Diconstruction #3: Up in the Atmosphere


In this third installment of DiConstruction, Chris Marks discusses game music in general, and specifically analyzes the music of Diablo and Diablo II. Which compositions held up the best (Tristram theme, of course), which were forgettable, how is the game experience altered when you play without music, and more. Here’s a quote; click through to read the full column.

I have long held the opinion that the role of music in games and movies is to not be noticed.  It should succeed at helping to set the tone and mood of the scene, but be utterly forgettable as soon as the scene is over because it’s not what you’re supposed to be focusing on in the first place.  Kind of like shoes; they enhance your appearance if they’re nice, but it’s not what people will remember about you unless they’re pennyloafers with mice in them.  As such, it’s often the most overlooked part of a game or movie, which is why I’m tackling it almost immediately in this column.

Of course, there are also games and movies that don’t need music to be interesting.  No Country For Old Men didn’t have any music at all except a mariachi band, and Fail Safe had even less than that.  I can’t think of many games at all that came out before the original Warcraft that had environmental music, but that could just mean it was done right and I forgot it like I was supposed to.  Now it’s hard to find a game that doesn’t have some, and often rather invasively.  I suppose you could just turn off your speakers, but that would make you a wimp, wouldn’t it?

Up In The Atmosphere

“If music be the fruit of life, play on, play on.”  If that’s not an endorsement for music being in video games I don’t know what is.  I suppose you could walk up to someone, grab them by the ears and say “I endorse music being in video games,” but that’s probably more than a little excessive and likely to get you kneed in the groin so I don’t recommend doing it unless you’re somebody I don’t particularly care for.

I have long held the opinion that the role of music in games and movies is to not be noticed.  It should succeed at helping to set the tone and mood of the scene, but be utterly forgettable as soon as the scene is over because it’s not what you’re supposed to be focusing on in the first place.  Kind of like shoes; they enhance your appearance if they’re nice, but it’s not what people will remember about you unless they’re pennyloafers with mice in them.  As such, it’s often the most overlooked part of a game or movie, which is why I’m tackling it almost immediately in this column.

Of course, there are also games and movies that don’t need music to be interesting.  No Country For Old Men didn’t have any music at all except a mariachi band, and Fail Safe had even less than that.  I can’t think of many games at all that came out before the original Warcraft that had environmental music, but that could just mean it was done right and I forgot it like I was supposed to.  Now it’s hard to find a game that doesn’t have some, and often rather invasively.  I suppose you could just turn off your speakers, but that would make you a wimp, wouldn’t it?

Some games are so in to having a soundtrack that they actually include a soundtrack CD in their game box.  Shivers 2 readily comes to mind, as well as some other games that were worse and needed a good soundtrack to not be laughed at.  So how do the Diablo games hold up when it comes to speaker food?

First Fugue

The original Diablo is home to one of the best pieces of computer game music I’ve ever heard.  The Tristram theme is a lovely piece on guitar and strings that strongly contributed to my desire to learn how to play the guitar.  Ironically, I’ve been playing for 12 years now and never learned how to play that song.  I blame Diablo for being so fun to play, and lo we’ve come full circle.

Really though, it’s one of the most calming pieces of music you’re likely to hear in a computer game.  It’s been uploaded to YouTube several times, and it’s probably on several people’s mp3 playlists.  However, though there are some who may disagree, it’s not the only music in the game.

There is rather little music to listen to though.  The menu screen music is kind of short and almost tacky-sounding, but that’s understandable because most people aren’t there for more than a minute or so at a time and their ears are not where their attention is while playing.  In preparation for this column I sat and listened to all the music in the game, and I was actually surprised there was music on this screen because I’d simply never noticed it before.  Mission accomplished I guess, but as someone who was looking for music to listen to it was actually a little disappointing.  I listened to the Diablo 2 music first, and that got my hopes up that if there were menu screen music in Diablo, it would be long and orchestral like its successor.  I was really expecting there to not be any at all though, so it let me down on all fronts at once, like wanting to not be kneed in the groin and getting kicked there instead.  A rare feat, to be sure.

In the main Diablo game there are 4 sections of the game, and each section has its own theme.  The themes are about 6 or 7 minutes long on average, and they tend to set the theme of “massively spooky” very solidly and then meld in to the background as good game music should.  The exceptions are that King Leoric has his own music, and Archbishop Lazarus doesn’t have any music at all, which makes him a little more spooky.  And rightfully so, really, considering what a jerk he is.

What’s really noticeable about the music in Diablo is that it stops every time you go up or down a set of stairs or through a portal, and then restarts from the beginning on the next level.  The alternatives are to have music for the load screens, which would be silly unless it were intentionally comedic (and thus silly), or to continue the music from the last level you were on, which would lead to abruptness when going to a different section of the game.  So it’s a little annoying, but probably the best they could do given the existence of the load screens.

What really kicks the environment in to gear is that depending on the size of your Hellfire install, the new levels don’t have any music at all, so all you hear is the sound of the fighting.  It’s a shame the levels aren’t more interesting, or people would spend more time in them.  Without music it’s more realistic in a way, except with monsters rather than people who happen to be monsters.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing, and I’ll touch on it in more detail a little bit later.  Overall, the music was good, but there wasn’t enough of it to make for a hit record.

Second Symphony

I get the feeling someone got flogged for not putting enough music in the first Diablo.  There must be fifty hours of music in Diablo 2, and all of it is rather good.  They probably went through composers like Bruce Lee’s fist through a wall, making them work long hours until they passed out from exhaustion and then turning the expired composers in to food for those who came after them.  Soylent Green is made from people!

…Sorry, I got a little off track there.  Let’s start at the beginning, with the menu screen.  I’m sure most of you savages haven’t ever paid attention to the music there, or listened to it for more than about a minute and a half while creating your character and naming her “BoobsOnAStick” (sorry folks, that one’s mine already), but there’s actually quite a lot of it there.  I began my musical endeavours by opening up the menu screen and closing my eyes, just listening to the music and identifying which Act I thought I remembered hearing it in.  It took about 40 minutes for it to repeat back to the beginning, and in the interim I got to hear some very nice music.  I recommend it as an exercise if you have the patience.  There’s no joke here, it’s just really good music.

Now let’s look at the in-game music.  Each part of each Act has its own little theme, meaning there are about 40 of them, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to it unless you were paying very close attention, cocking your head comically to the side and all, which would probably lead you to certain dismemberment by all the monsters you were sent to kill because you were ignoring them and making them feel self conscious and unimportant.  Where the first Diablo cuts off the music between levels so you can start anew, Diablo 2 gradually fades out the old music and fades in the new music, so it sounds like it’s all the same very long song.

The only straight musical cuts are during cutscenes, where it would be rather annoying to have it keep going anyway.  Seriously, watching Mephisto get his soulstone removed while listening to the twangy strings of Lut Gholein?  That would be the opposite of good.

The music from Diablo 2 is good, but it’s no Tristram Town Theme.  Put the two together and you’d have a soundtrack whose babies I would be proud to carry.  Again though, unless you’re paying close attention to it, the music in Diablo 2 sets the mood and is then forgotten, so mission acomplished.

The Real Tests

Of course, the real test of how good the music is comes from changing how it functions.  First test: can you enjoy the game without any other sounds, just the music?  This is easier to do in the first Diablo, where you can turn down the sound effects without turning down the music.  At first it’s kind of weird playing the game without being able to hear things, but just imagine it takes place in space and you’ll be okay.  Not space like Star Trek mind you, space like Firefly, where you can’t hear anything because there’s nothing for the sound to travel through.  It turns out that if you turn off everything except the music you can’t hear things like traps and projectiles, so you actually have to be even more attentive to the gameplay, almost shutting out the music entirely as you move focus from your ears to your eyes.  So overall, no real difference in experience at all once you’ve made that adjustment.

Second, can you enjoy the game with no music?  In Diablo and Hellfire you can experiment with this very easily because you can control sound and music independently.  Until a couple days after this article was published I’d always played Hellfire with no music due to a faulty install, and I remember the first time I ventured in to the Hive I was surprised there wasn’t any music, because even though the music always melded in to the background it was still part of the environment.

What turning off the music does is force you to hear all the sounds of the game more clearly.  That means the annoying spell sounds completely occupy your ears, rather than being diluted by other sounds of music.  The games miss the music when it’s not there, and write it notes telling it to come back because it’s forgiven for leaving.  This is a bigger deal in Diablo 2 because the times when you’re out fighting things are longer at a stretch, so you don’t get as much of a reprieve as you do from the first game.

So what happens if you play unrelated music while playing the game?  Unless it’s music with a similar theme, I find it detracts from the gameplay.  If I’m playing a game, I’m playing it because it’s what I want to focus on, and hearing Chad Kroeger going on about whatever it is he sings about while I’m trying to gut old Chicken-Legs just doesn’t mesh.  The music was chosen for a reason, and should not be screwed around with by replacing it.

I think the reason for the Diablo games (especially D2) needing music while older games could get on without it is simple: The Diablo games are always hitting you with sound, and the music cuts through it so it doesn’t overwhelm you.  Constantly hearing clangs and squirts with no real variation gets tiresome.  That’s why the original Diablo only had no music when fighting Lazarus: the lack of music there was used as an accent to add intensity to the gameplay, forcing you to listen to all the sounds of the game right down to your own footsteps.  Once you were done with the level the music returned, and all was right in the world.  If you’re going to play the Diablo games, I recommend doing so with music.  Now let’s all go listen to the music of the Glacial Trail.



Diconstruction (Diablo Deconstruction) is written by Chris Marks.  It examines differences between the two (soon to be three)
Diablo games, as well as comparing them to other games, in a hopefully amusing style.  Diconstruction is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Leave your comments below, or contact the author directly.

Tagged As: | Categories: Diabloii.Net Columns

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