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Great game music

Music Games

One aspect of the games industry that I feel doesn’t get the attention itself is its music. Steve Townsley of film music review site Tracksounds says that he pays particular attention to the gaming scene not because he is by nature a gamer but because he considers it a “proving ground” for composers from which “musical talent seems to flourish”. I completely agree with him. Whereas movie soundtracks are becoming increasingly bland and derivative, often dominated by what the industry has termed “sonic wallpaper”, I often find myself marvelling at the richness being achieved by composers in the gaming field, virtually none of whom are household names but who frequently outdo their better-known colleagues in the film industry. A few game composers have crossed over to the world of movies (perhaps most notably Michael Giacchino), but by and large there is little back and forth between the two media.

With that in mind, I decided to put together a list of my top ten pieces of game music. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and my tastes are such that I can go through a period of overdosing on one particular piece or soundtrack, before becoming burned out on it and latching on to something else. It’s also, unavoidably, coloured somewhat by my genre preferences - RPGs and RTSs on the PC, mainly - so no doubt there are a whole bunch of great golf game scores I’ve missed out on… or perhaps not. I should also point out that I haven’t played nearly as many games as I’ve seen movies, so I’m sure I’ve missed some real corkers out there. This is particularly problematic when you consider that very few game soundtracks are released on CD or to download, meaning that more often than not the only way to hear a game’s score is to dig out the CD-ROM and re-install it.

Still, after much consideration, I came up with the list below. I set myself a rule of only choosing one track from a single game, in order to avoid the list from becoming overly populated with pieces from a small number of titles (there are at least a dozen tracks in Icewind Dale that put most movie scores to shame). I also opted not to order it in any way (well, actually, that’s a lie - I sorted it alphabetically). Because these scores are not exactly well-known outside the immediate circles of fans of the games in the question, I’ve linked to online clips of the tracks I’ve nominated wherever possible. Bear in mind, though, that their quality in many cases will be less than stellar, concealing the subtle nuances of the original compositions.

 
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Romance II
Composed by Michael Hoenig
2000

A lot of the music in Baldur’s Gate II is rather bombastic in tone, but it’s the more serene moments that I tend to prefer. Although limited in number, there are a few very nice gentle tracks, the best being the pieces that are programmed to play during the various “romance” exchanges (the game was somewhat unique in that it allowed your main character to pursue a relationship with certain side characters, a device that BioWare has included in a number of its subsequent titles). Like all of the Infinity Engine games, Baldur’s Gate II features a weighty amount of text-based dialogue, and, due to the lack of voice acting and full motion video (most of the time you’re simply looking at static portraits of the involved characters, their expressions never changing), the music becomes all the more essential in order to convey mood. This lyrical piece does a fantastic job of this.

 
Diablo

Diablo

Catacombs
Composed by Matt Uelmen
1996

This track is a little different from the others in the list in that it comes rather close to being “sonic wallpaper”. The Diablo series (up until the expansion set for Diablo II, at least) relies heavily on mood music played at a low volume, largely atonal and with a lot of ambient sound effects mixed in. “Catacombs” is my favourite track in the original Diablo, coming the closest of all the tracks to actually developing a sustained theme, and with some delightfully twisted otherworldly wails cropping up in the background now and then. Try listening to it with headphones on and the lights off - creepy stuff.

 
Diablo II Expansion Set: Lord of Destruction

Diablo II Expansion Set: Lord of Destruction

Fortress
Composed by Matt Uelmen
2001

The expansion set to Diablo II marks a distinct departure in terms of the franchise’s music. While previous entries were synthesised and consisted primarily of indistinct, atonal “noise” to help set the mood, Lord of Destruction employed a full orchestra. The music was recorded in Bratislava and performed by the Slovak Radio Philharmonic and is decidedly Wagnerian in nature, particularly the piece I have selected here, which plays during the lulls in combat when your character returns to the relative safety of the city of Harrogath to heal and stock up on supplies. This is by far the most bombastic in the game, and as such would probably have been incredibly distracting had it cropped up in the middle of a fight, but it fits the desolate, windswept look of the town well. I know some people see this as the moment where the Diablo music jumped the shark, and I certainly hope to see a return to a more ambient soundtrack for Diablo III, but, whether listened to in the game or in isolation, “Fortress” is an excellent piece of music.

 
Guild Wars

Guild Wars

Opening Theme
Composed by Jeremy Soule and Julian Soule
2005

I think it can safely be said that Jeremy Soule is the John Williams of the gaming industry: an award-winning composer with an excellent reputation, always in extremely high demand, and with more celebrated scores to his name than virtually any other musician in the business. He has arguably come closer than any of her peers to gaining mainstream recognition for his talents, and with good reason: Soule’s music stands out as by far the best in the games industry, at least as far as traditional orchestral material is concerned. The Guild Wars series is probably the best of his recent efforts, and while I had a tough time deciding which of the four instalments constituted his strongest work, I ultimately went for the original Prophecies campaign, specifically the rather stirring title piece. What particularly impresses me about this piece is that Soule is able to make it feel epic without coming across as pompous, as self-consciously triumphant orchestral music can often be.

 
Icewind Dale

Icewind Dale

Easthaven in Peace
Composed by Jeremy Soule
2000

I, among others, am of the opinion that the Icewind Dale soundtrack is Jeremy Soule’s masterpiece. Black Isle Studios may have set out to create Icewind Dale as a no-nonsense dungeon crawling alternative to the more narrative-rich Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, but Soule certainly didn’t skimp on the music, and ended up delivering what is, in my opinion, the best score of the bunch. This is an intricate and meticulous composition, featuring a number of individual motifs that are repeated and developed at various points throughout the game. Complexity of this sort is rather unheard of in the gaming world and is becoming something of a lost art in the world of movies, so the attention to detail here is greatly appreciated. In many respects - in terms of both its careful use of themes and its overall sound - it reminds me of Howard Shore’s excellent work on Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, and Icewind Dale came out a year before the first instalment of that trilogy. I had a really hard time selecting a favourite piece here, but eventually went with the main piece for the game’s starting location, Easthaven. Listening to this track, I’m amazed that the entire score was created with synthesisers: there are moments where I could swear I was hearing a real orchestra.

 
Icewind Dale II

Icewind Dale II

Skeleton of a Town
Composed by Inon Zur
2002

For Icewind Dale’s sequel, released two years after the original game, Inon Zur replaced Jeremy Soule as composer, and ended up composing a score that, while similar to its predecessor, was still able to stand on its own two feet. Zur’s sound is slightly harsher and more percussion-oriented than Soule’s, but the overall effect is equally grand - a rich tapestry of diverse themes and sounds, all coming together to provide the players with the emotional connection that isn’t really present in the threadbare story. As with the first game, my favourite track is the main theme for the starting town, in this case Targos. I’m slightly more aware, with this score, that I’m listening to something created artificially using synthesisers rather than being played on real instruments, but that’s really the only negative thing I can say about it.

 
Myth: The Fallen Lords

Myth: The Fallen Lords

Prologue
Composed by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori
Narrated by Geoffrey Charlton-Perrin
1997

Earlier this week, I dug out my old copies of Myth: The Fallen Lords and its sequel, Soulblighter, and gave them a whirl for the first time in years. I can’t say they held up particularly well, with the clumsy controls and camera system, plus the sluggish pace, really getting in my way of enjoying what was, at the time, a fairly novel concept - a 3D tactical strategy game with a fixed number of units and no base-building. Looking back on it, my fondest memories are actually of the mission briefing scenes, which showcase Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s evocative music and Geoffrey Charlton-Perrin (whose name has never, as far as I can tell, been attached to any other project, game or otherwise)’s superb narration. These two elements, working in tandem, create a wonderfully sombre mood that still gives me the chills to this day.

 
Planescape: Torment

Planescape: Torment

Deionarra’s Theme
Composed by Mark Morgan
1999

My favourite of the Infinity Engine games, Planescape: Torment eschews combat in favour of a rich storyline with deep characterisation and a unique world in which decisions have lasting consequences and talking is often infinitely more effective and rewarding than simply bashing skulls in. As with all of the games created using this engine, the lack of recorded dialogue and animation means that the art design and, perhaps even more importantly, the music, assume a major role in communicating mood. A commenter on YouTube once stated, in relation to the piece of music I have selected: “Roger Ebert once said that games weren’t art. I say he goes and sucks a big fat dick, plays PST then come back and say that.” While I can’t say I’m hugely enamoured by his/her choice of words, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind them.

 
Starcraft

Starcraft

Terran 2
Composed by Glenn Stafford
1998

Rather cheesy and a little more new-agey than the sort of stuff I normally listen to, there is, to me, an undeniable charm to the backing music for Starcraft’s Terran faction. Starcraft is a frenetic, fast-paced game and one that demands a soundtrack with a strong rhythm to get your juices flowing, and this music certainly delivers. Three composers are credited for this game’s score, including Jason Hayes and Tracy W. Bush, but I’m going to take a leap and credit this piece to Glenn Stafford, who until the release of World of Warcraft was Blizzard Entertainment’s audio director and a guiding force in all of their games’ music. It certainly sounds the most like his music for Warcraft II his only solo composition for the studio. I suspect this is one of those tracks that you either love or hate, and I suspect my fondness for it stems, to an extent, from the fond memories I have playing the game, but so sue me, I never get tired of it.

 
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Opening Cinematic
Composed by Russell Brower
Narrated by ??
2008

This final entry is a slightly controversial choice, given that the piece of music is taken from a trailer for an expansion set that hasn’t even been released yet (and which, given my opinion of the original World of Warcraft, I am unlikely to ever play), but I was so struck by the music in this piece that it quickly leapt up to the top of my list. It’s entirely likely that, in a few months’ time, it’ll disappear off my radar, but at the moment I’m so enamoured by it that I couldn’t leave it out. As with the prologue to Myth: The Fallen Lords, it’s really the combination of the score and the powerful reading of the dialogue that makes it work so well, but it’s still a very nice piece of score in its own right, and I wish I could get my hands on a version that doesn’t have the music and sound effects.

 
Posted: Wednesday, November 05, 2008 at 10:55 PM | Comments: 4
Categories: Cinema | Games | Music

 
Comments

1.

Some good picks here. The Planescape Torment theme presented in various versions throughout the soundtrack is indeed excellent.

And although everything related to the games is so heavily infused with nostalgia to me that I'm no doubt biased, I do think Mark Morgan's industrial/tribal/ambient music to Fallout 1 and 2 is something extraordinary. But as with a lot of that type of music it requires the right mood and mindset, and does not exactly qualify as easy listening.

Posted by: Pyoko, November 6, 2008 11:55 AM

2.

Seriously? No Halo? I know I just turned into a frat-boy douchebag in your mind, but hear me out...

I'm going to try to keep the overflowing praise in check here, but I have to say this: The single player Halo game was the most cinematic gaming experience I have ever had, and it was almost entirely due to the music. I suspect you left it off the list for one of three reasons:

1. You haven't played it.
2. It was originally released as a console game.
3. It is very popular, and you are trying to shed light on less well known artists.

I doubt if number one is the case, but if it is, FIX IT. You don't have to get a console, the original Halo is available for PC. You don't have to play deathmatch with douchebags and twitch-bitches, the single player game is like participating in one of the best sci-fi movies you have ever seen.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get to number two. First, as I pointed out above, Halo is available on PC. More than that, it was originally DESIGNED for PC, and effectively runs on one, as an Xbox is little more than a specialized PC.

As for number three, I see that you are trying to appreciate under-recognized artists, but you put StarCraft on there, and who hasn't heard that? I've had MP3's of that on my hard disk almost since it came out (Since they put the audio on the CD, it wasn't hard to get).

Honestly, I can't find any reason your list should not include a track from Halo. My favorite is "A Walk in the Woods", but "Truth and Reconciliation" or even "Covenant Dance" should merit a mention.

Aside from that, the list is pretty good. There are some other picks I would disagree with, but not strongly. I would like to point out a few more tracks that are worth checking out, though.

1.) Doom 2 - Map18, "Waiting for Romero to Play"
(Yes, I know it's just a cover of Pantera's "This Love", but I like it anyway. ; )
2.) BioShock - Garry Schyman - "Main Theme (The Ocean on His Shoulders)"
3.) Panzer Dragoon - Yoshitaka Azumo - Main Theme
4.) Morrowind - Jeremy Soule - Exploring 1
5.) SimCity 3000 - The entire soundtrack.
Jerry Martin: tracks 1-2, 4-11
Marc Russo: tracks 3, 13
Robi Kauker & Kent Jolly: track 12
Kirk Casey: track 14
Anna Karney: track 15

I think "Still Alive" by Jonathan Coulton from the Portal soundtrack deserves a mention as well.

OK, I'm out of steam. I'll shut up now. : )

Cheers,

-SG

Posted by: SuperGrover, November 6, 2008 7:18 PM

3.

I haven’t, in fact, played Halo, although my brother has worked his way through all three games and plays the third online on a regular basis. As such, the only music I tend to hear from it is the main menu piece (given that the multiplayer component doesn’t feature any in-game music), and, not surprisingly, I’ve grown a little fed up with it. It’s another O’Donnell/Salvatori collaboration, isn’t it? That’s really the only reason it’s not there - I certainly wasn’t going out of my way to avoid console games or only give props to obscure titles/composers. If I was, I certainly wouldn’t have filled the list with Jeremy Soule scores.

I must confess I haven’t heard any of the tracks in your list (well, apart from the Doom 2 one, but that was years ago and I have no memory of it), but I’ll certainly make a point of tracking as many of them down as possible. Jeremy Soule’s DirectSong.com site is a great resource for tracking down a lot of his music, although unfortunately he doesn’t have the Morrowind score on it.

Posted by: Michael Mackenzie, November 6, 2008 9:17 PM

4.

Max Payne 2 has a wonderfully cinematic soundtrack, although it is a little repetitive. Still, great sountrack and one masterpiece of a PC game. The main theme from Oblivion always stuck in my mind. Very catchy and 'grand'.

Posted by: Marc, November 16, 2008 6:06 PM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 30th 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:

https://www.landofwhimsy.com

 

 
 
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