Rik has graciously allowed me to contribute to his new soundtracks series, so today we’re looking at Homeworld, the epic space-based RTS where fleets of starships clash in three-dimensional battles.

I’m possibly stretching the premise of these articles a little, as there’s only one licensed song in Homeworld, plus a new recording of a classical piece. They do both, however, bring some real emotional impact when they are played. A word of warning, spoilers are necessary to explain their contribution to key moments in the story.

Agnus Dei – Samuel Barber

This is the moment where you will get a lump in your throat, while playing a game about spaceships and lasers. It’s not actually licensed but rather a new recording.

Homeworld is the tale of the Kushans, the people inhabiting the desert world of Kharak. They have long believed they originated on that planet, but beneath its sands they find a wrecked ship with two secrets that utterly overturn their history and identity. One is the technology for interstellar travel, and the other is a set of co-ordinates to a planet that is simply marked “home”.

Immediately gripped with the need to learn more about this mysterious homeworld, they build an enormous mothership, to undertake the lengthy and perilous voyage to this world. For protection it has the capacity to build more vessels itself, from fighters to larger warships. Within the game it’s the hub of your fleet, the equivalent of a base in Command and Conquer or Warcraft.

The first few missions revolve around field-testing the mothership, in the outskirts of the Kharak system. Along the way you deal with pirates in small raider ships, a fairly minor threat. It all seems like fairly routine stuff, letting you feel confident the mission will get off to a smooth start.

Then you return to Kharak, ready to take on final supplies and begin the voyage for real… only to find something catastrophic and dreadful has happened. The planet is burning. Some unknown agressor has bombarded the planet until the cities are levelled and the deserts themselves turned to glass. All of the extensive orbital facilities have been systematically destroyed, their wreckage spinning through space around you.

The entire population of Kharak is dead, their lives snuffed out in an act of incomprehenisble barbarity. This is where Agnus Dei is played, a beautiful choral piece based on Barber’s own earlier Adagio for Strings. Haunting and melancholoy, it’s appeal to the heavens for mercy and comfort, in the face of such a senseless tragedy.

You are shocked into action by a sudden signal from nearby cargo pods. These contain colonists in cryogenic suspension, due to be loaded onto the mothership. Somehow they have miraculously survived. However, they’re under attack from a small rearguard fleet that has remained near Kharak.

You race to protect the pods, but the sudden burst of urgency doesn’t prompt a change in the soundtrack to something more upbeat. After all, even if you are fully sucessful and save every last pod, this hardly a triumph. An entire civillistion has almost been exterminated; you’ve merely preserved the last remaining scrap of the population. So the same lament continues as your small fleet tears into the enemy frigates.

Once this is done, and the immediate threat is defeated, you start out towards the Homeworld. This is no longer a simple mission of exploration; now it’s the only option left to the Kushans. They must find and reclaim the planet, or face extinction.

Yes – Homeworld (The Ladder)

A bit of a mood change here, I’m happy to report. As the game progresses, you discover more about the people who burned Kharak, the Taaidan empire. They are the ones who stole the Homeworld millenia ago, after a long war, and sent the Kushans to exile on Kharak. When they learned the Kushans had rediscovered interstellar travel, they attempted genocide before their old enemy could grow strong enough to challenge them.

The Taiidan are therefore your primary antagonists, and the ultimate goal of the game is to evict them from the world that rightfully belongs to the Kushan. As you progress through the missions, increasingly large Taiidani forces are pitted against your own growing fleet. At one point they even throw a goddamn asteroid at your mothership. In the final mission, in the skies above the Homeworld itself, you face their final and most powerful Armada. You shatter their mighty cruisers, smash their destroyers, destroy their own command vessel and are finally rewarded with… Yes?

That’s right, time for some Prog Rock. That is indeed Jon Anderson hitting the high notes as the end credits roll.

The song is featured on their eighteenth(!) studio album, The Ladder, and was written specially for this game. It’s nothing like anything else in the soundtrack, yet somehow it works perfectly. Starting with a moment of quiet, ambient introspection, the vocals then briefly accompany a single guitar before the song builds into something soaring and majestic. It celebrates the hope and devotion that drove a ragged band of survivors to cross the vast depths of space, face countless dangers, and return to their home.

The song plays over concept art, and it’s very much an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the game. A moment to reflect on the journey that brought you to that point – the battles, the moments of panic, the glorious victories. You just beat a game, no need to rush off and do anything just yet. It’s okay to just sit there and reflect. For nine minutes even; this is Prog after all.