There are a lot of factors that contribute to a videogame being scary. Obviously, your visual surroundings need to be at least somewhat disconcerting, and the ideas that the game offers need to be unsettling on a base level. However, I think the sound design and soundtrack of a horror game can make or break the experienc for the player. A good deal of my memories and experiences with horror games come more from wandering around the abandoned streets of my hometown at night with my trusty iPod, than from parking my butt in front of my computer and actually playing them. When I roam around listening to different soundtracks from games, that's when I really reflect on the plot, what the characters might be thinking or feeling, or even how I would have reacted in a similar situation. It really does help to enrich the whole experience.
Music is just that powerful of a thing for me.
It's important, however, to note that a good game soundtrack is more than just an effective score, or a few songs with lyrical relevance. What makes a game soundtrack work for me is when it comes together to be a sum of all of it's parts.
To better describe the audible horrors that have brought me so much awe over the years, I took some time to pull open my iTunes library and compile a list of my top five horror game soundtracks.
5. Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2 (Mike Morasky)
When I started taking music classes in school (both junior high and high school), one of my favourite ideas was that each instrument not only had it's own part, but it had it's own personality. I loved the idea that you could represent a story through instrumentation, and without lyrics, could get your message along just fine. This idea in action was what made the soundtracks for Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 really stand out for me.
In both of the games, music is used sparingly. You notice it's absence just as much as you notice it's presence. And when it is present, it's present in a big way. I've always admired that the music was composed in a way that it represents each zombie type; the growing dread of the Witch theme with it's delicate piano keys and vocals that crescendo into high pitched flutes, the heavy percussion and nervous woodwinds that introduce the Tank, that's the sort of thing that I've always really admired.
Aside from the score, the Left 4 Dead games also have some of the best lyrical songs. I have such a soft spot in my heart for the fictional Midnight Riders, and I don't think I've had a playlist that 'Save Me Some Sugar' hasn't been on. I like that the Midnight Riders only seem to exist within the context of the games, but their music is independent of the plot. It just always seemed to make the experience that much more authentic.
4. American McGee's Alice (Chris Vrenna, Tweaker)
I'm just going to put it out there, I love Chris Vrenna's band, Tweaker. Call me a spoopy goth girl, but I love that he took the musical sensibilities from Nine Inch Nails and transformed it into his own one man band. I'm sure that in time, I would have come to find Tweaker on my own, but it was American McGee's Alice that pushed me in their direction.
The soundtrack for Alice is one of the creepiest and most listenable scores I have ever heard. A lot of the music was composed using old Victorian instruments and toys for that authentic twang of despair. Even the voice clips taken from the game are nestled in so lovingly and skillfully that they never interrupt the listening experience.
Flying On The Wings of Steam is probably the piece of music that stands out the most in my mind when I think of Alice. It's by no means aggressive, but it is creepy as hell. I love the inclusion of throaty-sounding strings, the gentle yet insidious tinkle of a music box, and the addition of wind effects and gentle industrial noise in the background.
This was my go to soundtrack for creative writing in highschool and to this day, pieces of the Alice soundtrack seem to always make their way into my writing and ambient music playlists.
3. Alan Wake (Petri Alanko)
Alan Wake is the perfect example of a game that hinges on it's soundtrack. That is to say that a lot of insight to the plot and themes of the game can be found right in the soundtrack. I love the inclusion of lyrical songs from all different sources to really enhance the game's experience.
I was a fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Poe, Depeche Mode and quite a few other featured artists long before Alan Wake came out. Having the credit music at the end of each episode really helped to solidify the themes of the game and made it come to life in a wholly different context.
On top of the music at the end of each episode, you can't ignore the work put forth by Poets of The Fall for the game's soundtrack. I loved that there were actually songs by the fictional Old Gods of Asgard, and that those songs reflected, once again, the overarching plot. This alone would have made Alan Wake's soundtrack a masterpiece, but then there's the original score by Petri Alanko.
The score that was written for the game is epic in the most pure sense of the word. It's breath taking and really does express the familiarity and doubt that seem to be experienced simultaneously in Bright Falls. There's inspiration and curiosity in Alanko's score, and it somehow captured that feeling of making a turn on a mountain encrusted highway, just to see a small town stretch out in front of you, with all of the possibilities that experience entails. It's the perfect score for autumn country driving, and most importantly inspires a feeling of homesickness for a small town that doesn't even exist.
2. Silent Hill (Akira Yamaoka)
I think that I actually got into the Silent Hill fandom through the soundtracks before I ever played one of the games. The music is a wonderful twist of aggression, loneliness and ambiance. It fully embodies what the games are all about.
I'm most partial to the soundtracks for Silent Hill 2 and 3, as I feel those games had the most listenable music. I've mentioned before, using game scores for inspiration while writing, and the various soundtracks are perfect for this. Aside from a few lyrical songs, which again, speak perfectly to the game's themes, the ambient music in this series is so easy to get lost in.
It's perfect for wandering the streets on a cool foggy night, writing furiously for National Novel Writing Month, and even drifting off to sleep to in a bubble bath. Yes, I've done all of these things while listening to the various scores from Silent Hill, and have fond memories from doing so.
Akira Yamaoka drew from so many different sources when he designed the sounds and music for the series. I remember watching a documentary on the making of Silent Hill 3 where he discussed trying to come up with a sound for a certain area in everybody's favourite rusty gratey world, and deciding that he wanted it to sound like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. That's not just being musically talented; that's thinking outside of the box completely. It's complex concepts like that, that make the music stand out. I can promise you (again from experience) that if you were to find an abandoned building to stand in, and you just let the sounds of the building wash over you, along with the stale coolness of the air and the inevitable feelings of lonesomeness, you would be able to match Silent Hill's soundtrack directly to those experiences. Say what you will about the steady decline of the franchise, but you cannot discount the success of the music and the atmosphere that it created.
1. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (Jessica Curry)
Jessica Curry's score for Machine for Pigs is right up there with the soundtracks for Silent Hill and American McGee's Alice, that is to say, her music is darkly emotional, fiercely original and authentic to the plot and settings of the game. Some tracks are a pleasure to listen to, to get lost in and write to, and other tracks challenge the listener with pants shitting terror and anxiety.
The strings are robust and at times, sound as if they are going to swallow you up whole, the piano pieces are so delicate and shy, but can also drive the music as is heard in The Factory Gates and Mandus. I really wouldn't be surprised if the music took cues from Chris Vrenna (especially with the use of music boxes) and Petri Alanko.
What I thought was a real treat in the game, and throughout the album, was the inclusion of lyrical operatics. They stood out throughout the game, especially the piece of opera music Dieses Herz, that was used to calm the manpigs in the monstrous factory. There was such a dissonance between the ugliness of the machine, and the soothing beauty of this piece of music. I remember thinking to myself, “I need to find that song!” When I did find the song, and the translated lyrics, I found that the song was meant to be a lullaby, though the lyrics carried some dark implications about the plot of the game.
It doesn't get much better than that.
Any gamer who enjoys listening to the soundtracks of the games that they've played owe it to themselves to check out Jessica Curry's score for Machine for Pigs. Just as much for the mechanical, hollow music from within the machine as for the faithful and soothing piano pieces that express a fondness for Mandus' family and their home.