1939’s Dark Victory was a moving story of a young socialite slowly dying of an inoperable brain tumour. Starring Bette Davis in the lead role, the final scene of the film is a powerful sequence with the actress slowly ascending a grand staircase as her vision begins to falter as a result of the tumour’s influence.
Knowing her performance would give her a very strong chance of winning a third Oscar, a longstanding rumour has it that prior to filming the scene, Davis asked director Edmund Goulding just who would be scoring the movie. Upon learning it would be famed film composer Max Steiner, Davis allegedly responded – “Well, either I am going up those stairs or Max Steiner is going up those stairs, but not the two of us together.”
Davis knew the power of Steiner’s work and feared his score, in this pivotal scene, may overshadow her own performance and cost her an Oscar. As it stands, Davis did go on to receive an Oscar nomination (she didn’t win) but so did Steiner for his compositions.
The fact of the matter is that music is a powerful and dramatic force. Davis knew this and so does Hollywood. For years, movies have made strong use of music to drive emotion in ways that on screen action simply cannot, and it has remained an incredibly versatile and powerful weapon in the film-maker’s arsenal.
But it’s not just cinema that benefits from a well composed score. After years of languishing in a kind of scratchy, electronic hell, videogames have been quick to take advantage of advances in audio and storage technology to start delivering the same powerful aural experiences that film audiences have grown accustomed to.
Whether it is thundering bass of a first person shooter, or the majestic sweep of historical strategy titles, videogames now deliver musical experiences on par with (and sometimes, even beyond) those experienced in cinema. The best of these are more than just music inserted for the simple purpose of checking a box, but tools the game designers can use to affect and direct player engagement and emotion.
Yet, game compositions remain criminally overlooked by a wide variety of the game playing public. While certain composers such as Marty O’Donnell (Halo) may achieve a measure of fame for their works, the musical assets of most games rarely register as a blip amongst the background noise of regular game discussion topics.
In recognition of this, the following is an attempt to list five of the better videogame soundtracks currently available. This is by no means a definitive list (though, by all means, keep your eyes on this website in the future for an attempt to identify and rank gaming’s greatest musical moments) but rather the highlighting of some of the more impressive titles available in this space. If you enjoy videogame soundtracks, the following should be considered near essential collections for your library.
If this was an attempt to list and rank the greatest gaming soundtracks of all time, it is difficult to envision a scenario where this game’s soundtrack wouldn’t proudly top the list. As with the game itself, NieR is an eclectic mix of soundscapes that near perfectly mesh with the strange and wondrous environments the player explores.
The main exploration theme for the game, Hills of Radiant Winds, provides a sweeping and energetic driving force for the player’s movement; the almost urgent sounding vocals compelling the player to explore what lies beyond the horizon.
In town the player is treated to soft, provincial ballads; variations of a central motif, namely the Song of the Ancients. As with Final Fantasy VIII’s Eyes on Me, variations of this theme feature prominently in the background culminating with a stunning rendition sung by two of the game’s characters (Devola and Popola) as a duet.
NieR’s soundtrack is a veritable smörgåsbord of aural delicacies, each as carefully prepared and presented as the last. Each track is a delight but it is the OST-only White-Note remix of Shadowlord that best captures its overall scope.
It’s not every day that a game soundtrack gets nominated for a Grammy. In fact, to date, it has only happened once – with Austin Wintory’s score for the simply sublime Journey. While scoring a game such as Journey was never going to be an easy task, the way Wintory was able to imbue the game’s desolate landscapes with such soul and beauty with each haunting line is a testament to the composer’s skill.
Sorrowful strings and subdued percussion provide the backbone of a grand and powerful medley of tunes that perfectly reflect the stark, lonely beauty of Journey’s world. They are a constant companion, evolving along with the player until the climactic finale. It is here the full majesty of Wintory’s work makes itself heard with the beautiful Apotheosis.
As stunning as the game’s conclusion is, it is I was Born for This that is the clear standout. The combination of mournful but proud vocals along with the strings that comprise much of the soundtrack produce a sound that perfectly sums up the sad but determined journey of protagonist. As the song expands – in lyrics cribbed from Joan of Arc – I was born for this. Do not pity me. I was born for this.
The arrival of Katamari on the PS2 in 2004 took everyone by surprise. The quintessentially weird title stunned audiences with its whacky theme, defiantly simple visuals and its surprisingly addictive gameplay. But music too had a significant role to play with a soundtrack as gloriously zany as the game it supported.
Picking soundtrack highlights is far from an easy task. Each tune is its own gloriously self-indulgent expression of delight, each song a stand out in its own way. Attempting to describe just what composer Yū Miyake was able to achieve, not just with this, but with every Katamari Damacy soundtrack they touched, is akin to folly. You just have to listen.
The name Shoji Meguro may not be familiar to everyone but chances are his music is. As a long-standing composer for the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, his music has recently been garnering additional attention as a result of the recent surge in popularity of the Persona series (itself a member of the Shin Megami Tensei family).
It is the third instalment of the Persona series that arguably contains Meguro’s best work. It’s combination of hard rock, J-Pop and beautifully subtle piano pieces may seem like uneasy bed-fellows but the final work is above reproach.
Songs like Kimi No Kioku establish the youthful vibe of the series with upbeat tempos and poppy vocals.
Memories of the City is another obvious highlight of the soundtrack, a sorrowful piano driven ballad that captures the metropolitan feel of the series, tinged with more than a little sorrow.
It is a soundtrack that may rub a number of people the wrong way but even for those who don’t appreciate the music selection on its own, there should be no argument that the soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment for this strange JRPG about school children battling the forces of darkness.
When compiling this list, priority was given to those soundtracks that were wholly original – making Civilization IV’s inclusion here a little out of the ordinary. Comprising of music throughout the ages, along with a handful of original compositions from artists Jeff Briggs, Mark Cromer, Michael Curran and Christopher Tin, Civilization IV is a singular work in its attempt to evoke the grand sense of history the series is famous for.
This is an incredibly solid soundtrack and one that budding musical historians will gain a lot from, but it is the inclusion of one song that truly elevates this soundtrack to one of the best in gaming – Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu.
The first ever Grammy winning game tune, Baba Yetu is a musical masterpiece. The inclusion of Swahili lyrics sung by the Soweto Gospel Choir (the lyrics themselves are a translation of the Lord’s Prayer) is a master stroke, strongly referencing Africa’s history as the cradle of humanity. The majesty of the song Tin has created is hard to deny. It is a grand, sweeping piece that fills your ears and your heart. There can be no doubt, Babu Yetu is the greatest song every written for a computer game. Listen and hear for yourself.
Videogame music has come a very long way since the industry’s conception and in this time we’ve seen a great number of composers produce an equally great amount of music. When compiling this list there were so many soundtracks left out that could easily have replaced any of the above. Whether it is Petri Alenko’s evocative work for the Alan Wake soundtrack (just listen to Welcome to Bright Falls for evidence) or Jeff van Dyck’s masterful pieces in Rome: Total War, there is so much fantastic videogame music out there.
Feel I’ve missed some of your favourites (I will have, I missed a goodly number of mine)? Then please email in your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know.