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.

Five of my favorite video game heroines

1) Amanda Ripley (Alien: Isolation)

Easily one of my favorite characters of any game, Amanda Ripley is the highlight of what might be one of the best games ever made. Alien: Isolation borders on perfect as a beautiful space/horror/survival title, and it owes a good deal of it’s success to its character writers. As the daughter of Ellen Ripley somewhere loosely following the events of the original 1979 Alien movie, Amanda is a skilled engineer whose quest to find out what happened to her mother leads her to take jobs that could one day lead her closer to the mystery surrounding the ill-fated towing ship. As the story progresses and she finds herself hunted as her mother once was, she uses her technical know-how and wits (rather than force) to evade all manner of gruesome death and find critical clues about her mother and her missing crew and the origins of the alien menace. The heart of this sci-fi thriller turns out to be very human, even occasionally touching – and never dull.

2) Cassandra (Dragon Age: Inquisition)

Although Cassandra is not quite a playable character outside of the combat sequences, she is otherwise central to the story in Dragon Age: Inquisition and definitely deserves a spot on a “best of” list of video game heroines. As a complex character defined equally by her flaws, faith, doubts and personal conviction, Cassandra lends a face and voice to a myriad of difficult moral conflicts told in the third Dragon Age. The game as a whole sports some of the best video gaming writing ever penned, and in a story that weaves together many modern issues including religion, war, government, sexuality and individualism, Cassandra’s personal character arc(s) capture more sense of growth and depth than found in any medium, let alone just games. She’s also somewhat of a rare gem, being a strong religious type that narrowly avoids every archetype she might have been compared to – and turns out to be a very likable, believable character that remains true to herself.

3) Max (Life is Strange)

Not quite your literary “everygirl” , the introspective and shy main character Max navigates the perils of high school, family, bullying, drugs and time travel in this unique and stunningly beautiful story-driven game from DONTNOD. We learn more about Max and the other characters in Life is Strange through the choices she makes, questions she asks, and places she explores. No matter if the player opts to make fun of the embarrassed bully or comfort her (among numerous other decision forks), the tale of choice and consequence that develops is far from ordinary.

4) Lara Croft (Tomb Raider 2013)

Unlike the character’s hyper-sexualized prior titles, the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise in 2013 features the origin story of a much more believable, exceptionally well written young Lara Croft. As a shipwrecked student thrust into an epic, gritty story of survival she must work with the other members of the stranded science team to solve mysteries of the island ruins and escape.

5) Maggie (Evolve)

Even though one could argue that the playable hunter characters in “Evolve” aren’t in the same category of hero as the previously mentioned titles, Turtle Rock and 2K managed to squeeze in a surprising amount of “apparent depth” to the characters, dialog and almost-present plot arc in what is otherwise a pure PvP Battle Arena style game. Admittedly no less of a trope than the British safari guy with a white mustache, the grizzled would-be-at-home-in-the-Louisiana-bayou tracker and her alien pet dog pack some of the most interesting dialog and back story in the game.