Perfect Dark Soundtrack (Nintendo 64), David Clynick / Grant Kirkhope / Graeme Norgate, 2000
If you want to kick off a debate amongst seasoned console gamers, try “Is Perfect Dark better than GoldenEye 007?” According to reviewers, the answer is usually ‘yes’. After all, this is the game that gave Rare the opportunity to finetune their approach to developing a first-person shooter, after they had created a genre classic with GoldenEye 007. Arguably pushing the Nintendo 64 to its limits, Perfect Dark provided such a wealth of content and degree of polish that it was hard to see how a console shooter in 2000 could be any better. Then again, GoldenEye 007 had arguably been the more groundbreaking title, popularising console FPS games. As a result, Perfect Dark didn’t have quite the same impact, as it was ultimately an immense refinement rather than another quantum leap.
Naturally, for the Perfect Dark soundtrack, Rare would call upon the same talents that had created the music for GoldenEye 007 – easily the best score for any Bond game. Complications were afoot though. Initially, the task of writing the Perfect Dark score fell to Graeme Norgate, who was working on Jet Force Gemini at the same time. Norgate began to lay the groundwork for the music, choosing a palette of instruments and completing a number of compositions. However, mid-way through the three-year development process, Norgate and half of the development team left Rare to form Free Radical Design (best known for their TimeSplitters trilogy).
As a result, fellow GoldenEye 007 composer Grant Kirkhope was called in to complete the Perfect Dark soundtrack – while also working on Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Tooie – with support from David Clynick. Given the game’s sci-fi scenario, it was no surprise that Kirkhope “wanted to create a mostly electronic soundtrack”, with The X-Files and Blade Runner serving as inspirations, according to interviews with the composer. Kirkhope’s other stylistic choice was “to make it [the Perfect Dark score] moody and dark but still with some strong thematic elements.” In that regard, Kirkhope arguably followed in the footsteps of his work on GoldenEye 007, which had balanced languid mood-building with carefully deployed melodic elements. Interestingly, Kirkhope kept Norgate’s samples, even though they weren’t always the ones he would have chosen – according to Kirkhope, “they sounded so great and made me think outside of my usual comfort zone”.
Of course, like the game itself, it’s hard to look at the Perfect Dark soundtrack without comparing it to its spiritual predecessor. By and large, Perfect Dark fits the same mould as Golden Eye 007 – this is mostly subdued, brooding music for a stealth game, rather than a pulse-pounding score for an all-guns-blazing shooting spree. And as on GoldenEye 007, Kirkhope and his co-composers accomplish the impressive task of holding listeners’ attention during their extended cues with what’s ultimately fairly understated, yet no less involving music.
What is different here is how the Perfect Dark soundtrack achieves this effect, audible from the start of Norgate’s “dataDyne Central: Defection”. GoldenEye007’s compositions often achieved a nearly hypnotic effect through their juxtaposition of sparse textures and repetitive, memorable melodies on a single solo instrument. Kirkhope’s flawless judgement of pacing and how to write effective melodies remains intact on Perfect Dark, but his orchestrations are lusher and more intricate, intriguing listeners through their careful layering and sculpting. It no doubt helps that Perfect Dark – unlike GoldenEye007 – is not an N64 first-generation title. As a result, the more realistic samples Kirkhope works with allow him to often let the intricately combined rhythms carry a track, rather than relying on the melody to do this job (as was often the case on GoldenEye 007).
Another substantial difference that comes with Perfect Dark’s futuristic backdrop is a distinct lack of GoldenEye007’s grittiness. Instead, from the very first track, Perfect Dark’s neo-noir elegance fittingly underscores the architecture of the game’s locations – all shiny metal surfaces gleaming in the night and massive structures cast in imposing angles. The fact that Perfect Dark’s locations are more spectacular than those in GoldenEye007 also highlights what’s ultimately the biggest difference between the two games: Perfect Dark’s far larger scale. Not that GoldenEye007 was thinking small – after all, few Bond adventures do. But Perfect Dark arguably goes a few steps further, involving two warring alien races, a conspiracy to replace the US president and the impending destruction of planet Earth itself.
How do Kirkhope and his team bring this awe-inspiring scenario across, without breaking the soundtrack’s mould, which – like GoldenEye 007 – largely eschews theatrics? As before, they manage with the help of a few inspired artistic choices that have a surprisingly large impact. Kirkhope makes ample use of synth choir (“one of the samples that Graeme left behind — I think it’s called Tron Choir”). Predictably, he sometimes deploys the choir to give the music more gravitas – take “dataDyne Central: Extraction”, which juxtaposes the choir with immense, resonant percussion strikes. As effective as these episodes are, Kirkhope mostly uses the choir to a different end: creating an eerie, at times quietly unsettling atmosphere. Listen to “G5 Building: Reconnaissance” and its dissonant choral chord progressions, or the majestic-yet-spooky “Deep Sea: Nullify Threat” for proof of Kirkhope’s assured handling of vocal elements.
Thus, Kirkhope chooses to underscore Perfect Dark’s otherworldly protagonists and awe-inspiring events by highlighting their unearthly nature – a smart choice that allows him to preserve and subtly alter the music’s relatively low-key nature. Kirkhope amplifies the effect through his use of a theremin-like whistling melody lead on several tracks. Again, these high-pitched, elusive sounds ingeniously accentuate the music’s alien qualities – obviously a perfect match for the game’s narrative. However, these melody leads can also evoke much more earthbound emotions. Kirkhope lists “Chicago: Stealth” as one of this favourite tracks from Perfect Dark and for good reason. The cue is arguably his most striking melange of haunting atmospherics and outright melodicism, with the whistled lead melody suddenly sounding far more lonely than unsettling.
Like GoldenEye 007, the Perfect Dark soundtrack – despite the static nature of many of its compositions – knows how to ramp things up to underscore the game’s increasingly escalating stakes. “Airbase 51: Infiltration” and “Airbase: Espionage” begin to smoothly mix orchestral bombast and rock energy into the score’s electronic foundation. “Crash Site: Confrontation”’s steely determination under fire yields the soundtrack’s most soaring melody, while “Pelagic 2: Exploration” builds upon this momentum with dramatic secret agent-style swagger. The flawlessly executed climax of this build up is the suitably epic final boss track “Skedar Leader”. The composition showcases Kirkhope’s ability to also write extended action tracks, thanks to an abundance of perfectly developed material.
Does all this mean that Perfect Dark is a better soundtrack than GoldenEye007? Not necessarily – but what Perfect Dark does is demonstrate how to write a brilliant sequel score that smartly tweaks its predecessors’ musical approach, creating something both familiar and excitingly fresh.
The music for Perfect Dark’s Game Boy Colour port is a curious case – a soundtrack that’s enticing and frustrating in equal measure. Composers Kirkhope and Eveline Novakovic achieve the hugely impressive feat of convincingly replicating some of the N64 compositions on a far more limited platform – an even greater achievement maybe than Kirkhope’s Donkey Kong Island 2. Unfortunately, only three pieces from the original score find space on the GBC cartridge, equaling just about 10 minutes of music. A shame – with more converted material, this could have been a classic handheld score.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the game rip.
- 01 - Institute Menu Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 2:07
- 02 - dataDyne Central: Defection Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 7:38
- 03 - dataDyne Central: Investigation Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:30
- 04 - dataDyne Central: Extraction Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 4:29
- 05 - Carrington Villa: Hostage One Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:31
- 06 - Chicago: Stealth Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:26
- 07 - G5 Building: Reconnaissance Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:42
- 08 - Area 51: Infiltration Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 4:38
- 09 - Airbase: Espionage Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:54
- 10 - Air Force One: Anti Terrorism Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:55
- 11 - Crash Site: Confrontation Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 4:49
- 12 - Pelagic 2: Extraction Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:52
- 13 - Deep Sea: Nullify Threat Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:43
- 14 - Carrington Institute Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:37
- 15 - Attack Ship: Covert Assault Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:20
- 16 - Skedar Ruins: Battle Shrine Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:58
- 17 - Skedar Leader Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:51
- 18 - Credits Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 4:06
- 19 - Dark Combat Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 4:55
- 20 - CI Operative Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 5:38
- 21 - dataDyne Action Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:17
- 22 - Maian Tears Clynick, David / Kirkhope, Grant / Norgate, Graeme 6:47