Flow Original Soundtrack
Flow Original Soundtrack
Sony Computer Entertainment
April 24, 2012
Download at iTunes
After already landing his first success as a game developer during his university studies with Cloud, Jenova Chen followed up this early breakthrough with Flow. Originally, Flow was a free flash game that accompanied Chen’s master thesis at the University of Southern California and was based on his research into dynamic difficulty adjustment and on psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theoretical concept of mental immersion or flow. With such a cerebral background, it was no surprise that the title turned out to be even more of a departure from traditional video gameplay tropes than Cloud had been. The player controls a worm-like creature that swims around in a primordial ocean, with the only aim to eat other microscopic creatures, most of them non-confrontational, and to make it further into the depths of the ocean by devouring the right organisms. At least from a gameplay perspective, there wasn’t much more to Flow than munching your fellow sea creatures and moving up and down a level, which lead more than one reviewer to call it a piece of visual and aural art rather than a game. That certainly didn’t stop the game from continuing Chen’s run of successful titles, with the Flash version of the game downloaded 100,000 times within the first two weeks of release in 2006. This prompted Chen to release a PlayStation 3 version of the game in 2007, which became the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Network that year. And while not everybody was won over by Flow‘s sparse gameplay, its novel approach and aesthetic value garnered the game award wins and nominations from the Academy of Interactive, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and at the Game Developers Choice Awards.
One of these nominations — for the BAFTA Game Award for Innovation — went to Flow‘s composer Austin Wintory, who shared the nomination with the game’s creators Jenova Chen and Nicholas Clark. This was a clear indication that the title’s aural compoment was not just integral to its aesthetics, but also to its structure and gameplay — similar to Chen’s thatgamecompany’s later titles Flower and Journey. One example were the dynamic notes that the other creatures in the ocean produce — instead of sound effects — and which become part of the music’s texture. The stylistic direction Wintory received from Chen for Flow was to create a hybrid of music and sound design. The composer set out to fittingly underscore the elegant simplicity of the game’s visuals and gameplay with “something atmospheric and electronic […] something warm and organic”, as Wintory put it in an interview. While the composer was aiming for “a musically simple world”, this didn’t mean that Flow was an easy assignment, as he created hundreds of sounds for the game that would be triggered by the gamers’ actions, on top of a steady background music track. The results of Wintory’s work first remained unpublished, but this changed with the success of his superlative score for 2012’s Journey, which of course increased interest in his previous game work. Finally, that score was released in April 2012 as a digital download.
Listeners who enjoyed Journey‘s immensely melodic and moving soundtrack and who now expect something similar from Flow need a bit of a warning. As Wintory put it himself: “Flow is more of a meditation whereas Journey is a definite narrative.” Add in his above remark about how Flow‘s aural component was supposed to merge music and sound design, and you’ll realise that you can expect only so much melody — but hopefully lots of atmosphere — from this soundtrack. Indeed, this soundtrack is a highly ambient work that doesn’t want to catch you with its melodic hooks. Instead, the score tries to create a soothing soundworld that you can lose yourself, but does so to mixed results.
Stylistically, the music is perfectly matched to the game’s overall aesthetics, which in this case is actually the soundtrack’s biggest problem. Wintory’s music is so closely entwined with the game’s visuals and general feel that it works amazingly well in the context of the game. But separate the ingredients and the music struggles to stand on its own. It’s correct that Journey‘s music was just as closely married to the game’s visuals as is the case here. However, Journey has a lot more substance and depth to it, which allows it to make the transition onto a standalone soundtrack release without problems. Flow, on the other hand, is a lot sparser: slow-moving, almost static synth layers float across the soundscape in harmonious, hushed tones. The timbres Wintory chooses are light and don’t emphasise the weight of the ocean, but instead evoke a soothing sensation of peace and calm. In its more ambitious moments, the soundtrack even aims to conjure a primordial state of being, courtesy of drifting, wordless choir vocals, which turn out to be an essential part of the score, an additional texture that meshes well with the dreamy, smooth synths. Indeed, despite all differences, one similarity between Journey and Flow is how both works try to create a sense of potent, inward spirituality.
However, Flow is less consistently successful in achieving this lofty goal, which comes within reach on a couple of cues. The opening track “Birth” eases the listener elegantly into the experience ahead, with a soft pulse underneath the watery synths and some solemn male choir vocals that easily carry the piece’s 93 seconds. On the other end of the spectrum, “Return” runs for more than eight minutes, but doesn’t falter — at least as long as you’re willing to surrender yourself to the touching simplicity of the choir material, whose warmth is even more pronounced when compared with the emotional sparseness of most of the soundtrack. The fact that the choir material is very repetitive will divide listeners — either you’ll find this music monotonous or entrancing. The effect is reminiscent of Henryk Gorecki or Arvo Pärt’s minimalist sacred works, as the music looks for effect and truth not in big gestures, but in heartfelt simplicity by stripping the music down to its bare essentials, discarding everything that’s superfluous. While this may sound overly highbrow or even preposterous for a game about eating little worms in the water, consider the fact that we don’t know when the game takes place, and that the music’s ethereal strains — sometimes successfully — suggest that this might be the dawn of time, when life is born in the deep ocean for the first time.
Yet there are also moments on Flow that sound more like New Age relaxation music than like witnessing history in the making. “Home”, “Bloom”, “Feint” and “Life Could Be Simple” are all examples of carefully crafted sound design that do a good job at setting a particular mood — it just doesn’t happen to be a particularly interesting mood. It’s all calming, gentle, and frankly a bit dull, as the music’s aquatic textures don’t differ much from many other underwater-themed ambient albums. There are some nice details to be found in these compositions: some ringing guitar notes in “Life Could Be Simple”, what sounds like a mandolin at the beginning of “Home”, the muted sounds of a harp on “Bloom”. But while these briefly occurring elements give the pieces a modicum of character beyond just being tranquillising, they disappear to quickly to rescue these cues from civilised boredom. The cute ‘plinks’ on “Feint”, which sound a bit like little organisms zipping through the water, hint at the fact how closely music and sound effects are intertwined on Flow. Sadly, the album release also showcases how difficult it is to reproduce the music’s dynamic, potentially fascinating nature once the game’s interactivity is gone and the music is pressed into the linear progression of a pre-recorded track. Once more, the music probably convinces more when experienced in the context of the game.
Much more interesting than the likes of “Feint” and “Bloom” are the handful of tracks which create some tension and give the music more shades, texturally and emotionally. “Glass” and “Shadows” lead the music into colder, darker waters. By and large, the score remains as tranquil as it was before, but the music also hints at disturbances, at dangers lurking in the deep. Squealing, atonal trumpet figures quickly emerge from the shadows and disappear again seconds later on “Glass”, never quiet letting the slow synth layers find their usual sense of peace. The trumpet figures add a surprising and welcome jazz element to the music, and some sustained string notes that rapidly travel the stereo field back and forth further help to disorient the listener. This subtle sense of unease climaxes in a brief, dissonant crescendo at 2:47 that is most effective, before the choir returns to assure that things settle down once more. “Shadows” is less aggressive, but still thrusts the listener into an ominous, murky world of eerie woodwind calls and ghostly synth chords, balanced as on “Glass” by the more uplifting tones of the choir. It’s this ambiguity that makes “Glass” and “Shadows” the album’s most engaging compositions. Unfortunately, “Steel” turns out less interesting — it’s more enigmatic than many other tracks on the album, but never becomes as quietly captivating as “Glass” or “Shadows” and ends up one of Flow‘s most laborious pieces..
While one might not expect it from a soundtrack as ambient as Flow, it’s not wholly amorphous in its structure. In fact, there’s even something like a theme, a rising two-note figure that is first heard on opening track “Birth” and which is later repeated and tweaked on “Home” and “Life Could Be Simple”, both times by the choir. The motif’s occurrences are subtle, like everything else about this music, but they’re obvious enough to be recognised by the listener. Thankfully, the theme also gets to tie the score together when it serves as the basis for closing track “Gratitude”. “Gratitude” is also Flow‘s most emotionally accessible composition, as it successfully transposes the score’s meditative guise onto a solo instrument (cello) that injects the music with some life and character. The use of a solo instrument’s clearly defined sound — as opposed to blurring synth washes — also gives the listener something to latch unto after wafting in the music’s ambient tones. Towards the end, the beautiful cello solo even segues into a broader string statement that, by Flow‘s standards, is almost sweeping and serves as a fulfilling finish to this score, which could have done with more such expressive moments. But then again, that might have been too intrusive within the context of the game and could have overwhelmed its delicate charms.
Make no mistake, Flow is quite a different beast from Journey. Much colder and more ambient, at times Flow is a droning experience of calming synth layers that fit the game perfectly, but don’t have much new to say on their own and fail to catch the listener’s attention. This is the kind of score that serves the needs of the game that it accompanies, not those of a separate album release. Still, if you’re willing to listen closely, you’ll discover the music’s charms: its spiritual choir vocals that on some occasions remind you of the game’s mythical potential; those compositions that are more experimental in their mood and dare to trouble the calm surface of the music in subtle and unexpected ways; and a beguiling closing track like “Gratitude”, which combines the score’s subtlety and restraint with an extra dose of melody and emotionality. It’ll take you a while to get to these good bits, but as long as you adjust your expectations accordingly — or if you’re happy to just chill for 48 minutes — Flow is worth considering.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.