As a musicologist, this one is quite close to my heart. My music taste in general is quite eclectic so, as is slowly becoming a theme of these blog posts, it’s really really hard to narrow down. I have to choose between the music I listen to at the gym (lol when I actually went), to the music that makes me nostalgic, to the music that has challenged me intellectually, to the music that is just plain fun. It’s honestly really really hard. There aren’t many soundtracks from games that I’ve disliked.
I can’t choose.
Right, there’s going to be three categories to this, okay? Most Effective, Most Energising, and Most Nostalgic. Because there are so many incredible soundtracks out there that I can’t just pick one and know in my heart of hearts that it’s the right one.
Most Effective: Dead Space – Jason Graves
An exceptionally well known composer by any standard, Graves has written music for all three games in the Dead Space series as well as the critically acclaimed 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. I studied a few tracks from this soundtrack as part of my undergraduate dissertation on music for horror games, and Jesus Christ does it get the job done. I don’t think Dead Space would be half as scary without the endless pedal notes and an echo effect like you’re in the biggest cave ever and it’s slowly dawning on you that it’s actually the mouth of an enormous, hideous creature.
Dead Space is set in the 26th century on an abandoned mining spaceship, the USG Ishimura. Soon after picking up the Ishimura’s distress call, the protagonist (an engineer by the name of Isaac Clarke) is thrust into a life-or-death battle as he navigates through the deserted vessel, facing heavily mutated corpses, called Necromorphs, who follow Isaac as he attempts to repair the ship. The ship itself is vast, with large open spaces combined with hugely claustrophobic corridors that restrict the player’s vision. The ambient tracks of the soundtrack are equally as expansive, with high pitched tones that seemingly come from nowhere.
In contrast, the combat music of Dead Space is erratic and percussive, designed as a jump-scare (sometimes considered a cheap shot but effective for people like me who literally can’t think of anything less exciting or erotic than being fucking terrified). When the Necromorphs show themselves at the beginning of the game, the player is treated to a short extract of ‘The Necromorphs Attack’, a lovely accompaniment to the unarmed and unarmoured Isaac running blindly down a corridor to escape the heavily mutated corpses vying for his blood. Graves makes heavy use of syncopation (emphasising off-beats, making the music sound irregular and unpredictable) and also has a large array of percussion with different timbres and pitches. In the original soundtrack (not sure if it’s heard in-game) there’s a slow bit in the middle where the violinists tap on the body of their instrument, which makes the relaxing sound of many crawling legs along a hard surface. Yeuch.
Anyone who’s played Dead Space may agree with me that after you’ve played for a while you sort of get the effect it’s going for and the jump scares wear off. That includes the musical ones. It’s unfortunate that this soundtrack is so polarised; it’s either super ambient and creepy or it’s STAB STAB MURDER TIME, with not much in between. Because of this, the effect is somewhat lost after a while, a real shame for hardcore horror fans but great for people like me who don’t particularly enjoy having the shit scared out of them.
Most Energising: Bastion – Darren Korb
Before I dive into why this soundtrack is literally the best gym music ever, have a look at this artwork.
How. Fucking. Beautiful. Is That. It was created by illustrator and graphic designer Marie Bergeron, and it depicts the protagonist and playable character, The Kid. The colours are glorious and I find his eyes so expressive.
As relaxing as the artwork is, the music itself is anything but. It’s a steampunk, bluesy, six-stringed adventure that fits perfectly with the aesthetic of Bastion. Relentless drums drive the music forward, and the combination between live instruments and electronic sound makes for an engaging listening experience.
Bastion begins with the protagonist, The Kid, waking up in his bed after some sort of apocalyptic event called the Calamity. It’s never explained what the Calamity is, but it’s left most people in Caelondia dead. It’s The Kid’s job to find and restore the Bastion, a sanctuary. It’s a platform game with a unique art style and a deep backstory which takes a bit of getting into, but eventually will lead you to a choice that tests your courage and moral compass.
The best track on the soundtrack by far is ‘Setting Sail, Coming Home’, which plays at the end credits. I won’t give any spoilers, but it can only be appreciated by hearing two other songs in the game, as ‘Setting Sail, Coming Home’ is a combination of the bluesy ‘Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)’ and the solemn, regretful lamentation of ‘Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme)’. The two are beautiful in themselves, revealing more about the characters of Zulf and Zia, but together they bring not just the close of the game but an indication of the hardship suffered by the race of people Zulf and Zia belong to, the Ura. It’s a beautiful ending to the game.
I’ve forgotten that I was supposed to be giving this soundtrack the award for Most Energising. Well, it’s really good to jog to, probably because of the constant driving beat that keeps the momentum going forward. I’m also one of those people that has to walk or run to the beat of my music, and this is at a BPM that won’t leave me collapsed on the floor.
Here’s the full soundtrack on YouTube:
Most Nostalgic: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – Jeremy Soule
If you’re surprised, you really shouldn’t be. You really shouldn’t be.
Actually I get the feeling that you’re not surprised, you’ve just got a dull sense of ‘oh god not this again’.
Well, it’s true. It IS the most nostalgic, to the point where I get a whiff of the main theme and my heart rate goes up like a kid who’s just seen a lollipop the size of their head. I get little heart eyes. Alright, big massive heart eyes.
And why shouldn’t I? The first beat of ‘Reign of the Septims’ always makes me so unbelievably excited, remembering my teenage years when I discovered RPGs. Fantasy has always been such an escape for me, and that first theme embodies everything I loved about the game.
I recently transcribed ‘Reign of the Septims’ for my Masters dissertation and it was no mean feat. There’s a heavy echo effect which makes it difficult to hear, and there are so many layers that I had to work hard to isolate them all in my brain. It took hours, and all the while I was there having a total geek out because I’ve never really listened to the track before.
If you fast forward to 1:49 on the video above, you’ll hear ‘Through the Valleys’, which is a re-orchestrated version of ‘Silt Sunrise’ from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Soule orchestrated it again for Skyrim, and it’s my favourite track of all three games. It compliments the vast landscape and entices you to explore. ‘Look at this’, it says. ‘Look at the wonder before you, and all there is beyond. Go. Discover.’ With surging strings pushing the music forwards and woodwinds adding colour and interest, this track gives me a mixture of so many feelings. Nostalgia is just one of many.
Well, this is officially the longest post I’ve written so far, so if you’ve made it down here, thank you so much for reading and please comment below or tweet me at TCasualGamer with any and all thoughts. I’m always excited to hear about other people’s favourite game soundtracks, as they can be so personal so often. I’m really grateful that video game music can give me a emotional experience like no other music can.