It is an ethereal experience when music and game combine in the right way. Fortunately for us, such a phenomenon is not exactly rare, and here's where you can find them.
There are so many facets to a game to be considered when evaluating how well it plays: graphics, narrative, character development and design, mechanics of gameplay as well as the contextual lore of the game – and we are only ticking the big boxes here. There is a dimension to a game that ironically goes silent when talking about the virtues and pitfalls of gameplay: the soundtrack. Running in the background like a stalwart servant, the music abetting the game in being either excellent or miserable often goes unappreciated. When you think of Halo, what do you think of? Master Chief? Your Xbox 360 doomed by the red ring of death? Or do you think of that ethereal trademark Halo theme? That is how powerful a soundtrack can be, so we thought we would shine a light on the crème de la crème of the OST world. Here goes.
You could of course start with the big boys, Skyrim being the ringleader, or we could begin by shining the spotlight on a game more modest. Hollow Knight, the cult followed Metroidvania game, has a real hidden gem of a soundtrack scored by Christopher Larkin. With tracks like ‘City of Tears’ sounding as though it could accompany the love theme of Titanic, Hollow Knight has a cheery, buoyant, and rosy sound that escorts the Knight through the acclaimed side scroller. Another song, ‘Dirtmouth’, has a smooth and sophisticated feel to it, again with the confluently hopeful sound of piano and violin, along with the graceful picking of an angelic harp in ‘Greenpath.’ Larkin does a brilliant job of rendering in music the loneliness of Hallownest, the somewhat cute character of the Knight and the overall curiosity and intrigue that leads users into the ruined Kingdom.
Some games are almost known more for their soundtracks than their gameplay, which does more to eulogise the soundtrack than it does to cast aspersions on the game itself. The OST to Journey, a non-linear co-op animated exploration game, won the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media award back in 2013 at the Grammy’s. Engineered by Austin Wintory, among the finest tracks on the OST are aptly named Nascence, meaning to be recently born, and Apotheosis, meaning pinnacle – you just do not expect such an unexpectedly beautiful soundtrack on a game like Journey. The melodic music has a warm desert feel to it, optimistic and delicate, but not afraid to set the tone with some heavy cello solos. Journey’s music does more than make up for the lack of dialogue in-game, it is the dialogue. Put it this way, you can enjoy this soundtrack without having even played the game – it is simply music made for appreciation.
Death Stranding, the Director’s Cut of which released just the other week, has a rather unorthodox view of post-apocalypse society. The haunting vocals from Jenny Plant in Ludwig Forsell’s ‘BB’s Themes’ sum up lead character Sam’s plight perfectly, its a tremendously powerful tune that imbues Death Stranding with a quirky and sanguine futuristic feel, despite the fact that the world is in pieces. The hybrid sound of Low Roar’s innovative track ‘I’m Still Coming’ combines some heavy cyberpunk synth hats with choral humming, seeming to mourn what was lost while concurrently acquiescently embracing what is new. It was also good to see David Bowie’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’ in the games music board too, because a man roaming the hills for eternity is exactly what Sam Porter Bridges is – and no soundtrack can flatline if it has Bowie on it. The soundtrack to Death Stranding is wholly organic in that no beat or vocal seems out of place – it sounds as the game looks – and that’s the making of an excellent OST.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Alright, let’s tackle one of the big hitters: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Jeremy Soule’s masterful creation has so much charm that it is hard to know where to start, but the wistful, city-wondering tittle-tattle of ‘Ancient Stones’ is a good place to begin, with the brief crescendo of strings that ensues epitomising the magic of Tamriel. More, the adventure-inspiring track ‘The City Gates’ employs some Daedric flutes to give towns like Solitude and Whiterun their sleepy milieu. The tender touch of ‘Past and Present’ escorts us out of Helgen and onto our sojourn to Sovngarde and beyond, insisting we tackle a few Mudcrabs on the way. So too does the sagacious sound of Far Horizons that seemed to always play then you were trying to decide which weapons and armour to drop because you’ve exceeded your carry capacity. Jeremy Soule’s Skyrim is the paragon of nostalgia, sending warm shivers down your spine whenever you hear it – at least for me, the Skyrim OST is as just as iconic as the myriad elements of gameplay.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
No discussion of gaming soundtracks is complete without the mention of Marcin Pryzbylowicz’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt OST. ‘Geralt of Rivia’ begins with mystery and intrigue as does the character, evolving to give some fiercely full-on messiah vibes that a man of Geralt’s stature deserves – it’s his red carpet. That quintessential Witcher sound, a symphony of instruments that could accompany any gladiator, gives me goosebumps to this day – you can almost picture a bloody Geralt emerging from a fight with a Basilisk when listening to his theme tune, and of course a cracking sunset in the background should feature too. Another instantly recognisable track, ‘The Trail’, uses that vivid and ripping voice from ‘Silver For Monsters’ that could almost be the cries of the Crohns; you can just hear the danger of Velen in this tune, Geralt and Roach galloping throughout the continent wreaking havoc. Pryzbylowicz’s work augments the masterpiece that is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and that’s no mean feat. My favourite track is the lesser appreciated ‘The Hunter’s Path’ simply because it featured most and reminds me of travelling from town to town in search for Ciri, and being distracted by a bunch of Drowners on the way. Take a look at the listener count on Spotify, and even the standard entries into the huge soundtrack have several million views – I need say no more.
God of War
If you see the name name ‘Bear McCreary’ you know you are in for a treat; The Walking Dead, Outlander, Ava and Battle Star Galactica – they were all the brainchild of this guy. Among his best work is the God of War soundtrack, with tracks like ‘Echoes of an Old Life’ with its deep-pitched choir embodying Kratos’ power, some contrastingly bright violins to boot too, it’s a tune that gets under your skin and conveys the God of War atmosphere just perfectly – and it certainly isn’t scared of adopting those intermittent woodwind and heavy violin hero sounds not dissimilar to the Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Revenant score. Every gladiator needs the sound a dominant orchestra following them trailing them – they are legends. Of course, we also have the famed God of War theme complete with its intense and commanding Slavic sounds, deep choral rumblings and rusted brass, it is as though the interminable hardiness of Kratos’ soul itself is singing. You cannot have a triple-AAA Ancient History warfare game without the serenity of a humming female’s voice; Eivor Palsdottir’s vocals in ‘Memories of Mother’ ties in perfectly with the maternal absence in God of War, bringing the shiver-inducing sound of motherly angst echoing around Kratos and the Boy as they wonder into the fray. Bear McCreary’s God of War soundtrack flawlessly epitomises the brutality of The World and it is for this reason that it cannot be unheard, hence why it sits at the top of many a gamer’s OST rankings.
It never fails to amaze me just how interwoven the sound of Synth Wave is in the tech-noir and Cyberpunk scene. But if you listen to Gunship or The Midnight, you can’t help but conjure up images the neon of city streets at night – it is a genre of music with imagery sewn into the fabric of the sound. Developer Digital’s top-down shooter Hotline Miami game has a title that even sounds like it could be a Synth Wave duo, so it comes as no surprise that the game is saturated with the genre. Going hand in hand with the rowdy nature of Hotline Miami are tracks like Scattle’s ‘Knock Knock’, Mitch Murder’s ‘Frantic Aerobics’ and Com Truise with ‘84’ Dreamin’. It’s an extraordinarily ebullient soundtrack for a game revolving around intense violence and deep arcade-style psychedelic abstraction, but the eccentricity of the game and its 80’s-style gameplay and visuals are what makes the Synth Wave soundtrack (which is synonymous with the 80’s look and feel) so right and ergo so memorable.
You might be outraged if we reached the end of our list and saw no mention of your favourite gaming OST – we’ll have to look at doing a part 2, 3 and 4 to this series to this end. A bunch of honourable mentions range from Clint Mansell’s ‘Leaving Earth’ that rounds off Mass Effect 3, a song of galactic power yet, as in the game, never allowing us to wander too far into oblivion with that recurring piano riff. The original Mass Effect game is not without musical triumph either; Jack Wall’s tranquil ‘Vigil’ remains in the mind of all those who played the game back in 2007. Otherwise, Motoi Sakuraba’s contribution to Dark Souls with ‘Gwyn, Lord of Cinder’ rings true as the paradigm of the gaming/music synergy for some, and for others perhaps ‘Song of Healing’ from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask might be a sentimental blast from the past, too. Hopefully you’ll want to revisit the past after being reminded of a few classic gaming soundtracks, and be sure to let us know of the tracks/soundtracks we have missed and who knows, we might cover them next time.
Images sourced from Steam.