When I start getting into a game I enjoy, I often stop to wonder about what elements of the game have led to such an engaging experience. The most important aspect for me is usually the plot of the game – I love story-driven RPG’s, after all – with the visuals and dialogue being joint close second. The other, arguably equally important component that can make-or-break a game for me is the soundtrack. We each have a favourite soundtrack, whether it’s a film, a TV show or indeed a video game, so why are video game soundtracks discussed so little in modern music?
Classic FM regularly runs programmes on classical gaming music, as many of the biggest AAA games of the last two decades have had grandiose and elaborate soundtracks that would rival any John Williams composition. Amongst the favourites last year were The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its DLC’s soundtracks, particularly Blood and Wine which was basically a full game with a lengthy and enchanting OST of its own; indie favourites Everyone’s gone to the rapture and Firewatch and other honourable mentions such as Doom, FFXV and Uncharted 4. The classical world has adopted video game music into its fold and accepts it as a valid and respectable medium, holding it in high regard next to soundtrack giants such as Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones.
There has also been a rise in live orchestral music sessions and gigs where professional orchestras and symphonies showcase gaming’s musical heroes. Leading up to attending Video Games Live in 2015, however, I was scoffed at by my family when purchasing the tickets, “Oh, that won’t exactly be busy, you won’t need to buy tickets that early!”. It was pretty jam-packed and everyone there had a great time, particularly when we all sung along to “Still Alive” at the end. Music in games is just as important to me as metal record collection; they induce feelings of nostalgia, pride, excitement and sadness. The Mass Effect 3 OST is as heart-breaking as it is adrenaline pumping as you recount your experience with Shepard and co. around the universe. TW3 is personally my favourite soundtrack, due to its Eastern European influence with jarring chords, harsh vocals and general ethereal and old-worldly feel.
Not all soundtracks are a classic tour-de-force, however; The Crash Bandicoot and Rayman soundtracks are upbeat, fun yet ultimately unforgettable. Then there are soundtracks composed by already incredibly successful musicians; the music for Spyro the Dragon was composed by The Police’s former drummer Stewart Copeland. Then there are the 8-bit soundtracks such as the original Super Mario Bros. theme; despite the technological limitations of the consoles, Mario managed to tick every box in terms of design, gameplay and soundtrack and is probably the most well-known collection of video game music to date.
JRPG and Japanese action-adventure game music rates consistently high between games, such as the various Final Fantasy games, Persona 4, Shadow of the Colossus and Chrono Trigger. RPG’s and single-player adventure and exploration games also rate high with Jet Set Radio and Bastion being firm favourites with gamers outside of AAA OSTs such as Skyrim or any one of the Halo series soundtracks (Halo ODST is the best one before you ask). Where most games have their own original score, games such as Grand Theft Auto and EA games such as Fifa rely on popular music to create a memorable musical experience; games such as Spiceworld, whilst relevant at the time, fell short of this expectation.
It’s often puzzled me how much emotion a section of music can invoke and how that music came to be. For me, the Star Wars OST reminds me of my dad and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim remind me of my carefree early 20s and are excellent soundtracks to drive around Scotland too as you twist and turn through trees and mountains, imagining you can wield a bow and arrow. I think it would be fair to say that the reason we’re now getting these mind-blowing soundtracks is that musical sales are in decline, so artists and composers are joining forces to create non-traditional music deals that allow artists to showcase their music over a new and possibly previously unexplored medium, as well as letting classically-trained or relatively unknown composers or producers sink their teeth into what could be a life-changing project. Some producers and composers are picked due to a spike in popularity or because of familiarity, such as Bethesda using Jeremy Soule for most the Elder Scrolls franchise or Jack Wall for Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy. The effect is a new take on traditional soundtracks that we haven’t experienced before or that sense of nostalgia and connection that a familiar artist brings. Basically, everyone wins in video game music, not least the players.
Video games are essential an audio-visual experience that creates a cohesive and immersive experience for the player in a way that, in my opinion, no movie or book can match. Gaming soundtracks range from epic, atmospheric masterpieces like those found in many RPG’s of past and present to simpler, shorter sounds bites that captivate the audience. Regardless of the length or technical difficulty of the composition, music in video games mostly achieves what film can often miss; the tone of the music matches the tone of the game. A heroic battle, for instance, would be matched with an up-tempo, often adrenaline-pumping symphony of sound whereas the death of a revered character could be accompanied with haunting violins and oral music, such as the passing of Luna in FFXV. One of my favourite examples of music matching the tone or seriousness of the game is the Illusive Man theme from Mass Effect 2; the complicated overlay of sounds perfectly introduces this mysterious character and the theme maintains his elusive nature over the next two games.
Another excellent example of this technique can be found in Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4. Putting aside the 1950’s music that can be heard over the various radio stations, the music for these games is pretty bleak, with jarring notes that leave you feeling a bit isolated; exactly as Bethesda intended you to feel. Conversely, most of us attribute positive feelings – the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, perhaps – to older soundtracks such as Sonic, Crash Bandicoot or Golden Axe as these games had limited space available for music therefore extra care was taken to make them memorable and not annoying. This provided them with an almost addictive quality to them as you associated the various themes with your childhood and ultimately success. The old Bond games and warfare giants such as Call of Duty and the Halo series often induce the notion that completing the game was a personal success; because of your achievements and the triumphant victory theme that coincides, you are left with the feeling that you truly played a key part in the game; this is all down to their incredible soundtracks. I know I’ve hummed the victory fanfare from Final Fantasy on more than one occasion when I’ve achieved something and had the PlayStation “Trophy” sound as my ringtone for a long time.
A great soundtrack is an integral part of any successful video game. Often, we consider our favourite games to also have the best soundtracks. Whilst it’s not always an obvious concept to us or indeed the first thing we think of when a game is in development, is obviously an important part of the gamer’ psyche. A great deal of time and care from the developers goes into choosing the right composer or musicians for their games as they release that no matter how good the combat or dialogue is, a terrible soundtrack can ruin the ambience of the game, therefore, make it memorable for the wrong reasons. I personally can’t wait to see what Bioware pull out of the bag for Andromeda, but am equally enthralled by what I’ve heard for Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild.
What are your favourite gaming soundtracks, or which video game music do you hate the most? Like, comment and subscribe.