The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had turned out to be a tremendous success, becoming one of the biggest Western RPGs and catapulting the Elder Scrolls into the gaming mainstream. Successor Oblivion had to face the task of living up to, or maybe even surpassing, Morrowind's success. Fortunately, developer Bethesda Game Studios delivered in spades, creating a game that received even greater critical acclaim than its predecessor when it was released in 2006 on PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3. With another multi-million selling game under its belt, the Elder Scrolls franchise finally reigned supreme among Western RPGs, at least for the time being.
One of the game's five BAFTA nominations went to Jeremy Soule's score for Oblivion. Soule, returning to the franchise after his work on Morrowind, had by 2006 become Western game music's master of fantasy scores, particularly through his recent work on the Guild Wars series. Soule started composing a year before the game's shipping date, although his work was interrupted by a car accident Soule was involved in. Fortunately, he survived with only minor injuries, but the incident still left a deep impression on Soule, as he recalled the seconds during the accident in an interview: “I simply just acknowledged to myself that I've had a good life and I would soon have to say goodbye to all of it in a matter of second." Probably inevitably, the accident left its mark on Soule's work on Oblivion: "In the seconds before my crash ended...that emotion... one that life is indeed precious stayed with me as I proceeded to write the score for Oblivio. [...] the score was really void of revisions. What you hear in the game is what I wrote on my first attempt at each piece of music."
After the ambivalent critical feedback that Morrowind's score had received, Oblivion was greeted with a friendlier reception that included not only that BAFTA nomination, but also the inaugural MTV Video Music Award for "Best Original Score". And after Morrowind's soundtrack had been tricky to get a hold of before it was finally released on Soule's online music store DirectSong, Oblivion was released right away on that platform as a generous 60-minute album. Its legacy continued through the inclusion of some of its material in the Play! A Video Game Symphony series of concerts.
Soule's work on Morrowind hit all the right buttons for a fantasy game score and sometimes even exhibited truly symphonic breath, even though it was hampered by a dull album sound and mix. Oblivion is still recognisably the score for a fantasy title and features markedly improved sound quality, but the other adjustments it makes are less convincing. The most obvious change of direction are the more minimalist orchestrations. Morrowind's biggest strength were its colourful and richly varied instrumentations that drew upon every section of the (synth) orchestra. Oblivion is timbrally more restricted, a fact that becomes most obvious during the soundtrack's more languid tracks, which make up the bunch of the album. These cues usually follow the same formula: a sweet-sounding solo woodwind or harp plays graceful melodies against a soft string background that occasionally takes over to play melodic material of similarly gentle nature. This generally pastoral atmosphere is maintained consistently throughout these compositions, even though Soule sometimes tweaks this ambiance to give it a more noble air ("King and Country") or otherworldly mood ("Through the Valleys" with its shimmering violin textures and sustained organ chords).
Throughout these tracks, Soule's ample melodic talents are on display. The melody lines he writes for the solo instruments are consistently attractive and pleasing — a quality that's helped by the fact that the material is performed on live instruments, as opposed to Morrowind's all-synthesised orchestrations. But at the same time, the music can't help but feel amorphous, due to a distinct lack of variation in mood, dynamics or timbres. Too often, the peaceful sounds are happy to play in the background, written well enough to create a pleasing melodic flow, but missing truly memorable episodes. Nothing on these lyrical pieces will push you away, but over the course of a whole album, they turn into a wash of benign, but not always engaging compositions. Oddly enough, while Morrowind's music was accused of being too ambient and non-descript — although it was actually anything but &$151; that criticism applies much more to Oblivion's drifting pieces. The music's evasive nature is enhanced by the album's sound, which applies copious amounts of echo to the solo instruments' melodies, coating them in an airy dress. This touch of album engineering works well in tandem with some of the album's more ethereal moments as on "Through the Valleys", but it also makes the music feel emotionally more removed than necessary.
True, some pieces add new elements to the formula, usually with convincing results: "Wings of Kynareth" has some of its soothing melodic content performed by a string quartet, "Auriel's Ascension" adds a tinkling piano to the ensemble, while "Dusk at the Market" includes acoustic guitar and fiddle for a more earth-bound, folksy touch. And "Sunrise of Flutes" finally ventures into lighter, livelier territory during some bouncy string pizzicato episodes. But in the end, it's hard not to miss Morrowind's opulent moods and textures. At least moments on Oblivion recall the earlier album, like the way solemn string introduction of "Watchman's Ease" segues into a more spirited fiddle performance with some delightfully trilling figures. Taken on its own, the quieter pieces are composed with obvious skill and are never less than beautiful to listen to — sometimes they're even moving. But compared to the predecessor's compositions, they pale somewhat in their monochrome nature.
Still, if this was only about the album's more languid cues, Oblivion would still be a consistently enjoyable listen. But then there's also the battle cues. And definitely more so than on Morrowind, these tracks are less interesting than their slower-paced album cousins. Apart from "March of the Marauders", none of these tracks reach even the 90-second mark. Not surprisingly, there's rarely any meaningful development of the standard contents of these tracks — chopping string rhythms, aided by booming timpani, and some brass leads for at least a bit of drama and excitement. After Morrowind's well-developed action cues, Oblivion's one-note vignettes are the album's biggest disappointment. There's the occasional touch that lifts the combat tracks out of functional mediocrity, such as when woodwind lines flutter around the constantly marching beats of "Fall of the Hammer" and "Defending the Gate", reminiscent of how Morrowind's battle tracks effortlessly included less martial sounds. But these moments are too isolated to win you over on these repetitive pieces. And when you finally have astirring passage like the steady build-up on "Daedra in Flight" that's unexpectedly capped off by a flute solo, the piece ends abruptly after just a minute. At least the music has more force this time, thanks to the album's much improved sound. Then again, the battle tracks' undeniable force gives the impression that they try to make their mark through volume rather than substance. In the context of Oblivion's album presentation, the role of these pieces then is merely to interrupt the steady stream of tranquil music with some brief injections of energy.
A new facet to the world of the Elder Scrolls franchise are some ambient pieces &$151; a type of music not heard on Morrowind. But these tracks fail to add much to Oblivion, as they dabble in predictable textures and their equally predictable application — foreboding sound effects, synth drones, the occasional shrieking dissonance, sustained celli and high-pitched violin chords, it's all here. Again, it's functional and probably reasonably effective in-game, but on album, these pieces are easily skippable. Once more, all too brief track running times rob the music of potential. The opening cello set of "Ancient Sorrow" against a spacious, eerie synth backdrop easily grabs your attention, but how much can you explore this unusual combination of timbres within only 64 seconds?
Another area in which Oblivion falls short is the application and development of its main theme. Morrowind's flexible main theme returns on Oblivion and it appears Soule wants the theme to perform similar duties one again. But while the theme already didn't make as much of an impact on the predecessor as it could have, it's even less visible on Oblivion. Soule continues to deploy the theme in a number of disguises: in brassy, Remote Control-inspired fashion on opening track "Reign of the Septims", as a spirited flute melody on "Bloody Blades", and performed by choir on "March of the Marauders" and on horns during "Bloodlust". But these cues are the only occasions on which the main theme appears throughout the whole one-hour album. And on "March of the Marauders", the melody is slowed down so much that the theme loses recognisability and effect. As on Morrowind, several tracks are based on secondary themes around which each cue circle, but these themes don't make up for the half-hearted implementation of the main theme. Let's see if The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim restores the theme to its former glory and finally turns it into the series' proper musical calling card — something that the Elder Scrolls franchise is currently still missing.
Where The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind took you on a journey through a fantastical landscape, Oblivion asks you to sit down in front of some beautiful scenery and to keep still for the next hour. And the andante compositions here are certainly delectable, with their gracious woodwind melodies and harmonious string orchestrations. None of these compositions stand out particularly and due to their similar nature, they start to blur at some stage. But though it might be sonic wallpaper, it's skilfully crafted wallpaper that's nice to look at. The bigger problem on Oblivion are the monotonous action tracks that are a far cry from Morrowind's much more fleshed-out compositions. Like the few ambient tracks on this album, the battle cues are never given to time to develop and hardly ever satisfy on their own outside of the context of the game. Combine this problem with a underwhelming implementation of Morrowind's main theme that makes you wonder why it returned in the first place, and you've got a score that's generally appealing, but also a definite step down from its predecessor.