WildStar was an ambitious newcomer to the MMORPG market back in 2014. Its main selling points were a unique sci-fi universe full of lore, dynamic movement and combat, and a charmingly cartoonish aesthetic. I think it’s one of the more distinctive and interesting MMORPGs out there right now, and it’s a shame it hasn’t managed to achieve all the success it deserves. One aspect of the game that generated a particularly positive response is Jeff Kurtenacker’s score. I initially assumed that Kurtenacker was a newcomer to the industry, but, as it turns out, he has been composing video game music for years. However, this is his first credit as the sole composer on a major RPG release, and I imagine it will be the average reader’s introduction to him as well.
The album’s first track, “WildStar Main Theme,” manages to cover all of the album’s major musical elements. Its orchestral opening sounds like something from a classic movie score, but then it nimbly layers in some electronica, throws in little acoustic guitar and banjo, tosses in some choir, and then the orchestra wraps the track up with cinematic flair. This all happens in three minutes and none of the transitions feel jarring. It’s a fitting preview of what’s to come and an impressive piece in its own right. It is also an excellent demonstration of Kurtenacker’s strengths. He is versatile, he strikes a nice balance between melody and atmosphere, and his mixture of electronica and live instruments is darn near perfect.
The two player faction themes are equally excellent. “Systematic Domination,” the main theme for the Dominion, is both majestic and menacing. It demonstrates the Dominion’s military might with pounding drums and martial trumpets, but it also brilliantly represents the Dominion’s religious overtones with organ, bells, and choir. It’s easily one of the most satisfying evil empire themes I have ever heard. “The Resolve of Heroes” is the main theme for the Exiles, a rag-tag band of outcasts and criminals fighting to start a new life, and it contrasts sharply with the Dominion’s theme. The orchestration is lighter and quicker, and the track prominently features banjo, acoustic guitar, and flute. The whole thing has a strong “wild west in space” vibe, which is appropriate since the game takes place on a remote frontier planet.
These two faction themes function as a thematic bedrock for the game’s zone themes, particularly in zones dominated by said factions. “Justice Doesn’t Always Wear a Badge” dials up the Exile’s western feel with even more banjo, acoustic guitar, and fiddle, while “War Will Come” broadens out their main motif. “Hymn of the Six” zeroes in on two of the Dominion’s signature elements, organ and choir, and the end result is just deliciously creepy. Also, as a long-time choral music enthusiast, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a video game track that does something a little more complex than the usual unison chanting. Aspects of this track are then incorporated into “Vanquishing Legendary Evil” to represent the Vigilant Church’s presence in that region. In this way, Kurtenacker uses both overt and subtle thematic links to draw a musical map of WildStar’s world. He employs a lot of recurring motifs, but almost always finds sneaky ways to work them in. There are very few melodies that make triumphant returns in other tracks. Instead Kurtenacker weaves riffs in and out of the track or presents a variation on a familiar theme. As much as I love big obvious recurring melodies, I found his approach refreshing. Unfortunately, a handful of the zone themes meander and lose focus. They are packed with good ideas, but these ideas never coalesce into a distinctive sound or central through line. The end result is 3-5 minutes of mildly engaging ear candy that you forget immediately afterward.
While most of the music on this album is tied to the player factions and the game world’s geography, there are also a handful of memorable standalone tracks. “Selling You the Future,” with its campy synths and strings, could have come straight out of Super Mario Galaxy. “Cute and Crafty” somehow manages to sound exactly like its title. If the Exile themes are all about cowboys in space, then “Bandits, Thieves, and Epic Loot” is all about pirates in space. The synthesizer and harp combination in “Sons and Daughters of Glory” is gloriously evil in a baroque kind of way. Kurtenacker’s versatility is on full display here, and I believe his compositional chops truly shine on these shorter, more focused tracks.
In short, I wholeheartedly recommend this soundtrack. Kurtenacker has a cinematic style, but he never comes across as a frustrated film composer. His music is fun, it’s professional, it’s ably performed, it gracefully moves through a number of musical styles without losing its thematic unity, and it is an absolutely stellar example of how to properly mix electronica and live instruments. Most importantly, it makes me want to play in this world. Well done, Kurtenacker, I can’t wait to hear what you do next.
Also, there are so many French horns in this soundtrack. You can’t do outer space without French horns.