VGM Review #7: “Nate’s Theme” (‘Uncharted’ OST), Part I


Last December (erhm, not quite a year yet!) I had my first media encounter with composer Greg Edmonson via GamesRadar’s SoundRadar podcast.  Edmonson was a fantastic interviewee, offering a lot of valuable insight to his approach to writing music for the Uncharted series.  His attitude and ideas had made me want to check his stuff out and subsequently blog about him.

Flash forward to two days ago, when I finally started to write down a list of topics that I need to blog about.  Edmonson was a no-brainer for the list: I enjoyed his interview, I’ve liked what I heard from him, and he’s a modern composer of a critically acclaimed game soundtrack.  He was such a no-brainer, in fact, that I immediately chose to review some of his work, namely the Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception OST.

It was upon beginning my listening that I came across “Nate’s Theme” (naturally, as it is the main theme of the game itself).  The interesting thing about this tune is that there are three iterations of it—Edmonson composed the theme originally for the first game and has revisited it each time he has worked on a new Uncharted title.  I love this concept.

I think that, as a composer, one can almost always find places where more can be tweaked, which is why I talk about having simply to close the door on projects.  As there are infinite possibilities in regards to tweaking in a tune, one can drive him or herself mad trying to revise and revise to make a perfect product—that is why one has to know when to say, “okay, I’m finished and am moving on.”  However, that doesn’t mean that one cannot or should not go back and critically listen to a composition after spending time away from it.  Sometimes taking a step back gives one the most objective viewpoint.  The Uncharted titles were released in two-year intervals, and somewhere within those two-year gaps Edmonson found the time to take that step back and revamp his work.

The good news: his labor was well worth it.

I’m going to talk about what sets each version of “Nate’s Theme” apart from the others, but before I get into those specifics (which will come in a post in the next few days), I’d like to talk a little about the tune in general.  Here’s version 1.0:

From the beginning, “Nate’s Theme” sounds – very apparently – like both a heroic and adventurous theme.  Take the first nineteen seconds: there is a six-second lead-in by some hand drums and a booming bass drum that moves into a brass fanfare.  That there is a standard recipe for the type of theme Edmonson’s intending it to be.  The listener gets a sense of regalia from the rather slow, simple, and deliberate melody played by the brass, but at the same time there is a drive set forth by the energy of the drums.  It’s that combination of salty and sweet; part of the tune provides movement while the other part portrays a sense of stability (you might recall that I’ve talked about this kind of movement before in parts two and three of my review of Chrono Cross’ “Time’s Scar”).

Following the brass’ prominence are the violins, who enter at 0:22.  Acting as violins often do in these kinds of cinematic scores, they play emphatically passionate phrases overtop the other instruments, which includes a bed of low brass and sweeping low strings.  I love the countermelody of the low strings; it supports the violins yet has an identity of its own that could stand by itself if Edmonson wished it so.  The way that the violins and low strings interplay, too, is beautiful, as they seem to dance separately at first, yet naturally bond together at 0:28.  Allow me to emphasize the word “naturally,” too—none of either lines’ movements seem forced or rushed to get to that conjunction in the slightest.  In a way, it is too bad that this particular section in the music is short-lived, but for the sake of brevity within the theme I do not fault Edmonson for not fulfilling my wishes.

The theme could have continued to have this vibe; instead, however, Edmonson adds another dimension to the theme starting at 0:40.   This divergent part is important because, as Nate’s theme, it gives the character Nate more depth.  Just from the music, the listener may now recognize that Nate is not solely represented by the adventures he embarks upon; now he has this whole other side, one that sounds deeper and self-reflective.  The section is naked—it answers the question of what Nate would sound like if he were stripped of all the excitement and glory of his travels and left to his inner workings.  As the player, we expect that Nate will not just be a Pitfall sprite, but something more representative of an Indiana Jones.

Of course, as wonderful as it is to have that other dimension, the listener’s attention or care cannot be sustained if “Inner-Nate’s Theme” goes on for very much longer.  Once again having been brief-yet-definitive, Edmonson ramps the energy back up at 1:03 to bring the theme to a climax, pumping the player back up and then bringing him or her an unresolved resolution after a 30-second gauntlet that seems to last half as long.  The listener will likely feel a sense of suspense at the end – thus the “unresolved” descriptor of the literary resolution of the tune’s story arc – and that’s due to the chord progression.  Starting on the downbeat that occurs at 1:08, the progression goes (in G Maj.):

|  IV  |  I  |  V  |   I  |    I   | |  IV  |  I  |  V  |  V  |  V6 | |  vi  | etc.

That deceptive cadence (moving from V to vi instead of to I) at the end going from V6 to vi gives one that feeling of incompleteness (inverting the V chord really helps in giving a definitive move to the vi since the notes in the bass and soprano of the V – respectively the 3 and the 1, or F# and D – both move naturally to the 1 of the vi – E).  The listener knows that there is more to come both because of the music and because, well, it’s time to play!

Edmonson hit a home run in the ears of many gamers with his first run-through of “Nate’s Theme.”  It is a complete package for a theme: it’s short and sweet, sets up Nate as a character through definitive melodies and through a depth that extends beyond one-dimensional writing, and it makes the gamer want to play and explore more of the character and the game.

Part II is ready for your consumption!