7 hauntingly beautiful musical scores ... from video games
From 'Uncharted' to 'Journey,' these memorable scores stir the imagination and drive home the emotion of interactive storytelling.
As the graphics in video games have evolved from blocky pixels to beautifully animated worlds, so too has the music progressed from beeps and boops to full-company orchestrations. Weaving your way through an adventure game is now a treat for both the eyes and ears, rivaling the emotional intensity of the Hollywood cinema.
For those who love a good soundtrack, the world of video games is quickly becoming a fertile playground for new artists and musical explorations. Unhampered by the tight two-hour length of the common film, even veteran composers are finding the challenge of scoring games a welcome one.
Israeli-American composer Inon Zur conducting a live performance of his upcoming soundtrack to the adventure game "Siberia III." (Photo: Sophie Filip/Facebook)
"In video games, for about 80% of the time the composer is required to write freeform musical cues, which has no direct link to the picture," video game composer Inon Zur, who discovered his passion for music while growing up in Israel's rich arts scene, told Gsoundtracks. "This allows the composer a lot of creative freedom as a composing venture, much like the old days of classical compositions, and I think that many composers find this aspect very attractive."
Below are just a handful of examples of the stunningly beautiful compositions finding their way into video games from around the world. Even those who have never played a video game will likely find it easy to appreciate the emotional resonance evoked from these tracks.
‘Fallout 4’ by Inon Zur
Inon Zur, an Israeli-American composer who has crafted scores for more 50 video games, recently lent his talents to the soundtrack for “Fallout 4.” The action-adventure game, which sets players in a post-apocalyptic Boston in the year 2287, features a soundtrack that is equal parts quietly moving and unsettlingly aggressive.
“My job is to build an organic, acoustic world,” the three-time Bafta-nominated composer told Vice. “The ‘Fallout’ story is reminiscent of the past, but it's also a world that has evolved and developed in ways that are really hard to imagine. So, the music needs to help sort of by describing what's going on there.”
Zur, who recently helped organize a symphonic concert in Los Angeles spotlighting video game music, will next score the soundtrack to the highly anticipated “Siberia III” adventure game.
"Our aspiration is to support the player with the emotional dimension," Zur told GameCrate. "In order for the player to feel the game, the music needs to create a sonic world that elevates their experience through immersion. The emotional system is solely dependent on the music and the story combined together."
'The Last of Us' by Gustavo Santaolalla
The minimalist compositions of Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla are used to haunting effect in the post-apocalyptic zombie thriller “The Last of Us.” According to Neil Druckmann, the Israeli-American creative director for the title, Santaolalla came on board immediately after hearing the pitch for the story.
“It was incredibly easy collaborating with him,” he said in a Reddit interview. “We didn't have to give him much direction. His music was inspirational for the storytelling since we got some of it so early.”
To give the main theme of “The Last of Us” a unique sound, Santaolalla chose to use a ranroco, a small stringed mandolin-eque instrument from the Andean region in South America. The rest of the score, described by the Oscar-winning composer as both bleak and melancholic, is even more remarkable when you consider that fact that Santaolalla neither reads nor writes music. "I don’t see myself as a film composer," he told PBS. "I see myself as more of an artist that uses different forms to express myself. I love it all."
'Journey' by Austin Wintory
When ThatGameCompany needed a soundtrack to accompany the stunning visuals in its wordless adventure “Journey,” they turned to Austin Wintory. The American composer, who had crafted the score for the studio’s previous title “flOW,” said the experience of working on “Journey” was both a dream come true and a challenge.
“The idea from the beginning was exactly what, I hope, players are getting from it: a poignant, lonesome quality that builds to a pretty strong emotional catharsis,” Wintory, who received a Grammy nomination for the “Journey” score, told Gamezone. “It took a long time to feel like we’d really nailed that emotional arc, but it was the goal from day one.”
In addition to composing the soundtracks to “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” for Canadian-based studio Ubisoft, as well as “Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded” for Israeli game developer Adventure Mob, Wintory also recently completed the score to the highly-anticipated aquatic game “Abzû”
'Ori and the Blind Forest' by Gareth Coker
The beautiful, almost magical orchestrations of British composer Gareth Coker complete the full package of entertainment and art that is “Ori and the Blind Forest.” The adventure game, created by Austrian Thomas Mahler and Israeli Gennadiy Korol, tells the tale of a young orphan destined for great things. In an interview, Coker says he was a part of the project from pitch to conception, a process lasting more than four years.
“Traditionally, composers come in quite often towards the end of the project, but if that happens in a game that features a large open world like Ori, there’s just no way that music can be adequately tested in game beyond the usual, which is checking loops, transitions, etc.,” he said. “A lot of the reason that Ori feels the way it does is due to pacing, both in the story and gameplay, and the music.”
Coker’s talented ensemble for the “Orli” soundtrack included the Nashville Music Scoring Orchestra and solo efforts by such talents as vocalist Aeralie Brighton and flutist Rachel Mellis.
'Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End' by Henry Jackman
For the final installment in the critically acclaimed “Uncharted” franchise, studio Naughty Dog selected British film composer Henry Jackman to score the game. A veteran of the Hollywood superhero genre, Jackman told MusicTimes that he was drawn to the gaming industry by both the challenge and the opportunity to work with Neil Druckmann, the Israeli-American creative director behind “A Thief’s End.”
“I was a lot more interested because these days doing the music for video games is a completely different proposition than 1982,” he said. “They've got time and a budget and you can record orchestra properly and it's not that dissimilar to doing the score for a film.”
While Jackman retains versions of the sweeping melodies made famous by previous series composer Greg Edmonson, he also lends his own distinct style with quiet moments of flute, violin, and acoustic guitar contrasting with action scenes heavy on the big brass and percussion.
“Reviewing tracks for the soundtrack,” Druckmann tweeted earlier this spring. “Still gives me chills. Henry Jackman and co. outdid themselves.”
'The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time' by Koji Kondo
Despite its release almost 20 years ago, as well as lacking the full orchestrations of other scores on this list, the soundtrack for “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” remains one of the most beautiful ever produced.
“The ultimate goal for me in making music, or at least one of the main goals for me, is to create memorable melodies,” Kondo told IGN in 2007. “That goal is there regardless of the tools we have.”
According to Kondo, the biggest difficulty of “Zelda” was coming up with the memorable compositions for players to perform on Link’s magical ocarina. “Since each of those songs, like Zelda’s Lullaby or Epona’s Song, had a particular theme, it was quite challenging, but I think it all felt really natural in the end,” he said.
'Bioshock Infinite' by Garry Schyman
For the third entry in the “Bioshock” franchise, American composer Gary Schyman opted for a more intimate soundtrack featuring small string ensembles of anywhere from three to ten players.
“It created a distinctive style for the game,” he told FilmMusicMag. “There is a lot of simple, sparse music cues in the game but there’s actually some fairly complex music as well so it’s a mix. But once that sound, that sparse, small string ensemble sound felt right, it really drove the style and became the sound of the score for ‘BioShock Infinite.’”
Like other entries in the series, “Infinite” also features a number beautiful covers; including a barbershop quartet version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and a rendition of the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The score went on to receive top honors at both the 17th Annual D.I.C.E. Awards and the 3rd Annual New York Videogame Critics Circle Awards, among others.
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