Music in Games

Music in video games is just as important as music in film and television. A game’s musical score intensifies the emotions you’re meant to feel throughout the different points of the game.

I’ve been listening to instrumental music for many years while writing — jazz, blues, electronic music, instrumental rock but mostly film and television scores. It wasn’t until later on that I realized how many great video game scores exist.

John Williams has many recognizable themes in his movie scores (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and so many more). Think of shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld (Ramin Djawadi). In video games, we also have our all-time favorites and  recognizable themes (think Tetris and the Mario themes). Just by mentioning Halo, we can all hear that theme playing in the game menu.

The story behind the iconic Halo theme with Former Bungie composer Marty O’Donnell (from IGN Unfiltered)

Zelda games are very musical and full of great compositions. I like to think that the “Classical Music” of today is just movie, TV and video game scores. Orchestras now perform these scores in live concerts. No one wants to listen to live versions of Beethoven or Mozart anymore, we want John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Ramin Djawadi (and Rick Urban) — the modern day classical composers. I’ve been to many concerts and live shows in my lifetime and seeing the music of Game of Thrones live in concert was one of my favorite live music experiences.

I’ve compiled a list of my TOP FIVE video game albums that I’ve been listening to for some time now (in no particular order), some old and some new. I left out some of the classics (Zelda, Mario). I don’t know if it’s because of the music, but these five games (and gaming franchises) have made a big impact on me.

CELESTE – Lena Raine

Celeste (2018)

The music from Celeste is absolutely perfect from the very beginning. Celeste is an intense indie side scroller where you play as Madeline who is trying to climb Celeste mountain. Anytime I listen to the beginning of the album I’m immediately transported back to that initial big jump on the bottom of the mountain (if you’ve played the game you know what I’m talking about).

Some games have their music weaved into the background sounds and you don’t really get a true feel for the music while playing. It’s more of a subconscious listening. In Celeste, the music is heavily featured in the forefront, and it’s very memorable. It’s soft during more relaxing times, and speeds up during chase sequences.

Celeste is a game that deals with depression and anxiety and Lena Raine was the perfect person to put together a soundtrack that brought that message across. The music takes you through all types of feelings. It relies on heavy synth and electronic sounds.

Check out some music from Celeste below:
Listen on Apple Music

First Steps – Celeste Original Soundtrack – Lena Raine

ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST + ORI THE WILL OF THE WISPS – Gareth Coker

Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020)

Ori and the Blind Forest and it’s sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps are both great platform-adventure metroidvanias where you must move between platforms and solve puzzles. You play as a small white guardian spirit, named Ori, and you explore this giant wilderness fighting beasts and monsters and meeting new friends along the way. As you unlock new abilities you’re able to open new areas in previous locations.

Ori and the Blind Forest’s musical tone starts off cheerful and epic, but as you make your way through the game it goes back and forth between cheerful to dark and intense. The opening music feels like the end of a big adventure movie, like our heroes have just solved their quest. Ori’s journey is full of emotions and different feelings. He meets friends and faces different adversaries, and this whole journey is propelled forward by the music.

While the first game started off very cheerful and happy, the second game already felt very serious from the beginning. The stakes felt much higher. When starting the first game (Ori and the Blind Forest) I thought, Wow, look at this cute little dude with his big eyes. When starting Ori and the Will of the Wisps I thought, Damn, this dude has been through some stuff in that first game. What’s next?

The Ori soundtracks have been great companions for writing and brainstorming. There are many times where the music goes from big, happy sounds to slow, spookier tones. The game also features some epic chase sequences where you must stay hidden from giant enemies or run quickly as they’re chasing from behind. The music greatly amplifies the feelings of fear and panic.

Check out the Ori soundtracks on Apple Music:
Ori and the Blind Forest
Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Music from the Ori and the Will of the Wisps E3 Trailer (2018)

HADES – Darren Korb

Hades (2018)

Hades is a roguelike action RPG (role-playing game) featuring permanent death and randomly generated dungeons. The game has a very fun hack and slash combat system. You play as Zagreus, son of Hades, who is just trying to escape from Hell — which is no easy task. I still haven’t made it past the second “boss.”

The music of Hades is like a hard rock/metal album, featuring some heavy acoustic songs and even some beautiful ballads. It even features some middle eastern sounding instruments and sounds. I appreciated the music while playing the game, although the game itself was too loud to fully listen to the songs in the background at times. After listening to the album on its own I now “hear” the songs as I play through the game.

This soundtrack gives off the vibes of if Metallica created the score to a western that takes place in Hell (but maybe that’s just how I feel). There are songs on this album that I would actually love to learn on the guitar. We have songs like Good Riddance (featuring the voice of Ashley Barrett), a slow ballad. But the album is filled with many slow, heavy ballads, that once you take out the sound EFX of the game are just a fun listen.

Check out the music of Hades here:
Apple Music

A short behind the scenes video of recording some music for Hades.

THE LAST OF US (& Part II) – Gustavo Santaolalla

The Last of Us™ Part II (2020)

The Last of Us was one of my favorite gaming experiences for a long time. It was one of the first games that showed me how great the storytelling in video games can be. Both games are full of joy and pain, these games will make you cry both happy and sad tears (mainly sad ones). The music helps shape the way you feel about these characters. Characters who I’m still not sure if they’re quite good or bad.

The music from The Last of Us Franchise (Part I & II) features some of the most emotional music I’ve ever heard in a game. There are cutscenes that just feature landscape shots with lovely slow acoustic music, usually right after something dark and insane has happened. I’ve entered buildings where the music starts to become ominous and I decide that I’m not ready to deal with a buttload of clickers just yet, and I’ll come back to the game later.

While the first games album was created by Gustavo Santaolalla with an orchestra and his ronroco (a multi-stringed, strange shaped guitar-like instrument) and some other acoustic instruments. The Last of Us: Part II is a mix of music between Gustavo and Mac Quayle. Gustavo creates the acoustic sounds while Mac handles the intense, dark moments of the game with loud, spooky sounds.

The music from The Last of Us: Part II feels like a battle between these two composers, trying to see who’s method creates the most unsettling sounds. Gustavo Santaolalla playing perfectly picked melodies on his classical instruments, while Mac Quayle was brought in to build upon the tension and suspense of the game.

Gustavo Santaolalla is a well-known film composer and I believe that The Last of Us franchise was the first and only video game projects he’s worked on. Mac Quayle composed the music for Mr. Robot. He’s also worked on a few Ryan Murphy projects, including American Horror Story.

Check out both albums on Apple Music:
The Last of Us
The Last of Us: Part II

A mini concert by Gustavo Santaolalla and some other musicians from last years release of The Last of Us: Part II.

UNCHARTED 1-3 (Nathan Drake Collection) – Greg Edmonson
UNCHARTED 4 & THE LOST LEGACY – Henry Jackman

Uncharted 4 (2016)

The music of Uncharted was another playlist I created and listened to many times while working and writing back when I was copywriting at an agency, and I still enjoy listening to the music today. I love the music of Uncharted, it has epic sounds and features many worldly instruments along with an orchestra.

Something strange I noticed is that Greg Edmonson started off the series with the soundtracks for Uncharted 1-3 (the Nathan Drake collection). He did a wonderful job, he set the musical tone for these games and some people even argue that the music went downhill in Uncharted 4 when Henry Jackman came along. I don’t think that’s true. 

Henry Jackman’s music does have a slightly different tone, and I feel it became more cinematic (probably because Henry Jackman is one of the big film composers of today: Captain America: Winter Soldier & Civil War, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pixels, Big Hero 6, much more and currently The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). I tried to find out what happened with Naughty Dog and Greg for Uncharted 4 (using my googling skills), but I’m guessing it was just a bigger budget game. Uncharted 4 was the finale to Nathan Drake’s epic journey, so they switched it up and got a big name composer.

Greg worked on the show Firefly and the first three Uncharted games. He started off with Cop Rock, a show that I just recently heard about on a Kinda Funny podcast and was reminded of by John Oliver. It’s like this show is now following me around. He also composed the music for King of the Hill. But, yes, I would guess they just wanted to go with a bigger name like Henry Jackman.

Listen to the Uncharted Music on Apple Music here:
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – Greg Edmonson
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – Greg Edmonson
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – Greg Edmonson
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – Henry Jackman

I didn’t find any official musical featurettes for Uncharted on YouTube so here’s the trailer for the series finale instead.

UNPLAYED GAMES

Those are definitely some of my top albums from the games I’ve played. Listening to them can transport you back to playing those games. I also have a few albums I listen to regularly without ever playing any of the games. Some from recommendations, others I just came across as related music or suggested albums.

I started listening to Hero of Time by Eric Buchholz before ever really playing any Zelda games, and it has been one of my favorite orchestral albums ever since. I was looking through my buddies music collection and found this and ended up loving it. It’s not an official album from the series, it’s a re-imagining of the music from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The Legend of Zelda franchise is full of tons of memorable songs, but my favorite from this album is Castle Town Market.

The Final Fantasy franchise of games is another one I never really touched until recently, but have been familiar with the music for years. Nobuo Uematsu has been making the memorable music for the Final Fantasy series of games since the very beginning. He’s toured the music with an orchestra during the Distant Worlds Tours. It wasn’t until last year that I tried out the original Final Fantasy VII game on the Nintendo Switch, and I recently began playing through the Final Fantasy VII: Remake on my PS4 Pro. It’s very cool to see the changes in Final Fantasy VII: Remake in both the look and feel of the game, but also the way the music has been slightly updated.

Another game that I have heard great things, but have no idea what the game is even about is The Pathless. I started listening to this album and I’ve still yet to see a trailer or any gameplay footage. I actually really enjoy the second album to come out from the game entitled The Pathless: Meditations. I’ve now read that since it’s an open-world game the first album was meant to focus on the narrative story of the game, while Meditations is a collection of the extra music created to keep the game fresh.

Lately, I have been doing this new thing where I try listening to the score for a movie before seeing it, if possible. I did this with Raya and the Last Dragon, the past few Star Wars movies and some others. It’s cool to sort of be familiar with the tone of the movie through its music before watching it. Now that I’m sort of familiar with the music of The Pathless, it may be time to try that game out and try this experiment out with a video game instead.

What are your favorite video game soundtracks and songs? Tell us in the comments below…

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