HeadStuff Picks: The Best Gaming Soundtracks

Music sets the mood. Before there was sound in motion pictures there was music guiding the mood. Actors in films like Nosferatu would act to a metronome giving their movements a rhythm different to the work stage actors were doing. Video games never had this problem. Music and sound were almost always available to them in every form. Whether you were cautiously exploring the halls of a mansion crawling with zombies, fighting in an underwater city or climbing a mystical 8-bit mountain music helped set the tone either upping the tension or pushing you forward. These are a selection of some of the best video game soundtracks.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne has maybe one flaw and that’s having to farm healing items if you run out but that’s a tiny chip in this multi-faceted gem of a game. Boasting no less than six composers Bloodborne’s score is a massive one. The full track list runs to nearly two hours and consists mostly of themes for the various Lovecraft-inspired bosses. A great deal of Bloodborne’s music is choral tracks often minimally assisted by strings, brass and the odd bit of percussion. It’s something that heightens the fear of monsters four times as tall as you and of the more humanoid bosses that seem twice as fast.

‘Cleric Beast’ for instance tracks every swipe of the behemoth’s claws with a screaming Latin choir while the wordless scales of ‘The Celestial Emissary’ are much more mournful and would almost trick you into believing you’re safe were it not for the blue mushroom headed titan bearing down on you. It can be hard to make Lovecraftian monsters and worlds frightening considering so many of them are left under-described but with a design as otherworldly as the Amygdala’s and a booming, madness-inducing track to accompany it’s not hard to see why Bloodborne changed the gaming landscape forever. Andrew Carroll.

Bioshock

2K’s Bioshock is widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time and rightfully so with a twist that shook its players to the absolute core. But even among all that, Bioshock’s score by Garry Schyman is a vastly underrated gem amid all the infamous Splicer killing. Blending 40’s and 50’s ‘show tunes’ and gypsy jazz with creepy sinister ambiance and hypnotic dissonant orchestral strings has never been so… well, creepy. One moment Rapture is audibly upbeat and deceivingly pleasant and the next it’s an adrenaline rush playing with your fears of traversing the next dimly lit corridor.

2K realized that the sound in Bioshock was just as important as the writing or tension filled scenarios and with 2K capitalizing on this, Schyman has created an audible nightmare that makes Rapture all its own. A man may choose, and a slave may obey but horror players simply cannot resist Bioshock’s immense score once they get a small taste of those rising orchestral pitches when standing face to face with darkness and the unsettling cackles of Adam-addicted pursuers. John Hogan.

Bioshock Infinite

The third installment in this popular series offers a fresh take on the atmosphere of its predecessors. The swirling orchestral fills of the first two games worked well in the underwater isolation of Rapture and, while this is maintained in some fashion, the sound is simplified to small string ensembles and at times a lone fiddle or weathered piano. The choral and religions inflections throughout help to add to the ever present awe and wonder seen in your surroundings. A fine display of this is the opening sequence of the game; ‘Welcome to Columbia’ rises up and up through a manic passage of dissonant strings, to the humble piano melody which guides your path into the floating utopia, only to be received into embrace of a choral rendition of the Christian hymn ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ The interplay of strife and salvation are core themes within the game’s world and the constant jumping between the two in a musical sense is just as important to the story as the design and characters. 

This all plays into the overall American feel to the soundtrack: the colour of Irish jigs and player piano ditties add whimsy to a cold and melancholic frontier displayed in pieces like ‘Lighter than Air,’ which seems to offer up a lament for an American Dream gone sour. 

Another high point is the use of anachronistic songs, which helps add narrative texture to the space and time irregularities in Columbia. Modern pop songs are given a turn of the century interpretation, which not only emphasises the versatility and timelessness of a good melody, but also breaths new emotion into recognisable hits. A particular standout is a seaside pipe organ rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna have Fun,’ offering a small scene of peace and seldom found happiness before panic and sadness overtakes the second half of the game. Eoin Carty.

Celeste

Realism is overrated. Plenty of games indulge in making everything as graphically real and authentic as possible. Not Celeste though. The 8-bit endurance test saw players take control of young trans woman Madeleine in her attempt at conquering the magical Celeste Mountain. While playing Celeste the music never stops. Composer Lena Raine’s chip-tune soundtrack soars and swoops with Madeleine as she jumps, dashes and dives over rocks, through waterfalls and against headwinds. Celeste is as easy or as frustrating as you want it to be with an amazing suite of accessibility options. I never needed them, mostly because I didn’t know about them, for most of the game and I credit Raine’s score with drawing me back in for one more run.

There’s a haunting beauty to Celeste with its abandoned cities, impossible geography and endless vistas and tracks like ‘Resurrections’ or ‘Little Goth’ emphasize this with their spooky glitch-house or lonely piano melodies. Celeste often bounces between dreamscapes and nightmares and this fits with Madeleine as her personality physically splits between her more outwardly positive self and the demons she’s kept locked inside for so long. Some tracks like ‘Golden’ dive into the peaks and valleys of this dichotomy, always reaching for light yet remaining trapped in darkness. But it’s the climactic song ‘Reach for the Summit’ that clearly states that Celeste is a journey of self-acceptance, triumph and beauty found in moments both big and small. Andrew Carroll.

Doom

I am a Roman gladiator tearing his opponent’s head off at the neck. I am a samurai gutting my foe with a flick of the wrist. I am a barbarian wild man crushing skulls with every swing of a mace. I am the Doom Slayer bringing righteous fury upon Hell’s legions. If this isn’t how Mick Gordon’s score for id Software’s 2016 reboot of Doom makes you feel maybe seek out some lighter fare. This is music that feels like being caught in the volcanic blast of Krakatoa, like standing at the epicenter of a supernova, like being hit by an artillery barrage at the Somme and like going 10 rounds with Gypsy Danger from Pacific Rim.

The soundtrack to Doom is skin-flaying as only the most complex, heaviest metal can be. ‘Rip & Tear’ is bone-crushing in its power and other songs like ‘Rust, Dust and Guts’ or ‘BFG Division’ feel as complex as something you’d find on a Meshuggah or Periphery record. Interspersed with various spoken-word breaks that build the Doom Slayer from man into myth these barely feel like breaks so low is the growling, gravelly voice that reads them. Rock slide drums and synth scales straining against their chains accompany the seven-and-sometimes-eight string guitars to make up hell’s own symphony orchestra. Andrew Carroll.

Halo 3

Realistically any Halo game could be here. Not you Halo 4, back in your hole! There’s the original majesty of Halo: Combat Evolved, the rush of Halo 2, the jazzy noir vibes of Halo 3: ODST or the melancholic rock of Halo Reach but for my money Halo 3 puts them all in their place. It’s an enigmatic score in its quiet moments full of reverence for ancient civilizations and mankind’s journey among the stars but composer Marty O’Donnell knows just when to smack you in the eardrums with a surging string section backed up by brass that always sounds like it’s about to shoot into orbit. But the one thing that carries through all Halo games is that piano melody.

Simplicity goes a long way with a score. Think Psycho, Jaws and Super Mario. Think Halo. Those opening notes are less a track on a video game score and more of a composer calling their shot. That title theme from Combat Evolved has been filtered into the very DNA of Halo not even the changeover from Bungie to 343 Industries could excise it. It’s more inextricable than the Master Chief. That DNA is present on in-your-face tracks like ‘Behold A Pale Horse’ or more enigmatic songs such as ‘Brutes’ but it’s presence on the likes of ‘One Final Effort’ or ‘Finish the Fight’ is the sonic marker of Halo’s decade of supremacy. That’s iconic. That’s legacy. Andrew Carroll.

Minecraft

Look, Minecraft isn’t the prettiest of games. Its literal block visuals and rough sound design won’t put it at the forefront of cutting edge gaming. But the beauty of Minecraft lies in its simplicity and this is perfectly showcased in its soundtrack.

Often likened to the works of Erik Satie or even Aphex Twin, C418’s ambient soundtrack gently hums and softly sings across sand, sea, caves and valleys. Any other style of music would do disservice to what this game is trying to achieve. It’s not high fantasy, not strictly survival horror and it’s not a building simulator, but rather an open-ended chance to experience any of these genres depending on how you feel. Its music is a passive guide along whichever journey you choose.

Its focus on gentler orchestration (piano, plucked strings, softer synthetic orchestral swells) along with often resonant and distant music, such as the piano in ‘Danny’ or ‘Mice on Venus,’ echoes somewhere in the back of your mind, faint yet familiar. The use of the music box and similar tuned percussion like in ‘Haggstrom’ helps create this lullaby feel, while the intentional dissonance of some instruments gives an imperfect touch like the pleasant misremembering of a fond memory. This, combined with the building block gameplay, almost childlike design and graphics harkening back to more retro games, help to reinforce the nostalgia and comfort of this gaming experience.

Its masterclass in ambiance turns eerie at times too, with ‘Concrete Halls’ and ‘Valley of the Cats’ proving suitably sinister and atmospheric for the more dark and foreboding areas of the world.

While Minecraft could at times be seen as a repetitive slog of just mining and crafting, this soundtrack perfectly grounds the experience into something humble and rewarding, like climbing a steep hill if only to admire the stunning fields below. It is a soundscape that encourages you to take some time out and relax in this paradise of your own design. Eoin Carty.

Resident Evil

Whither the musical cue? Whither an easy key melody or guitar lick? Whither simplicity? Resident Evil was a simple game. There was no deep lore that would come with its later sequels. Nor was there gameplay more complicated than shoot and don’t get bit. This kind of simplicity was reflected in its music. With not one, not two but three composers in Makoto Tomozawa, Koichi Hiroki and Masami Ueda they brought a John Carpenter sense of economy to the score recognizing that less is more. Ever since its first iteration Resident Evil has been noted for its iconic save room themes with ‘Save Heaven’ being the first and best.

Much of Resident Evil’s action takes place in bursts especially within the first half of the game as you’re more focused on exploring, solving puzzles and hoarding ammo. So the music is more meditative and almost calming even if you’re stiff as a board so terrified are you of what’s around the next corner. ‘Dining Room’ or ‘Statue With A Map’ aren’t so much tracks as they are elements of a wider storm letting you know that whatever’s behind the next door isn’t friendly and will more than likely want to eat your face. Evil ambiance suits it pretty well I think and it is rare that the game comes out with any kind of bold bombast but when it does so with ‘Ultimate Bio Weapon’ you really feel the heat. There’s a reason every part of Resident Evil remains iconic. It’s like Frankenstein. It’s timeless but also time-specific in a perfectly balanced way. You’ll never hear ‘Moonlight Sonata’ the same way again… Andrew Carroll.

Silent Hill 2

Akira Yamaoka is a legendary composer who has treated us to some of the most audibly unnerving sounds ever created in a video game and Silent Hill 2 is the pinnacle of that disturbing genius. Focusing on dread and atmosphere, Yamaoka has dedicated to creating the sounds of the apocalypse with Konami’s Silent Hill 2. Whether it’s the strangely soothing, sleep-inducing ambience of tracks like ‘White Noiz’ or the nightmarish Trip-Hop influence of tracks like ‘Terror In The Depths Of The Fog’, every moment of Silent Hill 2’s score is a journey.

Capturing the psychological trauma of it’s narrative perfectly, Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack is iconic to say the least and without a doubt, Yamaoka’s greatest achievement. You only have to play a couple of seconds of ‘Promise (Reprise)’ and you are sure to find someone (sinister or not) behind you humming it’s lucid piano work in sheer appreciation. Yamaoka’s work on this one is arguably the greatest horror video game soundtrack of all time. John Hogan.

Streets of Rage 2

A marvel of the 16-bit generation, the work of composer Yuzo Koshiro is considered by many as one of the most influential soundtracks of all time. Utilising the then-dated technology, Koshiro created music that bridged the gap between the arcade and the dancefloor.

In the 90’s, video games did not have as much credibility and status as it does today. Seen as its own contained genre with a limited purpose, video game music was considered to be somewhat confined. This is not the case with SoR2; its songs can draw heavily on the music of the time, with ‘Go Straight’ utilising aspects of acid house, while ‘In the Bar’ features a bizarre funk/ jazz mix of previous decades.

Songs like ‘Expander’ and ‘Revenge of Mr X’ have this immense layering to them, almost to the same level as actual artist released electronic music. The limitations of the equipment seem to fall away and you are left with some absolute floor fillers. The manipulation and production of this basic technology is a testament to Koshiro’s ability, as well as the potential in video games to create such impressive blend of unique sounds with a real-world appeal.

 Since it s release nearly 30 years ago, composers of the Streets of Rage series recently showcased this music in a DJ set which shows just how comfortable it can stand on its own as electronic music.

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