Ultima VIII: Pagan Soundtrack, Nenad Vugrinec, 1994
In case the cover art – with its flame-engulfed pentagram – didn’t make it clear enough, Ultima VIII: Pagan was a far darker game than any of its predecessors. From Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar onward, series creator Richard Garriott had turned the Ultima games into explorations of morality. These pioneering titles didn’t reward gamers for the usual monster killing and treasure hunting that governs RPGs. Instead, Garriott asked players to act virtuously while pondering ethical dilemmas that had no easy answer. Pagan followed the same design philosophy but added a grim twist. The game’s antagonist – the Guardian – transports the Avatar to his own realm Pagan – a blasted wasteland beyond redemption and hope.
What’s worse, winning the game – as in defeating all enemies – will inevitably bring suffering to the people of Pagan. As Garriott put it: “The challenge was that you had to stay true to your core personal beliefs without totally ransacking the place to achieve your ends and work with the system that was there.” Garriott combined this change of tone with a gameplay style previously unseen in an Ultima game. Pagan was an isometric hack-and-slash, not far removed from Diablo, released two years later. Unfortunately, all of these grand ambitions were foiled by publisher Electronic Arts (once again) imposing a punishing project deadline on developer Origin. As a result, the version of Pagan that was released was effectively incomplete. Consequently, Pagan has always been one of the Ultima franchise’s black sheep, although it’s often admired for its daring reinvention of the Ultima universe.
Scoring duties for Pagan went to ORIGIN composer Nenad Vugrinec. Since contributing to the music for Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi in 1991, Vugrinec had worked on several ORIGIN titles in various roles, including Ultima VI: The False Prophet and Ultima VII: The Black Gate. His most significant assignment before Pagan had been the flight music for Strike Commander. It’s worth noting that by 1994, the Ultima franchise – despite its immense historical significance and quality – hadn’t produced much great music (series spin-off Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2 – Martian Dreams being the exception). The Black Gate had featured a far more substantial soundtrack than previous Ultima PC titles but still ended up pleasant rather than truly impressive.
With the Ultima VIII: Pagan soundtrack, Vugrinec writes the first score for a mainline Ultima game that lives up to the franchise’s lofty reputation – if only partially. In keeping with the game’s narrative, Vugrinec’s music is far darker and sepulchral than anything previously written for the franchise. In fact, it’s not hard to hear this score as a stylistic predecessor to Matt Uelmen’s Diablo (although that score is less traditionally orchestral than Pagan). At times, Vugrinec even ventures into horror scoring territory, although the effect is spooky rather than terrifying. Not surprisingly, his soundtrack has a consistently heavy, suffocating feel that rarely sees a beam of light piercing the perpetual gloom. What’s intriguing is how the obviously artificial quality of Vugrinec’s MIDI samples enhances the eerie mood rather than distracting from it, as the music seems to emanate from some alien, unsettling realm.
That description doesn’t necessarily promise the most entertaining listening experience. Arguably, parts of the Ultima VIII: Pagan soundtrack can turn into a bit of dreary slog, with floaty compositions meandering from one downcast musical thought to the next without much connective tissue. However, when Vugrinec takes a more melody-focused approach, he manages to create a tangibly Gothic, sorrowful atmosphere that makes the world of Pagan and its plight relatable. Vugrinec lays out his intentions on “Pagan Theme”, whose morbid string melodies – backed by pounding timpani and wordless choir – set the haunting scene most effectively. There’s a palpable feeling of foreboding and hopelessness poisoning the air. Still, Vugrinec doesn’t surrender the music entirely to despair, highlighting solo vocals that add some humanity and distant warmth to the music.
“Pagan Theme” not only lays the groundwork for the score’s mood, but also its thematic foundations. The composition’s theme for the world of Pagan is a pained, ponderous string melody that progresses in even steps while circling around the same group of notes – constantly in motion but never truly advancing, unable to escape the rut it’s stuck in. The theme returns several times throughout the score – and bookends it on closing track “Endgame” – but usually in the same heavy-hearted rendition as on “Pagan Theme”. Ultimately, Vugrinec’s aim is not elaborate thematic work, but the creation of a potent atmosphere.
And that he achieves beautifully throughout much of the Ultima VIII: Pagan soundtrack. Vugrinec writes an admirable amount of melodic material that differs sufficiently from track to track, while keeping the score’s mood consistently anguished. “The Docks” and “Reef” carefully balance dread with melodies that drip with sombre melodrama. Vugrinec’s bass-heavy orchestrations do their bit to pull the music deeper into the pits of despair. “Cemetary” and “Catacombs” make subtle changes to the formula. “Cemetary”’’s twisted ecclesiastical quality, brought about by a focus on choral voices, is most appropriate, while “Catacombs” uses a starker instrument palette to amplify the music’s natural creepiness. Other compositions lighten the mood without sacrificing the soundtrack’s persistent pessimism. There are the empowering double bass rhythms and heraldic brass calls of “Shrine of the Ancient Ones” and the surprisingly well-developed, busy piano material on “Ethereal Plane” that creatively and effortlessly communicates the new location.
A handful of other tracks bring yet more variety and depth to what could have ended up a fairly drab score in the hands of a lesser composer. “Tenebrae” surprises with lithe flute melodies and tambourine backing. At first, it registers as a reprise of the medievalisms found on other Ultima scores. However, once Vugrinec sets these carefree rhythms in the score’s usual ghoulish atmosphere, what used to be a light-hearted dance turns into an almost satanic ritual. “Combat” is the soundtrack’s only fast-paced composition. It flows surprisingly well despite its fragmented material, rushing from one frantic section to the next, sustained not so much by melodic development but by its breathless energy.
Finally, “The Path of Water” conjures awe and mystery – rather than dread – through its unusually treble-heavy orchestrations that beautifully contrast with the soundtrack’s otherwise brooding demeanour. Woodwind melodies light up like beacons in the darkness when set against ruminating deep strings, while glacial tempi underscore a world suspended in frozen time. Like the game it underscores, the Ultima VIII: Pagan soundtrack doesn’t always hit the mark, but the results are captivating when it does.
- 01 - Pagan Theme Vugrinec, Nenad 2:41
- 02 - The Docks Vugrinec, Nenad 3:05
- 03 - Tenebrae Vugrinec, Nenad 1:33
- 04 - Reef Vugrinec, Nenad 1:09
- 05 - Cemetary Vugrinec, Nenad 1:38
- 06 - Catacombs Vugrinec, Nenad 2:55
- 07 - Combat Vugrinec, Nenad 1:40
- 08 - Shrine of the Ancient Ones Vugrinec, Nenad 1:17
- 09 - Zealans Vugrinec, Nenad 2:15
- 10 - The Path of Water Vugrinec, Nenad 2:57
- 11 - Ethereal Plane Vugrinec, Nenad 1:33
- 12 - Endgame Vugrinec, Nenad 3:54