Monday, November 12, 2012

Crew Post: The Power of Music

Music has been in video games since, well, at least Donkey Kong.  That is to say, a long time.  It is as much a part of the industry as graphics.  But how important is it?  How does it affect the gameplay experience? What are some of your favorite (and least favorite) soundtracks or songs?  The crew weighs in with their opinions:


Beautiful music is becoming a key factor in many games and for good reason.  They add to the gameplay experience.  Whether it is a powerful rock song as I blow apart buildings or a soothing lullaby as I put farm animals away for the night, music helps me be more immersed in the game and intensifies my emotions.  Some songs are fantastic by themselves and I love buying them just to listen to them whenever.

Some of my favorite games are well known for their music.  The Halo series has beautiful music done by an excellent composer.  The Halo 2 soundtrack was the first soundtrack I ever bought.  Prince of Persia used music to influence the feel of the game.  For instance, The Sands of Time has amazing Persian influenced music that adds to the mysticism while Warrior Within has heavy metal to emphasize the brutal attitude of the Prince.  And anytime I hear the Super Mario Bros. theme, I smile with memories.

Persian influenced rock always makes slicing up sand creatures more satisfying. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) 

Of course not all games have good music and it can detract from the game, but I will admit that I will keep playing a game that has great gameplay even if the music is terrible.  However, very rarely will I consider a game a favorite if the music is bad and it definitely detracts from the experience.  I respect any studios that go the extra mile and spend the extra money to include wonderful music in their games because without it the game will always feel like it is missing something important.


Music is an integral component in all forms of media, it can heighten or break tension, it can add emotional resonance or establish time and mood. Great examples of the use of music that immediately come to mind include Halo 2, Half-Life 2, and Skyrim. The first two are linear games and the music comes in at the exact intended moment every time, it is used to great effect but with Skyrim, it is an open-world and certain events trigger the music. When you start battling a dragon, the music is right there with you to increase the intensity and adrenaline and it is immensely satisfying. The three examples above are all scores written specifically for the series by very talented individuals but often music groups are featured in video games and enhance the experience as well.

One of the biggest influences in my musical taste occurred because of a video game. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines featured gothic-rock artists such as Lacuna Coil, Type O Negative, and Darling Violetta among others. Because of this game I fell in love with this genre which I still enjoy today. Fallout: New Vegas is also a game I cherish because of its great score but also because of its in-game music featuring such talents as Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and The Ink Spots. This music solidifies the 1950's & 60's feel it is going for.

The Ink Spots lull us into a false-sense of security and time with music. Fallout 3 (2008) 

I think it's an easy thing to under-appreciate but it would be a grave error for game-designers to overlook the music aspect of a game, even for simple apps.


Obviously this is a huge topic to attempt to tackle in one sitting, but I want to play along! My abiding love of video game soundtracks stems from the late '90s when I started building my personal library of film scores. The feelings I felt while watching the movie could be taken with me wherever I went. Overtime I paid more attention to the soundtracks of what I was playing and found the reserves to be just as rich. Harnessing the power of music is an ineffable tool for accessing memories and the emotions that accompanied them. But of course hearing them in their element (i.e. while playing the game) is where the magic is complete.

This plays at a crucial moment during the single-player experience. Red Dead Redemption (2010)

It is no coincidence that my favorite soundtrack of late comes from one of the best games of this generation, Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption. Like the game itself the original score is clearly influenced from nearly a hundred years of Western movies, most notably those scored by genius composer Ennio Morricone. It instantly elevated itself to legendary levels, praise be to composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson. I could gush about any given track from the game, but listen to "Far Away" by Jose Gonzalez. Most of the game has a classic instrumental score, but when this lyrical Southwest lamentation plays when you first reach Mexico... the effect left me awe-struck. You can watch this moment of the story-driven game above.

One of the many great songs you can here on the car radio. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

Speaking of Rockstar, I would be absolutely amiss if I didn't mention the "mix-tape soundtracks" of their Grand Theft Auto series. Starting with Grand Theft Auto III every time you "commandeered" a car you had access to the radio and several different stations. The songs, (some familiar, some new) became dear friends. Whether it was "All My Exes Live in Texas" as heard on K-Rose in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or the iconic "I Ran (So Far Away)" on Wave 103 in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, my tastes and horizons were widened as a result. Not to mention it created a needed diversion from the rest of the gameplay. The 7-disc Vice City soundtrack is something I still play in my car to this day. Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" (above) plays great as your cruising around in Vice City or where you drive in the real world. This brilliant mechanic was duplicated to fine results in Mafia II and even this year's Sleeping Dogs.

An old-school styled soundtrack helps set the stage and breathe mystery into the game world. Sword & Sworcery (2011)

Video game themes are now just as iconic as those of films. Halo, Uncharted and even Angry Birds are recognizable in the first notes. Then you have something like Sword & Sworcery trailblazing a new route and creating a unique ambience that is iconic in its own way (above). The resurgence of 8 and 16-bit (chiptune) soundtracks in today's indie games is also quickly worth noting. Check out an example from VVVVVVChristopher Tin's Grammy-winning score for Civilization IV is downright inspiring. Listen to it in its entirety here, makes for excellent background music while you surf the web. There are many more soundtracks I want to spotlight, but I will have to find occasion to do so in future posts!


Music in games... Where do I even start? I could write a book- no no no, I could dedicate my life to the impact music has on games. But seeing as I'm only given a few paragraphs I'll just brush the surface. Seriously though, I advise every crew member to write their own feature on game music, the topic deserves it.

Music is probably my most important component of games. Seriously! I value good music more than gameplay, more than art direction, more than level-design, more than dialogue, more than EVERYTHING. I am willing to play a game with broken controls, repetitive gameplay mechanics and a predictable plot, as long as it has damn good music. Does that mean I play games like that? No, because there are plenty of games with flawless controls and gameplay PLUS fantastic music. Most of the games I choose to play are games whose soundtracks I've been listening to over and over weeks in advance. Half of my music library is filled with game soundtracks... and that's over 100Gb of music. I think I've proven how much I love game tunes. 

I'm not going to list what games I think have spectacular soundtracks because I don't feel like writing an encyclopedia; I'm not even going to list my favorite composers (but I will mention Koji Kondo is a god).  Instead I'm just going state a bunch of random things about game music I feel is important.

Koji Kondo being a god. Mario Galaxy (2007)

Music is the one aspect of games you can appreciate outside of games themselves. You can't take a game's art or gameplay with you to the store. But music? Music you can enjoy anywhere. Game tunes are perfect for when you're studying, driving, and obviously, playing games. 

Game music is almost its own genre. Sure, in recent years the big-budget games have been sporting more orchestrated soundtracks, similar to what you hear in movies. But at its core, game music is built around something more simple: melodies, buckets and buckets of melodies. Memorable game soundtracks have a memorable melody. Something catchy. Something you can hum and just can't seem to get out of your head. 

Chrono Trigger (1995)

Back in the dawn of games, technology didn't allow for high quality sounds, so composers had to resort to low bit forms or music. And the main method, really the only method, a composer could make a good tune for a song was by making it more melodic. Stringing basic sounds together to make  tune that could both fit in a game's memory and stick inside a child's head all day. THAT is what game music was. But as technology advanced games were allotted more memory to dedicate to music; tunes didn't have to be melodic or catchy to be good anymore. Games could have tracks that were more ambient/moody. Or they could borrow popular music of the time. The type of music completely depends on the type of game. The Silent Hill games need those dark, ambient tracks; anything else just wouldn't be setting right mood. Likewise, games like Guitar Hero and FIFA really benefit from using songs from popular musicians. 

Not the most catchy tune, but its not supposed to be. It's meant to set a mood. Minecraft (2011)

So game music isn't limited to melody heavy soundtracks anymore. The technology isn't holding it back and the shear number of game types allow for any genre of music to be used, so long as it fits the game. But I still have a sweet spot for those melodic tunes that stick in your head. They really make games just that much more memorable.


I wish I could talk about every game that I loved because they all had a soundtrack that swept me off my feet and carried me to a love hotel, but we'd be here for hours. So I'll just talk about a few.

Music has always been a huge part of my "immersion factor". For me, a game without quality tunes might as well be garbage. I have been known to even play bad games just because they have good music. NieR for example, that was a confused game. NieR was trying to be a "bullet hell shooter" and an action-adventure RPG. More importantly though (to me), was the music it had; the music made it all come together, making me not care one bit about it's flaws. The music in NieR immersed me to the fullest.

I still have a gameplay save just to boot up and listen to this now and again. NieR (2010)

Okay so maybe NieR isn't a "bad" game but it is confused and definitely one of the underrated games of the last few years.

Square Enix sure knows how to make a good soundtrack. Back in high school I played a lot of Final Fantasy XI (FFXI for short) which is an MMO that game out before World of Warcraft. FFXI had, hands on, the greatest MMO sountrack I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand. In fact, to this day I feel it was the music that kept me enthralled for years of my life. Until FFXI, there was very little music in MMOs to make you feel as heroic as a player in Vana'diel.

FFXI is filled with music like this. Final Fantasy XI (2003)

I'll end on a couple of my top moments that has to do with the music bringing it all together. They are both in Metal Gear games. As a huge fan of the series I have been playing these games since I was a tiny man. I feel as though Snake's battles were fought in good places in my life. When his struggles reached an end I felt an empathetic relief, you know what I'm saying? The first scene is from Metal Gear Solid 3 near the end.

(Spoilers) Watch until 2:15 if you don't want to see the cutscene:

Another moment I keep a game save for. I love to play this fight over sometimes. Metal Gear 3 (2004)

(Spoilers) The other is from Metal Gear Solid 4:

Brothers face off at the end the same way it began. Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008)

The beauty in that last video is how as the fight progresses it changes the music from Metal Gear 1 to 2, 3 and finally 4. This moment of closure brought together by music!

As you can see music plays a huge role in my gaming experience, and I don't see that ever changing. My name is Casey Holt and I am a video game music addict.


  1. I have to say that FFXI has the best soundtracks ever. Years after having not played it one of the beginning zones came up randomly on my ipod, Sarutabaruta came on and I got rather misty eyed. I had so much fun playing FFXI and alot of emotion is tied to it's music.

    1. Also I will buy special editions, collector editions, and any other editions if it means I get a soundtrack.

  2. also check this out, symphony of Pokemon Red and Blue