Some years ago I was attending a panel on collaborative writing which was high-jacked by an obnoxious fan. I can’t remember how he got onto the subject, but at one point he said something to the extent of, “Videogame music is downloaded more than any other type of music on the internet, which shows you how bad people’s taste is.” While that statement was clearly pulled right out of his ample arse, I wasn’t about to veer an already off-topic panel even further into the abyss by trying to school him on the subject.
The premise of his claim bothers me still. Videogames and movies are the last refuge for up-and-coming composers in this day and age. Sure, every city has a symphony if you want to go see the works of Beethoven. For an artist composing original works, however, there are few better ways to get your music heard than to break into the game industry.
So here, in slightly arbitrary order, are 15 examples of truly wonderful music from videogames:
Arc the Lad: End of Darkness
Let’s start it off on a happy note. This song evokes images of a simpler time in gaming. A time before gritty reboots and deeply flawed protagonists, when the good guys were good and the bad guys needed to be stopped. It’s unfortunate that music of this style helps establish a setting that would be considered almost childish by today’s standards, but I just can’t help but feel good when I hear the swell of those trumpets through the last half of the song.
Composers : Koji Sakurai / Masahiro Andoh / Takayuki Hattori / Yuko Fukushima
Suikoden Celtic Collection, Volume 2
Time of Calmness
This one may be a bit of a cheat on my part, as this version of the song never appeared in any of the Suikoden games. However, it is an official release as part of the brand, so I’m going with it. I could have chosen any number of songs from the three celtic releases, but Time of Calmness is – hands down – my favorite. The first half is a mellow burn, reminiscent of the first game in the series when your hero returns to his wartorn home city where the once joyous theme is now just a haunting echo. But when the song opens up midway, it does so with gusto.
Composer : Miki Higashino
Arrangers : Yoko Ueno / Yuji Yoshino / Yuko Asai / Shigeyoshi Kawagoe.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert
Red Alert was a silly, silly thing. It was a real time strategy game set in WW2, with time travel and giant Tesla coils capable of destroying armies. And by silly I mean awesome, of course. While this is not the best song on the list, and the only metal one, it wins a spot by being perfect for the game it was in. The song is dirty, mean, and I always feel like I should get a tetanus shot after hearing it. My only complaint is the superfluous dance remix sounding thing at the end – but honestly, I don’t remember ever hearing that in the game, so maybe it was added for the soundtrack release. I could be wrong!
Composer : Frank Klepacki
When you’re developing a game to be the flagship of an entire console, it’s probably best not to neglect any aspect of it. As a result, the Halo theme is an incredibly polished and professional piece of music. This is the version from the first game in the series. Later versions added wailing guitars and piano parts, and they sound pretty good… But I believe this to be the purest version. To everyone’s surprise they decided on a new theme for the fourth Halo game – but it just doesn’t have the same majesty as the original and its various reincarnations over the years.
Composers : Martin O’Donnell / Michael Salvatori
Pirates of the Burning Sea
Tides of Fire
Who doesn’t love swashbuckling to pirate songs? Pirates was a mediocre game; still, my friends and I had some fun with it for a while, and the soundtrack still gets play in our game room now and again. Sadly, most of the songs are disappointingly short.
Composers : Adam Gubman / Adrian Decker
Hills of Radiant Winds
I’ll admit I never played Nier, but the music is too good to exclude it from the list. The music was composed specifically for the game, but without any relation to what the game is about. In fact, elements of the game were later altered to better fit the music provided. Seems like an odd way of going about it to me, but the end result is wonderful. There is a general theme of melancholy that seeps into every song on the OST. Even those tunes which seem to have everything necessary to be upbeat, somehow end up sadder.
Composers : Keiichi Okabe / Kakeru Ishihama / Keigo Hoashi / Takafumi Nishimura
Beyond Good and Evil
Home Sweet Home
Some songs are just plain beautiful. Beyond Good and Evil was a great game, which for various reasons failed upon release. With a strong female protagonist (IE fully dressed) named Jade, your task was to stop the destruction of your world from an alien invasion, while armed with little more than a stick, a camera, and your journalistic integrity.
Home Sweet Home was the piece played over the end credits, while the camera panned slowly through her lighthouse/war orphanage home, over children’s drawings and photos of well-earned happier times. Very moving.
Composer : Christophe Heral
The 1981 release of the album “Escape” marked the height of Journey’s popularity. With hit songs like “Don’t Stop Believin’” and… wait, that’s the wrong Journey.
Journey – the game – was released in early 2012, and it is one of the best ever arguments for video games as works of art. The soundtrack is no exception: the idea was to “create music that would be dynamically changing while still containing a composed emotional arc.“ No easy feat, it turns out. Music development took three years – the entire development cycle of the game. Three years may seem like a lot of work for a game that can be played through in an afternoon, but the experience is something I would recommend to anyone.
Composer : Austin Wintory
World of Warcraft
Seasons of War
Quitting Warcraft is a bit like trying to leave the mafia. Even now there are forces trying to drag me back to it, despite my protests. I think they might be getting the wrong idea from the fact that I still listen to songs from the original soundtrack so often, but come on… This song has all the hallmarks of a winner. It has so much power – as is appropriate for a game with ‘War’ in its very name – and that final series of sorrowful notes sends a chill up my spine every time.
Composer : Jason Hayes
I’m a sucker for a sad violin. Almost as much as I am for an angry fiddle. I can’t recall ever hearing them in the same song before, but it perfectly frames the emotions as the music flows from sadness into anger, and then moves into what could only be described as vengeance. Toss in a mellow acoustic guitar and some powerful female vocals, and it makes for a very solid work.
Composers : Yoshitaka Hirota / Yasunori Mitsuda
Mass Effect 2
One of the first bits of advice I ever received about writing a story was that your protagonist will often need to be beaten down. Once he or she has nothing left to lose, then the stage is set for a truly meaningful comeback. In this case, the song itself is that comeback. This song represents the act of rising up out of the blood and ashes, to do what needs to be done. It’s unstoppable, growing ever more and more insistent – even when it seems impossible that it could possibly continue to do so.
Composer – Jack Wall
The Beatmania series is complicated. The gamers are tasked with playing the music provided, using a 7-button analogue keyboard. The higher the difficulty selected, the more difficult the music piece becomes. That is where Osamu Kubota comes in. Over the years he has provided a wealth of amazing short piano works to the series to really challenge the hardcore players. Fans of the series work very hard on being able to master songs like this one, practicing for hours at home so they’ll put on a good show at the arcade.
Composer : Osamu Kubota
For a turn-based strategy game fought with tanks and guns, Valkyria Chronicles had an art style and plot-line that were surprisingly beautiful. The whole game is presented with visuals that feel like a sketchbook, despite being 3D rendered. The love story is very well written, and avoids most of the tropes in Japanese storytelling, which don’t translate very well to a western audience. I’ll admit I might be a little biased in putting this song so high on the list, but it’s a lovely piece either way.
Alternately, I would have loved to add Rosie’s theme, as sung by Hedy Burress in the English version, but the entire scene is a massive spoiler.
Composer : Hitoshi Sakimoto
Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)
I could have included the entire soundtrack, really, but I had to pick one song. Bastion is an indy game released in mid-2011 to rave reviews. The game-play is enjoyable enough, but it was the music and narration that really sold it. I’m not even sure how to describe the soundtrack. It has a southern blues twang, a massive string section, as well as heavily sampled beats which I’m normally not a fan of. It all comes together perfectly in the end.
Zia’s Theme isn’t a very good representation of the soundtrack as a whole, but it is the most iconic and poignant song from the game. It appears at first to simply be a melancholy little ditty from a lonely survivor. As you play on, it becomes clearer that it is actually a call to war between the underground people and the wall-building ones above ground. Such a pretty song, yet with such a brutal implications…
Composer : Darren Korb
In many ways, the Skyrim theme is a bit derivative of number seven on this list, and maybe even inspired by it. Still, everything about this song is massive. An aggressive male chorus, a booming orchestra, and chilling, distant female vocals punctuating the pauses… Every time I hear it I just want to go out and punch a dragon in the face. I really have to give them credit, too, for writing the entire song in the fictional language of dragons created for the game.
The song has spawned countless covers by fans and professionals alike. From heavy metal to acapella, and just about everything in between – including a couple of surprisingly good rap versions. When so many different people agree that a piece of music is amazing, where else could it belong but at number 1 on this list?
Composer : Jeremy Soule