By Thomas Quillfeldt
The inherent unreality of game worlds coupled with the video game industry’s massive J.R.R. Tolkien preoccupation (and through him, Richard Wagner's The Ring Cycle and various Nordic mythologies) means that for decades now, players have been presented with many, many different interpretations of ‘fantasy’.
The pursuit of creating a thousand resplendent fictional worlds has led to some sumptuous video game music, and we’re here to celebrate some notable tracks by talented composers. It will likely come as no surprise that this post is going to be largely taken up with floaty, ethereal voices (often a solo female) and lush woodwind and strings — such are the colours that these particular artists have chosen to paint with.
“Mysteries Abound” by Masashi Hamauzu – Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
This particular title in the Final Fantasy series is an acquired taste (much like its predecessor, Final Fantasy XII), but it also sports a cracking soundtrack (YouTube), as do its direct sequels Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Lead composer on the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, Masashi Hamauzu, brought a different vibe to the Final Fantasy series than stalwart Nobuo Uematsu (who composed entries #1 through #9 before the two collaborated on #10). His work is more impressionistic, angular, and directly influenced by classical music and opera.
This track from Hamauzu makes you feel like you’re lying suspended in a perfectly warm pool, staring up at glittering stars. Shortly after drinking a nice mug of hot chocolate.
“Then Were Created the Gods in the Midst of Heaven” by Austin Wintory – ABZÛ (2016)
Mellow underwater exploration game ABZÛ (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music) is basically ‘Mysterious & Magical Wonderment: The Game’, in no small part thanks to its exquisite score by Austin Wintory (I’m going to continue calling him the ‘James Horner of game music’ just to see if it sticks).
During the 2017 run of video game music shows aired on UK national radio station Classic FM, host and VGM composer Jessica Curry repeatedly highlighted the innovation of Wintory’s choral writing. Only the second game composer to have been nominated for a Grammy (for Journey in 2012/13), he takes us on yet another, erm, journey in this piece, twisting and turning through different keys — Debussy-esque — before arriving back at one of ABZÛ’s beautiful core musical themes at 3:10.
“After the Dream” by Tomoko Sasaki, arr. Naofumi Hataya – NiGHTS into Dreams (1995)
Arguably, there is a multi-faceted ‘SEGA sound’ encompassing everything from Zaxxon through to the Dreamcast’s last hurrah, Sonic Adventure 2. Somewhere amidst all those fantastic scores is the brilliantly cheesy, blended pop from the quirk-assault that is NiGHTS into Dreams (YouTube).
This dreamy ditty might not seem out of place as hold music for a dentist’s practice, but the mere fact that you could pop the Sega Saturn disc into a normal CD player and play the soundtrack endears these tracks to my heart.
“Pandora’s Box” by Winifred Phillips – God of War (2005)
Winifred Phillips literally wrote the book on composing game music (A Composer's Guide to Game Music) and has generally been a leading light both for lady composers in media and women in games.
On the God of War soundtrack (YouTube), she mixed it up with several other composers, often providing the mythological mystery in counterpoint to all the thumping percussion, brass and shouty choirs found elsewhere.
“Song For Aloy” by Joris de Man, perf. Julie Elven – Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
Joris de Man is indeed ‘The Man’ when it comes to giant open world video games, having absolutely nailed a large portion of the massive Horizon Zero Dawn score (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music), working alongside composition duo The Flight and others. (Here’s a fantastic interview with the Horizon Zero Dawn composers and audio lead)
Whilst his ensemble work and orchestration is generally loverly jubbly, when you strip everything out and expose Julie Elven’s voice, you access the full power of de Man’s simple main theme — the keystone of the whole score. This bare version perfectly encapsulates the emotional distance lead character Aloy has to travel from being a local outcast, ensconced in the valley of her relatively backwards tribe, to being a globe-trotting, hyper-violent, one-woman justice machine.
Julie Elven, also a vocalist on several Total War titles, Star Citizen and World of Warcraft: Legion, gets to get her Enya on:
“To the Successor of the Crystal” by Kumi Tanioka – Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (2003)
As mentioned above with Masashi Hamauzu and the Final Fantasy XIII series, Final Fantasy as a brand has become a home for many fantastic composers — beyond Nobuo Uematsu — to create wonderful soundtracks.
The sound of spin-off series Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (YouTube) was crafted by the Hiroshima-born Kumi Tanioka, who was also one of the three composers on Final Fantasy XI (and member of FFXI tribute band, The Star Onions). A pianist at heart, she adds some delicate tinkling to this lovely, ethereal piece.
“The Ancestral Trees” by Gareth Coker – Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)
Brit-in-exile Gareth Coker has been doing more than just soaking up the L.A. sun — according to an interview he recently conducted with Kate Remington on the Music Respawn! podcast, he cut his teeth composing for trailers, learning how to tickle the listener’s eardrums across the whole audible frequency spectrum. His score for Ori and the Blind Forest (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music) was nominated for a BAFTA in 2016 but faced stiff competition, losing out to Jessica Curry’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (Ori and the Blind Forest won the award for Artistic Achievement).
In The Ancestral Trees, Coker cranks up the feels to 11 with shimmering tremolo strings, a touching piano melody in octaves from 0:21 before the whole thing erupts in a geyser of moonlit romance at 0:43.
“Wretched Weaponry:Quiet” by Keiichi Okabe – NieR:Automata (2017)
Like previous NieR games, NieR:Automata’s soundtrack (YouTube) was composed by Okabe Keiichi and his music production team, dubbed MONACA.
As with the game’s many endings, the soundtrack can be a bit complicated to get your head around. In the case of this particular track, it’s one of three variations on the soundtrack album and is sung by a double-tracked Emi Evans who wrote the lyrics in her invented, French-derived language ‘Nouveau FR’ or ‘New French’.
Frankly, the whole thing puts the ‘bon’ in ‘bonkers’.
“The Ballad of the Space Babies” by Jim Guthrie – Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (2011)
Like Disasterpeace (FEZ), Darren Korb (Bastion), Terence Lee AKA Lifeformed (Dustforce) and Ben Prunty (FTL: Faster Than Light), Jim Guthrie is one of a gang of composers that helped elevate a generation of superb, trailblazing indie games in the early part of the 10’s. As well as composing for the hit iPad adventure Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (releasing the soundtrack by way of album Sword & Sworcery LP - The Ballad of the Space Babies — Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music), Guthrie in many ways soundtracked the entire indie movement through his score for the 2012 documentary, Indie Game: The Movie (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music).
Much of his music is gentle and subtle, reminiscent of the sorts of tracks found in Sofia Coppola movies.
The Fields of Ard Skellig by Marcin Przybyłowicz – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Spotify; iTunes/Apple Music) is a gigantic game, thus the task of music director and lead composer Marcin Przybyłowicz in soundtracking its various regions and story events was also gigantic. To get an authentic medieval Polish sound, Przybyłowicz recruited folk musicians — various multi-instrumentalists and the group Percival — to essentially just jam out on traditional instruments including the lute, hurdy-gurdy, renaissance fiddle and bowed gusli. This behind-the-scenes video shows how he had to throw out his careful planning in favour of more free-form recording sessions.
In this atmospheric piece, we hear some of that folk playing and singing over the top of more filmic, dramatic chords and synth pads.
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