Crescendos and Final Blows: A Few of Our Favorite Game Soundtracks

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A good video game soundtrack can deepen the connection between narrative and player, allowing for a more intense and engaging gameplay experience. Here are a few of our favorites that do just that.

The Last of Us (2013)

There’s always something to be said about the raw emotion that a piece of music can evoke in a single instant. With regards to the survival-horror game genre, the use of a minimalist score was one of the many plaudits The Last of Us received. Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s use of detuned guitars was an interesting but ultimately crucial choice in achieving the music’s desired effect – evoking a specific emotional reaction from the player.

The music of The Last of Us serves as a key catalyst in connecting the player to the game’s story and characters; always adding an extra gut-punch of emotion to each shocking, heartbreaking, or poignant twist that the plot offers and consistently helping to initiate the tear-jerk reaction that this beautiful game so effortlessly triggers during gameplay.

Despite all the horror this game details visually, its score never once attempts to recreate it with music; instead the score serves as a sentimental anchor to the story itself. The sparse use of music is perfect as it never takes the player out of the game, just wonderfully complements it when necessary. Given the fact that many describe The Last of Us as a playable film, the score presents the player with another filmic element to be utterly mesmerized by.

For all its brilliance the score is never better than in the game’s closing moments, as moral questions are asked of the protagonist Joel, and by extension the player, as Ellie confronts him; where Santaolalla’s guitar hits a crescendo that cuts through the final scene, leaving a sizable lump in the player’s throat.

Words by Elliott Jones

Death Stranding (2019)

There are moments in Death Stranding where even its creator, Hideo Kojima, knows the player will be awestruck. Whether it’s cresting a hill after a particularly tough slog or carrying a person across the land in what is inherently a very solitary game, Kojima knows what will stun his audience. To embody this he not only uses the visuals that have been painstakingly designed, he utilises a blend of original score and established artists to highlight these euphoric or harrowing moments. 

As I played through Death Stranding, my thoughts always returned to a moment relatively early in the game: You are carrying a body to a crematorium that rests over rocky terrain, gushing rivers, and steep inclines that make the journey even more treacherous. Who you’re carrying also has incredible poignancy, but that would be telling. What made this sequence so memorable was the camera panning out, the name of the track appearing on the screen, and suddenly I was in something akin to a music video. Tracks by artists such as Chvrches, Major Lazer, and Low Roar pepper the land and lend atmosphere to these cinematic sequences.

The original composition by Ludvig Forrsell that the player listens to for most of the game provides added gravitas throughout. During an enemy encounter the tension rises. Ghosts fill the screen with harrowing strings and terrible whines. Alternatively, during the incredibly beautiful cinematics, the score tugs at the player’s heartstrings as we gradually learn our characters’ motivations. ‘BB’s Theme’ by Forsell and sung by Jenny Plant is perhaps the highlight of the score and it follows the player throughout various parts of the game. Whether it is whistled, sung, or simply an instrumental rendition of their vocals, it is the piece that is synonymous with the narrative as you delve into the mysteries of Death Stranding.

Words by Jack Roberts

Mass Effect 3 (2012)

In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers have arrived on Earth and all the characters that didn’t believe Commander Shepard when she warned them years in advance now realize what a mistake they’ve made. The weight and well-being of the galaxy rests on the player’s shoulders, and the soundtrack successfully communicates this responsibility by mixing together sounds from the first and second games. Despite the lead composer of Mass Effect 1 & 2 not being involved in creating the soundtrack for the third game, Mass Effect 3‘s score ended up being one of the more memorable ones. Composed by several people (Sam Hulick, Clint Mansell, Christopher Lennertz, Sascha Dikiciyan, and Cris Velasco), ME3‘s soundtrack perfectly matches the constant battle of good and evil visually represented in the gameplay with a balance of light and heavy sound.

What’s unique about the ME3 soundtrack are the different theme variations created for different alien races which, by extension, intensify the emotionally engaging narrative. The first female Krogan of the trilogy is introduced in the game along with hope for the Krogan species’ future – ‘A Future For The Krogan’ pivots from the usual aggressive brass tones used to musically represent the Krogan and instead presents a beautiful female chant with strings and light percussion while still translating the assertive nature of the race. Similarly, while exploring the Geth base, which is solely made up of machinery and tech, synth is the primary music guide during your mission but still allows for the player to effectively connect with Legion as a character.

One of the most significant moments made more impactful by the score is the opening scene, where Shepard must leave Earth. This scene is made cinematic with the accompaniment of soft piano contrasted with a blaring horn (made to sound like a Reaper). The emotional response elicited from the player during this moment sets the tone for the rest of the game. Overall, the decision to merge ME1‘s synth sounds with ME2‘s symphonic elements proved an excellent choice. The result is a representation of duality that is experienced throughout the trilogy: renegade versus paragon, destruction versus creation, Reapers versus Shepard, good versus evil.

(A special note on general sound design: Throughout the trilogy, the gathering of everyday sounds and manipulating them to better convey the atmosphere of a particular scene setting was innovative, to put it mildly. For example, from the very first Mass Effect: The noise made from a garbage can top being lifted was pitched down to create the sound coming from inside of a large space vessel, and the tapping of tension wires were used as the basis for laser sounds for guns. The team was truly setting up for even more possibilities for the following two games.)

Words by Mary Helen Josephine

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