This being Astral Noize, it would have been a fair presumption that today’s list (and last week’s Part 1) might contain a higher proportion of aggressive music. But games and heavy music have long had a fractious, unproductive relationship.
People commonly cite Mick Gordon and his imitators as having created space for heavy music within games and it’s true that he both played an important role in and produced some fine work, but anyone familiar with the soundtracks in question knows the narrow spectrum of music they operate within, and the kind of games they typically feature in: gut splattered shooters set to a spin cycle of chugging and soloing. These games can be exceptionally fun, but undeniably speak to an archaic vision of both heavy music and games themselves, a John Romero in a Slayer shirt throwing horns vibe that games have done well to expand beyond.
This is not to say that there are no games doing more within the space. The perfect implementation of heavy music in a game may not exist, but in recent years we’ve seen some thoughtful attempts: the fictional Old Gods of Asgard from Remedy’s Control and Alan Wake universes provide fun power metal anthems that feel at home in their setting, and last years Watch Dogs: Legion includes radio stations that play Bolt Thrower, Angel Witch and Anaal Nathrakh; progress – inch by inch.
Below is the second and final installment of our look at the game soundtracks that left an impact on the medium. The list of games that didn’t quite make it (Hotline Miami! Thumper!) could fill several more, inevitable given the mountain of fantastic scores fighting for inclusion. We hope you’ve discovered something new.
Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus‘ minimalist storytelling and sweeping pastel landscapes had a profound effect on many on its release. Central to what made it’s ageless, alien world so enticing was its score.
Conducting a narrative of his own, composer Kow Otani uses music to punctuate the whisper of wind and the rustle of grass. Whether heightening moments of mystery with ghostly choruses and soaring organs or accompanying a thrilling encounter with one of the titular Colossi, Otani’s compositions feel both contemporary and ancient.
Ominous, inquisitive swells of strings foreshadow each encounter, lowering to a hum upon the towering creature’s emergence — a moment of hush allowing you to soak in their menacing majesty — only to surge back in in an eruption of sound that propels the battle into motion.
Accompanied by rapturous horns, these strings dance agile and elegant over thunderous percussion. Intertwined, the melodies and motifs these instruments weave around one another mimic the movements of you and your foe. Graceful, triumphant, frenzied, violent.
Otani’s score encapsulates all the mystique, grandeur, thrill, fear, wonder and sorrow of Shadow of the Colossus in a way only music can. [MT]
Kentucky Route Zero
Music plays an incredibly important role throughout all five acts of the wonderfully poignant, magical realism-inspired Kentucky Route Zero, with many of the game’s most impactful moments being the times when Ben Babbitt’s usually soft and nebulous synths are replaced by something more acoustic and direct. In-game band The Bedquilt Ramblers (Babbitt alongside singer Emily Cross and bassist Bob Buckstaff) show up at several points with bluegrass-inspired numbers like ‘You’ve Got To Walk’ and ‘What Would You Give’, which give the player the opportunity to pause and take a moment to reflect. Most memorable, though, is their rendition of ‘This World Is Not My Home’, which turns the originally euphoric words of the original hymn into something desperately forlorn. Meanwhile, at the end of Act V, the game ends with another reimagined hymn, sung acapella by Emily Cross and a rousing chorus, reaffirming the themes of community that come to define the game’s later acts. We’d be remiss not to mention singer Junebug stealing the show during one iconic sequence too – she now even has her own full album of material. [GP]
Endless Space 2
There are two versions of the Endless Space 2 soundtrack, and both are excellent. In-game, a “muted” version is used, where certain elements are toned down to be less bombastic, lest your attention be taken away from the wonders before you. The second version, as found on Bandcamp and vinyl copies, is a “fuller” edition, where tracks are extended and with all elements given full force. Composer Arnaud “FlybyNo” Roy crafted distinctive themes for each of the game’s factions, as well as more general pieces (such as the superlative ‘Worship the Endless’), that do a superb job of capturing the wonder and imagination of the game, with its stories and conflicts that span galaxies and aeons. A sense of decaying grandeur is present throughout, where horror and wonder abound in equal measure – just like in the game. [SW]
With the epic boss music that accompanies the series’ most iconic battles, Dark Souls could easily have earned a place on this list, but the creepier score for FromSoftware’s cosmic horror masterpiece Bloodborne is arguably more memorable. The atmosphere of Bloodborne’s world, from the gothic streets of Yharnam to the actively hostile Nightmare Frontier and even the eerie Hunter’s Dream, is expertly crafted, and the music plays a massive role in this. Featuring multiple composers in a globe-spanning collaboration put together by JAPAN Studio, FromSoftware and SCEA’s Product Development Services Group (PDSG), the score is dripping in atmosphere, evoking the stifling dread of wandering Yharnam’s streets for the first time. The official OST release kicks off with ‘Omen’ from the game’s trailer, with its phenomenally powerful build-up to an intense crescendo, and from there launches into ethereal soundscapes like ‘The Night Unfurls’, ‘Hail The Nightmare’ and ‘Moonlit Melody’ as well as epic boss music such as ‘Blood-Starved Beast’ with its piercing orchestral stabs and ‘Ebrietas, Daughter Of The Cosmos’ with its grand choir that’s at once both imposing and melancholy. [GP]
SHIVERS: Listen, they can’t just go and use one language to describe another, stick its components into codified prosaic… reflection.
CONCEPTUALISATION: But conveyance is the third compétence, to find cinema buried in orchestration, and plunder vast oil canvases from another centuries’ scrawl.
SHIVERS: But to be there, to have been there.. The slap of the wash on the pier, the cor anglais in the hotel..
HAND EYE COORDINATION: You could just… learn the language you know, evade the requirement entirely, become the dictionary.
SHIVERS: Sound moves but cannot be moved, what’s proposed is some kind of lounge act, and *stars* don’t belong in lounges.
HAND EYE COORDINATION: Actually, this looks like it could take some time.
SHIVERS: Save it, some waves have to be ridden, art cop. [LJ]
If the music of The Sims was an object what would it feel like? Feather pillows, plush toys, marshmallow? This is music attuned to the pixelated suburban setting of lush green gardens, white picket fences and homogenously slim avatars, surgically enhanced and threaded head to toe in Gap jeans and J.Crew. The soundtrack for The Sims delivers polished, Bay Area jazz built around piano solos, acoustic guitar plucks, major and minor keys undulating like the Sacramento River. The series evolved to become flashier and more theatrical under neoclassical composer Ilan Eshkeri, taking further detours into hip-hop and rock for The Urbz: Sims in the City, but nothing beats the original.
Full flow Sim sax and saccharin pan piping recall the CBS sitcoms of the mid-nineties. A sitcom with five plotlines: build house, furnish house, shit in house, do dishes, die. But even when visited by the Grim Reaper, you can’t help but be uplifted by the relentless allegro of the accompanying sliding piano scales. During lockdown people reported lining up the music of Sims to soundtrack the monotony of their daily lives, confined to their homes locked in the perma-grind of finding things to do. A simulacrum played out to the tune of ‘BoSIM Nova’ and ‘Under Construction’.
The SIMS soundtrack is elevator music, written and performed on speed. Can something simultaneously be considered easy listening and make you want to pull your hair out? Marc Russo and Jerry Martin set out to find out, their torturous tempos perfectly matching your growing frustration with your avatar’s disastrous life. [AD]
2019’s Eastshade is a breath of fresh air in the realm of video games, creating an engaging fantasy world for you to explore without the focus on combat that so many games of its type opt for. Instead, Eastshade is a peaceful adventure, your only overarching goal being to paint pictures of four iconic landmarks. Throughout your journey, the serene soundtrack elevates the beauty of the world, but just as impactful are the purposeful moments of quiet in between tracks. During these periods, you are left with the ambient sounds of the island; squawking seagulls, the gentle breath of the wind, waves crashing against the shore and always the soft crunch of your feet trudging onwards. These moments last just long enough that when the gentle but richly poignant music inevitably bursts into life again, it feels purposeful, turning a simple walk into something full of life and effervescence. The game and its music work to make you stop and soak up the atmosphere, savouring every minute instead of hurtling through on a path of destruction. It’s also worthy of note that if you’re a fan of Jeremy Soule’s Elder Scrolls soundtracks but are wary of supporting Soule following allegations of rape and harassment, Phoenix Glendinning’s work on Eastshade is a suitable replacement. [GP]
Silent Hill 2
In the two decades since its release, Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill 2 score has garnered as much grisly infamy as the game it accompanies. Its greatest success lies in how it resolutely defies the trappings and expectations associated with the horror genre, with not a single tortured violin in earshot. Instead trip hop, drone and ambient lurch through Yamaoka’s static filled compositions to create a distinctively corrosive, hellish spin on elevator jazz. Elsewhere the score also features more direct pieces that accompany key dramatic moments in the game, these more conventional moments look to percussion and noise to suffocate the player in accompaniment to the typically dreadful events unfolding on screen. With the future of the Silent Hill series constantly speculated on (please God not Bloober Team) it’s a comfort to return to this score and find that its ability to communicate the game and series’ surreal, disconcerting tone has not diminished. [LJ]
Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
Most video games associated with the Warhammer franchises are, at best, mediocre, and the same is normally true of their soundtracks. Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus stands out from the crowd on both counts though. With a plot focusing on two of the game’s more distinctive factions – the practically-immortal, robot-like Necrons, and the machine-worshipping (and emulating) Adeptus Mechanicus – the game also features one of the more distinctive soundtracks of recent times. Guillaume David outdid himself on this soundtrack, blending gothic choirs and organs with glitched-out industrial electronics, providing the right blend of excitement and horror for venturing into the awakening Necron tombs, with moments of creeping dread giving way to explosive violence. [SW]
All sumptuous synths and dreamy electronica, scntfc’s soundtrack for Night School Studio’s side-scrolling supernatural thriller Oxenfree is a huge and yet somewhat underappreciated part of the game’s identity, helping in no small part to set the mood on Edwards Island. The soundtrack stands on its own as an enigmatic listen, making use of digital music production techniques as well as vintage analogue tape recorders and receivers, but it also manages to blend the grounded tone of the game’s coming-of-age drama aspects with the spookier tone of the ghostly horror aspects. “John Carpenter meets Boards of Canada” was apparently the pitch from game designers Adam Hines and Sean Krankel, and they also wanted the music to feel nostalgic without being set in any particular time, a goal that was delivered upon by scntfc’s blend of digital and analogue sounds, which saw him run sounds through old cassette decks and reel-to-reel tape. The soundtrack is also tied to the game’s hidden mystery, with bits of morse code revealing secrets whilst hidden messages can also be found by changing some songs’ pitch or playing them backwards. [GP]
The Last Of Us (Parts I & II)
Despite in many ways being standard zombie fare, Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic action-adventure/survival horror boasts a compelling narrative that’s truly touching, and it was a stroke of genius to bring in Gustavo Santaolalla for the score. The Academy Award-winning Argentine’s soundtracks are instantly recognisable for his minimalist approach (see also: Babel, Brokeback Mountain, Biutiful), often favouring soft but emotionally-weighted acoustic plucking as well as some more out-of-the-box instruments and recording techniques. His work is a driving force in the game’s impactful storytelling, focusing primarily on sombre and poignant tones rather than seeking to creep you out as you may expect from a game of this nature. Santaolalla sought to challenge himself whilst creating the score, and the result is perhaps his best and most affecting work to date. [GP]
Words: Luke Jackson [LJ], Max Taylor [MT], George Parr [GP], Stuart Wain [SW], Alex Douglas [AD]