*Warning: Spoilers for Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us below!!!*
Music is an artistic medium which has the unique ability to permeate all cultures and societies. There are few things in this world more common than the human reaction and appreciation towards music. No one can deny that music accesses a primal part of our brains, and influences deep emotion from our souls. In short, music makes the scene. Music is an art which has the power to bring other art to life – i.e. music is an integral part of any motion picture. Movies, TV shows, video games… all of these mediums are not only enhanced by music, but are each brought to life with individual soundtracks.
I’ve always been a soundtrack person. Granted, I could sit here and talk to you all day about some of my favorite bands and artists. But specifically, I have always loved soundtracks – music without words. Since I can remember, I have always taken special note of the instrumental epics, melodies, and tunes which composed some of my favorite cinematic moments. At first the signature wave of uprising violins and flutes, downright haunting melodies of piano keys, and epic blasts of bass or woodwinds, were reserved for the movie theatre.
But that’s no longer true today, as we all know. Video games now have some of the most memorable soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Moments in gaming which have stayed with me are always moments with a signature sound to them. I’m sure you all know what I mean, but allow me to provide some examples (Don’t forget to click the links!):
Whatever your opinions are about Bungie or Halo in general, you can’t deny that Halo 3 had one of the best soundtracks to ever grace the industry. To this day, the Halo 3 soundtrack is the only soundtrack which I’ve bought a physical copy of (I’m a nerd, I know). Martin O’Donnell is a genius composer and Bungie knows it, utilizing his talent for nearly all of their projects. For Halo 3, O’Donnell stressed the importance of using previous motifs in the final installment of the trilogy; he wanted to “blow out” the epic sounds from the first game. O’Donnell also introduced a distinctive piano theme which had never been heard before, and first made its appearance in the Halo 3 announcement teaser. In an interview, O’Donnell stated that he has always approached music from the keyboard, he had a feeling that, “no other E3 announcement would start with a piano.” And years later, it is still that distinctive piano riff in “Finish the Fight” which returns all of us to Halo.
Holy shit, talk about nostalgia. I mean oh my god, this song is the epitome of my childhood. Right up there with Pokémon. Seriously. Every time I listen to it, there are tears in my eyes within seconds. Utada was the only singer Tetsuya Nomura (Director of KH) had in mind for the first Kingdom Hearts theme song. And despite the lyrics having almost nothing to do with the plot of Kingdom Hearts, the song’s original name “Hikari” is japanese for “Light”. The battle between the forces of light and dark, as all fans of the series know, is the central conflict of the game’s storyline. “Hikari” was included on Utada’s album Deep River, which dropped a couple months after the release of Kingdom Hearts. It instantly reached the top of Japanese song charts, in addition to my iTunes top 25. The follow up song “Sanctuary” was the theme song for Kingdom Hearts 2, also written and performed by Utada. I can’t imagine Tetsuya Nomura asking anyone else to perform the theme for the highly anticipated, newly confirmed Kingdom Hearts 3.
The Last of Us
The giraffe scene. You only have to say those three words in reference to The Last of Us and anyone who has played it will know exactly what you’re talking about. In a game full of death and depressing realism, the moment shared between Joel and Ellie before they continue their journey to find the Fireflies, is rare and special. It is not often where an intense game such as TLoU gives the player a chance to take a breath and “enjoy the view.” It’s a scene which is so unexpected, yet placed perfectly after the “Winter” chapter (easily the most intense part of the story). Right from the beginning, NaughtyDog knew they wanted Gustavo Santaolalla to compose the soundtrack for their next epic: “We are honored to have Gustavo’s music and talents in our game. The texture of Gustavo’s musical score serves the game’s narrative and the music is rife with poignant, descriptive and intimate sounds. His work is unlike anything heard in a video game before. It’s a beautiful, haunting, sonic landscape that makes the game’s themes more emotionally resonant and emphasizes thoughtfully how Joel, Ellie, and all the characters in the game perceive the world around them. It’s a masterful musical score.” The hopeful yet haunting track, “Vanishing Grace” only emphasizes the vision NaughtyDog had for their game; The Last of Us would not be complete without this stunning soundtrack.
This ballad composed by Bioware’s Sam Hulick reigns as the most memorable for me. Everyone who knows me knows that the Mass Effect series is my absolute favorite. If you ask me what my favorite video game is, I’m going to say the Mass Effect series because to me the trilogy counts as one story. While playing through Mass Effect 3, I was already an emotional mess because I knew it would be the last time I played a Mass Effect game for the first time. To put it mildly – I was pretty much on the verge of tears the entire game. I was able to keep myself together for the most part, even after losing some of my favorite characters (OH GOD MORDIN NOOOooooo). But when Anderson died, I literally had to pause the game and take a few minutes for myself to cry. And not just a few silent tears, mind you, but an all out sobbing my eyes out cry. This short composition really encapsulates the series for me; all the emotion those games took me through can be explained with a few listens to this song. “With Mass Effect 3, we’re taking players on a more personal journey, even though the scope is bigger than ever – an all-out galactic war! Each composer has played an intricate role in delivering the combination of epic scope and delicate emotion that will make Mass Effect 3 the best game in the series.” -Casey Hudson, Project Director. Unpopular opinion time: Mass Effect 3 was the best of the trilogy, simply because it was the end of the trilogy. Everything had led to those last moments, and I personally thought it was an epic end to a fantastic series.
Music is the recipe for emotion, and all developers should take note. The guy you hire as your game’s composer is equally as important as the guy you hire to write the script. Gamers don’t remember games, people don’t remember a life; we’re human and we remember moments. Moments are more memorable when there’s a song we can listen to which will take us back to those memories. A great soundtrack brings a story to life. I believe the right riff or tune, used at the right time, can create a moment which lives forever.