Music is the flavor of life. It can make a good day great, make your heart race, and completely wreck you when it reminds you of something sad from your past. Everyone at some point or another has imagined their own soundtrack to life, because somehow, music defines us.
This is what makes music so important in a video game. In those worlds there actually IS a soundtrack to life, and it can change absolutely everything about the way you experience it. Most of you can probably name every song from Ocarina of Time upon hearing 5 seconds of it, from "Lost Woods" to "Bolero of Fire" (and of course my personal favorite "Gerudo Valley") and simply hearing them probably cheers you up a little bit, too.
I’ll never forget the song from the battle with Jecht in Final Aeon form from Final Fantasy X. To me then it was so incredibly hardcore and had so much meaning. I put it on my mp3 player in middle school and listened to it every day.
We can all probably agree that WET wasn’t a great game (even though it’s Bethesda produced – mystery) but my god if that game didn’t have an absolutely jammin’ soundtrack. Like when I started youtubing it I discovered songs that I didn’t even know were in the game and I immediately started adding them to my playlist. "Undead West", "Crazy Loco Loquito", "You're Dead" - all of them are great.
And what’s best, all the songs in the game fit the action so well. Rubi leaping from car to car in a red/black fury, blastin’ dudes in the face to songs like "She's Lost Control" was pure badassery. I was tempted to forgive the roughshod story and repetitive, over-the-top action… and 5-hour campaign length -.-
Then there are games like Katamari Damacy with just.. just lifechanging combinations of colors and music and quirk. I used to leave the “sky progress” part of the homeworld up on my TV just to listen to "Katamari Stars", and I still have it set as my ringtone for friends who know and love the game like I do. In total I probably understand about five lyrics from the entirety of that game’s soundtrack, but god damn if every single one of them doesn’t put a smile on my face.
Some games use the haunted warblings of a bygone era to unsettle your bones – like in Bioshock or modern Fallout games. Hearing “How much is that doggy in the- doggy in the- doggy in the window” skipping on an old record player in a torn-up, dark undersea restaurant creeped me right the $#&% out. And yet somehow hearing about “Johnny Guitar” in the ruined wasteland of New Vegas was comforting to me...
Even games that make limited use of music are crucial to the creation of memorable atmosphere. And I’m not just talking games like Dead Space or Condemned. One of the most lauded games of the PS2 era, Shadow of the Colossus hardly had any music at all outside of the hulking boss battles. And lord knows we spent twice as much time wandering BFE with Agro as we did fighting sleepy giants, so the loneliness of a silent, vast world really set in for us.
Borderlands is another game that is minimalist in its use of music. The tunes are rarely overwhelming, ramping up only when a big fight begins, but it’s ever-present and sets a great mood. The guitar-and-spurs style fits the desert scenery fantastically – constantly reminding you that you’re on an adventure to conquer wild territory full of wild men and beasts.
I think it’s incredibly unfortunate that soundtracks don’t seem to receive as much recognition as story and graphics when it comes to the review of a game. It’s sometimes mentioned alongside the sound FX category, but it really is something different entirely.
Maybe not enough games have incredible or apparent enough soundtracks to merit a review category of their own, but oftentimes not noticing them is what makes them so masterful. Games, like movies, are a completely different experience with the sound turned off. Watch The Omen on mute and see if you find it scary at all, then play MGS 4 without any sound and see if it’s NEARLY as touching.
Three games have made me nearly want to cry with their end-credit themes, and that is definitely saying something I think (what with all my manly machismo). "Dead Man's Gun" at the end of Red Dead Redemption, "No Death in Love" at the end of Enslaved, and "Fade Away" at the end of inFamous 2 were all incredibly endearing final melodies to end a game with, and seemed to make everything that much more special; particularly when they are accompanied by a procession of flashbacks like the one featuring Cole's exploits, as if they were a tribute to the monumentality of his life. And it wouldn’t have been the same feeling at all with just a generic rock song outro.
Honorable mention goes to the end credits of Killzone 2 for having a super-rad outro/credit-art combo before the normal text rolled. The point is – music makes the game, more than any of you may believe. It may not be the only thing, but it works behind the scenes to tie every piece of your experience together. Character developments, plot-twists, great victories – all are amplified tenfold by a damned appropriate spot of great music.
I recommend any of you who don’t already, pay closer attention to the music in your favorite games, and in games you play in the future. See how it fits the action; imagine if it wasn’t there - would it change how you feel about what you’re doing? I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t feel half as badass, half as desperate, half as enthralled if it weren’t for the IV adrenaline being fed through your ears as you save your planet, your girlfriend, yourself – or die trying.