Gaming, as an artistic medium has seen exponential growth in the last decade with a genuine desire to expand beyond its origins towards a genuine tool to deliver a challenging and diverse narrative. Recently we’ve extensively looked at various Art Books from the from Alien series to the Post Apocalyptic genre of Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last of Us. Each title in their respective genre, across the previous generation and to the current day architecture developed as an artistic expression in addition to the base requirement of being, fundamentally a playable experience. Whilst there is perhaps a clear, almost linear progression of graphical prowess from the simplicity of Mario to the more complex realism in the open world series in looking at musical scores and soundtracks this has largely been a fairly mixed experience with the sublime and memorable to the downright awful and forgettable. A subject we have looked previously back in 2016 when our contributor Nate detailed his personal favourite gaming soundtracks, with such a concerted look at the graphical artistry on display I felt it was time to return to the musical scores that shape and challenge our gaming experience.
As with film and other screen media a memorable, well crafted score can have a significant and lasting impact once the show has ended. Cinematic scores certainly on the silver screen have seen a host of memorable composers and scores over the decades from the western themes of Ennio Morricone to the bombastic scores of John Williams in more recent times. This depth of quality has extended towards the smaller screen with the growth of streaming paid services and the money invested into original content. The score of Game of Thrones for example as memorable as that of any big budget movie. As a medium, arguably gaming which has only seen a real investment in budget and investment in the last couple of decades, certainly in the west to a consistent level has begun to see more memorable and cinematic soundtracks to challenge and rival those of its screen contemporaries and peers. Here I decided to look back at some of the themes and scores over the last two decades of gaming that personally, had an impact on my perception of the title being played. Presented in no particular order with the sole limitation as before of only one entry from a particular series to avoid repetition, here a journey through my own, subjective personal taste. Game music, for your consideration.
Baldur’s Gate 2: Romance Theme
We begin with a theme from a game I brought originally for my brand new, blueberry flavored iMac back in 2002, a sequel to a relatively modest role-playing game called Baldur’s Gate 2. Considered by many to be the magnum opus of Bioware in their formative years this title whose simple duality focused cover attracted a young, 18-year-old gamer blossoming from the protective shell of a 64 bit gaming console to the rich tapestry of operating system software had an incredible level of depth in its narrative and scope, subjectively one of the best isometric role playing games and a testament to the developers both in the aesthetic appearance whilst delivering an encompassing story and memorable characters and dialogue. In short, on this basis alone a memorable title but one made more so for all the best reasons with a bombastic orchestral score as its opening theme before subduing into a more mellow riff.
Bioware have a tradition of crafting memorable individual character scores and themes even if the overall soundtracks on occasion, as a whole become somewhat disjointed when listening to them out of context. The romance theme from Baldur’s Gate 2 has certain nostalgic qualities, one of the first role-playing games I had experienced to any great measure, whereby the bonds between my central protagonist and supporting cast were forged and strengthened from friendship into something more. A melodic theme that has hints of the positive, the subdued, the trials and tribulations face as I recall the theme does present itself fairly early after escaping the tutorial dungeon and returns intermittently as you progress your relationship with your companion of choice. This practice very much became a staple of the Bioware style game, oft-repeated but it was here in its purest form I recall the impact of the music, the environment and setting and a relatively mature script and dialect that all come to mind when I listen to this track.
Fable 2: Oakfield Theme
A title rooted in its homage to English heritage and tradition, my personal journey through Albion as with Baldur’s Gate was first experienced in its sequel release. Through no deliberate choice or reasoning besides the slight, visual homage to Link from the Zelda series, the attraction once more was the promise of exploration and discovery within an advertised world where many choices and possibilities awaited. Whether this quite lived up to the promise is questionable as certainly there were faults and this was in no way as polished and solid a release as the Zelda franchise however, there is a warmth and welcoming charm to the this title missing on occasion from Nintendo’s franchise which at no point takes itself to seriously or straight-faced. Its weaknesses, lack of dialogue for instance replaced with emoticons and actions that a decade later are perhaps more prevalent in cultural interactions but at no point taken or presented straight faced. Its strengths, for me, rest in the nostalgic and whimsical charm of its appearance and style.
The score by Danny Elfman who at this point was perhaps best known for his work on the original Spiderman franchise delivers a mystical and almost, down played score never going to far into the bold and bombastic. This specific track when the user approaches the farm town of Oakfield was one of the few times in gaming I can recall where I stopped my progression through the fields to just marvel in the moment and take in the world before me. The track itself is relatively reserved, no grand or overwhelming central theme but it was the moment when the town came into view, one of those perfect moments but where a musical queue and momentum stop. The game is a relatively hectic and almost chaotic experience at times, the activity within the market town a cauldron of chaos. Exploring the fields and world of Albion was interesting, a mixture of bold and vibrant colors. It was standing in front of the small village, the area opening up as the windmills turned and this musical theme playing where Fable 2 just made sense as to the game it was trying to deliver.
Life is Strange: Max and Chloe Theme
The artistic nature of music can draw certain parallels to more contemporary physical pieces. Marvel and depth found in a range of technique and style from a skilled pencil drawing to the most complex oil paintings, drawing comparison to a well scored single instrument theme creating a memorable track having as great an impact as a fully scored orchestral track. Life is Strange used, predominately a range of selected tracks fitting into the games narrative that by and large worked however, certainly from my own perspective there was no overwhelmingly memorable track to take away but as a whole it was a good soundtrack that fit the game’s plot and key moments. Whilst perhaps it was geared towards a certain age demographic, invoking a mood and atmosphere of teen life in the idealized American setting that was somewhat alien to those outside of that specific demographic, the overwhelming message of choice, connectivity and consequences are universal messages that struck a large number of players who rated this title highly.
The score to the game, simplistic somewhat in its nature and scope is beautifully composed, a solo guitar playing against a melodic background that acts both as a theme for the bond between Max and Chloe in addition to the opening menu theme. It was perhaps that first impression of the game’s world that struck me when I opened Life is Strange for the first time, stopping to just watch the wistful currents and picturesque town of Arcadia bay as the guitar riff played over. Having attended more serious art exhibitions that combine musical queues or audio themes over the image displayed there is a methodology in this presentation style that to a certain degree as a games player we have taken for granted to an extent in something as simplistic as a welcome menu. Staring at a well designed environment, looking stunning in its rendering and design with a late summers feel in its color choice matched to an acoustic guitar track accompanying was a memorable experience.
Mass Effect: From The Wreckage
A dedicated score had once been the preserve of PC gaming having the means and scope in their installation disc size to provide such a feature. Which is in no way to denigrate or critique the most memorable console scores prior to their growth in the last decade. The Mario score is memorable to this day however it is simplistic in style and sound compared to its modern contemporaries constrained by the architecture of the earliest generations of consoles. Mass Effect is very much one of the earliest examples of the seventh generation of games I recall having moved from the Gamecube in the previous generation that looked to tell a story in scope and ambition to rival those in other forms of media, saving the galaxy no less. There were certain mechanics in their application that were left wanting, the shooting and driving sections passable but lacking in contrast to more focused third person shoots and specialist driving games. But equally character interaction and depth surpassed other titles with memorable conversations that carry over long after you’ve finished the game. Choices you make, one character to live over another that caused me pause to think on my first play through.
Choosing a specific track from this title was perhaps a little more difficult to decide upon than other games in this due to how highly I enjoyed and would recommend the first soundtrack for its mixture of different audio and musical styles. Elements of synth, electrical percussion and orchestral, it feels almost like a studio band album using an eclectic mix of styles in their track selection. This specific track uses a very traditional narrative structure over the course of its run time, starting with a forlorn brass section before moving to a more downbeat strings riff matching the game’s story beat as hope is lost to the outcome of the central character. As hope is stirred so the musical score slowly begins to escalate before the final rousing orchestral finale. Beyond the musical impact in the game itself taken on its own merits this is just a really well scored track that followed a set path, has a rousing conclusion and typifies the scope and grandeur of the games story, if not its execution in all its mechanics certainly the soundtrack is of note.
Resident Evil 4: Serenity
In contrast to its more stringent survival genre origins that defined a generation and illicit a sense of fear and panic that you were never truly safe despite your best efforts, my own personal preference was for the direction taken with the release of Resident Evil 4 and its progression towards a more smooth interface and control mechanism and an evolution in its graphical prowess and presentation in contrast to the more simplistic style used in the last game prior to its release Code Veronica. To a degree, such a monumental shift wasn’t necessarily seen in its musical style with a level of consistency across the entire series lacking in its control style but this is one of those occasions where I can break my own rules to a degree and appreciate this track on the basis of the nostalgia and sense of calm and ease it evoked when I was playing this title for the first time. In truth given the sense of progression and how the fundamental aspects of the game shifted having completed it once allowing a more cavalier style in your approach this tune was very much a powerful piece in its own right invariably on your first play through, the impact lost after that.
With the loss and approach by the developer to change the nature of the safe area, breaking the so-called trope and chance for the user to be at ease when he was in this location there is something about the almost subverted artificial synthetic tune used, providing a sense of security and calm when experienced whilst also keeping you aware such an emotional state was very much a temporary construct that would soon be over. In retrospect looking back and considering the presence of the merchant, a character given no real back story or reasoning for his presence, just a merchant ever-present and willing to assist at your time of need was a construct you accepted once experienced. In combination with the safety music it did, as its name suggested illicit a sensation of serenity as you came to peace with your predicament before finding your determination to move forward and continue your quest.
The Division: Prologue
I’ve always held a certain penchant for the games in the Tom Clancy universe, taking a somewhat different direction and approach from the more fantastical and less grounded shooters in the Call of Duty series. It was the first Rainbow 6 title on the N64 with its crescendo rising opening theme tune I recall so vividly inspiring to go forth and liberate those from the threat of America’s enemies. As the series progressed looking to establish its character and purpose on the current console platforms so to did the presentation with its online challenge to the likes of Destiny taking the form of The Division. As a game, it was perhaps a little different to how I had envisioned the final product to be, a lot of repetition in the quests and the stylistic and mechanics approach to its combat utilizing elements of traditional role-playing games over the more concise shooting mechanics seen previously. As commented by its developers there was a purposeful direction to avoid certain political connotations in its message, somewhat contrary to the traditional Clancy’verse approach but stylistically the game delivered and maintained the consistency as seen in other games of the series such as Wildland’s and Siege.
The game’s score is largely derivative, no great memorable sequences spring to mind or tunes I recall apart from the opening prologue theme that also serves as the menu screen music as you prepare to deploy as your created operator. Using a blend of synthetic beats that start with a simple beat that gradually builds up with different elements being added atop as it progresses towards its eventual conclusion. It then takes a slightly different direction dropping the synthetic elements and returning to the strings before gradually subsiding. There is a forlorn sense of loneliness and abandonment in this theme, a reflection of the cold hostile environment you prepare to find yourself in. The other elements of the soundtrack that play during the course of the game fit, the environment, elements of modernity intermixed with the sound of strings and brass symbolic of New York’s embrace of the new and old. I wouldn’t praise this game’s score or soundtrack as necessarily ground breaking but this one track, does have a certain knack of focusing you for the task at hand.
Dragon Age Inquisition: Thedas Love Theme
Quite simply, a game in recent memory I have spent more time exploring and living within, traversing the world encountered with my companions whilst fulfilling my role as the Inquisitor. Certainly it will forever live in the shadow of its more renowned contemporary Fallout, and having chosen to adopt a similar methodology in its world style of large open hubs as opposed to the current style of open world sand box games it does seem restrictive to a degree. Subjectively I would argue this is a weakness but also one of its strengths as it allows each area to have its own nuanced feel and style, its own themes and musical soundtracks as opposed to the artificial abstract notion of being a 10 minute ride from a forest community to a snow top town in a condensed experience. I enjoyed both, but the score for Inquisition from its main theme and beyond is the one that stands out in my memory.
The Love theme I find a somewhat misleading description as it certainly doesn’t invoke that feeling or emotion when taken in isolation. Similar in a way to the romance theme from the first Mass Effect game there is a growing feeling of melancholy as the theme progresses. The first haunting notes on the piano then the gradual inclusion of the strings building up to its natural crescendo before starting their gradual decline. There is a real sense of hurt and pain within the music, certainly, tonal not necessarily the sensation of romance and loved associated for the tune. I’d propose a well written track or theme like its equivalence in artistry can invoke different messages, have a different purpose and meaning to the individual user. Remove the track title and that theme has a mournful, pathos to its message. A great, atmospheric background theme. A similar style to the track from Life is Strange with its reliance on the emotion invoked from the simplistic sound of the guitar but when it works it certainly has an emotional resonance.
The Last of Us: Vanishing Grace (Innocence)
A slight change of direction for the next track, the two guitars featured in this theme from the Last of Us soundtrack. Having transitioned during the last generation from the Xbox 360 to the Playstation 4, a number of the exclusive titles had eluded me during this period, most notably the work of Naughty Dog with the Uncharted series and this seminal title that crossed the generational divide with the release as a launch title. I was somewhat unaware of what to expect having only seen brief glimpses of gameplay from its other series so was quite rightly blown away by the narrative and depth of the story found within this release. Having explored the artistic merits of this title looking at how the game developed its visual style from conception to its final realization, one of the key aspects of the presentation and experience was the soundtrack, such a unique and distinctive sound in contrast to other titles in this genre.
Taking on a western style sound with its use of acoustic guitar as the primary audio source it creates a depth of emotion and feeling sometimes lost in the more grand orchestral scores. For this specific track it was the feeling of emotion inspired by the music, the sound of the guitar evoking the emotion of the scene. In keeping with the central narrative certainly through the main story there is a growing loss of vulnerability and youth as Ellie is forced to confront and grow in the new and hostile world. This journey and transition to adult hood is accompanied with appropriate darkening themes. This specific track from a moment of levity and peace within the game I found a peaceful theme to listen to in its own merits, the sound of the guitars playing a repetitive motif throughout with a slight variation as it pitches up before returning to the main musical tones. Stripping away a lot of the familiar instruments and sounds associated with a game of this scope is fitting with the central theme of the story, the simplistic nature of the soundtrack played on the guitar fits the more tonal presentation of the world experienced.
Beyond Good and Evil: Peace
From the reliance on strings to the melancholy and serenity induced by this piano theme from this Gamecube classic Beyond Good & Evil. As a title it certainly had its own unique premise, especially in a world before wide scale online reviews and multiple videos as a relatively ignorant user I was attracted purely on the artistic style and un challenging and unthreatening cover depicting the central protagonist Jade with her ever reliable camera. Before the arguments of identity politics forcibly changed the gaming narrative for the better and worse there was a simple joy playing in the shoes of this character, exploring her eclectic and imaginative world with her colorful friends and companions before venturing into space for the games ending. Personally, you could certainly argue that a strong, well written character is a strong protagonist regardless of gender or ideology. I felt as strong a connection to Jade as I did Link for example in that both these characters existed in these well-developed worlds drawing without comment.
There is without question a level of peace and serenity generated from this theme and soundtrack in general. Equally the opening track to the game set the tone and direction of the experience to come, your main character performing yoga moves on her small personal island before experiencing the alien attack that would set her on her path towards the eventual confrontation and ending that is yet to be resolved. As with the previous track there is no great narrative structure to this, no strong opening or closing just a gentle and consistent piano theme that runs consistently throughout the song on a slight synthetic base. With the architecture and processing power of the Gamecube the game had the scope to feature a fully formed soundtrack sometimes lacking in earlier titles however in choosing for the more simplistic piano use it created a memorable theme. Although the rest of the soundtrack varies in quality and style, the opening theme and this track for me subjectively sets the tone of the game and world.
Civilization 4: Title Screen Theme
There are certain moments, in any form of artistic presentation or work where you stop and pause to take in the scope and grandeur of the world before you. For me, quite simply it was when I installed and opened up Civilization 4, a clear departure and elevation from the previous title that had seen incremental changes from the defining second release in the series. I was a huge fan of Civilization 2, quite simply one of my all time personal favourite games. Whilst I enjoyed its main sequel it didn’t feel like a worthy successor, certainly improved in parts but more choices and changes for necessity sake. The fourth Civilization game truly felt where the series stepped up progressed, both graphically, stylistically and for its deep and impactful game play. And where else to start but the main theme from the title screen, the track Baba Yetu, an award-winning track.
A bold decision to feature a track of this nature given its religious foundations, a testament to its quality the fact it won a Grammy in 2011. There is an overwhelming level of positivity and optimism in this track, the mix of orchestral and choral in its make up from a base emotional perspective is quite simply overwhelmingly majestic in its delivery. In youth and into adult hood I was well versed in the Lords Prayer, always a solemn dedication and affirmation to the Lord for your sins and trespasses. Before I heard this song, whilst I had heard other styles the words by their nature never shook that feeling of solitude and religious dedication. Here, there is just a simple joy and exuberance in how the words are delivered in Swahili and song with such passion. Given the game is often labelled as the so-called ‘God sim’ with your control and dominion over the world there is perhaps a knowing acknowledgment of the genre. It’s quite clear why this track is often featured at celebrations of game music, it’s a great track to just stop and listen to.