Great videogame soundtracks – part two
This is part two of my ‘great videogame soundtracks’. If you haven’t already, check out part one here.
Morrowind and Oblivion both featured varied and interesting scores. However, as a consequence of the size of the game environments, it wouldn’t be long before the player would hear the same themes again and again. The advantage of open-world games in modern settings is that the car radio is a great device for filling empty spaces, something fantasy games can’t do. Skyrim’s score is so extensive that this never really becomes an issue. Despite the size of the score, the quality is consistently very high.
Where Morrowind and Oblivion’s score were limited to fighting, exploring and towns; Skyrim’s score is greatly expanded by introducing themes more suited to a specific place or time. ‘The Streets of Whiterun’ is pretty self-explanatory. The subtle Celtic influence of the strings and soft choir go to great lengths to capture the feel of Whiterun with quiet dignity.
When a dragon attacks in Skyrim it should be a big deal. While AI quirks or balancing issues with the gameplay might detract from the dramatic battle, the score is very effective in keeping the player immersed in the fight. ‘One They Fear’ in particular works in a really interesting way because instead of feeling like the dragon’s theme, it becomes the theme of the player. It essentially becomes your superhero theme for the fight. The pounding drums and intense choir work well to rouse the player, making retreat a much harder decision.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
This superb soundtrack really shouldn’t work but somehow it just does. When it came to figuring out how to compose a stealth and military espionage game, I can’t imagine too many people would think of Amon Tobin. A Brazilian electronica artist, Amon Tobin is known for glitchy jungle beats with jazz influences. It is to both Amon Tobin and Ubisoft’s credit that the soundtrack works so perfectly in the game. Stealth games should be about fear and tension, each sound and each shadow is an enemy to face. The strange, almost unidentifiable sound effects embedded within Amon Tobin’s score create a feeling of immense pressure, half replicating the sound of a creaking door or a crunching boot on glass. The quiet tension of the eerie strings and alien-like ambiance are soon ripped away when your cover is blown. And boy is it blown, huge chaotic percussion and drums thrown at you and as you are forced to react, running through the darkness, being hunted. This is exemplified in ‘Displaced’.
‘The Lighthouse’, which is probably the closest thing on the soundtrack to a theme tune, encapsulates everything that’s great about Chaos Theory. It’s brilliantly refined but also daring and original, other games just don’t sound like this. In my opinion Chaos Theory was Splinter Cell at the height of its power and the soundtrack really signifies that. While perhaps more polished, the newer iterations have lost that brilliance at the heart of Splinter Cell. At the risk of sounding like a hipster; Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was Splinter Cell when it was cool.
Batman: Arkham City
First, a quick rundown of Batman’s recent soundtrack history:
Danny Elfman set the pace in 1989 with his brilliant theme tune (the less said about the Prince soundtrack the better). He then adapted the theme for Batman: The Animated Series with Shirley Walker, who then followed it up with another great theme for the continuation of the series. While justifiably lamented as films, the Schumacher Batman was very well scored by Elliot Goldenthal. Despite the films being terrible, Goldenthal’s theme is memorable and evokes the Elfman theme while remaining unique.
Hans Zimmer was next to report for composing duty in Christopher Nolan’s rebooted trilogy. While memorable and tonally consistent, Zimmer and Nolan made a concerted effort to move away from the gothic sound of the previous films. Unlike the previous screen entries, the Nolan Batman films don’t have a clearly defined ‘main theme’.
When you look back at Batman’s screen history, the thought of scoring a Batman game must be a daunting one. However, when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, composer Nick Arundel did some excellent work. The score was dark, foreboding and claustrophobic, just as a score for a grim hospital for the criminally insane should be.
With Arkham City in 2011, Nick Arundel raised his game significantly. With the larger scope and game-world, Arundel injects a much bolder sound into Arkham City. The huge main theme retains the motifs created in Arkham Asylum and builds them into something much grander sounding. The style is a return to the gothic sound of the earlier films and animation, incorporating extensive choir work and sweeping strings. The theme is fantastic, managing to feel like its own entity whilst still having that ‘Batman feel’.
‘I Think You Should Do As He Says’, is a really great piece of music, it utilises the Arkham motif intermittently whilst constantly building and raising the stakes. The piece kicks in when a bunch of thugs with guns have some hostages, the game’s first proper ‘silent predator’ section. The music works so well because despite the fact that it is essentially a stealth mission, the increasing tension and fast pace of the music forces the player to respond quickly. While most stealth games would feature slow subtle music, Arkham City’s score dictates fast-paced stealth, forcing you to move quickly, while remaining epic and cinematic.
For me, the Arkham City score can easily sit among the Batman’s other great scores, which is deservedly high praise.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
Bloodlines is a game of pure atmosphere, it’s difficult to describe but the game has a very unique ‘feel’. Despite being released in 2004, Bloodlines has a very 90s/00s feel about it. The game is broody and melancholic; it could easily have been scored by Massive Attack or Portishead. Indeed, it is heavily influenced by Trip-Hop, music that is incredibly apt thematically for the lives of soulless beings that only exist at night. The game is set during what are referred to as the ‘final nights’ and there is sense in the soundtrack of a nihilistic acceptance that the world could indeed be ending.
While the combat themes are fairly underwhelming, it is in the game’s four ‘hubs’ that the soundtrack really excels. Throughout the story, the player travels around LA in three different micro open-worlds: Santa Monica, Downtown, Hollywood and Chinatown. Each theme beautifully conveys the game’s mood.
The first theme the player hears is for Santa Monica, there is an underlying sadness that encapsulates the existence of the vampires of Bloodlines.
The theme for Hollywood is simple and chilling. Lonely guitar chords are overlaid with a subtle sub-bass and resonating, modulated versions of the additional underlying guitars. The theme evokes feelings of nostalgia and loss, as if this was once a great place but now it’s just a distant memory. A lot of people missed this great game and I would strongly recommend anyone who did to pick it up; the best way to experience the soundtrack is by experiencing the game.
Released in 2002, Mafia was a mature, well written gangster movie videogame. While it may not have had The Godfather or Goodfellas license, Mafia’s influences were obvious for all to see. As with any crime epic, the score was extremely important. With the motion capture and incredibly realistic facial animation of today’s games, it’s worth remembering the games that were able to draw you into their characters and performances without the sophisticated hardware we have today. Superb voice work and an incredibly well realised soundtrack are huge factors in the success of Mafia’s storytelling.
‘Fate’, the final piece on the soundtrack, plays at the game’s shocking finale. The music, combined with Tommy’s monologue creates one of the best videogame endings ever. Few games have resonated with me emotionally the way that Mafia did and it’s score is one of the reasons why it will stay with me for a long time.
So, there you have it. That’s my collection of great soundtracks; there are undoubtedly many other great ones that I’ve missed, but here are a few honourable mentions (with links):
What are some of your favourites? Let me know in the comments section below.