I wish I didn’t have the ability and inspiration to do an article like this. The death of an artist always strikes a chord with me, a man who has been moved to every end of the emotional spectrum by video games. Normand Corbeil, composer for the Playstation 3 modern classic Heavy Rain as well as other works by Quantic Dream, died last week of pancreatic cancer at age 56.
One of the main reasons I had been looking forward to Beyond: Two Souls was going to be Corbeil’s soundtrack. If it had half the quality of Heavy Rain, I would have purchased the game for the music alone. Whoever steps in to take his place will have one hell of a task ahead of them.
From the moment I first heard Ethan Mars’ theme while playing the Four Days Challenge leading up to the release of the game, I knew I was in for something powerful and compelling. I had been anticipating the game for what felt like years, having plowed through David Cage’s Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the United States) in one 10 hour sitting. The 2005 game from Quantic Dream was an incredibly refreshing if slightly flawed adventure that kept me invested in a narrative as much as anything from a Japanese RPG could want. While Angelo Badalamenti, a frequent composer for David Lynch’s works is credited with Fahrenheit’s score, Normand Corbeil collaborated with him on the project. I would have loved to hear more work from a musical dream pairing like them.
Before two million copies of Heavy Rain were sold and Corbeil’s work found its way into the ears of gamers everywhere, he had already racked up a lofty amount of prestige and praise from the industry. His first Emmy nomination for Hitler: The Rise of Evil, a made-for-TV film came before this generation of consoles. His music has appeared in movies starring Wesley Snipes, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. He was tapped to score the reboot of V on ABC.
It didn’t surprise me, then, that his most moving work came in the form of “interactive drama.”
When I was in some of my more formative years, I never listened to a lot of popular music; what typically went into my portable CD player (you whippersnappers, you) would not even be considered “music” by the standards of other kids my age. As the grunge scene ultimately faded in the late 90s and hip hop became mainstream, I went into a local CD store and bought a physical copy of the Final Fantasy VII original soundtrack. I felt like I was part of an exclusive club, one that had their own secret music preference and was even more underground than punk could ever want to be. I played the shit out of all four discs and to this day, I have that album on my shelf.
Since then, I listen almost exclusively to game music, especially while writing. The impact of a score while a scene plays out before your eyes as well as through your fingertips can never be appreciated by someone who isn’t a gamer, and a strange part of me likes it that way. While video games have entered a bigger section of popular culture than ever before, being a “gamer” is still a secret society. We are the ones who know what cosplay is and who pulls it off well. We are the ones who get as much enjoyment out of a digital indie release as the next big budget retail game. We are the ones who attend live performances of game music, which I had the privilege of doing twice for Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy.
While Nobuo Uematsu will always be the most well-known name in game music, and with all due respect to him, he never had to capture such basic and primal human emotion in the manner that Corbeil did. Every time Ethan Mars had to make a decision that affected the life of his son, the stirring score behind the Philadelphia, PA-inspired setting perfectly conveyed what was going through Ethan’s head. Madison Paige’s theme, my personal favorite in the game, highlighted a beautiful but troubled woman who gets herself in too deep one too many times.
David Cage knows this, and you can see in his eyes and hear in his voice how much he enjoyed having Corbeil do the score for what was his most ambitious project to date. Heavy Rain netted Corbeil a BAFTA for his music, something for which the United States should get off their ass and create an equivalent. The Spike TV Video Game Awards don’t count.
More than any gold statue, I hope Corbeil realized how many people whose memories he permanently affected during his amazing career. Despite the fact that Heavy Rain was “only” purchased by two million people, those are two million that certainly will remember more than anyone who saw the hack job of a summer blockbuster movie that was content to blow up a bunch of shit and have trumpets blaring in the background followed by a licensed popular song. It takes a true artist to evoke emotion with music in media, and doing so in a video game makes the interactive experience even deeper.
Norman Jewison, director of The Hurricane and the original Thomas Crown Affair, stated on Corbeil’s website that “The Marriage of the music and the moving image is perhaps the most powerful form of communication that exists.” Speaking of their work together on The Statement, Jewison went on to say “I am deeply grateful for Normand’s sensitive and deeply committed contribution to my film.” Corbeil will be sorely missed by his peers and fans alike.
For more about my experience with gaming music and Distant Worlds, I invite you to view an old blog entry on my archived personal website.