Recently, some game journalists have begun to explore the notion that music may not be as integral to the experience of playing a video game as players once thought. Stephen Totilo wrote a confessional of sorts about the topic. Read it here. I call shenanigans. Regardless of whether or not you turn the volume on your PS Vita down during your commute, it stands to reason that one of the ways in which video games are instantly recognizable is through their music. Hum the theme to Super Mario Bros. and even your grandparents will know where it comes from. You could probably do the same with any Legend of Zelda game and the more recent Halo franchise. Video game music is unique in the sense that it transcends being “just another aspect” of the medium. That is to say, outside the context of video games, video game music has a life of its own. We buy (well… some of us do) the albums and set our ringtones to the stuff.
As far as I’m concerned, that more than justifies some sort of grand send-off for this console generation’s greatest tunes. So, let’s get to it, shall we? Here are the top five video soundtracks of this console generation!
As is often the case with top five articles, they are entirely subjective. If you disagree, that’s okay! Just be mature about it.
5Kameo: Elements of Power
Few people remember this Xbox 360 launch title, and fewer still remember the excellent music to Kameo: Elements of Power. That is damn shame. In many ways, the score to Kameo was ahead of its time. At a time when other games were still using MIDI and orchestral suite software to compose music, Steven Burke opted for the powerful and mesmerizing sound that can be elicited from a live orchestra and chorus. The soundtrack is full of heart-pounding pieces that accompany Kameo’s more cinematic and battle-intense moments. Granted, it is the least nuanced soundtrack on this list; but, what it lacks in compositional finesse it more than makes up for with the flair of its action and unexpected moments of tenderness. Badlands (linked above), Hero’s Theme, Enchanted Kingdom, and Legend Unfolds are the standout tracks, but don’t sell yourself short. The entire album is worth listening to all the way through.
The soundtrack to Fable II should be a case study for every composer that is asked to score the music for an entire franchise. I’m looking at you Martin O’Donnell and Joris de Mann. Perhaps the saddest thing about Russell Shaw is that he hasn’t written any video game music since completing the music to Fable III several years ago. His entire career as a video game composer was spent composing the music to the Fable franchise. Shaw’s music is less about revolution and more about evolution. I can scarcely think of another video game franchise where the evolution of the musical themes tied to the franchise’s identity were handled so expertly. Shaw’s music isn’t bombastic, it doesn’t contain roaring fanfares and schizophrenic strings, and it won’t get your blood pumping. Much of it is soothing, contemplative, if even a bit melancholy, and absolutely charming. More important that all of that, it is memorable. Anyone who has ever played Fable II can tell you exactly when certain tracks were playing in-game. Bowerlake, Westcliff, and Bowerstone Market (linked above) are the tracks to listen to. One can only hope that he comes back and starts writing music for video games again.
I have written elsewhere that the score to Journey isn’t so much something that you listen to as it is something that you experience. Undoubtedly, it is one of the greatest scores to a video game ever composed. Like the game, it is an emotionally driven affair. The music is so vulnerable, so open to the possibilities of life. Despite its vulnerability, it still manages to induce a sense of security. If Journey were a person, I’d tell them every secret I’ve ever kept, every immoral thing I’ve ever done, and I’d feel completely at ease doing so. Austin Wintory deserves every bit of praise that has been heaped on him since the game released. With Journey he has created one of the most enduring works of art this industry has ever had the pleasure of hosting. Nascence, The Road of Trials, Reclamation, and Apotheosis are the tracks you should seek out. To fully appreciate the score, however, you should listen to it in one sitting.
2Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Many prefer Jeremy Soule’s score to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The main reason cited is that the score was more emotive because Soule composed it shortly after getting into a life-threatening car accident. I think that sells the score to Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim incredibly short, for there is plenty of moving music to be found in Soule’s music to Bethesda’s best-selling game. Like the one linked above, for example. I listened through the soundtracks to all of the games I short-listed for this top five. Skyrim took the better part of several hours, but it was the most enjoyable listen-through I did throughout the entire process. Soule, more than any composer composing music for games today, understands what his instruments are capable of. He knows when to have the cellos drop into an F minor chord, he knows when it is appropriate to make use of a choir, and he knows why the piccolo should never, ever be used. His music to Skyrim is imbued with a cerebral majesty unsurpassed by anyone else composing music in today’s industry. Although, the most impressive thing might be how integral the music to Skyrim is in convincing the player that Skyrim is a real place. Soule’s score is a master class in how music can be contextualized to lend authenticity to worlds that are not our own. The tracks to listen to are… well, all of them.
Rarely is there a video game soundtrack that comes along and changes everything. The soundtrack to Phil Fish’s masterpiece is nothing short of the most important, intriguing, and just downright awesome video game soundtrack of the last decade. In many respects, Disasterpeace’s music blew the door wide open for electronically inclined composers. It’s gotten to the point where we expect this “kind” of music when we play an “indie” game. The score to Fez advances the genre in ways that other composers can only be envious of. The music itself is some of the only music I’ve ever listened to that has had a physical effect on me. It’s powerful in every sense of the word. Somehow, despite its ethereal electronic origins, it still manages to feel a part of this world. Some tracks are a cacophony of static, driving the listener deeper and deeper into madness as the bass pounds away into the emptiness of space. Others are electronic celebrations of life and its more tender moments. If you haven’t, listen to the soundtrack to Fez, all of it.
I’m sure many of you dear readers take issue with this list, and I’m glad you do. But, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that we can’t wait to hear what ear candy the next generation of consoles will bring.
What do you think are the best video game soundtracks of this console generation? Let us know in the comments section below!