Videogame Composers' Favourite Game Soundtracks - Article

By Chris Kerr, May 14, 2013
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Music is a powerful tool. It has the ability to toy with our emotions and create and define our memories. Throughout this generation we have seen music become an integral part of our gaming experience - more so than ever before. If I asked you to think long and hard about your fondest gaming memories, I would confidently bet that there are some sublime pieces of music accompanying them. As we know though, all good things must come to an end, and as we near the final days of this console generation we've decided to celebrate the music it brought us in style. 

We reached out to some of the most talented composers in the industry and asked them what their favourite piece of gaming music - be it an entire soundtrack or a single piece - from this generation was and why. Here's what they had to say: 

 

Austin Wintory - Credits include: Journey, Monaco and flOw.

The answer to this is undoubtedly still BioShock. I think Garry Schyman brought a class and dignity to that game that married to it so beautifully. The overall experience was rock solid but the music really pushed it up and over. In particular what stands out is the cue entitled "Dancers on a String," or of course the "Welcome to Rapture" featuring LA Phil's concert master Martin Chalifour. Haunting, exhilarating and unforgettable.

 

Grant Kirkhope - Credits include:  Banjo Kazooie, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Goldeneye.

I think I’d have to say two scores caught my attention. The first would have to be Austin’s score for Journey. I love the way that Austin talks about music. He has a very intellectual approach to music whereas I just wing it and hope for the best, I wish I had more brains… heh! Austin really thought about the music in Journey and wanted to make something that connected with the player's emotions rather than just some epic, taiko drum loop, ostinati strings music that seems to be the sum of just about every game (and movie score) these days and I applaud him for it.

My second would have to be Danny Baranowsky’s score for Super Meat Boy, there’s just something about Danny’s tunes that get under your skin. Danny has very strong links back to games of old and that strong melody thing that was prevalent back before it all got CD quality... there’s something to be said for a tune on a Gameboy that holds your attention with 3 note channels and a noise channel!


Jessica Curry - Credits include: Dear Ethser and Korsakovia 

I love "Leaving Earth" from the Mass Effect 3 OST. I really like the fusion of the beautiful and delicate piano melody with the blaring brass that suddenly leaps in. It's such a simple piece, but it has a real heart and really captures that exhilarating feeling of epic adventure.

There is something really unashamedly large about the track but it doesn't actually progress that much musically - sometimes simple is best and they've done a great job on this track.

For sheer impact on the industry I think it's also important to mention Austin Wintory's score for Journey - the Grammy nomination has pushed game music into the limelight and his soundtrack is incredibly loved. Austin wants to make music that resonates with people, that means something to them and we share that ethos. That provides a real bond in an industry where an incredible amount of music gets pushed out by the giant sausage factory!



Gary Schyman - Credits include: BioShock (franchise), The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, Dante's Inferno

My favorite piece of music from a game (I don't play a lot of them) just happens to be from one of my scores. The piece, from BioShock 2, is entitled "Pairbond".  

It's a quiet and reflective composition written for string orchestra with soloists (violin and cello). The solos are exquisitely performed by two of LA's best string players - Martin Chalifour violin (Concert master of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra) and session cellist Armen Ksakjikian.

What I love about it is that it so expressive, beautiful and sad. It perfectly reflects the plight of the game's main character. It certainly does not sound like any other music written for a game - especially for a first person shooter. It has been performed by orchestras all over the world and I love that it can both be appreciated in-game and as a composition performed by an orchestra to a live audience.  


Laura Shigihara - Credits include: To The Moon and Plants vs. Zombies

I think my favorite piece of gaming music from this console generation is probably "Fi's Theme" from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It has such a beautiful and haunting melody. When you first hear it (as you follow Fi around your village in the middle of the night), it fits so perfectly because it evokes feelings of mystery and wonder. I also loved how the composers made slight changes to its chord progression and instrumentation for the reprise (Fi's Lament) in order to change that mysterious feeling into one of longing and departure.    

A while back I did a vocal remix of this piece and I gained even more respect for it. I absolutely loved how the chord progressions and melodies were creative and unconventional, yet familiar enough to trigger such basic emotions in the player.  


Michael McCann - Credits include: Deux Ex: Human Revolution, XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Splinter Cell: Double Agent

One of my favorite game scores over the last few years has been for a Half Life 2 mod called 'Neotokyo', with music done by a relatively unknown composer named Ed Harrison. The score blends a bunch of styles like post-rock, IDM, minimal ambient – almost like a blend of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Boards of Canada, Radiohead and Brian Eno – but in a far more playful, lo-fi, minimal style.

What amazes me about this score is that Harrison was hired through a forum, and I believe he did the score for free. There are some really brilliant arrangement, production, atmospheric and harmony ideas that, in my opinion, make it far more interesting than most of the more popular game scores floating around these last few years. There's something about the minimal simplicity (for example the ambient vocal work in the last 2/3rds of tracks like "Annul") and efficiency of ideas that make it really stand out to me. To give some perspective, I'm not a big fan of traditional orchestral style scores, so I'm usually drawn more to acoustic/electronic experimental stuff – which there isn't much of these days.

Other game scores I've really liked are Shawn Lee's "Bully", Amon Tobin's "Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory", and a lot of Jesper Kyd and Gary Schyman's work. As for a single track, my favorite game theme of all time continues to be the Max Payne 2 theme by Kärtsy Hatakka & Kimmo Kajasto – it's so dramatic!

 

Jack Wall - Credits include: Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Unfortunately, I really don't have time to play a lot of games because my composing schedule is so demanding, but I do play the games that I work on quite extensively. That being said, I do listen to many soundtracks and very much enjoy the work of Garry Schyman, Jesper Kyd and the partnership of Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori quite a bit. BioShock's score as well as the source music curated by Emily Ridgeway was really special. I also really enjoyed the unique sound of the Assassin's Creed series by Jesper Kyd. Of course the music of Halo is some of my absolute favorite of the generation. Marty and Michael truly understand the power of understatement. I try to follow their example whenever possible because my feeling is that there is simply too much energy in many scores. The only emotion is intensity where there needs to be more of 3 dimensional emotion quotient within the story arc.

That really is music's job. Emotional music is vitally important to creating that arc. I'm also quite proud of how we ended Mass Effect 2. "Suicide Mission" worked quite well in setting up the next game. I'm very much looking forward to where the industry goes musically with the next generation of consoles. I'm requesting face time with the writers now because I think that is where we'll find the next level of immersion and how music plays a role in making games engaging.

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