Music is one of the most powerful mediums of human expression for the elementary reason that absolutely anyone can relate to it, irrespective of their age, gender, IQ, language or culture. It is, at the same time, as abstract and subjective as a work of art, while also being something as exact and comprehensive as mathematics. This is one of the reasons why instrumental music is more profound than your average radio-friendly number. Unlike a typical Bollywood hit, these instrumental compositions don't have to conform slavishly to mundane lyric. This sets them free to achieve their true potential—that is, to convey emotions, evoke memories and transport the listener to another time and place.
That's precisely why these musical compositions play a pivotal role in video games. For they complete the experience by letting us achieve a complete emotional connect with the game. When done well, a background score can imbue courage or infuse terror. It opens up gamers to empathy in a way that cannot be achieved by visuals alone. To cite an example, it would be nigh impossible to relate to the protagonist's longing and lament in the final moments of Ico without Steven Geraghty's angelic rendition of “You Were There”.
Legend's adaptive “micro-scoring” transformed the soundtrack into a dynamic affair
More often than not, these invisible blocks that complete your gaming experience tend to be ignored. There are far too many talented video game composers, who have come up with some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of original soundtracks (OST) to mention here. Nevertheless, this is an attempt to list five of the most sublime musical compositions, in no particular order, from well-known video game franchises.
Tomb Raider: Legend
I have been a big fan of Tomb Raider's music, which was traditionally handled by the very capable London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). LSO's capability to convey the essence of the game's sequences by creating tension or a feeling of grandeur was unparalleled, and enriched the overall experience of the franchise. The sublime Angel of Darkness OST, in fact, was the very epitome of using music effectively to infuse a video game with life.
Needless to say, I was rather disappointed when I found out that the franchise would be washing its hands off LSO in favour of Crystal Dynamics' in-house musician Troels Brun Folmann. However, he wasn't just your average composer. No sir, what we have here is a scholar with a PhD in Adaptive Game Audio, and it shows. Folmann used his technical know-how of video game scoring and traditional musical expertise to enrich franchise with a unique concept dubbed as “Micro-Scoring”.
Unlike regular video game scores with static arrangements, this approach chops up musical pieces into smaller fragments that are then played to suit the game experience. This dynamic musical scoring system adapts to the players actions, thus creating a unique experience that evolves according to your style of play. Pretty technically impressive stuff this is. Gimmicks aside, Folmann's score incorporated a refreshing blend of orchestral pieces with trademark electronica.
It's this blend of the old and new—of traditional arrangements with modern synthesised loops—that gave the ageing franchise a much-needed breath of fresh air. In fact, despite my reservations, this combination worked out surprisingly well—a fact that was reinforced with a BAFTA award for Best Original Score.
Super Meat Boy
Remember the time when consoles and PCs weren't powerful enough to synthesise real music? That still didn't stop resourceful game developers from creating memorable compositions from crude beeps that now remind us of the 8-bit glory days. This masocore masterpiece embodies the same hardcore difficulty of the 8-bit side-scrollers, while injecting them with new-fangled gameplay elements embodying clever physics. The soundtrack, in a fitting manner, is a mash-mash of old school 8-bit music with modern rock and new-world elements. And boy, have they nailed it!
A great deal of what makes Super Meat Boy awesome is composer Danny Baranowsky's adrenaline-pumping score that surprises you with its eclectic aural variety. It starts off all upbeat, but as this uber difficult game progresses and puts you in a world of pain, the soundtrack ramps up to keep your spirits high, while culminating in epic 8-bit orchestral pieces that somehow fill you up with enough courage to push yourself to the limits. I'll go as far as to say that without the music, I would not have finished this game two times over.
In fact, I have a theory. Make our Jawans play through Super Meat Boy. That way, when we are at war, all we need to do is place one of them at the border, blast the soundtrack and sit back as he goes behind the enemy lines, slaughters everyone and returns with their heads. Yes, it's that inspiring.
Diablo wasn't solely known for bringing RPGs to the masses with its blend of action and relatively simplified role playing elements. What made this game memorable was its atmosphere. The hack and slash classic put you in a dark, foreboding nightmare populated with the hellspawn—all of which was bought eerily to life by the excellent musical score, courtesy of Matt Uelmen. The soundtrack comprises of a combination of mellow, nuanced arrangements woven with an acoustic guitar theme, as well as some energetic musical pieces infused with heavy percussion instruments.
The stand out track, however, is the iconic Tristram town theme that all nostalgic gamers will recognise, thanks to its beautiful arrangement of multiple acoustic guitars strumming away to glory. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I claimed that a great deal of what makes Diablo a beautiful atmospheric experience is down to Uelmen's score. So well received was the composer's work that Blizzard pretty much hired him full time to work on future projects such as StarCraft, the sequel to Diablo, as well as World of Warcraft.
Shadow of the Colossus
It's fitting that one of the finest video games ever made gets the most stunning orchestral compositions ever created. Composer Ko Otani is well known for his work on anime OSTs, but he gained immense popularity for the powerful classical arrangements in Shadow of the Colossus (SoTC). For a very good reason too, because this game features music bearing an eclectic blend of lush orchestral arrangements and traditional Japanese musical style. SoTC's music is a perfect foil to the uncanny silence underscoring the solitude of the Wanderer. The hulking presence of a Colossus is unmistakably marked by Otani's rousing symphonic score, which rises up to a crescendo as you come to terms with the sheer size of the behemoth you're supposed to defeat.
However, the score isn't just supposed to get your juices pumping. Its haunting intro sequence, for example, conveys the sombre solitude despite an arrangement that waxes and wanes through the entire audio spectrum. Like all good orchestral symphonies, the SoTC OST exhibits steallar recording and production values with none of the annoying sound compression gimmicks found in modern pop recordings. Unlike most soundtracks that only bear a few standout tracks, Ko Otani's masterpiece maintains consistent quality throughout its 40-odd tracks.
Prima facie, it's hard to put a finger on exactly what makes the Machinarium OST so uncannily appealing. It's not just because its brilliant, but you have this lingering feeling that there's something more to it. The soundtrack has an ethereal quality that renders it quite unlike your average radio-friendly pop music. To put it in a nutshell, this OST quite unprecedented and unlike anything you have ever heard before. That's mainly because while almost every form of music is derivative to some extent, Tomas Dvorak's compositions are completely original to the point that it's hard to pin down what genre they belong to.
Dvorak employs some clever effects with distortion, while blending regular classical instruments with synthesised electronic sounds to create a truly atmospheric experience. All this produces a weirdly appealing medley of dissonance and harmonics that sets his music apart. It's hard to describe how good the Machinarium soundtrack is, because there is no proper frame of reference to hold it against. This is the kind of stuff that you simply need to hear for yourself, in order to truly understand the scope of its brilliance.
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