Video game soundtracks have come a long way since the Atari days. Back then, beeps and boops were all you had. Some games made do with these limitations and excelled, but others produced auditory abominations that demanded muting.
Now, though, thanks to advances in storage media, games with a big enough budget can produce soundtracks that are on par with Hollywood film scores. Video games as well as their music have really begun to come into their own within our culture. Hans Zimmer even assisted with the Modern Warfare 2 soundtrack, if that tells you anything. Going the extra mile and arranging a full, live orchestra to perform and record your game soundtrack/score instead of using samples really bumps up the production values and atmosphere. Some games have such quality orchestral soundtracks that they demand recognition by virtue of that alone, games like…
Metal Gear Solid 3
Composers: Norihiko Hibino and Harry Gregson
All Metal Gear Solid soundtracks are above average, but this game departed from the traditional, techno-influenced formula of synthesizers and samples. Instead, the composers evoked the cool rock edginess of a James Bond film mixed with some more traditional instruments. Beneath the smooth guitar and jazz flute lies full orchestral sections. There’s also a complete orchestra in the karaoke showstopper that is the Snake Eater theme. The strings, horns, and percussion really add a lot to this game, and makes you feel like the Cold War era could have been a lot more stylish and fun than I bet it actually was.
Composer: Jason Graves
A lot of people claim they don’t remember the Dead Space music, but if you start listening to the tracks again by themselves they just ooze quality. Most game orchestras let one section dominate over the other and take the foreground. Dead Space instead perfectly blends brass, strings, and percussion to create a chilling, ambient soundtrack that stands above most horror films. The soundtrack is involving and emotional, despite it’s almost total lack of a catchy theme or melody.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Composers: Hajime Wakai, Shiho Fujii, et al, with contributions by Koji Kondo
Skyword Sword had some impossibly big shoes to fill. The Zelda series has some of the best video game musical compositions, bar none. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of the series, the first fully-orchestrated Zelda score doesn’t quite hit the ball out of the park. What it does provide are some swelling, triumphant moments worthy of veteran Koji Kondo’s legacy (who only contributed a meager portion to the game’s compositions). Epic battle themes and adventurous symphonies abound in this score, and it has it’s fair share of hooks, such as Groose’s theme. My favorite tracks, though, all communicate the splendor of flying in the open sky, something this game definitely excelled at.
Composer: Garry Schyman
Speaking of sky exploration, Bioshock Infinite‘s soundtrack really blew me away. There are a variety of rock and patriotic folk tracks mixed in, but the orchestral pieces composed by Garry Schyman steal the show. This game managed to walk a fine line between wonder and terror, and the score evokes the underlying sense of doom lurking beneath every spectacle. Elizabeth’s song and the Songbird theme stick with you days after playing, but the thumping battle themes (which admittedly have some synth mixed in) are what really dropped my jaw.
Super Mario Galaxy
Composers: Mahito Yokota, Koji Kondo
This is the game that convinced me of the difference a real orchestra makes. The game switches to synth and samples for things like bonus levels or boss battles, but there are more than enough fully orchestrated tracks to make up for it.
I remember the first time I entered a galaxy level I was overwhelmed by the emotional effect of the music, especially as it modified along with my progress. The game’s arrangements have a powerful, positive effect, and make me feel like Nintendo has just blasted me into space with the entire world cheering me on. There’s nothing so sublime as jumping around a floating planetoid while strings and woodwinds joyously swell behind me. It’s also hard picking a favorite track from this score, but I’d say the Disney-esque observatory theme stuck in my head just as well as any traditional Mario tune could.
Composer: Jeremy Soule
Oh god I love this soundtrack. No other game tune (except maybe the Snake Eater theme) makes me want to belt it out so bad in a public place as the Skyrim theme. I’m not sure if the fact that it’s written in a made-up gibberish language makes it easier or harder to do so.
Skyrim‘s score has a lot of ground to cover, but manages to feel consistent and thematic throughout the game’s lengthy travels and incredible battles. The music also dictates emotion quite well, matching up with the ravishing landscapes while you tromp about on your quests to do earth-shattering things like, uh, collect ten butterfly wings.
My favorite tracks are the ones that randomly play while you explore the field. They have a sense of capturing the beauty of the everyday moment. I love this night piano piece, but the one that takes the cake for me is the Tolkein-esque Explore Day theme #9
Shadow of the Colossus
Composer: Ko Otani
I would argue that no soundtrack is so vital to a video game as Shadow of the Colossus‘s. While other games may have more catchy or technically proficient scores, the score in Shadow of the Colossus contributes to the complex emotions you experience as you play the game.
The Colossi are works of digital art, no question, and as you take them on one by one there is a distinct sense of regret at felling such magnificent and magnanimous creatures. At the same time, however, you feel an amazing spiritual rush as you sprint down the back of a monster bigger than some city blocks while hundreds of feet in the air. There’s no other game that pumps the adrenaline in such a direct way; the vicarious experience of controlling your character makes you feel like the world’s most badass hitman who specializes in taking down ten storey monsters.
The music contributes to this sensation as much as the graphics do. With a powerful, cinematic score, the music adjusts as you make your way through key points in the colossus’ defenses, hearing a trilling crescendo as you scramble higher up their bodies and closer to the weak point. I’ve had the colossus theme in my head while driving or at work, transporting myself to a time when I could be slaughtering mythical beasts instead of punching a clock. This game exemplifies, above most others, that a full orchestral score can completely dictate the player experience.