Cloud Original Soundtrack
Cloud Original Soundtrack
October 24, 2005
Not many video game developers can claim success as early in their careers as the team around Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, co-founders of thatgamecompany. Still students at the University of Southern California, Chen, Santiago and a team of fellow students began development on Cloud in January 2005. Inspired by Chen’s personal experiences as a young boy, Cloud is presented as the dream of a boy who’s asleep in his hospital bed. In these dreams, the player takes control of the sleeping boy’s avatar, steering him through the skies and solving puzzles that evolve around clouds of various colours. Designed to “expand the spectrum of emotions video games evoke” (Chen), the title certainly struck a chord with gamers. Released in October 2005 for free, the game had been downloaded 600,000 times from its hosting website by July 2006. Showcased on several TV shows and taking home the Student Showcase award at the Independent Games Festival, Cloud‘s success marked its developers as creative forces to be reckoned with — a promise that would be fulfilled with titles like Flower and Journey.
One of the people who first displayed their talents on Cloud and would embark on a impressive career was Vincent Diamante, the game’s composer. An Interactive Media masters at USC and a fellow student of Chen and Santiago, Diamante was an integral part of Cloud‘s development team, an experience that would be repeated on Flower. Although the title was Diamante’s first game soundtrack, he had already been writing music with video game integration in mind for about seven years, during his university studies and before that. His soundtrack, which like Cloud‘s overall presentation garnered critical praise, was released for a while as a free download on the game’s hosting website, running for about 30 minutes (with its five longer tracks all looping once).
More than just the solving of puzzles, Cloud is also about the joys of roaming the skies, and Diamante’s music captures that sensation to a tee. Apart from its brooding closing track “Reflection”, the pieces on this soundtrack are appropriately light and uplifting, filled with lovely melodies and orchestrations that always retain their pastoral freshness. A feeling of clarity and warmth fills Cloud like a breeze of Spring air from the moment the solo flute sings the score’s first theme on opening track “Title”. The theme is a lilting flute melody that is not only absolutely charming, but in its organic timbre also heralds the joys of nature that players are going to soak in during their journey. When passed on to the violins, the theme takes on a Classical (as opposite to Baroque and Romantic) sheen that is most winning. Fortunately, Diamante knows how to put this theme’s charms to good use throughout the album. It returns on second track “Just About Ready”, kicks the music into full flight on “First Flight” and also gets to close the album on “Reflection”, where the theme’s carefree attitude is convincingly turned into a moving statement of farewell through the track’s focus on deep strings to carry its weightier mood.
In addition to this, Diamante introduces a second theme in “First Flight”, a six-note motif that’s more lingering than the first theme, breathing in the calm majesty of gliding through the skies. The theme returns on “Fluffy Sweet” and “Method”, where it complements the track’s initially more apprehensive mood through some clever manipulation of its progression. Throughout the score, the two themes or fragments of them are subtly interwoven into the compositions while still remaining recognisable. Diamante brings his intelligent use of themes to a satisfying climax on penultimate track “Cycling”. After the first theme has opened the piece on oboe and is then passed on to flute and piano, the track develops through some new woodwind melodies and finally segues into an introspective rendition of the first theme on solo piano. On top this, the artist layers a quote of the second theme on solo horn, both themes harmoniously playing in counterpoint and fittingly leading into the score’s most beautifully soaring passage.
While Cloud is thematically relatively dense for a soundtrack of its modest length (remember, tracks loop), the two themes are not the only providers of melodic material. Instead, Diamante crafts numerous lyrical melodies that mostly lie with the solo woodwinds, piano or violins. These languorous, soft melodies capture the liberating feeling of flying across the vast open skies very well and never lose their delicate touch. In Cloud, the sky isn’t something to be conquered, but to be enjoyed and explored, and Diamante’s music deftly balances lightness with a sense of scope that comes with the idea of flying free. The melodies and accompanying harmonies are carefully woven into a colourful whole and the composer doesn’t fail to develop his pieces, which seamlessly shift between the boisterous start of “First Flight” and the same track’s near silence that precedes the second theme’s first occurrence, or between the cautious first part of “Method” and the evolving melodies that blossom once the music sheds its more tentative air. Underneath the floating melodies, ostinato rhythms from the piano, harp, or unison strings give the music the pulse it needs to stay up in the air. Ideally, the various interlocking melody lines and textures would be rendered with greater clarity, as they sometimes tend to become a bit of a mush. Then again, Cloud was a student project, so this (definitely minor) shortcoming is likely simply due to a lack of funds and technology.
Should you fear that despite all its loveliness, Cloud is a bit too airy for its own good, don’t forget that the ostinato rhythms that underlie the longer compositions imbue the music with enough vitality and rhythmic direction to let the music never feel aimless. The piano introduction to “Fluffy Sweet” is the album’s best example for this trait, captured like all instruments in spacious, echoey acoustics. The piano’s lively material finds just the right balance between variation and repetitive rhythmic propulsion. Similarly, the insistent string note that drives parts of “Method” never becomes overpowering, thanks to the mingling and building melodies on top of it. And while things start out fairly sweetly with the album’s first four tracks, Diamante reminds you that you’re not flying through clouds of fairy floss. The percussion strokes of “Fluffy Sweet” underline the majesty of flying over land and sea and make the music sound a lot more empowering then the cue’s title would lead you to believe. As already alluded to above, “Method” opens the soundtrack’s second half on a tense note, with its melodic material less lush and markedly slowed down, accompanied by low percussion and tambourine strokes. However, this doesn’t suddenly change the soundtrack’s overall mood, but instead carefully adjusts its flow to introduce a sense of urgency as the album nears its climax with following track “Cycling”.
Finally, “Reflection” closes the album on a satisfying, if surprisingly heavy-hearted note through its focus on the bass region of the string orchestra, which so far has at best played a minor role. Diamante still manages to make “Reflection” an integral part of the album by giving its heavy string strains a feeling of fulfilment rather than sadness, concluding the album’s well-shaped arc. The only small instances disrupting this arc are “Wanting”, “Intrusion” and “Passing By”, three very short cues that don’t achieve much on their own, and in the case of “Intrusion” and “Passing By” even clash abruptly with the soundtrack’s general atmosphere, either through their string dissonances or the sound effects of a motorised vehicle (a somewhat puzzling inclusion).
Vincent Diamante makes an auspicious debut with Cloud. There’s a disarming ease about the soundtrack’s optimistic, warm melodies and its light orchestrations that will remind many listeners of Diamante’s later work on Flower. While the title is more limited in scope than Flower and its textures are not quite as refined, that shouldn’t stop you from chasing down this little gem of a score. Cloud is a breath of fresh air (you knew this would come eventually), a gentle, delicate soundtrack that charms you as much as it lifts you up into the skies. There’s more than enough substance and development to the compositions that the score’s pleasing demeanour never turns the music into merely sweet fluff. Couple that with the fact that Cloud is thematically surprisingly dense for a score of its length, with two themes that are both delightful, and you’ve got a soundtrack that many listeners will take into their hearts.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.