Wing Commander Soundtrack, David Govett / George Sanger, 1990
Very few games foreground their music as much as Wing Commander – and that’s only one way in which it proved to be a watershed moment for game music. Before the player gets to see the game’s intro or even title, game producer Chris Roberts inserts something else, something remarkable: the sight of a pixelated orchestra and conductor, set against the backdrop of a blue planetoid and star-speckled outer space. The orchestra tunes for a few seconds, before the conductor gives the signal to launch into a brief fanfare.
Roberts’ vision for Wing Commander was to create a full-blown space opera à la Star Wars. The orchestra intro in Wing Commander shows that Roberts knew how hugely important music was for his dream project to play like a swashbuckling space opera. The intro also serves as a curtain raiser that heightens expectations. The show is about to start, and it’s going to be of grand proportions. And of course, the sight of the orchestra announces the composers’ symphonic ambitions – a rarity for a 1990 video game. Rarely has a 25-second game intro carried so much meaning and context.
It no surprise then that Roberts asked for the Wing Commander soundtrack to emulate Star Wars, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While this sounds obvious in retrospect, in 1990 such lofty aims weren’t common for a game score. On PCs, the introduction of the Roland MT-32 module had only recently made it possible to convincingly mimic orchestral instruments. And while the FM Towns could play back Red Book audio, it was never released outside of Japan and was virtually unknown in the West.
It’s safe to say that in its pursuit of movie-inspired leitmotivic structures, the Wing Commander soundtrack was a ground-breaking effort – possibly the first game score to attempt such tightly-wound thematic integration. The soundtrack’s impact is still felt to this day, as orchestral game music’s aesthetics remain closely linked to film scores.
Of course, all these historic considerations wouldn’t count for much if the Wing Commander soundtrack wasn’t any good musically. Thankfully, George Sanger and David Govett succeed brilliantly at writing as close an approximation of a John Williams-style space opera score as 1990 chip synthesis would allow. Yes, the composers follow a formula, but they fill it with substance and individuality.
It all starts with the musical calling card of the entire Wing Commander franchise. Govett’s “Fanfare” is as heroic and boldly swaggering as one could hope for, perfectly realising the composers’ brief. Govett also finds time for a quiet mid-section with lovely woodwind melodies, before ramping up for the blazing finale. Most importantly for the realisation of its story-telling ambitions, “Fanfare” seamlessly moves through a multitude of moods, melodies and orchestrations to create music with a truly cinematic sweep. That Govett wrote this piece – and the main battle cue – in only two days is astonishing.
And yet there’s more to how the Wing Commander soundtrack fashions itself after the great works of film music. Govett and Sanger’s thematic work here is outstanding, as they find ever new ways to incorporate the fanfare. For a 1990 game score, the composers’ consistently skilful and multi-faceted manipulation of the theme is quite extraordinary. In fact, Wing Commander easily holds up in its thematic complexity and consistency against today’s single-theme game soundtracks.
Of course, it helps that the fanfare is malleable and melodically strong enough to weather its many repetitions gracefully. Whether the theme returns on a lone bugle on “Funeral”, makes a surprisingly wistful appearance as a surf rock live performance (!) on the score album, or faces off against enemy musical forces on the roller coaster “Combat Full / Returning Defeated” – the melody’s omnipresence gives the Wing Commander soundtrack an admirable coherence.
That’s not to say the fanfare is the only provider of melodic ideas on this soundtrack. Far from it – even on tense militaristic underscore like “Commander’s Office” that in lesser hands would invite a half-hearted composing effort, Govett and Sanger’s music has sufficient melodic backbone to emotionally involve listeners. The fact that almost all of Wing Commander’s compositions feature at least one strong melody is crucial. While many pieces run for less than one minute, they still feel worthwhile because of their engaging melodies. What also helps to make this collection of often brief tracks palatable is the clever album sequencing. Tracks are combined into smoothly flowing larger constructs and it’s impressive how this gives even shorter pieces a place within the album arc, ensuring that the game’s cinematic storytelling ambitions register with full force.
The album sequencing also allows for some injections of Sanger’s trademark wit and irreverent sense of humour. For example, Sanger chooses to close the album with “Eject – Lost in Space”. The piece’s quiet despair ends the album on a surprising, but intriguing note that counters the heroics heard so far. Moments like this – as well as the soundtrack’s militaristic edge – set Wing Commander apart from its cinematic role models. From Wing Commander onwards, game and film scores would be inextricably intertwined. Now the challenge was for game music to gain inspiration from its older cousin, rather than to just imitate it.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Soundtrax Logo David Govett / George Sanger 0:25
- 02 - Fanfare David Govett / George Sanger 2:51
- 03 - Commander's Office David Govett / George Sanger 1:49
- 04 - Briefing Thru Scramble Medley David Govett / George Sanger 1:22
- 05 - Goal Line: Defending the Claw David Govett / George Sanger 0:32
- 06 - Strike Mission: Go Get' Em David Govett / George Sanger 0:30
- 07 - Flying to Dogfight David Govett / George Sanger 1:23
- 08 - Combat Full / Returning Defeated David Govett / George Sanger 3:04
- 09 - Landing David Govett / George Sanger 0:48
- 10 - Damage Assesment - Medium David Govett / George Sanger 0:40
- 11 - Debriefing - Unsuccessful David Govett / George Sanger 0:45
- 12 - Medal Ceremony - Purple Heart David Govett / George Sanger 1:46
- 13 - Eject - Imminent Rescue David Govett / George Sanger 0:54
- 14 - Rec Room David Govett / George Sanger 1:32
- 15 - Dull Patrol David Govett / George Sanger 1:36
- 16 - Grim or Escort Mission David Govett / George Sanger 0:31
- 17 - Medal Ceremony - General David Govett / George Sanger 0:52
- 18 - Damage David Govett / George Sanger 0:41
- 19 - Returning Normal David Govett / George Sanger 0:29
- 20 - Debriefing Successful David Govett / George Sanger 1:09
- 21 - Funeral David Govett / George Sanger 1:46
- 22 - Barracks: Go to Sleep You Pilots David Govett / George Sanger 2:05
- 23 - Eject: Lost in Space David Govett / George Sanger 0:57
- 24 - Fanfare: Surf Version David Govett / George Sanger 2:52
- 25: Go to Sleep you Pilots (with Lyrics) David Govett / George Sanger 2:18