisis and under attack, carried by a wordless solo soprano battling alternately jabbing and dissonantly floating musical forces. Suitably, “The Last Movement” resolves all conflict by building its structure around elating renditions of the love theme.
The fact that the second prominent theme on the Enemy Zero soundtrack is that of its protagonist (Laura) shows how much more character-centric Nyman’s work is compared to the usual horror genre fare. Laura’s theme is probably the Enemy Zero soundtrack’s most immediately recognisable melody, functioning as the score’s calm, reassuring core. Presented first on solo piano on “Laura’s Theme”, it features more fetchingly on “Lamentation”. Here, the solo soprano – as on “Agony” – amplifies the melody’s emotional force through its operatic expression. “Laura’s Dream” underlines the theme’s innate optimism and hope with its tender string and piano orchestration.
It’s this level of emotional impact and involvement that helps the more genre-typical portions of the Enemy Zero soundtrack hit their mark. Now that we care about the characters, we also care about the danger they are in. A chromatically descending theme announces dread on “Digital Tragedy”, “Digital Complex” and “Malfunction”. Ironically – given how much Enemy Zero avoids horror stereotypes – “Digital Tragedy” and “Digital Complex” feel like they are playing too close to genre clichés. “Malfunction” is far stronger, presenting the theme in a fuller orchestration and finding just the right balance between animated nervousness and slowly encroaching unease.
Finally, the Michael Nyman Band unleashes all that built-up tension on a quartet of pieces (“Confusion”, “Enemy Zero”, “Invisible Enemy” and “Battle”). These frantically driven pieces are a masterclass in how to write energetic ostinati-based compositions that despite their obvious repetition never become monotonous, helped by melodies that are dramatic and unusually declamatory (by Nyman’s standards). These pieces are as densely and carefully layered as anything that Nyman has written for the movies. It’s obvious he didn’t treat the Enemy Zero soundtrack with any less care than the works he created in mediums he was more familiar with. These invigorating battle tracks round off one of the game music’s most satisfying subversion of genre expectations.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Confusion Michael Nyman 3:45
- 02 - Aspects of Love Michael Nyman 3:52
- 03 - Enemy Zero Michael Nyman 4:20
- 04 - Lamentation Michael Nyman 3:35
- 05 - Invisible Enemy Michael Nyman 2:12
- 06 - Laura's Dream Michael Nyman 4:04
- 07 - Agony Michael Nyman 3:15
- 08 - Malfunction Michael Nyman 4:02
- 09 - Battle Michael Nyman 3:48
- 10 - The Last Movement Michael Nyman 3:44