To celebrate Resident Evil music coming to vinyl, we explore the anxiety-inducing — yet strangely soothing — save room themes; tracks so distinct and well-loved that they, along with similar cues from other games, constitute their own musical subgenre.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Although the broad umbrella (boom-tish) of ‘video game music’ covers many different genres, there are trends that cut across the medium: for instance hyped-up ‘boss fight’ music; JRPG world map themes; tense stealth underscore; and 1920’s & ‘30s jazz (Cuphead, Fallout 3, BioShock etc.)
For us, one such subgenre comprises the intensely moody and evocative pieces that play in Resident Evil ‘save’ or ‘safe rooms’ — little oases of calm where players can breathe easier, reorganise their inventories, and take stock.
Remarkably the many composers that have touched the Resi series (aka Biohazard out East) have managed to maintain the quality and tonal consistency of save room cues over the course of 23 years. And, since the original game’s release in early 1996, we’ve been treated to a wealth of tracks from other games and series that clearly aim for this specific musical vibe.
The ‘90s Resi save room themes only feature two or three chords under a looping, simple melody. But there’s something about the production of these tracks — layers of long synth notes making up minor chords — combined with their implementation in the games themselves, that make them indelible and beloved by fans.
In case you missed it: Laced Records released deluxe double LPs for Resident Evil (GC 2002), Resident Evil 2 (PS 1998), CODE: Veronica X, Resident Evil 0, and 1999's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (pre-order, shipping April 2020) — www.lacedrecords.com.
I remember my Dad taking my brother and I to Electronics Boutique to pick up a console with couple of games: Alundra, WipEout, and a second hand copy of a horror game with the most bizarre and unsettling cover art.
Being around 12 years old, I was too cowardly to actually play the game for long; but it was pretty funny when, one day, I stepped out of the room as my older brother and a friend went into that corridor. As I was downstairs getting a drink, I heard them both scream “SHIIIIIIIIIIT!!” when those dogs burst through those windows.
Resident Evil’s oodles of atmosphere and aesthetics caught my young imagination, especially the Spencer Mansion, and the anxious calm of the game’s first save room. The looped music (officially credited to Makoto Tomozawa, Koichi Hiroki, and Masami Ueda) features a synthesised acousto-electric guitar playing shifting arpeggios over a held keyboard chord. It’s accompanied by a distant whistling sound whose tuning woozily slides around:
The 2002 Resident Evil remake features a more delicate, classy-sounding update of the original cue, where the instruments are a more distinct from one another (or less-well blended, depending on your preference):
Shout out to Lena Raine’s exceptional Celeste (2018) soundtrack, which includes the beautiful “Quiet and Falling” — clearly influenced by Resident Evil:
Raccoon City and beyond
Of course, the Raccoon City police department building that lies at the heart of Resident Evil 2 (1998) serves a similar purpose to the Spencer mansion in the first title. It also has a musical signature of sorts: the use of creepy piano patterns to punctuate various soundtrack cues.
Credited to Masami Ueda, Resident Evil 2’s save room theme “Secure Place” is similarly structured to that from the first game: a held synthesiser pad underpins moving synth string chords, whilst a simple piano melody plays (with a hint of delay). When the pattern loops the first time round, commanding piano bass octaves punctuate the return to the minor root chord. Those piano octaves, for me, lend gravitas and seriousness to proceedings.
Since we first published this article, we have seen the successful launch of the remake of Resident Evil 2, which has furnished us with another wonderful save room theme. It’s a much more ambient and less direct sound this time around. Whilst there are still piano patterns on top of held minor synth chords, it’s altogether more woozy and seemingly improvisational:
It sounds reminiscent of The Talos Principle score by Damjan Mravunac (which, in turn, is reminiscent of Resi save room music):
The equivalent piece by Saori Maeda from Resident Evil 3: Nemesis — a game which revisits and remixes Resident Evil 2 locations including the police department — is very similar to Resident Evil 2’s: a held synth pad, synth strings and simple piano melody. Prequel Resident Evil 0’s cue is a lighter affair.
Resident Evil – Code: Veronica features a much more hopeful, sentimental, piano-led piece “A Moment of Relief” (glockenspiels = the audio equivalent of lightness and hope):
A Plaga on both your houses
A 2015 straw poll by Giant Bomb forum users found Resident Evil 2’s save room theme to be the favourite. It’s closely followed by that from Resident Evil 4, which sticks to the same musical template as previous entries whilst slightly tweaks the instrumentation. This time we get synth choir chords, a thwacky double bass, simple harp melody and some extra atmospheric layers:
Perhaps the most clearly influenced piece of ‘Resi save game music’ not actually in a Resident Evil game is Motoi Sakuraba’s menu music for Dark Souls — and we know there are various references to Resident Evil 4 in particular throughout the Soulsborne series. The track features similar instrumentation and matches the mood of the RE 4 save room theme, albeit with a more varied chord structure and punctuated by string swells:
Resident Evil 4 also sports a second, weirder piece in the same vein. Embracing a more ambient, underwater vibe through warped synthesiser sounds that sound a bit like whale song, “Serenity” is a glorious addition to the ‘Resi save room’ subgenre:
Resident Evil 5’s “Results” is the closest thing to a save room theme in that game; Resident Evil 6 has no save rooms 😞; and of the other games in the series, Resident Evil: Revelations’ "Rest & Intesify" aka “Item Box” is particulary in keeping; as is Revelations 2's "Distant Memories".
The latest game in the series in terms of the story chronology, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, features a subtle, more background-y cue in “Saferoom” by Miwako Chinone. In keeping with the Louisiana, USA setting, she employs a distorted banjo as the lead instrument (also run through a tremolo, creating a similar sound to Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar work in The Last of Us). But, as ever, it sits atop unsettling, pulsating held synth chords that gnaw anxiously at the listener:
Other members of the family
As we’ve already tried to prove, this subgenre extends beyond one franchise. Capcom’s Dino Crisis series — spiritually within the Resident Evil family, sort of — also features save room music, with Dino Crisis 2 often getting being shouted out as a fan favourite:
2014’s The Evil Within — directed by Resident Evil series founder Shinji Mikami — opts for the BioShock/Fallout trick of using an older piece of real world music — a piano and violin duet of Claude Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque, Claire de Lune, No. 3”. It is made to sound extra creepy by filtering it in such a way (with a high pass filter and adding hisses and scratches) that it sounds like it is being played on a scratchy old gramophone.
A fantastic score that came to my attention thanks to arranger David Peacock’s entry in our “Game music buffs pick their favourite deep cuts” blog was that for Tsugunai: Atonement (the soundtrack album is called an cinniùint), by the eclectically brilliant Yasunori Mitsuda. A bit like the more hopeful Resident Evil – Code: Veronica save room theme, “Black Shadow” is more relaxing than anxiety-inducing, but thanks to its held synth chords and piano lead line, is definitely in keeping with other tracks above:
And video game legend Yoko Shimomura slipped in a quintessential Resi save room theme into another venerable Japanese game series, with “End of the Road” from Final Fantasy XV:
We’d love to hear from you if you think there’s another spiritual ‘Resi save room music’ piece lurking elsewhere in the world video game music:
Laced Records has released deluxe double LPs for Resident Evil (GC 2002), Resident Evil 2 (PS 1998), CODE: Veronica X, Resident Evil 0, and 1999's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (pre-order, shipping April 2020) — www.lacedrecords.com