2015 was a good year for film music, and among the many excellent scores released that year was Gareth Coker’s score to the video game, Ori and the Blind Forest. Thematic, otherworldly, and elegant, the score featured enchanting piano melodies and female vocalists. Now five years later, the sequel game, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, was just released also featuring a score by Coker. I had a chance to discuss the new score with him and some of his concepts behind the themes of the game and his different approach for the sequel.
Immediately, listeners will note that this is a very different score than Ori and the Blind Forest. The concept of the game was rebuilt entirely to tell the second story of Ori, and is a true sequel rather than being a continuation of what worked in the first game. The first score employed vocalists Rachel Mellis and Aeralie Brighton, both featured heavily and central to the tone of the score. For Will of the Wisps, Brighton returns for the “Main Theme” and a reprise in the final cue, “Ori, Embracing the Light”, which ties the score’s tone into the first game, but is otherwise absent. Coker had this to say about his approach to the game:
Coker: “Blind Forest was really entirely about Ori and his growth from child to capable forest spirit. Will of the Wisps is not about Ori's growth, but that there is more to the world than just Ori. It's a deeper story, with a darker tone. The solo vocals of the original do have an innocent charm to them, however in this game I leaned heavily on the 20-piece choir which added some real depth and gravitas to the score that I felt the game needed."
In addition to a darker tone with bigger orchestra and choral pieces, Will of the Wisps introduced a number of new thematic elements to the world of Ori. The main theme, centered around Ori, front and center in Blind Forest, returns in a big way here. However, Coker uses it much differently outside the introductory and finale cues. The theme takes on more heroic statements at various parts of the game and is also intertwined in numerous ways with other new themes. The tone of the score maintains some of the ethereal, hauntingly beautiful moments similar to those in the first game, but also introduces a variety of new soundscapes and melodies. A criticism I have had in the past of game scores is when a composer has a great main theme that is only heard in the main title. That is entirely not the case here. Coker has developed some incredible thematic material, first for Blind Forest, and then develops it well throughout the course of the score. The album is over 3 hours long, so there is plenty of material to listen to and appreciate the nuances of the thematic development.
The theme that first drew my attention was for the toad, Kwolok, which is first introduced with a bass clarinet. As a bass clarinetist, I was excited to hear it central in the score, as it is a rare instrument to hear in film or game scores. I commented on this to Coker and inquired about the unusual choice of instrument:
Coker: “The only thing I knew about Kwolok at the beginning of the process was that it needed to be a low instrument. Low melodies are rarely featured in woodwinds in game scores and I thought it would be fun to give it a try. In terms of connecting the low reed to the toad in the game, Kwolok is massive, has a low voice, and is also a guardian. There is something (to me) very profound about a low instrument playing a melody as it sounds authoritative, but also in the case of Kwolok, it is calming, fitting with his general tone.“
The bass clarinet, performed by Laurent Ben Slimane, the principal bass clarinetist of the Philharmonia Orchestra, works well for the darker elements of the settings around Kwolok and the Hollow. The character is also The theme is also intriguing, reminiscent of the Emperor theme from Star Wars and Marco Beltrami’s Hellboy theme from 2004.
Coker: “The melody itself opens up as the player progresses through the game. You're first introduced to an outline of it in “The Eyes of Kwolok” (a track that plays when you have to solve a puzzle by inserting two keystones into a statue of Kwolok, the keystones go into the eye sockets in the statue). Then you enter Kwolok's Hollow where the theme plays in full. It develops further in "Dashing and Bashing" which are two abilities that the player picks up that greatly increase the speed of traversal in the game (hence the quicker tempo). Finally, "Meeting Kwolok" has an emphatic version of the theme plays. There are further variants of the track in “Kwolok's Throne Room” and “Kwolok's Malaise”, which are all tied to how the story progresses."
The theme in “Meeting Kwolok” is a great statement with the full orchestra that has a full choir and a militaristic tone. Earlier statements, by the bass clarinet, were instead accompanied by soft percussion and chimes.
Other themes percolate the score as well. Where Coker could have easily fallen back on the original themes, he instead wrote a whole suite of others, which he integrates into the main Ori theme well. Ku’s theme is for the young owl, his friend Kuro’s daughter. This theme begins with her birth in “We Named Her Ku” and continues through the early cues of the score until Ku learns to fly, however the theme disappears once Ku and Ori become separated in a storm, until “Reunification” where Ku and her theme return. Coker chose a recorder as the instrument to represent Ku.
“Reunification” also introduces the theme for the antagonist of the game, Shriek. Shriek’s world is the Willow Tree so the theme for the character is both an environmental theme for that area, plus one for the character. It is a descending motif, heard prominently in “Ash and Bone” and “Shriek” as well as the environmental cues “Willow’s End” and “Decay”. Coker had this to say about “Ash and Bone”:
Coker: “A cue I'm quite proud of is Ash and Bone. Ori and Ku are both controlled by the player as they are stalked in the Silent Woodlands by Shriek. The cue combines fragments of Ori's theme (piano), Ku's theme (in muted violins), and Shriek's theme (in the low strings), if you know them well you will recognize them interplaying against each other.”
The battle between Shriek and Ori (in “Shriek and Ori”) include both character’s themes; each battle Ori faces includes heroic statements of his theme. This type of orchestral action scoring was entirely absent from Ori and the Blind Forest, but appears multiple times for this game, showcasing a broad spectrum of musical styles in Coker’s scoring. My favorite cue of the score is an action cue, “Escaping the Sandworm”, which features a fantastic heroic statement of the descending Ori theme in the strings followed by accompanying counter themes in the horns. A similar and extended cue of this style is in “Shriek and Ori”. Another action cue, earlier in the score, “Mora the Spider” also features a fantastic statement of the Ori theme in this action style but also includes some of the themes and environment Coker created for the Mouldwood Forest setting. The statement of Ori’s theme toward the end of the cue is majestic and captures the wonder and heroism of the character. In listening to this score numerous times, it still amazes me that this is a sequel to the much more restrained Ori and the Blind Forest.
For the end of the game, Coker wove many of the main thematic elements together. “Remaining in Darkness” is the end of the Shriek storyline, and features a low choir and solo violin, while “A Stirring of Memories closes the Ori and Ku arc featuring the Ku theme with choir and piano. “Ori, Embracing the Light”, like the beginning of the score, features vocalist Aeralie Brighton and is a callback to the first score.
Lastly, I asked Coker about his return to the world of Ori for the sequel game, which turned out to be much more than a part-two.
Coker: “The first question that each department asked themselves when starting Ori and the Will of the Wisps was "how do we make each department better, and what does that mean?" What does "make the music better" mean? Well, fortunately a lot of the new directions were influenced by the game's design. We have a plethora of new environments, and we also have a ton of new characters that allowed for different themes to be created. The combo of new themes and new environments made exploration of new sounds more straightforward than I thought. The hard part was making it all sound like it was part of the same score, which is where the theme consistency comes in, but also production values. One thing I particularly enjoyed was doing the Mouldwood cues as we haven't really taken Ori into a truly dark direction for, and the 'tonal dissonance' if that is such a thing - in the strings, was a really fun thing to explore.”
Ultimately, as stated previously, Ori and the Will of the Wisps pushes the thematic and orchestral core of the game series in exciting directions. Not only are there interesting new melodies to track throughout the score, there are some truly incredibly composed orchestral action cues and beautiful solos. While I could very easily write more about this soundtrack, a track-by-track and theme discussion for a 3-hour album is overkill. Suffice it to say, this is a stunning entry into the video game score genre and rates high even this early in 2020.