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In Appreciation of Soundtracks

With all the attention that is given to graphical quality, art design, and gameplay, it's easy for quality sound to get lost in the mix. In this article, I look at five games that showed us how much an excellent soundtrack can add to a gaming experience.

"Wow this game has great graphics."

Unfortunately, I hear this phrase all the time. Yes, some games should be lauded for groundbreaking visuals (Halo 2 and bump-mapping, awe inspiring vistas in Crysis, and Yoshi's Island comes to mind as well if we're going to take it back that far), but let's be honest - graphics neither break or make a game. However, because they're so immediate and accessible, people are quick to praise or condemn how smart a game looks.

Many aspects of a game are much deeper than that - and should be given their due. Let's talk about one aspect of digital games that rarely gets the praise it deserves, when it deserves it: soundtracks.

An excellent soundtrack can immortalize a game in a player's memory. In fact, some of the most recognizable songs in pop culture were originally composed to accompany Mario and Link on the Nintendo Entertainment System twenty years ago. I want to take a look at some of the greatest soundtracks I've encountered throughout my years of playing, and comment on what has made them so great. While most of these are original soundtracks, I've also included at least one game that makes excellent use of already existing tracks. I think you'll agree it belongs on the list.

Be sure to check out the featured track for each soundtrack as you read through.

BASTION (2011)

It's difficult to pass up the chance to endorse this game's End Theme, as beautiful as it is, but this track is the epitome of the "frontier trip-hop" that we were introduced to in this 2011 title.

Let's start with a recent favorite. By this point, you've probably heard of this award-winning (as in, 100+) debut title from developer Supergiant Games, but you might not have heard its soundtrack. Bastion is a quirky game. You play as a enigmatic, silent protagonist trying to save yourself - and a few select friends - from a catastrophic dystopia. As you try to put together the pieces of a safehouse (aka the Bastion), a narrator pays close attention to your actions, telling the story of your adventures to an unseen audience. The environments are surreal; the Kid, as the protagonist is called, explores both crumbling urban landscapes and an alien frontier, teeming with alien creatures seemingly inspired by the swampy American south.

And so the soundtrack comes into the picture as a powerful compliment to Bastion's environments. Its genre, as described by creator Darren Korb (see below for the excellent interview), is "frontier trip-hop," blending twangy acoustics with distortion and electronic beats. I can't imagine a better type of music to accompany the Kid on his adventures; in the first few hours of the game, the acoustics don't make sense with the urban sky-city of Caelondia, but as the Kid dives into the swamps surrounding the city, it all comes together in an "ah-ha!" moment I've only ever felt through plot and story, not through the realization of how effective and awesome a soundtrack is.

Interview with Bastion's composer Darren Korb at Unwinnable.com

Long story short, I have never seen a soundtrack compliment so many facets of a game as Bastion's. It seems impossible that Darren Korb and the developers were able to build such a seamless vision of the  game's theme, and execute it on so many levels - visual, audio, story, gameplay - simultaneously. Every aspect of the game comes together beautifully, and it was only the soundtrack that allowed me to appreciate this thematic consistency.

I don't know about you, but I'm keeping my eyes out (and ears open) for Supergiant Games next title.

BIOSHOCK (2007)
 


Go here to play the author's selected track. (Embedding disabled by request.) Great performance by Bobby Darin, one of the most famous mid-century lounge singers, and co-opted by 2K games (now Irrational games) for what I consider to be the best unoriginal video game soundtrack of all time.

I've recently written about the story of BioShock, as realized through its atmosphere and art, but I'd like to return to this game to comment on its unoriginal soundtrack. BioShock includes original music (and it deserves a lot of credit), but I don't know anyone who walked away from this game singing one of the original compositions, and not Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea," or Mario Lanza's "Danny Boy." The pinpoint selection of BioShock's twenty or so hits from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s is astounding.

First of all, their placement in the game is witty, exceedingly creepy, and surprisingly delightful. I have never been so impressed by song placement than when I walked into Little Wonders Educational Facility (a facility where kidnapped girls are imprisoned, conditioned, and experimented upon) and Patti Page's "How much is that Doggie in the Window," started playing. If you don't know much about the plot of the game, that won't mean anything to you, but the song's lyrics and tone offer a cheerful parody of the horrible morbid scene surrounding the protagonist as he enters this lab. It plays on the Little Sisters' lost innocence, their fixed fascination on their 'Big Daddies,' and their playful tempers.


For those of you who know the story of BioShock, here are the lyrics to the song.

Secondly, the soundtrack itself becomes a tangible part of the environment. To explain this, let me get a little theoretical and differentiate between two types of soundtracks, which I will call 'local' and 'ambient,' for lack of better terms. An 'ambient' soundtrack is one like described above, in Bastion. The music comes in at a certain time, triggered by the location of the player character, or possibly an action, but it is understood that the protagonist is not hearing an ambient soundtrack, only the player. The music doesn't exist in-game, like the monsters, action, or environments exist in-game. It simply complements the in-game experiences by appealing directly to the player.

The second type of soundtrack, which I am calling 'local,' is actually being played within the game. The best example I can think of is a Starcraft: Broodwar cinematic, entitled Ascension. In this cut scene, we see Admiral DuGalle put on a record as he's reading the letter he has written to his wife. Because of the physical detail of the record player, we know that the song playing is tangible, and occurring within the scene. Admiral DuGalle - like us - is listening to this classic track on his own record player. In short, the player experiences 'local' music - like the rest of the game world - through the protagonist. 

So back to my statement: that BioShock's music becomes a tangible part of the game environment. Because the unoriginal music in BioShock is all 'local,' it is experienced on the same level as environmental details, like objects, decor, lighting, etc. When a player sees an overturned chair, he or she thinks "ah, there must have been some kind of action that took place in this room, to leave a chair in such disarray." In the same way, when a player encounters mid-century lounge music playing in one of Rapture's (the underwater city players explore in BioShock) forgotten rooms, he or she thinks, "ah, the last people who were here must have been listening to this music." It adds character to the people and places already existing in the game.

This seems obvious, but it is incredibly important. Without the record players, the speakers, the radios - all these little details in BioShock that tell us that the music is 'local,' the environment would lose so much of its mid-century character. The art-deco would be left, along with the time appropriate fashion, and the 50s retro signage, but we would lose an incredible storytelling element in knowing what the people of Rapture were listening to when it all went south.

Thirdly, on a high-minded level, BioShock's unoriginal selections are all wildly appropriate for the themes of the game. Looking through the names of the tracks - "Beyond the Sea," "This is a Changing World," "World Weary," "Brother Can you Spare a Dime?" among many others - you can see that the developers put a painstaking effort into selecting just the right songs to accompany their idealistic dystopia.

I'm looking forward to some of the same effects in BioShock: Infinite, which is slated for release later this year from the same studio, Irrational Games.

DONKEY KONG COUNTRY 2: DIDDY'S KONG QUEST (1995)
 


Apart from being one of my favorite levels, Bramble Blast has an excellent soundtrack. It does a great job setting the tone for a level that involves a lot of high-flying, barrel-blasting action.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest, more than any other game on this list, is characterized by the breadth and variety of its environments. To give you an idea... the game starts out on a pirate ship, takes Diddy and Dixie Kong through a volcano, swamp, theme park, giant beehive, castle, and culminates in a showdown with supreme baddie Kaptain K. Rool on a giant, mechanized, flying crocodile above the island. I don't know about you, but if I were given a game description like that as a composer, I would run the other way.

But someone obviously didn't run the other way in 1995; rather, they stuck around at Rare to create an incredibly diverse and engaging set of tracks that comprise the DK2 soundtrack. On your journey to the top of the island, the music never seems out of place, despite the radical changes of scenery, and complements each environment with appropriate intensity and instrumentation. While the whole game is action-oriented (being a platformer and all), levels often have pretty variable pacing, and this is reflected in the accompanying music. Some levels, like Bramble Blast, are almost zen-like as you patiently barrel-blast your way through a maze of overgrown briars. Other levels, like Screech's Sprint, have extremely fast-paced gameplay, suited to music that picks up accordingly at an appropriate time.

The real strength of the soundtrack is seen in levels that should typically feel anxious and nerve-wracking, but are rendered more relaxing and fun by their sounds. For example, Hot Head Hop is a level in the volcano world, wherein the Kongs have to utilize lava crocodiles to bounce from island to island. Looking back, the level should be a heart-pounding experience from start to finish, with all the lava, crocodiles, evil kremlins, etc. but it's a relaxing break from the surrounding levels because of a smooth ambient track.

There is little in common from track to track, but the soundtrack is nothing if not consistently appropriate, complementary to gameplay, and a supplement to the mood of each environment. In my opinion, this game's soundtrack is in the running for the best SNES soundtrack of all time, in the face of some pretty strict competition in Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger. Hats off to Super Mario World and DK1 as well, which had great sounds, but fell early in the SNES timeline, missing the golden age when developers were pushing this console to its limits on all levels. Finally, I can't let this section go without mentioning DK3. While I feel that DK2 has a slight edge over its sequel, there is very little separating the two in terms of quality.

SUPER MARIO 64 (1996)
 


The sounds from Jolly Roger Bay do an excellent job complimenting the pace of gameplay in the level, while sounding great all around. My favorite track in the game, apart from some more obvious fan-favorites (Rainbow Road and Boo's Mansion come to mind).

Wow... where to start with this soundtrack?

How about my house circa 1998, when the only CD my brother and I owned between us was the green-cased Super Mario 64 Soundtrack (seen above), jammed between my Dad's Beatles tapes and my mom's Sheryl Crow CDs. To further clarify: a 9 year old and a fourteen year old loved this music so much that we scraped together $9.99 (or whatever it retailed at, back then) to buy the tracks that accompanied our favorite video game of the time.

Perhaps it's because I spent so much time in Tick Tock Clock (climb, fall, repeat), but rarely has a track been so immediately evocative and representative of its level. And I could say this about every world track in the game. Can you listen to Jolly Roger Bay without thinking about that terrifying eel? How about listening to Rainbow Road without thinking about Mario misjumping off a cloud and tumbling into the void? Boo's Mansion without being scared by the memory of Big Boo coming out of the Mansion's walls?

In a game of such iconic and varied worlds, the music has to match the mood. The music in SM64 did this perfectly, never feeling out of place, whether I was turtle-shell surfing in Lethal Lava Land or clomping around as Metal Mario. With very few exceptions, the game was wholly light-hearted, as a Mario game should be. Even in the more nefarious levels, the upbeat tracks did a great job lightening the mood and matching Mario's energetic jumps across the screen.

Let's not forget the great reinterpretations of the classic Mario themes of the pre-Nintento 64 era. Composer Koji Kondo did an incredible job reimagining these for a new generation. Starting at the title screen (aka the stretch Mario's face screen) and in other places throughout the game, we see some a great interpretation of Mario's classic themes, enhanced with the greater sound capabilities ofa  new generation console.

This soundtrack is one I'm not likely to forget soon. It is, in my opinion, the best soundtrack of the Nintendo 64 era.

PORTAL 2 (2011)
 


A great track that exemplifies the electronic, fast-paced soundtrack that helped drive the action throughout the game. Incredible use of some of the same tones that characterize the turret and core speech. Download the OST for free here.

Last, but not least, is the highly-acclaimed sequel to 2007's Portal, released only a few months ago. I won't spend long here, but I want to focus on the most amazing aspect of the score: procedurally generated tracks. While Portal 2 has excellent, original music (composed by Mike Morasky of Valve, except for the final song sung by GLADOS, by Jonathan Coulton), what baffles me most is the work Mr. Morasky put into something I have never seen before ina game, which is music that changes regularly in response to the player's actions. In my second article last month, I talked briefly about the importance of giving players feedback to their actions. This is perhaps the first foray made into that feedback process made by a game's soundtrack.

As the player makes dramatic actions on his way toward the end of a puzzle (puzzles which can be disorienting, jarring, and wildly exhilarating), the music can speed up or increase in volume accordingly. It is incredible that there hasn't been any more attention paid to this aspect of the soundtrack. I consider it one of the coolest developments in gaming from the last year, alongside Bastion's narration and the popularization of third-person action tower defense.

As I said, Portal 2's soundtrack deserves a lot more credit than it's given here, but I wanted to draw attention to something that I don't think has been given its due. You can find a snippet of information about the procedural soundtrack here.


CONCLUSION

By no means is this list a "top 5 favorite soundtracks" list. There is so much great music left unmentioned, but I think these soundtracks each represent something great and unique about why game soundtracks are such an important part of the digital gaming experience. Hopefully, if you haven't played these games, you'll pick them up and give them a play through, paying special attention to the sounds as well as the sights. If you have played all these titles (good for you!), maybe it's time to play back through one of your favorite games with open ears, with an increased appreciation for the work game composers have done for us, the gamers, over the years.

As always, thanks for reading. You can find more posts like these at my blog, Orcs et Cetera

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