My Favourite Video Game Soundtracks - Part 2
In this series of blogs, I'm talking about the best video game music I've come across. Last week I spoke about bit music. This week, I talk about the games I experienced on PC and Xbox, where video games and their soundtracks began to evolve into a more cinematic experience.
A PERSONAL COMPUTER
When it comes to computers, I had access to one from the age of six when my grandfather bought a Windows 95. In our own home (which was many miles away from my grandparents), we didn't have our own computer until I was in secondary school. We were under strict instructions that this was to be a work computer; no games allowed. That didn't stop my brother coming home with Mafia though.
I've talked about Mafia previously, where I spoke about how it was full of music by Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and other talented artists who'd produced songs between the 1920s and 1940s. The original game music by Vladimír Šimůnek, which was performed by the Bohemia Symphonic Orchestra, was amazing. The 'Main Theme' is so good and it was reused in the game's remake that came out last year. It is such an emotional and heroic piece of game music that makes great use of the orchestra's musical instruments. Unfortunately, the rest of the soundtrack was redone which is a shame as the original has some of the most expressive and cinematic game music I've ever heard.
When has running a hospital, or even going to hospital, ever felt so joyous? Well, thanks to Russell Shaw, it is in Theme Hospital, the strategy simulator where you build and run a hospital in order to achieve good patient satisfaction, move onto the next hospital level, and do the same thing until you've completed the game. It includes people with inflated heads that need popping; grumpy cleaners that complain there aren't enough bins; gives you the opportunity to shoot mice as they run around your hospital, and, to accompany this, the most upbeat and funky-sounding soundtrack ever (possibly). True, it's synthesized but if that's not to your liking there are plenty of great remasters on YouTube that fans have made. Though 'Candyfloss' is hilariously jolly, my favourite here is '6's and 7's' because of the funky bass and trumpet melody.
GOTHIC 1, GOTHIC 2, GOTHIC 3, AND RISEN
A series of games I adored on the PC are the Gothic series. They used the same composer, Kai Rosenkranz, for the three video games of the series and were the first games I had played with a dynamic soundtrack. This means the music for an area has extra layers added depending on what's happening. For example, the background music will feel calm while walking around and then percussive instruments and sharp attacks are added when combat starts. These extra additions then fade away when combat finishes; I loved this clever way of approaching a video game's soundtrack because in many other games I have played, the combat music is a completely separate song that can sometimes distract from the immersion.
While the soundtracks for the first two games are great, with some amazing themes that are reused and developed throughout the series, it was the third game that, for me, had the best soundtrack. It was the first to use an orchestra, the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, and, with a huge map to explore, which included deserts, snowy peaks, and lush meadows, the amount of exotic musical instruments used took the quality to another level. Themes would jump between instruments and moods and styles would change from one minute to the next.
I remember this game being beautiful to look at back in 2006, when it was released, and the soundtrack reflected that beauty so well. I don't think I've ever heard strings being used so well and played as elegantly as they are here. While the 'Menu' song is great, 'Exploring Myrtana', the second song you hear in-game, is incredible and a great introduction to the quality of this soundtrack. There is also a strong use of acoustic guitar in this video game which would lead me to fall in love with the sound of classical guitar. Honestly, if you want to hear what is perhaps the most varied symphonic video game soundtrack ever, I urge you to find and listen to all of it on YouTube or Spotify.
Rosenkranz' unique score writing would be used again in Risen's soundtrack, made by the same developers as the Gothic series. In this game, the setting, while still medieval, is now in the mediterranean and, again, the use of exotic musical instruments help make this soundtrack amazing to listen to and a perfect fit for the video game. Like 'Exploring Myrtana' in Gothic 3, 'Beach', the second song of the soundtrack, is another great introduction to the game's music. 'Harbour' shows off Rosenkranz' ability to write for the acoustic guitar again and 'Swamp' makes great use of the exotic instruments, changing the mood from calm to danger so quickly.
HALO 1, HALO 2, HALO 3, HALO ODST, AND HALO REACH
Getting an Xbox was my first experience of proper console gaming. A series of video games that come to mind whenever anyone says 'Xbox' are the Halo games. Anyone who loves this series will agree that Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's soundtracks are some of the best examples of a good video game score out there. The mix of classical instruments, electronic synthesizers, electric guitar, heavy poly-rhythmic percussion, and gregorian chant-sounding choral vocals combine to make such a unique feel that songs like 'Rock Anthem For Saving The Universe' and, the final song of the soundtrack, 'Halo', have become iconic. My personal favourite song of the first soundtrack, though, is 'Covenant Dance', with its great use of a synthesized melody blended with the vocal chants and percussion. You can hear an arrangement of it I did for saxophone here.
Halo 2 made such a strong use of the themes developed in the first game's soundtrack that it was quite surprising to hear something that already sounded so good then be improved upon and made even better. The opening track of the released album, 'Mjolnir Mix', gets the mood of the game so right and is a perfect blend of the classic Halo theme and rock-infused electric guitar that was hinted at in the first game's OST.
In each soundtrack there are new variations of older songs from the previous games. One such song is 'A Walk In The Woods' from Halo 1. In Halo 2, this variation is called 'Heretic, Hero' and is not only my favourite song of the soundtrack but my favourite variation of the original song found in any game of the series (there are now 7 variations to date). I think it's the harmonies and progressive build-up of the percussion that make this my favourite version. I loved it so much that I did my own saxophone arrangement of it which you can find on YouTube here.
I can't talk about these games without mentioning the 'Finish The Fight' piano motif. This was a new theme introduced to the third game that, because it was used in all the promotional material and appears throughout the campaign's OST, became a classic theme associated with the Halo series. The riff itself is perhaps about ten seconds long but it contains so much emotion that reflects the struggle the protagonist has gone through during this epic three-part story.
With Halo 3: ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) not having the same protagonist, O'Donnell and Salvatori wanted to write some new themes with a more grounded feel. What better way than to add saxophone to the mix. Of course, I'm biased when it comes to anything with saxophone in it but this soundtrack is great because you can hear that iconic 'Halo' soundscape behind this new addition. The opening 'Overture' where, in the midst of the ambient sound of rain, the saxophone plays just three sombre notes still sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.
While it is a good score, I wouldn't mention Reach's soundtrack here if it weren't for 'Walking Away', another variation of Halo 1's 'A Walk In The Woods' that turns it into a very military-sounding, brass-central song that works quite well and gives the theme a new colour to its ever-growing palette.
I'll be looking at the Fable video games and the gigantic series that is Assassin's Creed with their unique synth/orchestral hybrid scores and a classic motif that ties them all (mostly) together.
If you are looking for a music theory, music production, or music composition teacher near you, I offer face-to-face music lessons in Wells, UK and online music lessons to anyone worldwide. I also have 1000+ royalty-free stock music production tracks available to buy and am available for hire for original music compositions. Feel free to get in touch!