Tomb Raider: Panic Attack Soundtrack
I’m about to GO IN on a few instrumental music tracks so if that doesn’t excite you, stop reading now. Furthermore, this is going to have some heavy referencing to video games; specifically Tomb Raider. If that’s not your schtick, that’s ok too. But if you had a Playstation in the 90’s, you probably are going to have some fun with this one. Don’t worry, there will be links along the way to surge your nostalgia.
For all intents and purposes, I’m going to be referencing the composition of Nathan McCree, later recorded and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, from U.K. “RPO” have over 70 years tenure as current performing orchestra, most recently, based out of Cadogan Hall in London. While being highly recognized and respected, “RPO” is not afraid to dive into territory usually beneath or beside the brackets of classical acts. Namely, video games. RPO has since recorded a suite of music around the first 3 Tomb Raider games, available anywhere you get your music. Oh and Nathan McCree, the composer who made the music for all three games? With nothing but scraps of information to work with, completed the entire body of work for Tomb Raider in 4 weeks. Tomb Raider 2? Only three weeks.
In 1996, Crystal Dynamics (Later: Eidos (Later yet, and currently: Square Enix)) released a third-person action-adventure-puzzle game known as Tomb Raider. By combining the best elements of games like Pitfall, with the smooth (Ha!) 3D graphics of the original Playstation, Crystal Dynamics was able to set the standard for “Run-n-gun” style games to follow for years. The best part was the use of a strong female protagonist; something the gaming industry lacked.
One thing that went overlooked amidst the meteoric rise of Tomb Raider was a soundtrack that brought to life all the emotions that video game graphics in 1996 could not. Before Tomb Raider, the most intense and suspenseful game was… Pacman? Sorry Mario, Sonic, Link… nothing before the Playstation really made you jam the panic button inside your head like suddenly facing a massive dinosaur standing and waiting for you as you come around a corner. And the precision involved with some of the running-jumping-rolling-grabbing was absurd for it’s time as well. If you didn’t have all 10 fingers, try something else. None of that would’ve mattered if not for the music AT ALL.
Lets start right off the bat with the title. Absolutely a trap door of a track that lulls you into a sense of wonderment and tranquility. This game sounds like it’s going to be a journey, filled with a calm relaxing vibe. The Gregorian chants and harp around 50 seconds in told me so. Clicking “New Game” will be the last time you think that. From here on in, the silky soft bright orchestra, and welcoming choir notes will spike your blood pressure in preparation of what happens after you hit “Load Game”. Make no mistake… “Load Game” will be used a lot your first run through these games.
The first cutscene of the game, you watch your trail guide get devoured by a pack of wolves as you open the gates to a frozen tomb. More calm, relaxing music comes and goes over the first few levels. A pattern begins to be set however… when the music stops, something is going to happen. And because nobody delivers flowers or candygrams in the depths of sealed crypts, chances are whatever is ahead isn’t friendly.
Fast forward to the second-to-last stage of the first level. The Lost Valley. Usual suspects start things off. There are wolves. There’s some water. There’s a bunch of stuff that looks climbable. Deeper into the level you slide down a slope and find yourself in… a valley! I won’t waste time painting the picture for you, because there are raptors. Yes, like Jurassic Park. They come at you pretty quick and immediately start to ruin your human day with their dinosaur teeth. But if you’ve figured out how to jump and roll and pretty much not stand like a log, you’ll dispatch of these quick. After all, you’ve put down a few bears by this point. The raptors, however, aren’t the problem. Why didn’t music play when these two clearly dangerous and new enemies rolled up hot.
Enter song number 2… The T-Rex. Fierce, fast, frantic orchestra stabs. The deep chugs of brass along with an assortment of percussion instruments act as the pause in a horror movie where the victim tries to hide from the killer. Back cuts the fast panic inducing strings, with harmonizing sections to really give the feeling that the stress is coming from all sides. Through good stereo headphones, you can actually hear the sound swing from left to right. On the TV screen however, what you’re looking at is a T-Rex. As in Tyrannosaurus Rex. Bigger than anything in the game so far, you feel the massive dino in the vibration on the remote before you see him. This is the only warning you get before you’re thrust into a battle you can’t retreat from. You’re going head-to-head with the fiercest land being the Earth has ever known. Not only that, you’re doing it to musical equivalent of walking backwards along the edge of the Grand Canyon.
TIME TO RUN
Fast forward again, this time to Greece. Lara has defeated the T-Rex, found her way into her first tomb, nabbed the first artifact, and escaped with her life. All we know so far, is that we need to expect the unexpected every step of the way. Did you know that lions, silverbacks, and gators can survive thousands of years inside a tomb? Right off the bat, you have to fight them in that order before finding yourself in what appears to be the worst oversized game of JENGA of all time. If you look down, you can’t see the bottom of the level. The lighting and graphics of the Playstation simply could not process that much height. As you leap and pray your way down, you’ll find four rooms. Each room named after a Greek god.
Song 3: “Time to Run”. This song could also be referred to as “Panic Song number 2”. Quick plucks alternate with frantic clashing string notes. The song starts as soon as you enter the “THOR” room (Yes, we know, Thor isn’t a Greek god. We didn’t make the game). I’ll never forget being a small kid, watching my dad load up Tomb Raider from right outside the room, and try and get past the first chamber. What would happen as the terrifying music interrupted the timely silence of the level, was a bolt of lightning would strike Lara as soon as she stepped foot into the room from the doorway. Zap. Dead. Just as Lara’s body went limp and crispy on the ground, you’d get to hear the progression of the song pick up. If you hit it from JUST the right angle, you’d survive long enough to hear it really start to build into the full spectrum of panic intended. Then bolt #2. Zap. Dead.
Then, one day, dad figured it out. It was sheer dumb luck, but he hit just the right angle coming into the room and was able to make it to the opposite doorway while only getting zapped one time and losing only half his life. Health didn’t matter in the next room. The panic jingle of “Time to Run” starts to pickup as you notice a skyscraper sized hammer in the middle of the room. Only by playing chicken and standing on the target for where this hammer would fall, can you advance. Will this massive sledge absolutely obliterate you, or will you manage to jump out of the way at the last second? Don’t worry, because of the full force of “Time to Run” track should be filling the room. Nathan McCree has went on record to state that he wanted the soundtrack to embody the sound of English classical music (shocking, as Nathan McCree was an English composer himself). You can really hear the influence shine through nicely.
VERTIGO AND VENICE
It’s worth calling back out that Nathan McCree had absolutely ZERO information going into the first game. How had he managed to make songs that both fit perfectly and triumphantly contrast the gameplay is beyond me. In Tomb Raider II, he was given a few details to work off of, however. After reworking the original theme and dropping Lara off in China along the Great Wall, you’re immediately greeted by two tigers. After taking down these beautiful endangered animals and scaling a mountainside, you find yourself atop the Great Wall itself. You could decide to run straight through this part without properly appreciating “Vertigo” playing. If you’re the kind of adventuring player that Lara deserves though, you’ll look over the edge of the wall to a massive drop. The beautiful calm of “Vertigo” gives new players to the series that disgustingly cruel false state of tranquility. Nathan had to know something about this.
Nathan also had to know that Lara’s next trip would be to Venice, Italy. The next song IS “Venice” after-all. “Venice” is a favorite song in the entire anthology, personally. You can actually cue up this song anytime from the training level called “Lara’s House” by pressing a button in the ballroom of her mansion. A ballroom masquerade is the perfect setting for “Venice” too. While being aggressive and fast at times like we’ve seen in the first game, it also adds a layer of structure and posture. Nathan listened to Baroque period works while writing this (in a total of 4 days). The Vivaldi inspiration raises it’s hand like a wacky-wavy-inflatable in front of a car dealership. “Venice” provides a sophisticated chaos to the game, acting very much like what you’d expect while under the care of Dr. Hannibal Lector.
As you ride boats around the levels (and use boats set off floating mines in the middle of urban waterways), “Venice” comes and goes. The rest of Tomb Raider II reuses many of the great songs from the first game, while taking a big step forward with injecting more sound effects and ambient sounds to fill the voids. Tomb Raider III gave us more of the same, combining suspenseful sounds effects with great composition. For the first time, the player could decide what areas to adventure, in a third attempt to both save the world and collect priceless artifacts.
Many of the songs on TR3 were shorter and more recycled. The best way to get a feel for the game is to listen to the medley that RPO put out. McCree seemed to invest more time into the regional music for this outing. The music for Antarctica makes me feel cold to this day, and I can still vividly hear the music of the jungles of India any time I see a swampy pit. After TR3, McCree left the Tomb Raider team to go solo, after interviewing and hiring his replacement for the rest of the series. 20 years later, McCree was given the opportunity to take his composition and have it performed classically in London by RPO, all thanks to Kickstarter!
If you were to watch the hour-plus performance, you’d get to watch a giant projection of Lara expertly being controlled while dodging various intricate traps on the screen behind RPO. Had I known this performance existed, I would have an active Passport. Don’t worry, though. We didn’t hit a wall with getting to hear this dream performance (unlike my dad, controlling Lara and running her into as many walls as possible). RPO recorded and released “The Tomb Raider Suite”, which is linked below. In the end, the rarest, most valuable artifact that any of us Tomb Raider fans would ever unearth would not be found in a cave, mountain, or crypt. It would be found in London (No, not the level from TR3) on 12/18/16, being composed by Robert Ziegler and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.