Music Matters – Eight Games with Exceptional Soundtracks

image credit: pcgamehardware.de - Gears of War 4 Soundtrack
image credit: pcgameshardware.de – Gears of War 4 Soundtrack

No matter the genre of game, one detail stands out among all others that truly completes a good title: music. Whether you are racing, exploring, fighting a war or just watching a story unfold, a great soundtrack will invariably set the experience above its peers. Everyone is aware of this effect to some degree or another, and it has been well demonstrated in movies, including a fantastic short documentary online showing movies like “Jaws” with and without its score. I believe it is just as critical to the success of a game to get the soundtrack right. Here are eight games that I believe owe part of their success to an exceptional soundtrack.

Final Fantasy 2 (US)

A sure sign your soundtrack is great – no future title in the series sounds complete without emulating or otherwise honoring it. Each Final Fantasy title has had great music, but like Star Wars it began with a single score. Now they would be woe to cast a Star Wars movie without the original composer. The first Final Fantasy title had quite simple early video game music, but laid the framework for the most recognizable theme song that grew into the “8 bit” orchestra score immortalized in the second and third US releases. I still get chills thinking of the theme to the airship, the entire opening sequence and of course the main prelude itself which has been heard in some form or another in every Final Fantasy production or movie since. It may sound out of place next to the music in today’s games, but for its day was revolutionary.

Skyrim

Elder Scrolls, another fantasy heavyweight with an enviable legacy of good music took a dragon’s leap forward with the soundtrack in Skyrim. Already known for well-established music motifs, the larger than life orchestra score and choir accompaniment may be the best thing to ever happen to an Elder Scrolls title. The game relies heavily on it to establish a sense of awe and epic wonder in the breathtakingly beautiful frozen landscapes, sprawling dungeons and legendary battles.

Battlefield: Hardline

Hardline is an anomaly in the Battlefield family for a lot of reasons, and was not as well received by some but stands out among almost all of them as having a nearly flawless single player campaign – the best in the series since “Bad Company”. A huge part of this was in thanks to a unified theme of “90ies police show”. Coupled with unparalleled actor capture, the soundtrack delivers, both in the mix of popular hits chosen to play during specific scenes and the unique bass guitar riffs during dramatic or suspenseful scenes weave a very enjoyable experience.

Witcher 3

With the potential to go in the books as a game with all the awards already, Witcher 3 distinguishes itself further with a outrageously vibrant soundtrack – well past “ooh that’s good music” chills, this is more likely to blow you out of your seat. The vocal arrangements and visceral, rowdy fantasy tunes go perfectly with the gritty melee, stunning visuals and surprisingly difficult boss encounters the game built a legacy on.

Destiny

The score to Bungie’s breakaway follow-up to its Halo legacy “Destiny” is not without some sad controversy – the original composer split ways with Bungie in a bitter dispute – but the finished product is hauntingly beautiful. If I were to chose any five memorable moments from the original story missions all of my favorite scenes would be because of the music that was playing. This is a soundtrack you can listen to comfortably away from the game, with an equally awesome sequel in “The Taken King”.

Life is Strange

Built almost entirely of selected popular songs, Life is Strange uses the music to establish emotional tone and drama in each of its masterfully written episodes. More than most titles, Life is Strange would look strange indeed with the sound off, where many moments of introspection are slow panning shots of otherwise plain things, turned sad, happy, hopeful or lonely by a perfect choice of song. Life is Strange was a surprise hit from a new development group – one that seems to have a keen ear for how a story should sound, as well as read.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori is special for a lot of reasons – it is in many ways a love letter to the action and exploration games we grew up with. The music underscores this love of the genre, deeply emotional, dramatic, energetic and quite poignant. It reminded me of how magical becoming lost in a game could feel, and brought the characters to life.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarnia of Time

It would be remiss to write of music scores that capture the imagination, magic, adventure and wonder without including the The Legend of Zelda. It set a timeless precedent in a score that may be the most well recognized from any game ever. Ocarnia of Time to me is the pinnacle of the series in terms of musical score, even though others in the series stand out for their own reason, the musical instrument transcends the audio experience and becomes a key part of the story itself – a theme in the series inseparable from the hero.

 

Trimming a list of games with great musical scores to just eight leaves dozens out that are worth mentioning – some that I agonized over including or not. Today it is commonplace for a finished title to have video game music every bit as good as a major production movie, something that is not lost on the ears. If I left your favorite out, leave it in the comments below! Thank you.

Half of the VR titles I am most eager to try are not games

While a look at the SteamVR Game titles coming in 2016 seems quite promising, the coolest things I’ve seen demonstrated over the last year weren’t traditional games at all – but rather “experiences”. That’s not to say there aren’t some really great games coming to VR, because there are, but while game developers tackle bringing current gen game themes to VR space, others are turning heads with original content so immersive and mind-blowing it challenges how we define a VR title.

Let’s start at the top – of the world, that is. Take Sólfar and RVX’s “Everest VR” teaser as a perfect example of a non-game VR experience, despite being built with one of the most powerful gaming engines.

Another room-scale VR experience that captured a lot of attention at recent road shows was Wevr’s “theBlu: Encounter” , which simulates a deep ocean shipwreck and a profound meeting with wildlife there. Here is a link to one of their blogs from behind the scenes on that project.

A glance at the Wevr company page shows the wild diversity of VR content in development, everything from the Sundance Film Festival, music concerts, Sports Illustrated to the mind-bending space-themed “Irrational Exuberance Prologue“. Wevr also provides a platform for VR producers, which looks promising.

Another announcement coming out of the Sundance Film Festival was a partnership between traditionally game-focused Ubisoft Montreal and a VR venture co-founded by Elijah Wood called SpectreVision that will focus on interactive VR Horror titles. The short teaser that accompanied this announcement was a chilling 360 stereoscopic ride through a scary scene in Assassin’s Creed “Jack the Ripper” add-on, although their production project is likely not related to that specific Ubisoft franchise at all. In any case, any VR “interactive horror” to get air time at Sundance has my full attention.

Google’s Tilt Brush is a cross-platform VR painting tool that has also been an enormous success at VR road shows. It supports room scale VR, and watching an artist paint a three-dimensional object while walking around it in real life is a poster of a new generation of immersive, non-gaming content. Nvidia sponsored a VR art contest last year, here are some video highlights from that event.

I am excited to see Virtual Reality break through into the mainstream in 2016 – as much for rich sensory experiences as the ridiculously awesome looking games, the latter which I may cover in another blog entry. What I see in terms of new ways to produce and deliver art is as large a leap forward as the television was for the radio – that is, a once in a century leap in communications-enabling technology, although 2016 is probably just a quiet beginning. I believe developers are only at the tip of a world-changing technology, specially for the field of education, perhaps even medicine, one where fantastic games are just a by-product. Just imagine the recent Star Wars movie – but in VR. Or a tour of the Louvre from your living room. Or a show like MythBusters – (I’ll miss this show!) – but one where it feels like you’re actually there, but completely safe. Confront fears and travel to other places you may never have the opportunity or desire to see in person – like inside a volcano, aboard the IIS, or like the teaser above, atop the world’s tallest and most dangerous mountains.

I’m ready. The HTC Vive debuts in April, shortly after the release of the Oculus Rift.

Thought Provoking, Moving “Life is Strange”

image credit: dontnod / square enix
image credit: dontnod / square enix

As the credits began to roll, I sat stunned. Far more detailed and complex than the choice-driven story games it might be compared to, DONTNOD’s first episode of “Life is Strange” doesn’t hold back. Even as I poured over the myriad of choices and characters I had interacted with I wondered what I may have overlooked, or how differently my conversations might have gone had I gone down a different route, been a little less cautious, or explored more.

Pushing the limits for even the detail obsessed like myself, the lovingly crafted, vibrant world draws you in. As you explore, patience and curiosity are rewarded with new dialog options and choices, not all immediately for the better. Thankfully our protagonist “Max” has an uncanny ability to rewind time, even if just briefly, to relive a moment and retain cognition of what is to come.

Way cooler than just for puzzle solving, Max’s unexpected gift is at the heart of the story and drives much of the masterful character development that unfolds. Many dialog and story options only unlock after you’ve rewound a situation at least once, after which you may second guess yourself anyway. Even after making what seemed to be ideal choices in the majority of situations, I wondered if I had painted myself too narrow of a picture of the characters I had met or if I had missed something critical by playing it safe. Before it was done, I knew I’d need all of my save files to explore the full range of consequences that lay hidden in the incredibly rich story and environments.

Not too long, and not too short, Episode 1 of Life is Strange is a beautiful, fresh take on a “tell tale” style story with excellent writing, a fantastic original music score, and compelling characters. It is evident everywhere that much care and passion went into perfecting each nuance by the team at DONTNOD, and I am thankful that Square Enix gave them the creative room to let it become a title you’d want to rewind, many times.

 

Report: PS4 can’t make toast.

20090904-burnttoast

Or, how consoles grew up and got day jobs.

Since the 1994 debut of the Playstation, Sony releases a new version of their flagship gaming platform roughly once every 6 years. The Playstation 2 was released in 2000, and the blu-ray powered PS3 was released in 2006. The recently unveiled PS4 is due holiday season 2013, about 7 years after the still-relevant PS3. Unlike their cartridge-powered competitors like Nintendo, The Sony Playstation and other disc-delivered home gaming consoles have always done a little bit more than just play games.

Although the original Sony Playstation had horrid in-game load times absent in the cartridge gaming world, it could do something the others could not: play music CDs. For a gaming console this was hardly worth the trade, but this is when gaming consoles first started to develop noteworthy differences in total home entertainment utility. Of course, in 1994 you probably knew more folks with musical doorbells than musical phones, and gaming consoles were still primarily just that: for games.

Leap forward a generation of consoles, and the Sony could also play DVD movies. Marginally useful when a lot of home videos were still VHS, it still showed a growing divide between their console and the competition, a division that was also increasingly evident in the types of game developers attracted to a specific gaming console, and the age of each console’s target audience. Sony commanded a larger portion of the mature gaming audience. Nintendo, for a long time the face of family-safe games and games designed for younger children, steered clear of games with mature content until an awkward, ineffective about-face in 2001 featuring an adult-rated game about a heavy drinking squirrel with strong suggestive content. Eyebrow-raising failures aside, Nintendo survives to maintain its core brand and lead its ahead-of-its-time gameboy innovation to command a lion’s share of the handheld gaming market today.

Around the same time, Microsoft decides to get a piece of the pie with the XBOX gaming console, going from zero to awesome in an instant with genre-defining titles like Halo. By 2006, Sony and Microsoft pull ahead of Nintendo with local hard drives and native High-Definition Video support, each betting on opposing players in the blu-ray vs HD DVD war. Both the XBox 360 and PS3 supported additional features like “why do I need a camera SD slot in a gaming console” or “who would use a game console to surf the internet”, but the features remained and grew to include social media integration, youtube, streaming home video on demand (RIP, Blockbuster) and most importantly, the ability to play with friends over the internet. Yet, these were still just gaming consoles, right?

Nintendo bets against it. Boldly racing away from anything that resembles high-definition video, it debuts the Wii, with balance-board and gyroscope outfitted controllers that turned gaming into personal home fitness, dance-along gaming, and a whole new generation of immersive entertainment. It may have missed the giant demographic bullseye that had become FPS-obsessed, but it succeeded in other ways. In addition to its celebrated, kid-friendly core titles like Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong, the Wii today is also used to help the elderly maintain coordination and as treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Sony and Microsoft each follow in suit with motion tracking add-on devices for similar gaming experiences, like the Microsoft Kinect, which requires no handheld device at all to play.

Despite growing to be educational and physical therapy tools and home entertainment powerhouses, a recent CNN article suggests “console gaming is dying“, citing a four year decline in the market, emergent mobile gaming, and other economic factors. If true, lead game pioneers aren’t letting us see them sweat. Activision-Blizzard is wagering the opposite, launching their historically PC/Mac-only Diablo series on the PlayStation 3 and 4 later this year. The PS4 supports the new 4K HD video output most homes don’t event have yet, and next-gen blu-ray native support. No word yet on the competing offering from Microsoft, tentatively called the Xbox 720, but both are likely to feature highly social online gaming experiences along with the next generation of on-demand, streaming “cloud” gaming.

In the last year, we have seen Microsoft’s Windows 8 desktop and tablet OS evolve to look more like gesture-friendly home gaming consoles – almost exactly like the Xbox 360 – instead of the other way around. We’ve also seen tighter integration between our smartphones and tablets with the home gaming consoles. For systems like the Xbox 360 that are already more powerful than most cable “tivo” boxes for movies and tv, I’d say the PS4 and Xbox 720 are poised to take more (not less) of the non-gaming streaming content, potentially biting into the immovable broadcast giants themselves. Oh wait, I’ve watched all of my pay-per-view cable events on Xbox Live… not to mention the Mars Rover landing. If my internet provider were on the list, I could get ESPN Sports on it too. Microsoft points out that 40% or more of Xbox Live traffic is non-gaming today.

They may not brew coffee, do dishes, fetch beer or make very good toast (I strongly recommend against it, no matter how hot your unit gets), but they certainly do way more than just games and have risen to be the hardest working component of our home TV, movie and entertainment setups.

I believe the reports of console gaming’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Below are some clips from the PS4 announcement trailer showing off the next gen graphics.

12_destiny 246183-dc1 ps4-killzone-shadow-fall-gameplay-video-4 gaming-deep-down-screenshot

Auvio – best portable speaker under 20 clams

Judge me by my size, do you?

I was in the market for relatively inexpensive external speakers for my laptop when I happened across this hot, ultra portable speaker from Auvio. Coming home for under 20$, it’s too good not to share.

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Serj Tankian’s beautiful “Harakiri”

Energetic, persuasive, engaging. The latest from System of a Down singer Serj Tankian’s solo project is his best work since Elect the Dead and Hypnotize. Fans of his signature style of politically charged rock have come to expect no less, and Harakiri hits the mark.

I missed hearing early previews ahead of the July 2012 release – only picking it up later when the title track music video was featured on Zune. If you haven’t heard it yet, look for it on YouTube or your music store of choice and check out Cornucopia, Figure it Out (also a video), Ching Chime and the title track Harakiri. Great album!