Interesting Moments in Video Game Music

By Richard Mazuski and Henry Myers

Video games being one of our favorite current childhood pastimes, we’ve been wanting for a while to indulge ourselves by writing about game music. Ranging from the adventurous to the nostalgic, here’s a smattering of cherished memories:

1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords – Rebuilt Jedi Enclave

Image result for star wars kotor 2

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) I and II are truly excellent games which have constructed a deep history for the Star Wars mythos, occurring many millennia before the films. While the first has polished gameplay and one of the best twists in gaming history, the second upped the stakes with a greater sense of dread, more ambiguous moral decisions, and a full-orchestral soundtrack by Mark Griskey. The most memorable track plays when your character revisits the Jedi Enclave (sort of the good guy base from the previous game), which was destroyed between the two games. Now what works in this example? For one, I think it’s a fantastic homage to the great John Williams soundtracks and gives this game a cinematic feel. It also builds on what I think is the greatest strength of the series: adding depth and history to the Star Wars universe. Even without context clues, this music communicates the deep history of where the player finds themselves.

2. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Forest Temple theme

Ocarina of Time is a classic game which we both grew up with. Long story short, Link is a child hero who falls asleep for 7 years and upon waking up finds the world changed and corrupted. Your first level as an adult features this music. Compared to this earlier music (still as a kid), where you are inside a whale’s belly, it’s easy to see how the music has changed. The child-level music gives a direct representation to what is going on: you are in a sick whale’s belly and life isn’t terribly pleasant. The forest temple music, however, digs deeper into the situation. First off, the fairly ambiguous in key, melodic direction, and mood convey a creepy, ghostly vibe without being kitschy. In my mind, the sudden complexity in the music demonstrates how our hero feels older and lost in this new world, but not necessarily wiser. More suspicious to the world, it is unclear whether a friend or someone sinister is lurking just out of sight.

3. SimCity 4 – By the Bay

SimCity 4 is a city-building simulator, where the player assumes the role of a terraforming god (for modulating the landscape), the benevolent (or malevolent) mayor (for building/zoning your city), and a vengeful god (to inevitably destroy your city with a robot attack). During the course of the game, this track will play, which features an ostinato of 3 marimba lines, an oboe solo (semi-improvised), percussion, synthesizer, and electric guitar. I love the minimalist vibes and the fun oboe playing towards the end. The music conveys much more than just background though, because a player usually encounters this music once their city is well on its way to being built. There’s a certain repetition to be successful at building SimCities, and there is a certain repetition to urban-living. Walking to the same train every morning, I could see the same bus cross a street ahead, and seeing this pattern like clockwork each day made me think of this music. A city works like the marimba patterns, and it sort of becomes the framework your own tune has to fit into.

4. Tetris – Theme Song A

This music first appeared in the 1989 Nintendo version of the game and since then has become the anthem for tetromino manipulators the world over. This Simpsons video shows how natural this music emerges from any situations requiring expert packing skills. The upbeat music and its nice harmonic structure are taken from a Russian folk song, Korobeiniki, which relates the story of a peddler and a peasant girl flirtatiously bickering about the price of his wares. The playful yet insistently driving music coaxes the gamer to organize his lines of tetrominoes efficiently and precisely.

5. Chrono Trigger – Memories of Green

There are RPGs, and then there’s Chrono Trigger. One of the most original and unique games ever, the game’s enormous scope involves time travel across more than 65,000,000 years and featured a cast of characters with surprising depth. There’s something almost Miyazaki-esque about it: apart from having art design by Dragonball creator Akira Toriyama, the characters feel real, relatable, and even vulnerable in the face of the immensity of their task.  What really makes the game, though, is the music, which consistently ranks among the best video game soundtracks of all time, and has been covered extensively (and turned into acid jazz). Creating a diverse repertoire of atmospheres ranging from dreamily wistful to desolate and post-apocalyptic, the music totally sucks you into the game world. But probably my favorite tune is the overworld music from 1000 AD, which recontextualizes the game’s main theme into a mood of longing and uncertainty.

6. Bioshock – Old-timey Jazz

The creepiest, most ironic juxtaposition in video game music history? Probably the underwater, dystopian city of Rapture with 1940s jazz. While the majority of the soundtrack consists of a (surprisingly) well-written, atmospheric score befitting of any mainstream horror film, a few tracks are recordings from the first half of the 20th century (the era in which Rapture was supposedly founded), including songs by Bobby Darin, Django Reinhardt (my favorite), and the vocal group The Ink Spots. Of course, this sort of juxtaposition is by now an old trope of dystopian films (or games: Fallout 3 does exactly the same thing–also using The Ink Spots, I might add). But what sells it in Bioshock is the distinct sense that Rapture is an allusion to an America that might have been–one where Objectivism takes precedent (One of the game’s main antagonists, the capitalist Andrew Ryan, is named anagrammatically after Ayn Rand)–making the carefree nature of the music all the more surreal.

7. Metroid Prime – Phazon Mines

Mystery surrounds Tallon IV: what are the Space Pirates doing there, and why is the planet in a state of ecological decay?  Bit by bit, it’s revealed that the world was impacted 50 years prior to Samus’ arrival by some kind of meteor bearing a highly radioactive substance known as “Phazon”, which is slowly corrupting the planet but which the Pirates are nevertheless keen to exploit for their own purposes. Eventually, your journey leads you deep underground into the heart of the entire Space Pirate operation: the Phazon Mines. Characterized by a ruthless military machine, ungodly scientific experiments, and an unrelenting sense of dread, the soundtrack for the Phazon Mines is fittingly cold, industrial, and foreboding.

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Those were some of our favorite moments, but certainly not all!  Which video game music moments have held your imagination? Let us know in the comments below!

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One thought on “Interesting Moments in Video Game Music

  1. James Chang says:

    Something should definitely be said about Austin Wintory’s Journey! Gorgeous music, befitting a gorgeous video game!

    Like

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