In the absence of a narrative, in ANNO 1800 the music tells the stories

It’s interesting how you sometimes notice the brilliance in a design, not until you ignore it as a whole and concentrate solely on it’s components. It’s a bit like the secret ingredient in mom’s pancakes.

The last time this occured to me was when I was listening to the (brilliant) soundtrack of ANNO 1800. I hadn’t played the game for a while but enjoyed listeting to the sounds the crops make when moving in the wind or my mighty steam boats arriving at the port.

However, what I was actually listening to were of course bits of orchestral music – lovingly arranged and rich in veriety – but still just the crafted product of musicians sitting in a soundproof recording room. Impressions of a fresh field or buisy harbour are probably as far away from this sterile place as is metal music from Beethoven. And yet I have these pictures in my head.

Thinking about it, you could probably play the game with your eyes shut and recall which part of your island or the world map you are looking at, just by listening to the music. You might even be able to destinguish between a smaller or a larger city. Or one that is wealthy or poor. If environmental storytelling is a thing, descriptive sound design should be too.

It’s the special ingredient that is reinforcing the world’s design, describing what is happening without using a single word.

Take “Rumors from the City” for example. The melody that at first is only played on a single piano is quickly accompanied by violins and other instruments, transforming the silent whisper in the background into a mighty orchestral swing. Much like a secret that spreads on a market place until, inevitably, everybody knows. 

“Electrical Engeneering” or “Hush” do a similar good job either with violin kicks that sound almost like someone practicing morse code or ssoft recurring melodies of piano and strings, much like wind that comes and goes.

It would be interesting to ask a group of people to describe how crops move in the wind or a secret is spread across the city only by using sounds. I would guess it’d be pretty close to what ANNO 1800 sounds like.

In a building game like this one, with the absence of a narritive (besides the campaign of course – but real Annoholics play sandbox only anyway) the music is given the space to paint the pictures in the player`s heads. Where in other games the music often doesn’t do much more than accomanping the gameplay, commenting on what the player does or sees, here it’s the special ingredient that is reinforcing the world’s design, describing what is happening without using a single word.