The Average Gamer

The Soundtracks To Your Gaming Life

Introducing our newest contributor, Andrew Jordan.

Do you remember when you fought your first dragon in Skyrim? I do. I remember my sweaty little hands gripping my game pad like it was going to run away and I remember spinning wildly trying to get an arrow in its damned knee but above all else, I remember the booming orchestral score that accompanied my epic battle and eventual victory.

Skyrim Dragon MountainsA good soundtrack makes me smile like a giddy kid in the proverbial sweetshop. Music, epic spine-tingling music in all its goodness is being put to superb use by the people who bring us our digital adventures.

A Brief History Lesson

Video games and music have had an interesting relationship over the years. Skipping over the obvious singing & rhythm games that currently inhabit the market, I want to talk more about the cinematic epic goodness we’re getting treated to. I’m fairly certain that a lot of you will remember the Mario theme with a fond smile, as annoyingly repetitive and cutesy as it was. I know I do. I have a lot of memories about my early days of gaming that my fragile little mind links with some kind of audio. Be it Tetris, Alex Kidd or Metal Gear Solid, I’m pretty sure most of you will be thinking about those themes now I’ve mentioned them.

Back in the early eighties, the background pips and pops of 8-bit sound processing called ‘music’ was rarely more than elevator music. It was there but didn’t really get attention. As the gaming world grew and we were given better graphics and larger games, it attracted more talented and passionate people to its folds. Some of these people make music; very good music indeed.

Taking Music Seriously

Jump forward a decade or two to our current generation of gaming and we have never been more gifted with the talent at our developers disposal. Over recent years some games have even been shipping with a separate soundtrack disc for the fans, some in special editions and some, like The Witcher 2 came with it in the regular edition. Personally I think this is a great thing, I spend most of my time at a computer screen, working away, with music playing. If I’m not at work I’ll be travelling around, portable music player in pocket and headphones firmly stuck to my noggin.

For decades you’ve been able to buy movie soundtracks, composed by some of the greats of our time and now we are starting to see a trend in gaming following suit. Just think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, James Bond or Ghostbusters; you hear those names and the theme song pretty much starts playing in your head straight away. It doesn’t have to be classically-composed music either, a game or movie using licensed tracks can also a big thumbs up.

Gaming is big business, almost akin to making movies. This means we can now get the guys who sent shivers down our spines at the movies, to make music for our hobby. Some shinning examples of this would be Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe, the men behind the Christopher Nolan Batman reboot soundtracks as well as Call of Duty 2. Jesper Kyd was responsible for the original Hitman games’ soundtracks not to mention being involved with Assassin’s Creed and Borderlands. Jeremy Soule gave us Skyrim’s haunting music and a whole swathe of other gaming gems, not least Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic.

Music to kill Aliens by

I want to focus on some recent and, in my opinion, exceptionally well done soundtracks that I still have on playlists for when I’m out and about. Top of my list and a great example of great scoring would be Halo, in all its forms. Every single Halo game that has been released since its debut back in 2001 has kept the original theme music alive.

Halo-4-Jungle-ShipsThe first game’s main theme was a heady mix of orchestral goodness with electric guitar and synthesizers thrown in for good measure. It worked. It worked well and even now if you hear those opening choir vocals you instantly know what you’re listening to.

Over the years and iterations of the game they have modified, rejuvenated and added to an already stellar composition to fit with each title. Every Halo game developed by Bungie was composed by Martin O’Donnell and though the other games in the franchise have had new composers, they have all adhered to that original formula in one way or another.

It’s not just the main theme that gives me tingles though, it’s how the music is placed in the game. When you first step out of the escape pod in Halo: Combat Evolved you’re greeted with an ethereal track befitting of the wonder you feel as you started to explore this strange new place. As the game progresses, the music fits each situation almost perfectly, be it high drama as you are pushed to the limits helping the desperate U.N.S.C forces battle the Covenant or more subtle strings and choir work as you discover strange alien geography and architecture.

Even the more recent Halo 4, which has almost entirely lost the original stylings of the Halo theme, keeps a little bit of its charm amidst the more dramatic and cinematic score. It once again fits like a glove. The more realistic and emotional journey they were aiming for with the story is simply accentuated by the glorious soundtrack running alongside.

Halo 4 Original Soundtrack by Neil Davidge

Then I Took an Arrow to the…. Ear?

The next pick of musical goodness is the aforementioned Skyrim. The guys at Bethesda have used the Elder Scrolls theme from older titles and given it a new lease of life. For Skyrim they created a new language, dragon (as you do of course) then after creating it they tasked Jeremy Soule with composing a theme that matched his older titles and rhymed in both Dragon and English versions. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes this soundtrack stand out.

Skyrim Screenshot Giant SpiderSkyrim is a huge open world game where you as the player, can pretty much dictate the flow of everything. Scoring something that has no set path must be a nightmare. Unlike the Halo franchise which is pretty much set on a strict route, scoring music for random encounters and moments must have posed some incredible technical problems. Bethesda hit the nail on the head with aplomb.

Simply walking around the huge world gives you simple and subtle hints of music whilst focusing on the environmental sounds from the forests and tundra. But get into a tussle with one of the denizens of Skyrim and you’re treated to tense percussion and wind instruments accompanied by stirring vocals from the choir. Tailoring the music to the experience doesn’t stop with the combat either.

The game seems to know when you are cresting a hill to a big vista or a new location and once again, selects a suitable piece of music. It’s done incredibly well and really adds to the experience as a whole. Exploring caverns and underground temples also has a very specific soundtrack tailored to the location, again punctuated with tense combat tunes aplenty.

The Good the Bad and the Claptrap

That’s two heavy hitting titles with some inspirational music inside, but there are so many games that do music well. Another great example would have to be Red Dead Redemption. Though slightly more sporadic than the previous games I’ve discussed, it nevertheless did a great job. Subtle spaghetti western stylings were punctuated with frantic orchestrals for the more intense gameplay moments. It gave the whole experience a more cinematic feel and when you reached the southern part of the world map, you were treated to beautiful acoustic and vocal track to accompany the long ride.

Red Dead Redemption SunsetIt raised hairs on my neck and really gave a sense of change in the way the story was playing out. The change in tone between the northern section of the map and the southern “Mexico” was punctuated by this transition. It felt almost like the end of a television series that hadn’t completed the epic story it was telling us, encouraging you to want more.

A slightly different example would be Borderlands and its recent sequel. Both titles had licensed tracks incorporated into the opening cinematics and I defy anyone who has played the games to not remember these. A nice touch was using the same artist for the intro and the ending in Borderlands 2, it really gives a sense of love for what they had worked on. The artist in question is The Heavy and the tracks are Short Change Hero and How You Like Me Now.

Even though the synthesised soundtrack of the Borderlands game world isn’t something I would listen to on my journey to work, it is fantastic for its setting. In hectic firefights the music thumps your ear drums with intense, fitting bass before dropping to more subtle intermission music. The quiet times are not to be overlooked either. Much like Read Dead Redemption, you hear twangy spaghetti western-styled tracks akin to the likes of Firefly that give you a real sense of a struggling world still in its early days. The huge boss fights that happen are the highlights of the soundtrack, drowning you in frantic bass lines and synth as you madly run around trying to not get dead.

Borderlands 2 - Road RageIt’s the little touches like this that make a big difference to how I receive a game. I’m not saying I rate games purely based on this, but if a developer puts out a game with a terrific and atmospheric soundtrack, it certainly adds to the appeal. Imagine playing Assassins Creed 3 without the booming orchestral score mid way through one of your naval battles. It just doesn’t resonate as well, I went through a phase of turning off in-game music in an attempt to drown in the ambience of the worlds I was in. In some cases this made the overall experience of a game very different. When you’re not being audibly cheered on with epic music, many moments lose their impact.

And the Nomination for…

The music being made for video games has reached a point where it is becoming really recognised as an integral part of each title as well as being an art form of its own. Towards the end of 2012 composer Austin Wintory was nominated for a Grammy for Journey, up against The Dark Knight Rises and some other huge names. This is a fantastic achievement for him as well as for the gaming industry as a whole and we should all tip our caps in respect. All the best to Wintory for the awards ceremony this weekend.

Journey Co-op BarremsVideo game soundtracks have become as much an art form as the games themselves in my eyes. It seems that the world is starting to encourage this more than ever with the incorporated soundtrack discs of some games. Alongside that you can find a copy of a soundtrack for a large number of modern games either via digital download or hard copy. Some companies are even acknowledging the talent that has gone into the music and are putting out little gems like the Greatest Video Game Music compilation.

That’s right, the London Philharmonic Orchestra are playing your favourite video game tracks, what more can be said? If you’re an EVE Online player, this year’s EVE Fanfest will feature a concert by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Classic FM Hall of Fame vote is still going on. The entire industry is taking music very seriously and this is a step up from the generic thumping bass we have received in the past; not that it was bad music, it’s just that a little care on the soundtrack can really make it a magical experience.

I’m all for atmosphere in games. The steady drone of rain or traffic humming in the background is essential. Good sound design, not just from a musical perspective, can make a huge difference to how we experience a game. With the current generation of consoles winding down I am excited to see what developers will be bringing to the table with the next gen titles.

I have so many fond memories of game soundtracks, even the stuff I grew up with on the commodore 64 and NES. I could probably rant for another week about all the themes that I have logged in my brain related to gaming. Instead, I’ll ask you a question.

What tunes and game soundtracks have really stood out to you in your time as a gamer?