EverQuest II Soundtrack, Laura Karpman, 2004
In some ways, EverQuest II ended up between a rock and a hard place. Its predecessor EverQuest – together with Ultima Online – had established MMORPGs as we know them today. That meant expectations for EverQuest II were high, to say the least. To the credit of developer Sony Online Entertainment, they released a polished product, accessible and among the best MMORPGs released up to that point. It just wasn’t the kind of quantum leap that EverQuest had been. And then World of Warcraft landed and changed MMORPGs forever. EverQuest II was ultimately far from a commercial flop – it did peak at 325,000 subscribers – but it didn’t stand a chance against World of Warcraft and the millions of subscribers it attracted. Still, EverQuest II retained a dedicated fan base, with the sixteenth expansion Reign of Shadows released in 2020, fourteen years after the base game’s release.
The developers put significant effort into the game’s audio – reviewers commented on the impressive amount of recorded speech, delivered by high-profile actors such as Christopher Lee and Heather Graham. For the EverQuest II soundtrack, Sony turned to Laura Karpman. Karpman, making her game score debut, was an intriguing choice. A classically trained composer and jazz performer, Karpman had written for the concert hall, but also for film, television and theatre. By the time she worked on EverQuest II, she had already gathered several Emmy Award wins and nominations. Her most significant assignment had been the score for Steven Spielberg’s TV series Taken. EverQuest II was the beginning of a productive career in video games for Karpman, while she continued her work in various other media. Meanwhile, in 2016 she became the first woman elected to the music branch of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors.
Karpman joined EverQuest II in the early stages of development, receiving very little information and visuals to work with. However, as she recalled, there was “a really creative art director that gave me some groovy guidance, like “write music that is ‘Fascist Babylonian.’” Karpman relished such input, as well as the creative freedom she was given. With no boundaries to the length of cues she had to write, Karpman approached the EverQuest II soundtrack “more like compositions and movements of a large symphony more than film or video game cues.” She gave every in-game location its own musical identity – in her words, “every cue […] with the exception of the attack cues, is like a main title of a movie.” According to one of Karpman’s interviews, “EverQuest II was like composer Disneyland. I had so much fun. I got to do my thing with a big orchestra.”
And indeed, the EverQuest II soundtrack feels like what happens when you give an exceptionally talented composer a first-rate scoring orchestra (the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague in this case) and let them run wild with their imagination. Things start out promisingly, if on a somewhat conservative note. Opening track “Main Title” emerges as a spectacular curtain-raiser that arranges the original EverQuest main theme as a brassy bonanza full of Korngoldian swagger and gloriously lustrous string tones – and it only gets better from here. Fans of heroic fantasy-styled music will find that Karpman writes one of the most brilliantly orchestrated, dazzlingly colourful game scores ever conceived. She does so to the point where a piece like “Character Creation” and its scintillating woodwind orchestrations create a downright Straussian splendour that turns the composition into a miniature tone poem.
Other examples of Karpman’s brilliant handling of the late-romantic orchestral style abound. “Qeynos” is one of game music’s most splendid town themes, developing its melodic material perfectly as it moves from graceful to magisterial across the cue’s five minutes. “Freeport” – that “fascist Babylonia” mentioned earlier – receives a far less uplifting underscore. Taunt melodic figures kick off a monolithic, suffocating march that grows into a crushing finale (whose discordant piano chords thrown into the thundering mayhem recall King Crimson’s “The Devil’s Triangle”). “Antonica” balances delicate, vivacious woodwind lines and lively string rhythms with bombastic outbursts in virtuoso fashion, all held together through the ingenious use of waltz metres. During all these displays of orchestrational genius, Karpman stays true to her statement that these pieces develop according to their own, strictly musical logic. Every one of these tracks rises and falls in tune with its own impeccably conceived dramatic arc.
If the entire EverQuest II soundtrack consisted of these perfectly executed high fantasy tropes, it would ‘merely’ rank as one of the genre’s very best entries. But Karpman has other plans still. Drawing upon her love of modernist classical music, she takes EverQuest II into waters that few game scores explore. “The Enchanted Lands” sticks with the score’s almost unparalleled (within game music) tonal richness, but its heady chromaticism turns those lands into something enticingly intangible and mysterious. “Nektulos Forest” walks one step closer towards mid-20th century modernist classical music with its nocturnal, Lutoslawskian strings textures, interrupted by massive orchestral discords – a masterclass in how to write subdued underscore that is never less than fascinating. Other modernism-inspired pieces are more jagged and cerebral. Take “Lavastorm” and particularly “Temple of Cuzic Thule”, both driven forwards by relentless string ostinati reminiscent of the Allegretto non Troppo of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8.
Despite the EverQuest II soundtrack’s astounding stylistic variety, it manages to retain coherency. That’s because Karpman fashions her experiments as natural, increasingly daring expansions of the tonally already destabilised late-romantic sound that serves as the score’s foundation. From the above pieces, it’s only a relatively small step to the still orchestrally-minded, but increasingly disjointed vistas of the supremely eerie “Fallen Gate”. Meanwhile, “Everfrost” turns modernism’s fondness for fragmented musical ideas into an asset to underscore a fascinating, yet threatening location.
The score’s final stylistic destination are the surprisingly numerous sound collages that see Karpman break out of the strictly orchestral realm, displaying a genuinely modernist interest in manipulating acoustic sounds and mixing them with electronics. Take “Permafrost”, which ventures closer to musique concrète than maybe any other fantasy game score, building its icy synth textures and random female cries on top of what appear to be found sounds recorded on tape. Keep in mind that such experiments are never an end in themselves, but always serve the music’s storytelling ambitions. The score’s best example is “Stormhold”, which manipulates its nostalgic trumpet notes until they sound like a ghostly echo, surrounded by spectral voices and an aimlessly wandering snare drum. It’s a perfect, subtle way to musically underscore the ruins of a once-great location, trapped in its glorious history that has now turned tragic.
Most fantasy scores – no matter how fantastical the worlds that they underscore – feel surprisingly familiar. They often choose to deploy stylistically straightforward romantic orchestral strains derived from particular film and classical music genres. Maybe it is a reflex to ground these games’ unfamiliar universes in something players are likely to recognise and readily connect with on an aural level. EverQuest II is a bolder example of the fantasy genre, daring to create a world that does feel different to ours – a realm full of unusual, unknown sights that might intimidate and terrify one minute and bewitch the next. It doesn’t necessarily make for an initially easy listen. Still, through its stunning instrumental and harmonic innovations and subtleties, the EverQuest II soundtrack evokes a vaster and more fascinating world than almost any other video game score in history – a masterpiece through and through.
- 01 - Main Title Karpman, Laura 2:15
- 02 - Character Creation Karpman, Laura 3:32
- 03 - Qeynos Karpman, Laura 4:54
- 04 - Qeynos Catacombs Karpman, Laura 2:10
- 05 - Freeport Karpman, Laura 3:42
- 06 - Freeport Sewers Karpman, Laura 2:00
- 07 - Antonica Karpman, Laura 2:57
- 08 - The Commonlands Karpman, Laura 2:53
- 09 - Blackburrow Karpman, Laura 2:12
- 10 - Fallen Gate Karpman, Laura 2:41
- 11 - Stormhold Karpman, Laura 2:16
- 12 - Thundering Steppes Karpman, Laura 3:31
- 13 - Nektulos Forest Karpman, Laura 2:50
- 14 - Ruins of Varsoon Karpman, Laura 2:38
- 15 - Deathfist Citadel Karpman, Laura 4:28
- 16 - The Feerrott Karpman, Laura 2:52
- 17 - Obelisk of Vul Karpman, Laura 3:06
- 18 - Temple of Cazic Thule Karpman, Laura 2:17
- 19 - Everfrost Karpman, Laura 3:03
- 20 - Permafrost Karpman, Laura 1:59
- 21 - The Enchanted Lands Karpman, Laura 3:15
- 22 - Tower of the Drafling Karpman, Laura 3:46
- 23 - Lavastorm Karpman, Laura 2:40
- 24 - Main Title Long Karpman, Laura 3:43