A sense of naïve wonder. A sentimental poetic that reflects upon discovery, whether of new spaces or perhaps even new sensations, as the vantage-point of an adventurous imagination.
The music of the ‘last frontier’ that is found among the stars usually betrays a colonizing undercurrent of an exploitative violence that mixes the Romantic thrust towards the infinite unknown with its rationalized domination – you need only remember all those hopeful and victorious sci-fi soundtracks in which a planet welcomes newly arrived humans just like the ‘New World’ once welcomed the ‘Old’. Like No Man’s Sky before it, Astroneer’s descriptions pitch it as a videogame that equates survival with adventure, daring with exploitation, discovery with domination (“like the Yukon gold rush of old, waves of adventurers sign up to launch themselves into a new frontier, risking everything to seek their fortune in the far reaches of the galaxy”). However, the soundtrack composed by Rutger Zuydervelt, otherwise known as Machinefabriek, constantly seems to work against this logic by highlighting the surface of its modernity, that first impression of the unknown, that grand affect that in a landscape sees beauty, not resources.
Perhaps because Zuydervelt is firmly grounded in the field of experimental music, this soundtrack uses electronics not as a way to make a narrative of space exploration tied to a technological moment of progress (ever since the 1970s we’ve all heard those beeps and boops that our time has inherited as the spacey dubstep all too common in currently conventional sci-fi) but as an impressionism in which everything is oblique, perpetually just beyond the grasp of a victorious reason. With its organic, not entirely defined tones and its ever-dissolving background drones, Astroneer keeps affect front and center, the way in which generalized actions and events of discovery (tracks have names such as “Exploration 1”, “Gathering 3”, or my favorite “Mineral Music”) create an emotional landscape that actively resists those very same activities by virtue of its slow, meditative pace.
This is not a struggle against nature, the last consequence of which is the raising of flags, but a contemplation of it that discards survival in favor of enjoyment, a pleasure born of wonder. Instead of an adventure whose intent is to chart the stars (reason preceding emotion), the sweet, twinkling melodies of the album point at the experience of navigating the uncharted coming to articulate an adventure of thought (emotion preceding reason). If the music of a game like No Man’s Sky places a dramatic individual narrative of conquest at its heart, Astroneer’s own goes entirely the other way around by creating affective atmospheres. Thus, if we’d follow the music alone, the question of ‘what is this?’ would have a dramatized economic function in the former, while it would have a philosophical function in the latter.
In this sense, the rhythms are playful, in cases like the “Main Menu” theme almost soothingly child-like, as if they were lullabies. Astroneer’s marvels do not strive towards the future as a finally perfect realization of humanity (something we adults constantly dream about), they provide something else, a wondrous view of the present with which we can let our imaginations run off towards the mysteries of the now, not in order to control them, but in order to let them fill our daydreams with joy. Knowing we know almost nothing is not here then a source of anxiety but one of happiness… who knows what amazements await us at the end of this horizon? What grand questions will the revelations from this place will prompt us to make? These are the sorts of feelings that the particular blend of experimentalism and conventional sci-fi soundtracks Zuydervelt has come to articulate, regardless of whether the game itself lives up to it or not. Colonization might be its premise, but the music holds other promises, other kinds of unknowns that thankfully speak less of survival and conquest than of pleasure and contemplation. (David Murrieta)