Austin Wintory’s soundtrack to The Banner Saga sounds like music the people in the game might make. These are voices raised to comfort those on a harrowing journey and instruments played to ease the pain of tough travel. Warm horns stoke the fire inside, woodwinds soothe, and drums make marching seem like a part of something larger: a song or a work of art. In some ways, this is a conservative soundtrack, but it complements the game so well and sounds so beautiful out of context that its occasional predictability is easily forgiven.
The individual songs don’t typically stand out, as if the entire soundtrack is one forced march, though one I’m willing to undertake time and again. After a few tracks, everything blends into a single musical story: a single tapestry of song. The listener can hear the trepidation of setting out on a journey, the dangers here and there, the beauty of a hilltop view, the hunger, the thirst, the blood and the sweat, the death of a loved one, a victory and a defeat, and the final, momentary peace at journey’s end. Unlike most albums, there are no tracks to which I repeatedly turn, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The repetition of a few major musical themes means that every track doesn’t sound unique, but that also produces a wondrous sense of journeying. This is the rare video game soundtrack that provides a cohesive experience beginning to end. The instrumentation is phenomenal. The fluttering woodwinds on “Cut with a Keen-Edged Sword” make manifest a spine-tingling sense of impending danger, and this gives way to a gorgeous strings and drum segment that typifies a style of sound found herein. The inclusion of vocals doesn’t feel forced as it does in many post-The Lord of the Rings soundtracks. The male vocals in particular feel like those of wizened varl spinning tales on the road. The soundscape doesn’t just make it easy to imagine these things, it forces them upon you: they come to you like visions.
Although much of the soundtrack (and the game) focuses on the somber journey and its plentiful hardships, there’s also a facet that I might call spiritual. There’s a certain piousness in some of the game’s sequences, and this carries over into the music as well. “We Are All Guests Upon the Land” exemplifies this sort of worship of the land, the world, and one’s poetically insignificant-yet-necessary place in it. Although the elements and the environment take their toll on travelers, one is never closer to them than when marching across the land, and it’s of that experience these songs speak.
“Of Our Bones, The Hills” manages to suspend tension across seven minutes. This increasingly dramatic soundscape culminates in peace, like that found at the end of a violent battle. The calculated adding and subtracting of instruments and sounds makes for an excellent battle track that mounts to an almost unbearable height of anxiety. At ten minutes long, this is a microcosm of Wintory’s mastery of epic composition.
There are plenty of other impressive moments, from the spartan beauty and loneliness of “Weary the Weight of the Sun” and the precious melancholy of “A Long Walk Stills Our Hearts” to the darkness of “The Egg Cracks” and the frantic mid-battle excitement of “Into Dust.” The Banner Saga OST is, like most good things, best consumed all at once, without rest or pause. Picking out more moments like those above would almost be spoiling it.
The Banner Saga’s OST is one of my favorites in recent memory. It both suits the game perfectly and provides pleasurable listening on its own. Let’s hope Austin Wintory stays within the realm of video game composing. We need more soundtracks like this.