By Thomas Quillfeldt
Those of us enamoured with video game music beyond its initial, functional purpose love it for several reasons: feelings of nostalgia; as background music to our daily lives; and the fact that it can evoke and enhance certain emotional states.
Any music can make you feel something—good music is good music. But the designers of games and composers of game music seek to heighten what the player might feel at a given moment and we can revisit those heightened emotional moments through soundtrack music. In that way, game music that is eminently listenable outside of the game can help conjure up those feelings in real life—at the gym, motivating yourself to work or having a good sob whilst face down on the duvet.
Of course, when I say ‘the feels’, I mean strong emotions like acute sadness. All across video game fandom, you’ll find examples of people confessing to blubbing during a story moment: this Reddit thread suggests that Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One and The Last of Us are popular examples from recent years. These lump-in-the-throat moments often involved pieces of music that become fan favourites.
As we heard from contributors to ‘Favourite game music moments of the VGM community’, there are some games and music scores which successfully traffic in sentimentality better than others. One particular moment picked out by a contributor—where a teenage softly sings to a baby in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, soundtracked by a beautiful choral piece—is also a personal favourite.
It’s so emotionally potent, it can cause one to tear up just thinking about it. The song that plays (the exquisite Cloud and Starlight by Jessica Curry) lyrically echoes the dialogue—everything about the delivery is incredibly touching.
Similarly, To The Moon—a short, story-driven game in the style of a classic 16-bit JRPG—tells an intentionally bittersweet, heartbreaking tale that weaves certain tracks from its piano-led soundtrack in and out of the actual story **SPOILERS**:
And it would be remiss of me not to bring up these particular piano chords [post-ironic character death **SPOILER WARNING** for Final Fantasy VII].
Fight on, bombastically!
A major role of modern blockbuster video game music is to get the player jazzed up and ready for the fight. This could be an epic roar of a piece over the opening titles or an action-packed combat/fight/battle/boss track—there is no shortage of heroic, huge, motivational music among video game soundtracks.
The combination of a full orchestra and choir belting out big themes is something relatively new to games, but very familiar to Hollywood epics. It’s a sound that seems to have found particular purchase among the big video game releases of 2011 such as Dark Souls, Batman: Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The lyrics “Dovahkiin, Dovahkiin, naal ok zin los vahriin” are sure to rouse the spirits of millions of gamers, reminding them of many, many hours spent roaming the snow-capped region of Tamriel:
Another 2011 title, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, employed a variation of this rousing orchestral sound with composer Michael McCann clearly drawing inspiration from Hans Zimmer’s scores including the likes of Inception (2010) and Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (also 2010)—that is, blending electronic instruments and the traditional orchestra and choir:
Four to the score
There’s a separate strand of more modern game music which commonly accompanies in-game combat and heroic moments—I like to think of it as ‘Fuck Yeah!!’ music.
One of the earliest games using modern dance music to pump up players was 1991’s Streets of Rage, where composer Yuzo Koshiro used club house and techno as inspiration for music across the series. It was so modern sounding that Vice recently ran a piece unironically entitled: ‘An Expert Agrees: The ‘Streets of Rage 2’ Soundtrack Still Sounds Amazing Today’.
I previously mentioned the drugged-out electronica and synthwave of Hotline Miami in ‘Why we ♥ video game music: Nostalgia’—the indie title’s carefully curated licensed soundtrack still stands up as one of the great collections of underground electronica. It includes driving, four-to-the-floor house tracks, the likes of which have also appeared in games like Crypt of the NecroDancer and Furi. In all these cases, the right track can get you seriously geed up for virtual violence:
And not forgetting the other fantastic uses of licensed music over the years (something we covered in ‘10 of the best licensed music moments in video games’)—upbeat, modern tracks helped define series like Gran Turismo, WipEout and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
The distant horizon
As Zelda fans are currently being reminded of with Breath of the Wild, the joy of exploration and awe of discovery are some of most intoxicating feelings gamers can experience and music often plays a huge part in that.
2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had both a vast, eclectic licensed soundtrack and also offered a wide variety of places and natural geography to explore. As these intersect, the chances are pretty high that the perfect track would come on the radio just as you discover some new nook or cranny. For me, those special moments included flying over the desert at dusk to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird and trucking along a country road with Woody Nelson’s Crazy playing as the sun rose.
That desire to always reach the far horizon is why music is so vital to RPGs, games that are essentially exploration engines designed to keep us in a constant state of rapt discovery. A key moment in JRPGs is whenever a new mode of transport becomes available, opening up a raft of new possibilities. In Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, as is traditional, you obtain a boat which allows you to take to the open seas. I remember the moment so clearly because of this absolutely wondrous, Debussy-esque piece by Koichi Sugiyama:
More so than films and TV, video games are about discovery. Even though some of the most personal in-game discoveries are quite often unscripted (and/or un-soundtracked), there are plenty of instances where a brilliant theme, pop track or ambient soundscape will heighten that feeling, forging a memory of that moment.
The many moods of game music
Obviously, there is a much wider kaleidoscope of emotions that video game worlds and stories are able to evoke and encourage. We like to be unsettled. Akira Yamaoka’s use of grinding, scraping and clanging industrial sounds for the Silent Hill games (and films) are incredibly effective and, frankly, shit me right up:
Whilst we explore dungeons and sunken palaces, there’s often a thick atmosphere of mystery and suspense, as with this unsettling, operatic wail of a track from Motoi Sakuraba’s score for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time:
So much time is spent sneaking around, avoiding enemies—David Housden’s soundtrack for indie stealth-em-up Volume helped keep players on edge:
Players enjoy being soothed with summery, peaceful sounds. Known for his work with BioWare including on the Mass Effect series, Jack Wall’s score for Jade Empire has some glorious cues:
We love to be romanced, especially if there’s a stuffed unicorn prop to look forward to at the end of the night… Mikolai Stroinski’s work on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is sure to stir some loins:
And, of course, a feeling of victory and heroic accomplishment is the goal of most games—something perfectly captured by this slightly bonkers but uplifting track from Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica:
Catch up with more thoughts on ‘Why we ♥ video game music’: