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
Composed by Michael Hoenig
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.
Composed by Matt Uelmen
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
Composed by Matt Uelmen
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.
Composed by Jeremy Soule and Julian Soule
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.
Easthaven in Peace
Composed by Jeremy Soule
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
Skeleton of a Town
Composed by Inon Zur
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
Composed by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori
Narrated by Geoffrey Charlton-Perrin
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.
Composed by Mark Morgan
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.
Composed by Glenn Stafford
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
Composed by Russell Brower
Narrated by ??
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.