2019-04-07

Feelings about music in Dead Cells

Dead Cells was and is one of my favorite games of 2018. You take your character, run into a dungeon and fight against evil monsters in hack’n slash style, requiring quick action times and some thinking. The skill cap is high and the game has end-game content that you can only reach if you are really good at it. I have not quite get there yet but I come back to this game now and then to try again.

The music in Dead Cells is by Yoann “Valmont” Laulan. There are several pieces I thought are particularly memorable, so here they are.

Doing a bit of background snooping I found the author has a Bandcamp page, a Twitter account, a SoundCloud account and finally a YouTube channel (I’m wondering if the YouTube channel is actually by Valmont; I noticed some other channels with his name that I don’t think are actually his). So if you liked this game’s soundtrack, like I did, you might want check out his stuff or buy his soundtracks. I bought the Dead Cells album as a DLC on Dead Cell’s Steam page.

As much as I’d like to analyze scientifically how different tracks are better than others, in truth I know nothing about music theory or how it’s made. So most of my review is really just me describing how I feel about them.

Than being said, let’s then get into my favorite tracks on Dead Cells.

Prisoner’s Awakening

Prisoner’s Quarters

This is the music that plays in the first level. If you’ve played Dead Cells more than 5 minutes, you know you will die a lot in this game and you get sent back to the first level every time you die. So this is probably the piece you will hear the most out of all tracks in the game.

I think this is my favorite piece out of all in the soundtrack. I particularly like the first 60 seconds where it builds up. It has a hopeful, energetic tune to it. And those strings. I think it’s not just pleasant to listen to but the choice to put this at the first level was a good one. This is the tune that makes you want to do just that one more run.

Snooping Valmont’s presence on the Internet I found some variants of this piece:

  • “Dead Cells - Prison (wip)” This is almost the same as the game’s version of Prisoner’s Awakening. Seems more echoy and at the end it has periods of less energetic section where it winds down. This is perhaps some kind of almost-finished piece that was then further adjusted for the game?

  • “Dead Cells - Awakening (Super Cheap Demake 2000)” Retro-sounding version of Prisoner’s Awakening. It has the same melody but instruments are more reminiscent of 8-bit style.

  • Dance Cells. This appears to be something of a techno-style version of Prisoner’s Awakening.

  • “Warrior (wip)”. This sounds like it might be an old prototype that Valmont picked up and developed into the version that we hear in the game. It has the same opening and the strings. The structure is more or less the same as the game’s version but quite a bit shorter. I was very happy when I found this piece :)

Hand of the King

Hand of the King

This plays at the final boss. Or “final” (if you are very good at the game then you can get the “true” final boss. After all, it’s not a real game if there’s not at least one or true hidden actual final bosses).

I did not like this much when I first heard it. I thought it sounded a generic big boss music. And you don’t get to pay much attention to music anyway because this boss demands that you pay attention very hard and press all the buttons in time.

It was only later when I was shuffling through the soundtrack when I noticed that this is a more complicated piece than I thought. It does have that climatic feel to it that you would put it at the part where the hero is facing his biggest personal challenge.

I like listening to this track but in my opinion this actually wasn’t a great final boss music given that the game won’t give you a chance to really listen to it. I think it would have been more appropriate to use in some kind of level. For example: I think this could have been a music for a level. Maybe some kind of final level where the challenge is not fighting a big and fast dude but maybe escape from a collapsing level that’s half-cinematic or some kind of time limit level where you have to run fast but you are not glued to your screen trying to dodge attacks really fast.

I found one interesting prototype of this music on Soundcloud:

I noticed the SoundCloud track has “no lyrics” in its URL link. This track may have had lyrics written for it at some point? The track as it appears in the game does have a lead instrument that could be replaced with vocals or singing so I suppose it would work.

Merchant

Merchant

This plays whenever you enter shops in the game.

I rarely buy things because most of the stuff merchants sell is crap. And the prices are high. I think the shopkeepers have a cartel; there’s no way you could charge these prices in an open competetive market.

But shops have another aspect to them than buying things. Dead Cells most of the time has oppressive atmosphere where everyone tries to murder you, shops are a safe place. Hearing this music means you are safe. Well, as long as you stay. So for myself, this music got associated with feelings of being safe in my head. And it is a very relaxing piece, unlike the Prisoner’s Awakening or Hand of the King that are energetic to get your adrenaline up.

I often take a small finger flexing break in the game at shops because of that feeling of safety. And whistle to the tune. It’s very catchy.

There are at least two versions of this piece in the game. The one I linked above in the screenshot seems to be the “Generic” version. There is another that you hear in weapon shops that is…“softer” for the lack of better word, with the melody not leading as much.

The Village

The Village

This track plays on one of the levels in the game. This level is like a fishing village built on top of wooden platforms on top of water. Given the theme of the game, it gives the feeling of a shanty town, everything being dark and green and foggy.

While I was writing this I think I started to understand that this game and Valmont are doing a good job matching an atmospheric music to a level. It is difficult to put in words what makes a good match. In this case I would say music includes a bell (like a town bell). And the instruments are a bit like you would expect from street instruments. A good match is when the environment and the music both have properties in some associated with each other?

Other notes

There are no tracks in this game that I consider bad. One of the most unique tracks is “The Old Sewers”. It takes like 2:30 before it even starts with some actual instruments, until then it’s mostly…what I guess I would call “oppressive pipe sounds”. I love it.

A silly side note…“Laulan” in Yoann Laulan could be interpreted in Finnish, saying “I sing”. Somewhat appropriate for someone doing music. Well, maybe if it involves singing. There’s no singing in any Dead Cells track that I’m aware.