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Pillars of Eternity is an isometric, party-based computer RPG set in a new fantasy world developed by Obsidian Entertainment.
73,986 backers pledged $3,986,929 to help bring this project to life.

Music in Pillars of Eternity

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Public Service Announcement by Darren Monahan, web guy

Before we get started on this week’s update, we wanted to make all of you aware of a very serious website vulnerability called “Heartbleed” that was discovered since our last update. This bug affected a huge number of sites and services across the internet, potentially exposing passwords and other sensitive information to hackers that understood how to exploit it.

Heartbleed warning.

Unfortunately, the Eternity website was running an affected version of this software, and as soon as we became aware of it, we took the appropriate steps to close the vulnerability. While we have no evidence or other reasons to believe any passwords or personal information was stolen, we do recommend you change your password if you have an account, especially if you reuse this same password on other sites.

To change your password, visit your Account Profile, click on the E-mail & Password tab, enter your current password, and your new password twice and click Save Changes. Please leave the e-mail address boxes empty.

Learn more about Heartbleed.

xkcd comic: How the Heartbleed bug works.

Update by Justin Bell, Audio Director

Hello awesome backers. My name is Justin Bell and I’m the Audio Director at Obsidian, and the Audio Lead/Composer for Pillars of Eternity. I know a lot of you have been waiting patiently to hear some news about the game’s music. Thanks for waiting, I’m happy to say this update will focus entirely on music! In it we’ll cover the high level creative guidelines we’re using to write the score. I’ll also provide you with an in depth look into my music writing process. For those of you who are chomping at the bit for more info about the sound design for PoE, don’t worry... We’re going to do another update in the future that focuses on that as well. But for now, let’s talk about music!

Our next update will be a look at the most recent art our talented team has put together for the game.

Justin's workspace.

Justin's every day workspace.

Style

Making Pillars of Eternity feel like a modern day Infinity Engine game is important to us, and music plays a big role in achieving that goal. But what does that actually mean in practice? Well if you were to loosely analyze the music from Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2 and Icewind Dale 1 & 2 for example, you would find a number of stylistic similarities between them. Without getting too technical, their music combines tropes found in European folk and pre-Renaissance modal music, and mashes that together with modern day orchestration techniques and film music aesthetics.

You’re probably thinking... “Where’s the human side of all this? Where’s the emotion? The music for the IE games is so much more than simply a mash-up of musical elements!”

Putting it in such cold and analytical terms doesn’t really give those soundtracks the justice they deserve, does it? Still it’s important for me as the composer to understand things in that way, and here’s why. An incredible teacher of mine used to say, “When in doubt, use a model”. Another incredible teacher would likewise say, “Never proceed without a plan”. What they were both saying is that if you’re going to take a journey, you need to understand the path and know your destination to the best of your ability. Even if the plan needs to change at some point down the path, always think it through first.

Luckily for me both are pretty clear. In that sense the soundtracks for the IE games are both my model and my plan, at least to a point. I’ve made a couple minor structural modifications to the formula, which I’ll describe in greater depth further on. But first I’d like to give you an inside peek into the creative process I use to write music.

The Commute

Here’s some news that’ll undoubtedly shock each and every one of you...

I commute to work. Every. Day.

Exciting right?! Right... Don’t let the mundaneness of that description fool you, as this is actually one of the most important parts of my day. It’s one of the few times that I get to listen to music without interruption, and I use this time to get inspired to write. Things I’ve been putting on lately are the soundtracks for The Elder Scrolls (III, IV, and V), The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, anything by Basil Poledouris, and of course the IE soundtracks, just to name a few.

As I’m driving and listening I stay on the lookout for small moments that inspire me in some way. When I come across something that attracts my attention, like an interesting harmony or nice orchestral combination, I document the track number, time range, and any observations I have using a little handheld recorder. By the time I get to work I usually have roughly 10 small voice memos recorded for myself. When I get in front of my computer at work I pull the tracks I noticed into my audio program, edit out the sections in question, and categorize them with my notes for future use. It’s a way of systematizing inspiration, which I’ll admit may sound counter intuitive to some. When working on a project with deadlines while simultaneously trying to keep things the creative juices flowing, being organized is critical to successfully balancing those two often competing requirements.

Justin's workspace.

The audio booth with noise making props.

Daily Bach

After I’m through categorizing the nuggets of inspiration, I sit in front of my keyboard and sight read a single chorale from J.S. Bach’s beautiful collection of 371 four part chorales. Each day I read a new one in sequence, and I do this for a couple reasons. I’m a musician, sight reading is fun, and this is an excuse to keep my chops up. But more importantly, I do it to get motivated by the master of modern tonal harmony himself. When I’m actually writing music and get stuck at a tricky voice leading spot, the fact that I have Bach in my ear and at my fingertips is often a lifesaver.

Sketches

I like to keep the actual writing process as simple as possible. To do that, I open up my writing program (Nuendo 6 + NEK for those who are interested) and compose with one piano patch and one full string patch only. This is pretty standard practice for some, and I do it too. It allows me to focus on just the melody, rhythm, and harmony alone (i.e. the Music, with a capital “M”) without concerning myself too much with instrumentation or the mix. Both of those things aren’t important now and I know I’ll get to them later. For now it’s all about the music. By keeping the writing process simple, I free up my ability to stay creative.

Here I’ll write whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it’s entire pieces of music, other times it’s a small fragment. I don’t really try to do anything specific or limit myself in any way; I just let the ideas flow as freely as possible. The idea here is to write as much music as possible without concern for the end result. Again, it’s important to keep things loose. At the end of each day I may write up to an hour of sketches, about 90% of which will never see the light of day. It’s the remaining 10% that I’m really after.

I liken this process to panning for gold. The way I look at it is that in order to succeed, you need to know how to fail. It doesn’t matter to me if I’ve deliberately crafted a piece of music through the sheer force of my will and divine creativity or whatever. Happy accidents can and do often yield the best creative results, and allowing them to happen is essential to remaining creative while working under tight deadlines. Now you may be wondering, “Where’s the artistry in that?!? Anyone can do that!” The artistry lies in the ability to recognize a great idea when it comes to you, regardless of where it comes from or how deliberate the process to create it was. Simple as that!

Process of Elimination and Categorization

Once I’ve run out of time sketching things out, it’s time to start identifying the material that actually has potential to be made into a larger piece of music. I do this by color coding each region (i.e. sketch) based on how good I think it is. By default all of my regions are blue because it’s soothing for me to look at. All segments that are halfway decent get turned purple, which means I may or may not have a use for it. Everything that sounds amazing and I’m confident in gets coded red. Once that’s done, I version off my session and delete all the remaining blue regions for them to go to unwanted sketch heaven.

In Eternity we break music into four basic “types”: town, dungeon, wilderness, and combat. Each major area of the game will have its own unique set of these. The next step for me is to assign each sketch to one of those categories.

Sketch in progress.

A sketch in progress.

Musical Quilt

So I have all these little segments of music and cool little snippets, but I don’t exactly have what you’d consider to be a piece of music. Time to change that! The next step involves stitching all of those little fragments, expanding them where necessary, into a full-fledged piece of music. A lot of mixing and matching goes into this and the process takes me about a half day per 3-5 minute piece of music. I focus a lot on form, pacing, and musical trajectory. Once the form has taken a shape I’m happy with, I separate each voice out into individual track lanes so I can begin the process of digital orchestration.

A Word About Templates

Prior to working on Eternity I spent a couple of weeks creating what’s known in the digital composing world as template. A template is essentially a collection of sample based instruments that are preloaded into a massive audio project. In my template I have all of the most common instruments found in the orchestra (i.e. winds, brass, percussion, and strings), as well as some less common ones, all set up and mixed in advance. This is done to help minimize the steps I have to take between the spark of inspiration and manifesting that inspiration into music. All in all I have about 150 unique tracks for all the instruments and articulations that I’ll need to write the music for Eternity, though I’ll rarely use all 150 at one time.

There are a couple of reasons why using a template is important and they all have to do with speed and convenience. When writing, the last thing you want is to get bogged down with technical issues. Doing so will often destroy the spark of inspiration, which can be a fickle thing. By creating a template in advance you separate the technical from the creative which allows you to focus purely on writing the music. Templates are also critical because modern day multi sample libraries eat up a lot of RAM and take a long time to load. Your average sampled instrument can require anywhere from a couple hundred to a few gigs of memory. (Fun fact: My computer at Obsidian has 32 gigs or RAM installed, and my template uses every last gig!) Needless to say, loading all those samples takes up precious time, and it’s a waste to have to do that over and over.

Someone needs an upgrade.

Using all the RAM.

Orchestral Colors

Back to the music writing... Right now the form of the music has been fleshed out, but it’s still just using piano or string orchestra. This is where orchestration comes in. We often refer to the different ranges and combinations of instruments as having a certain “color”, which is really just a fancy way of saying sonic timbre. You can think of orchestration as being similar to taking a pencil sketch and filling it in with color. The way I like describe this stage of the writing process is that here I have the “bones” of the music all assembled like an archeologist assembles dinosaur bones; it just needs to be “skinned”.

At this point I already have a good idea for what the general moment to moment feeling of the music will be, and ideas for orchestration are already beginning to take shape. This is where those references I mentioned earlier on come in handy. What I do is comb through my reference library looking for snippets that will inspire and inform me on how to approach the instrumentation. When I find something suitable I line appropriate reference(s) up against the sketch.

More sketches!

A piece in the middle of development.

Even though the actual harmonic and rhythmic content of music that I’ve written is quite different than the references I have, I can still use them to extract the orchestral colors the original composer used and apply them to what I’m doing. This helps me to produce the most realistic result possible (remember I’m using samples most of the time) and allows me to get through the orchestration process in the fastest way without spending too much time on R&D.

At this stage in the project it’s less important for me to spend a bunch of time trying to come up with the most unique orchestration known to man, than it is for me to get 70% of the way there using a combination that I know will work. I don’t always need to do this for each musical phrase, but it sure comes in handy when I’m stuck. Once the references are all lined up, I start assigning the different layers of music to the instruments that are loaded in my template.

Polish

In its current state, the music sounds really static and pretty bad. Not ready for prime time. Even though I just assigned the music to different instruments, it’s not quite done yet. For example, phrases lack shape, the mix between instruments is unbalanced, and articulations are all wrong. To fix that, I hand sculpt each individual note and phrase to make it sound more convincing, trying my best to make it sound as if a real live musician were performing the piece (which is actually impossible to do, but that’s the subject for another conversation).

This, my friends, is where the music really comes to life. It’s a painstakingly slow and highly detailed process but by the end of it, we’re left with something that actually sounds pretty good! Now I bet you’re wondering how that sounds? Well wonder no more because I’m about to show you!

Drum Roll Please...

The first region I focused on was Dyrford, and I’d like to share the music that I wrote for the town of Dyrford with you. I hope you enjoy it!

Dyrford Village music.

Dyrford Village ambient music.

Modifications to the Formula

While we are following in the footsteps of the Infinity Engine soundtracks in terms of style and implementation, we have decided to tweak that formula a bit. Most of the in-game tracks for the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games are between 1-2 minutes in length, and in some cases those tracks loop immediately. There are some inherent risks and benefits to looping a short piece of music immediately.

One of the risks is that the music could eventually become annoying to the player if heard too many times in a row. We call this “listener fatigue”, and from a usability perspective, it can negatively affect the way a gamer will feel about a game. It’s a psychological effect; the fact that the music is short and repetitious can make long playthroughs tedious. On the flip side, a benefit to having short loops is that we can write more unique pieces of music, which will by nature increase variety throughout the game. Approaching it this way would allow us to make specific areas feel “special” because they will have unique music.

We’re going to balance those two considerations for Pillars of Eternity. Music will always loop, but it will be longer in areas where the player spends a lot of time (like quest hubs) and shorter in areas where the player doesn’t (like some dungeons).

Alex Dickie, Zombra, and 97 more people like this update.

Comments

    1. Creator Mark Datysgeld on April 29, 2014

      In time: I LOVED this update... sorry for the delay commenting, I had read it on the go on my e-mail and just got around to posting this today.

      Definitely would love to see more of this sort of update... also thanks to Justin for the great read!

    2. Creator Graham N.Y. on April 24, 2014

      "we took the appropriate steps to close the vulnerability"

      Unless I am missing something, it doesn't look like you have renewed your certificate and revoked your previous one. Looks like you missed step three.

    3. Creator pioslik on April 20, 2014

      @James: I listened to it six times and I still can't play it again in my head.
      Also there are many tracks from Arcanum which I can hum even after those years since I played it, so I don't believe the issue is about slow tempo.

    4. Creator James on April 20, 2014

      I don't understand the criticism of this track from some people to be honest. I think it's gorgeous, and I've had it on repeat some days. Yes, it's of slow tempo, and far from dramatic, but that's fine. It paints a picture of a place to me, for me, a simple village, perhaps past it's glory days and fallen on tough times, everyone soldiering on with their day to day lives despite any such problems. While the instrumentation is entirely different, in this regard it very much reminds me of Arcanums town and village themes, all very slow, sombre, and illustrative of locales they portray.

    5. Creator pioslik on April 18, 2014

      Are the other tracks in the game will be in a similar tone like this (forgettable) one?

    6. Creator Theobeau:OOoE\Mad man with a box/Exiled on April 18, 2014

      Great update which shed a lot of light about a vitally important area of gaming that tends to get hidden from view.

      Comments about balance between duration of music and looping were spot on.

      The Dyrford Village music is lovely; did I detect hints of Howard Shore's LoTRs score towards the end?

    7. Creator Melissa on April 17, 2014

      When thinking about the most enjoyable RPG music, it's *themes* that come to mind, not entire scores. The excerpt provided didn't have any obvious recurring theme - but perhaps that's because my attention span isn't stellar - and the tempo was extremely slow, even for an ambient track. (The number of times I've caught myself humming "ambient" music after walking away from a game is somewhat embarrassing, but it couldn't happen in this case since it's not memorable enough.)

      There is a place for music such as this, and it's not unpleasant. However, I would hope that at no point is music intended to be solely "in the background" as some commenters have suggested. For those who find it distracting, there are volume sliders and typically the option to turn it off outright. For others - including myself - audio is what helps differentiate visually similar locations from one another.

      Reading about the process was very interesting, and the final two paragraphs largely address what I'm describing. Still, I'm hopeful that this is an example of the "most ambient" music rather than the norm.

    8. Creator ikanreed on April 17, 2014

      Issat some D-minor I see?

    9. Creator techieg33k on April 16, 2014

      Dang 31.5GB....guess you guys will be jumping all over some high density DDR4 when it comes out later this year, huh? 128GB modules, but I'm sure a few 32GB ones in a set of 4 would be plenty! Keep up the great work and awesome updates!

    10. Creator James on April 16, 2014

      The track gives me a strong vibe of Arcanum without feeling derivative. I very much approve!

    11. Creator Cutter on April 16, 2014

      Gotta love Basil! And anything by Mozart or Bach. Sort of like that 'Mach' piece Nigel Tufnel was composing at one time. In D minor - the saddest of all keys. What was it called again? :)

    12. Creator dungeoncrawl on April 16, 2014

      I thought the music was just fine. Was pretty dry though.

    13. Creator Tapani Siirtola on April 16, 2014

      Thanks for the update. It was fun to read about familiar subject, I'm composer myself. Wasn't there official strech goals to record the music with real orchestra and the goal was met? That was one of the reason(s) I funded more to the project. I'm really disapointed if you don't do what you promised. Demo sounded really nice tho and looking forward to hear more.

    14. Creator Willie on April 16, 2014

      Really enjoyed the music, I like it. I also really approve of longer songs for areas that you will be spending more time in. That is one of the things that really irked me about other IE games: the music was very cool, but it was so short! Really feel that some 3+ min tracks are needed, so yeah, that’s good news. I am glad you taking partly inspiration from Elder Scrolls 3-5 soundtrack as these are phenomenal. Jeremy Soule is very good at what he does and has a unique sound. I would love PoE soundtrack to be in more or less the same vein; the track you have shared with us today makes me hopeful for that. Thanks for the great work.

      Also those screens: wow! Really loving the details.

    15. Creator Randy Pinion on April 16, 2014

      Will the eventual soundtrack for the game be recorded by a full orchestra, or will it rely on digital techniques for the stuff that shows up "in-game?"

    16. Creator LuckyLuigi on April 16, 2014

      This look behind the scenes is fascinating

    17. Creator TanC on April 16, 2014

      Wow, love the update! As a person looking to one day compose his own music I appreciate the insight into the composition process and I hope to utilize a few tips to aid me in that! Keep the musical updates coming alongside the game development. :)

    18. Creator Laurent Maire on April 16, 2014

      Interesting breakdown of the creative process for videogame music and a fascinating read, thanks Justin. It doesn't often get the spotlight like this, but I think with the rise in popularity of game soundtracks the importance of music is becoming more understood by mainstream audiences.

      On another note, does all of Obsidian's team have such incredible writing and communication skills? These slice of life vignettes of different disciplines within videogame development are just getting better.

    19. Creator Datayum on April 16, 2014

      I'm impressed by your creative process but sadly I'm among the ones who find the resulting excerpt lacking... skin. It sounds unfinished to me. But would it be of any use to be more detailed than this ? Because if you are satisfied with it how it is, their is nothing much to be done.

    20. Creator Avarchillion on April 16, 2014

      that music reminds me of braveheart. :-)

      just beautiful.

    21. Creator kwerboom on April 16, 2014

      I liked that sample, it sounded sad yet peaceful. I'm just assuming that Dyrford Village is going to be a nostalgic place in the game and some sense of something lost or about to be lost will fit the music.

    22. Creator Johannes 'Waldgeist' Rebhan on April 16, 2014

      @Minsc&Boo the difference is that Icewind Dale 2 and it's celebrated soundtrack wasn't composed by Jeremy Soule who composed Guild Wars, IWD1, Elder Scrolls games etc... he often has these sweeping, evenly paced, averaged, reverb heavy scores.

      But I agree, I hope they end up closer to the evocative score of Inon Zur than the quite generic fantasy blah of Soule (I know, I know he is famous and everyone loves him, I don't... tastes differ).

    23. Creator agrjones on April 16, 2014

      It reminded me of Fellowship of the Ring - at the end where Sam chases after Frodo and nearly drowns... A heartfelt sad, but uplifting conclusion... Not really suited to a small towns background piece...

    24. Creator agrjones on April 16, 2014

      The piece of music was epic, too epic for a small town. It needs to be more subtle in my opinion. Some of the string instruments were blaringly loud.

    25. Creator Moridin on April 16, 2014

      The update was very interesting and i like the style fo the music, but as @Kristian said: the instruments should sound organic, not "clean"! Especially the strings sound awful in this way. Would be really nice to hear the compositions played by real instruments and not only sampled instruments.

    26. Creator pioslik on April 16, 2014

      @Luke:
      I have to agree. I can hum those tracks which you gave in links because of their specific melody. Even when I recall moments of some great games, I can remember also music that accompanies them. Ambients doesn't work for me.

    27. Creator GreatEmerald on April 16, 2014

      One thing that I noticed is that what is being composed is pretty much MIDI or tracker music (what you call "template" here in MIDI terms is a SoundFont). Which is nice. But when it get exported into a wavefile, all of that very nice extra information (notes, different instruments, separate samples) gets lost. You can never get to listen to the Music with capital M, because you can't turn off the instruments, you can't make a correct manual replay on a real piano since you can't see the notes, you can't make a remix easily or play around with how the music would sound if it used different instruments or samples.

      So I feel like it would be very nice if the music could also be released in MOD or MIDI form so that we could play around with it like that. That's what I feel people had right in the old days, but have forgotten ever since.

    28. Creator Silver on April 16, 2014

      Thanks for the update, looking forward to hearing more tracks. Maybe an excerpt of an epic battle theme?

    29. Creator Kristian on April 16, 2014

      Though the update was great and the piece was composed well, is this the final piece? I ask because the instruments sound so flat and digitized compared to the instruments in Icewind Dale and Baulder's Gate.

    30. Creator Luke on April 15, 2014

      Everything about this game has rung true with the Infinity games for me... up until now. I appreciate you're on a small budget, but this music is just really... mediocre. I realise a small village isn't much to showcase, but even as I typed 'small village' these popped into my head:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch…

      https://www.youtube.com/watch…

      Music is such a huge part of the experience of these games. Much respect to the composer but I feel like it's a weak spot.

    31. Creator Stas Oskin on April 15, 2014

      Awesome description of the creative process which I was not familiar before - shows yet again that beyond any talent there is a huge amount of work.

      Keep these articles coming, Obsidian!

    32. Creator Sean McClure on April 15, 2014

      That this has by far been my most favorite update! Insight into the someone's creative process is something that I enjoy very much so. Thank you Mr. Bell!

    33. Creator Patric - Crusader of the Obsidian Order on April 15, 2014

      Well, the thing is that music in video games are suppose to not be too interesting so that it doesn't interrupt. They say that the best game music is the one that you don't notice unless you're trying. There are exceptions, like cutscenes, storydriven parts and big battles.
      Anyway, this was really nice and had some really classic sounds to it. I like it. :) Can't wait to hear more from the game. Like a battle theme or maybe even a boss theme? :D

    34. Creator shadeheart on April 15, 2014

      That piece is perfect. Very evocative of the BG scores and the addition of that big brass gives it a sombre tone. Its a relaxing plateful with a garnish of tension. Amazing job Mr Bell.

    35. Creator Sleet on April 15, 2014

      That was beautiful. Thanks for the update!!

    36. Creator Scott Hunter on April 15, 2014

      Excellent! I`m looking forward to the soundtrack as well as the game.

    37. Creator Trister - OO's Tormented Master Wetboy on April 15, 2014

      @ minsc&boo

      it's the background music to a town when nothing is happening. it's not really supposed to be that engaging, it's supposed to make it so that there isn't basically silence other than towny noises. it's supposed to be pleasant when you actually pay attention to it, but that isn't the point of music in towns. you want it to be unobtrusive so that when the person playing here's it for the hundredth or more time they don't mind that it's there, but it can be tuned out and fall into the background... which is what it does. think about the point of where the music is and what they did makes a lot more sense.

    38. Creator Minsc&Boo on April 15, 2014

      Liked the screenshots, but yes the music well...... It does not engage me. It is almost like it is trying to evade my attention.

      Concentrate on the sweeping music from ice wind dale 2. Now that had my attention the moment I started it up.

      Examples:

      icewind dale 2 targos town
      https://www.youtube.com/watch…

      icewind dale 2 the town of lonely wood
      https://www.youtube.com/watch…

      Not a fan of elder scrolls music, I hope it doesn't influence eternity's music.

    39. Creator Tristan Marshall on April 15, 2014

      @Michael Alexander it does not look like they have, no.

    40. Creator Emeraude on April 15, 2014

      First, this -> "Can I confirm that you guys rolled new SSL certs after updating?".

      Underlined several times.

      Then: very nice update, lovely work on the music piece.

      I'm totally disappointed you didn't go for that full hip hop soundtrack though. But then no one ever listens to me.

    41. Creator Michael Alexander on April 15, 2014

      Can I confirm that you guys rolled new SSL certs after updating?

    42. Creator gandalf.nho on April 15, 2014

      @Azureblaze, me too

    43. Creator Neil Self on April 15, 2014

      "Great looking screenshots, but the ambient music is boring as hell."

      It's a peaceful-looking village, so that's probably the goal.

    44. Creator castlewise on April 15, 2014

      This was a fascinating look into what it takes to build a score from the ground up.

    45. Creator Steve Dozniak on April 15, 2014

      I liked how battle music was looped in Dungeon Keeper 2.
      There were lots and lots of short faded fragments, which could be recombined in pretty much any order, there were tranquil and energetic ones, chilly and dangerous ones and the engine would just mix them depending on the current situation (afaik, in some game dump i've even seen them stored as separate chunks).

      Here's the track https://www.youtube.com/watch…

    46. Creator Azureblaze on April 15, 2014

      Awesome details into the creative process.
      As far as the track, I'd have to see it in game with all the other sounds (ambient, etc.) to really get a feel for it.

    47. Creator Revisor on April 15, 2014

      Great Dyrford music. Works very well as a background piece but also has enough detail and development when one listens in.

      I really like the melancholic atmosphere.

    48. Creator Cyclone Jack on April 15, 2014

      That was beautiful. (would have loved to have seen the scenes animated)

    49. Creator tarasis on April 15, 2014

      As someone who loves listening to game scores (including ye olde IE scores) I'm glad to see a full update dedicated to music. Hopefully there will be more down the line.

    50. Creator Maarten Koers on April 15, 2014

      Great looking screenshots, but the ambient music is boring as hell. I was hoping for some great atmospheric music like in BG2.