I’ll be honest, I’m bigger into the music for Civilization 6 than the game itself.
And I love that game! I do. But the music entrances me more. This is what the spare parts of my desk scratch paper look like:
And we just got more music! With the new DLC comes new music, and I’m listening to Indonesia now. As that paper indicates, I’m most smitten, by and large, with the Industrial tracks. On the one hand this may be because I listen to these tracks less in-game; I’m not very good and my gluttony for punishment doesn’t always survive the medieval age. Maybe I’ve been over-exposed to the earlier tracks, and thus they unconsciously fall in my favor.
But there is also the cello factor. With regional exceptions, the same instruments often get called upon across civilizations, within the same timeframe. The Industrial Era brings a lot of cellos to the fore, and cellos, by and large, slay me.
There are exceptions, though. Because I am not big into sinister, and there are a great many civilizations whose Industrial and Atomic age themes are sinister.* Grandiose, yes, but also dark. Not ALL of them, though, and the decisions made about whose march toward modernity is triumphant and whose inspires fear, well, fascinates me.
Indonesia’s Industrial Age, incidentally, is purely joyous:
So is the Kongo’s:
At first, going through the tracks alphabetically as they are listed on the big compilation videos, you might think it was the civilizations who marched to modernity on the back of colonialism whose themes justifiably turn sinister in their modern eras. See, for example, France:
Note that I don’t mean the beginning of this piece — for, as with France, sometimes the compiler puts the “conflict” melody for a civilization first, before its neutral or positive effect music. I mean the entire leitmotif, that gets repeated across times. France’s gets rough. That slow, ponderous percussion, the brooding brass that soon becomes grand, if no less grave. The same goes for Germany:
So far, everyone mentioned defintely has a dark past when it comes to their actual real world, versus their imagined in-game, evolution. But what of Russia?
If that sound familiar, you are correct — that is indeed the folk song Korobeiniki, more widely known as the Tetris song. But why so sinister? As the Medieval Age version of the song attests, it doesn’t have to go so dark:
It can be folksy and fun! But Russia, despite lacking in overseas colonialist endeavors, steamrolled its landlocked neighbors and actively suppressed or extinguished a great many indigenous cultures in the Urals, the Carpathians and on down into the Caucasus. Most of that damage, though, was more recent in its timestamp. If, though, we are including 19th- and 20th-century exploitation on our list of crimes for which the music will brand the civilizations accordingly, why does Japan get a pass? Why, for that matter, does America?
Our brass is noble; our strings solemn at times but in no way despondent or foreboding. Our theme sounds like a mix of Appalachian Spring and the score for October Sky. Which answers my own question, really:
“Our brass.” “Our strings.”
Ethoncentrism, man. There’s no other reason for the America to get a pass except that it was made in America. By Americans. I mean, listen to our atomic theme!
Whereas many if not most of the others are downright grim, promising terrible things with this sinister march toward the stars, ours is heroic af. Hell, parts of it read like the Sims housebuilding music, which was written to make you feel like adulthood was an adventure and stuff would make you happy. (This is the point at which we all congratulate ourselves on being edgey enough to recognize that as very American. Moving on.) And you know who else gets a triumphant, shadow-free Atomic Age?
That buildup gives me chills. CHILLS. It goes everywhere you want it to and doesn’t make you regret it. It’s beautiful! But…China receive the same pass America does, here. No dark, brooding minor keys. No musical promise of doom. No one looking at Tibet or the Uyghurs would clap China on the back and say job well done. Same goes for looking at, well, anywhere other than at white people in America, frankly. So where is the musical foreshadowing? Why are we not threatened with the darkness of Russia and Germany and France?
Listening to more and more of the soundtrack — all the way through, instead of jumping to my favorites — and thinking this through over months, I kept remembering Goland, from 80 Days. That game was too nuanced to so baldly lift these people up and tamp those people down — everything came in shades of gray, as it ought to have done — but still, Goland was one of the most memorable characters for me. A Mongolian princess, she appeared to eschew the trappings of her station in favor of studying mathematics to, eventually, build rockets. She was straight-up born into someone else’s fantasy, and (it appeared) was setting it aside in favor of her own. And the fantasy of her choice was very specific, scientific, and linked to an advance of her people in the world’s eyes that is something of what Civilization enables us to engender.
Bethesda’s recent amazing (and, yes, sad that it has to be amazing) stance around Wolfenstein notwithstanding, I think most companies are still too timid to make bald statements like that. They, like with Civ, will give us the tools to relive histories to erase past atrocities (if only to commit new ones), but they won’t set a lot of hard rules about who can do what. That’s…fair, I guess, in this context. Each team can win, even if they choose fascism as their path to victory. But the music, I thought, might take a harder stance. Might be allowed to do so. It might be subtle enough — dismissable enough as “the whims of creatives”** — to make statements that the game itself could not. Or rather, that its creators would not.
But I’m not sure that, in itself, isn’t just a fantasy on my part. Whatever moral judgment I thought might be ascribed to the music pretty much stops in 1945. It looks no further forward, and forgives the entire history of America, and Japan’s brutal wars of conquest in the early 20th century. I understand, if don’t necessarily condone,*** the idea of providing a musical golden age civilizations never got to reach, at least not in recent years. Allow them their major keys. But if you are going to let the music remember cruelties enacted by those who actually did set out for the stars, remember all of them.
And forgive none of us.
* If the Darth Vader theme is any indication, this may be due to a centralizing of minor rather than major keys. But that is a guess, as I am not musically trained.
** I really dislike this tendency we have to now classify creatives as some separate kind of person…it’s unnecessarily inviting of crass generalizations.
*** Because grandeur is dangerous, not because no one should attain it.