Bass! How low can you go?
Death row, what a brother knows
Once again, back is the incredible
The rhyme animal
The uncannable D, Public Enemy Number One
Five-O said, “Freeze!” and I got numb
These lyrics are from one of the first times I really grasped the soundtrack on a video game. I want to say this was some time around 2000 or 2001. I was given a copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 for my birthday on PS2. I wasn’t much of a skater, but I liked watching it more than anything. Even today I enjoy seeing professional skateboarders in competitions, regardless what the competition is.
However, it was this soundtrack that I first really experienced the music of a video game. Music in games came in so many different flavors. Some games had licensed music, while others used an original soundtrack (OST), and some have both.
Fast forward to around 2008, most of my gaming was StarCraft, Diablo 2, or multiplayer “party” and sports games. When playing StarCraft and Diablo 2, I rarely listened to the OST, preferring my own self-made iTunes or WinAmp playlist. Even now I probably couldn’t correctly identify either game by OST alone.
In 2008, I was introduced to, and I use this term loosely, the wonderful world of Fallout 3. The game enraptured me and remains one of my favorites. My biggest complaint though, was the atrocious soundtrack.
Without really understanding the lore behind the series, I questioned whose bright idea it was to have 40s and 50s swing as the primary in-game radio station’s music. A chat with my brother, who is much older than I am, and has been gaming much longer, opened my eyes to the relevance of the music.
It’s a conversation that impacted my appreciation of music in games. The soundtrack is a major assistant to immersion, sucking us into the setting of the game. Every track sets a mood.
About to enter a boss fight? The music often takes on an epic orchestral style, with heavy notes, a low tone, and just seems so natural. Sometimes it’s a medium pace, but it can also be a fast paced, blood pumping, sweat inducing ride. Boss fights aren’t the only time, however, that a track in a video game can set the tone.
The Lavender Town theme from Pokemon Red/Blue is one example of how a song, even a relatively simple 8 bit beat, can set the tone for a setting. Lavender Town in the Pokemon games is home to the Pokemon Tower, where the dearly departed Pokemon are laid to rest.
Title tracks introduce us to the ideas of the game. One title track that really set up the theme of a game is the first Borderlands game, and the song No Rest for the Wicked by Cage the Elephant. The hard guitar drum combo, set with the lyrics, overlaid by introducing us to each playable character, riding a bus. Another is the introduction cinematic for Fallout 3, which starts to play a song where the singer proclaims that he doesn’t want to set the world on fire. The camera pans out and gives us our first glimpse into the world of Fallout 3.
These two examples, however, are licensed tunes being used to pull us into a game. What about original soundtracks? They can be just as effective, can’t they?
The above opening theme to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion puts me into a mood to go out and explore this world of Tamriel. The soft intro that then bursts into a full blown orchestra really sets the theme of adventure that is to important to the game as a whole. If we go even further back, we have intro songs to games like Chrono Trigger which sets a bit of a mysterious feel while prepping you for the adventure and epic story the game promises. We can even take a look at the main theme for Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or really, ANY Legend of Zelda game. The themes and overall music of those games are so iconic, and normally just a few notes are enough for most people to identify it as a Legend of Zelda tune.
Admitting to having never played Chrono Trigger before, I would strongly feel like much of this art style came from Dragon Ball series artist, Akira Toriyama. A bit of research turns up that Toriyama-san did in fact have a hand in the character designs of the game, similarly in the Dragon Quest games.
In the course of listening to the OST for Chrono Trigger, I found myself really enjoying one particular tune, the Frog’s Theme.
A common theme here though, is that many times some of the best original soundtracks come from games made outside the United States. Namely, Japan, and just as often in the subgenre we call the JRPG. It feels like few games made in Japan have much if any licensed music. This of course may be by design and is in no way a bad thing. Imagine if instead of making the soundtrack that we have from the original Mario games, Nintendo instead licensed some J-Pop band songs to go with everyone’s favorite mustachioed, fireball wielding plumber?
Music in video games has such a rich history, it’s impossible to do it enough justice in a post of under 1,000 words. The best way we can really enjoy the music is by finding these games and playing them, so we can flesh out not only the tunes, but where the tunes fall in the scheme of the game itself.
I encourage everyone to find a game that you’ve played before but never really paid attention to the music, and during this time of quarantining and staying home, have a new playthrough. While you’re playing through, listen to the music in each level. Hear the story it tells you, and I promise you, you will gain a new appreciation of the game and the music that went into it.
Let us know what are some of your favorite video game albums, songs, or even remix artists! God bless and stay safe.