Sometimes, a great game becomes a classic on the back of its soundtrack. Fitting music and tasteful ambience can add the last little touch to perfect the atmosphere, making sure the experience is cemented into your mind for the rest of your life. When I think back to playing certain games, I remember them the same way I remember anything else that actually happened, like a holiday or birthday: in hindsight the experience feels like a real event in my life, as if there was no screen or controller and I was really there.
Right off the bat, I want to clarify that this isn’t a top 5 – they aren’t even going to be in a particular order. There are plenty more examples I could pick but I want to finish writing this article at some point in time before the end of the decade. If you relate to any of this and have a similar feeling about another game, please comment and share it; if there’s any game with a perfectly matched soundtrack that I haven’t played yet, I want to know about it!
OK. Disclaimer out of the way, it’s time for the first soundtrack!
Morrowind is the third game in the The Elder Scrolls series, it’s also my favourite game of all time. As far as the actual production of its soundtrack goes, the later additions to the series blow it out of the water. Listening to it on its own, in isolation, you’d probably find it pleasant enough. Maybe the mastering shows its age just a little bit, but the strength of the composition is there; it’s only when you play the game, however, that you realise its impact.
When I first played Morrowind I must have been 11 or 12. I hadn’t really discovered music and I was almost unaware that I was hearing it while I played. To me the soundtrack was the smell of the wooden dock when you arrive in Seyda Neen at the start of the game; it was the feeling of being in the presence of individuals with a powerful grasp of potent magic. For me the soundtrack becomes one with the art, story and gameplay of Morrowind. It forces them to bind together in a way that they may not have without it: a more bombastic or epic soundtrack may have driven a wedge between the elements of the game, but would have been more impressive when listened to for its own sake. This is what I mean when I talk about sound serving a game, Jeremy Soule could have written a more typical Medieval Fantasy soundtrack but instead he nailed the atmosphere of an island in the middle of Morrowind.
Highlights include Nerevar Rising and Peaceful Waters.
FTL: Faster Than Light is a 2-dimensional, top down, real-time strategy game. While Morrowind has a great deal of character that needed to be respected, FTL’s appearance and lore are much more understated. Where Morrowind would have been OK with a less well-suited soundtrack, FTL would have been broken – there’s too much resting on the soundtrack for it to work with anything that couldn’t create a strong atmosphere in its own right. Luckily, composer Ben Prunty got it spot-on.
The game’s soundtrack is characterised by super-soft, filtered, reverberating synth leads, chunky bass and retro percussion. It walks the line between chiptune catchiness and pure intergalactic ambience. A really nice touch is the cross-fading between combat and exploration tracks: they’re essentially the same tracks, with the combat version adding more percussion to make it sound aggressive. These two tracks for each type of sector are played simultaneously, shifting seamlessly between them depending on your current situation.
The tracks for the different races are extremely characterful and almost create a story in themselves, you can imagine the personality of each species just from listening. For a good example, try listening to Rockmen or Mantis.
Super Meat Boy’s soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky is serious mood-music.That’s not music that will get you in the mood for love, but rather in the mood to direct a bleeding, sentient hunk of meat through some booby traps. Meat Boy’s story is more or less just that he wants to save Bandage Girl – and it doesn’t need more than that, nor does it need a soundtrack to create a feeling of seriousness or to reflect a feeling of depth in an intricate fantasy world. Super Meat Boy rocks and so does its soundtrack.
SUUPER MEAT BOOOY! And then BAM! It’s on. Right from the title screen you’re getting pumped for some high speed, high risk platforming. It nails the mood, too; it never lets up while at the same time having a sense of humour, just like the game itself. A simple but genius idea that’s incorporated into the game is that restarting a level doesn’t reset the track – it just keeps on going. You get the chance to have your heart rate raised without the game slamming on the brakes each time you die. The twisted, yet lighthearted nature of the tracks also helps stave off frustration: Super Meat Boy is a pretty tricky game the first time through.
Try listening to Can o’ Salt or The Battle of Lil’ Slugger.
If you listen to the Dark Souls soundtrack, it will probably come across as being pretty intense. While a lot of the tracks are pretty big and powerful they don’t actually play that often during a playthrough. Dark Souls is a game that likes to sucker punch players and it seems like Motoi Sakuraba has brought that spirit to the soundtrack.
You’ve been making your way through some ruins, accompanied only by the sound of steel on steel as you fight off aggressors. Finally you make it to a long, empty stone bridge. There is silence, broken only by the sound of your sigh of relief. Suddenly, a giant bull-headed demon jumps out from behind a tower and lands on the bridge – it’s at least a hundred times your size; the track called Taurus Demon starts to play. Go listen to it.
The flipside of this is Firelink Shrine, the music that plays in a peaceful hub area to Dark Souls’ Metroid-like maze. It’s a beautiful and haunting piece of music, made even more eerie by the lack of music in other relatively safe areas.
I’m starting to doubt that there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t played Minecraft. This one is truly unique amongst the games in this list because there is no real set path or even a clear mood to set. What the game is depends on who plays it. How do you compensate for that?
C418’s soundtrack isn’t invasive. It’s not even there all the time and, when it is, it’s almost easy to ignore it. This is a good thing. All it does is stimulate curiosity and encourage thoughtful relaxation – the mood is still yours to set with your creations. A mix of sound primarily made up of synth and piano, it’s something you could just have on in the background while you draw or write.
What’s the perfect match for a game that demands you create your own world? A soundtrack that doesn’t get in the way of the design process; you aren’t going to want to make a giant birthday cake with some Danish Death Metal blasting out of your speakers, or be inspired to make an evil castle with the My Little Pony theme song playing.
I suggest listening to Wet Hands or Sweden while you read or browse the web.
Let me know your favourite soundtracks that mesh well with their game in the comments below!