We pick out a selection of fantastic video game music to reflect 12 different Christmas and wintertime moods — from ‘chirpy cheer’ to ‘holiday horror’
By Thomas Quillfeldt and Steve Vancouver
It’s that time again — time for bloody "Fairytale of bloody New York" and bloody Wham! on an endless bloody loop. Time to send round your Amazon Wishlist because you’d rather not get a disappointing surprise present. Time to half-heartedly hang some old tinsel around the living room because you can’t be bothered to decorate properly.
But don’t worry, we’re here with another one of our cracking Laced Listicles™ to inject some winter holiday spirit into your soul (via your earholes) through the medium of video game music. Along the same lines as our “Many moods of game music” list, we thought we’d explore various different Christmassy and wintry moods — after all, video games can be extremely aesthetically rich and evocative, in no small part thanks to their soundtracks.
Happy holidays from all of us at Laced Records — put your feet up, quaff some eggnog* and have a listen to some wonderful wintry game music.
(*please drink responsibly**).
(**who am I kidding, it’s Chrimbo!)
1. Chirpy Christmas cheer
“Anxiety Towards a Wonder” by Masashi Hamauzu from UNLIMITED:SaGa
If you’ve ever been forced to endure the vaseline-on-the-camera-fest that is Santa Claus: The Movie and weren’t quite in the right mood, you probably harbour a deep loathing for the sickly-sentimental, saccharine side of Christmas.
But not us! We love it — especially that special chirrupy jauntiness that seems to emanate from Japan games. Interestingly, the composer here — Masashi Hamauzu, famed for his JRPG scores — grew up in Germany as the son of Japanese parents. This particular track of his is light and fluffy in a sort of ‘Christmas lights lining the streets of an idyllic Northern European country town’ way; but it also speaks to the way that Japanese creators (game developers, anime filmmakers etc.) have latched onto a particularly pastoral vision of 19th Century Western countryside life, emphasising the cuteness and chirpiness.
2. Touchingly poignant
“Freedom Again” by Keiko Fukami arr. Shusei Murai from Genso Suikoden Piano Collection ~Avertunerio Antes Lance Mao~
Christmassy stuff — films, children’s stories, pop songs — can engender wall-to-wall schmaltz; but there is often a gentler, earnestly romantic side to proceedings.
This pretty little ditty is delicate, subtle and evokes a sense of wintry warmth and wistfulness. Indeed, Shusei Murai’s piano arrangement of “Freedom Again” completely changes the mood of Keiko Fukami’s original from Suikoden II (the quality of the audio below isn't great — imagine you’re listening to it on an old gramophone):
3. Choral bliss
“So Let Us Melt” by Jessica Curry from So Let Us Melt
We have a hunch that Ms. Curry has been having a private competition with Austin Wintory, composer for ABZÛ (as well as Journey and a billion other games), to see who can smuggle the most sophisticated and beautiful choral writing into video games.
Her latest effort, So Let Us Melt, is another belter of a soundtrack (Spotify), and we hope that its sheer quality helps it find an audience beyond what one assumes is a limited player base for the actual game, which is exclusive to Google’s Daydream VR platform.
Although the ‘Melt’ in the title isn’t referring to snow, but let’s pretend it does for the heck of it. Indeed, this track will melt your heart; but it also delves into slightly darker territory as some of the best Christmas carols occasionally do.
4. Lonely winter
“Winter (The Wind Can be Still)” by Eric Barone from Stardew Valley
It feels like every year in recent memory we see an indie game that was barely on anyone’s radar become a breakout hit. If UNDERTALE was 2015’s, then Stardew Valley definitely took 2016’s indie darling slot. What both have in common is that their principal creators — Toby Fox for UNDERTALE and Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone for Stardew Valley — also provided their respective soundtracks, resulting in a peculiarly cohesive, authorial aesthetic.
This track won’t totally bum you out, but it does capture a more sombre side of wintertime — plaintive, isolated, but still striving to clear that land, plant those crops and marry that Maru.
5. Fireside warmth
“A Winter’s Tale” by Jeremy Soule from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
We had to go straight for the jugular here: yes, Skyrim is the default wintry video game, yes this track literally plays whilst you’re beside a roaring fire within the game’s taverns and yes, Skyrim pops up a lot on these lists.
But, after all, this soundtrack (Spotify) is Jeremy Soule’s magnum opus (and one of gaming’s greatest scores) — and not just for the angry men shouting “DOVAHKIIN!”. There are so many subtle shades of winter explored in the score, including a range of quiet, restful tavern tracks that feature folkish lutes, flutes and gentle percussion.
At the halfway mark, this track switches from minor and major in a way that will warm the cockles of your heart:
6. Tinkling snow
“Snowy” by Toby Fox arr. David Peacock & Augustine Mayuga Gonzales from UNDERTALE Piano Collections
As mentioned above, UNDERTALE enjoys a special aesthetic cohesion thanks to its sole developer also being the game’s composer. And being a knowing homage to JRPGs, of course there has to be a wintry level and accompanying magical music cue.
There’s nothing quite like plinky-plonky piano playing to evoke the essence of a snowy winter’s day, and both composer Toby Fox and the team behind the UNDERTALE Piano Collections (Spotify) did a great job at doing just that. In particular, a music technique called an acciaccatura — a way of fluttering or ‘trilling’ between two notes — helps the melody in “Snowy” feel especially icy-cold, albeit in a pretty way.
7. Traversing the icy expanse
“Snowdrift Waltz” by Naoshi Mizuta from Final Fantasy XI: Wings of the Goddess
You know where isn’t a homely and welcoming place to visit? The frozen valley of Xarcabard during the Shadowreign era, the site of the Shadow Lord’s citadel. Why? Because, aside from being the realm of said Shadow Lord (an aptly named gentleman), you’ll face a mightily frosty reception from the high-level monsters that roam the area.
Which is why this cue for one of the later expansions for the original Final Fantasy MMORPG (which is still running on PC 15 years later!) is so effective. The pulsing synths that open the track are devoid of warmth, making your character’s slog across the bleak snowfields feel never ending.
8. Land of wonder
“Winter Shines” by Grant Kirkhope from Viva Piñata
As an alumnus of Rare during the ’90s and ’00s, Grant Kirkhope’s sound is synonymous with cuddly, cartoonish characters and colourful 3D worlds, fit to burst with hidden collectibles. 2006’s Viva Piñata was a different kind of game to the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, but still benefited from Rare’s penchant for lush, vibrant visuals. Kirkshope’s impeccable orchestral score (Spotify) elevated things further still, stuffed to the gills as it is with brilliantly simple and catchy melodies.
There’s something almost Star Trek-esque (e.g. the Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner scores) about this track in terms of its epic, mystical feeling; yet its geniality just makes you want to be in one of these fantasy worlds, bouncing around in the cold amidst the crazy critters.
And Grant is still at the height of powers, as evidenced by his stirling work for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic’s homage to the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Be sure to check out Kirkhope’s own favourite track from Yooka-Laylee, “Glitter Glaze Glacier” AKA “World 2 Theme” (Spotify, YouTube); the full soundtrack is available on digital, CD and 2xLP deluxe vinyl via www.lacedrecords.com.
9. Pop goes the plum pudding
“Dream Bells” by Tomoko Sasaki from Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams
Think you’ve heard "Jingle Bells"? Think again! SEGA’s seasonal promotional sampler for its flagship Saturn title NiGHTS into Dreams featured some pretty special extra tunes.
Here we get a remix of "Jingle Bells" that is equal parts gospel, mid-’90s pop (think Steps, but cheesier), electro swing and dancehall… before an epic half-time breakdown takes us into the finale 🤘. It’s beyond magnificent, and will make you super Santa-mental for 1996.
10. Lost in the blizzard
“Winter in C Major” by Disasterpeace from The Floor is Jelly
No one does vast, fuzzy-sounding synthscapes quite like Disasterpeace (if you’re interested, for his signature big synth pads he uses Massive by Native Instruments). Here he explores ambient territory charted by the likes of Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto; where the sound of the wind blowing undulates alongside the gentle waves of synth chords which wash over the listener.
If you fancy some downbeat, introspective music to meditate to, this’ll take you there:
11. Yuletide zen
“Christmas on Dobuita St.” by Ryuji Iuchi from Shenmue
This mellow slice of aural loveliness occasionally plays in the background as Shenmue’s protagonist Ryo wanders the Dobuita streets in the groundbreaking — though not always actually entertaining — SEGA classic. One thing that is widely lauded about the game is its consistently excellent soundtrack (YouTube) — a solid collection of chilled-out, emotive easy listening.
It’s the perfect track to make all your troubles melt away, so light those candles, run a warm bath and just chiiiiiiiiill.
12. Holiday horror
"Carol of the Bells (Joker's Theme)" by Christopher Drake from Batman: Arkham Origins
You’ve simply got to love the gothic Christmas trappings of Tim Burton’s campy Batman Returns, including Danny Elfman’s extraordinarily dark-yet-playful score. Fast forward from 1992 to 2013, and the non-Rocksteady strand of the Batman: Arkham series was continuing the tradition of juxtaposing the Dark Knight’s nighttime struggles with the joy and pageantry of Noël.
Composer Christopher Drake’s huge, dystopian-sounding synths slathered across the Arkham: Origins score (Spotify) mean it’s generally much less mischievous than Elfman’s music for Batman Returns, but they both capture the essential point about setting a Caped Crusader adventure at this time of year: whilst Gothamites are wrapped up warm indoors, Batman is conducting his violent work in the cold outside, protecting them vigilantly whilst they obliviously gobble mince pies and sup sherry.
Here Drake heavily quotes one of the spookier traditional carols, "Carol of the Bells":
If you enjoyed this mood-based article, maybe check out “The many moods of video game music”, where we make the case that most video game music tracks fit into one of 18 groupings — from ‘anxious’ to ‘victorious’.
Happy holidays everyone! We’ll catch you in 2018.