Gaming Soundscapes: A Retrospective

In the great chaotic development that is a video game company, people still live their lives. They work, eat, sleep, love, lose, scream, suffer, heal, and so on. Despite their intentions to utilize a medium that will last forever, their mortal existence maintains a firm grip on the development of projects in the gaming industry.

As human beings, we feel and experience things - moments and memories can inspire or haunt us unreservedly. This is why the video game is something that lingers in a grey area, searching for purpose; although often the subject of scrutiny and public misconception as a violent tool that invokes laziness, humanity twinkles and thrives behind those pixels. 

Of course, video games vary in function by category. There are, of course, bloodbath-addled shooters that can be competitive yet addicting in their frantic, fast-paced action. Role-playing games offer pure escapism and the chance to live a virtual existence that wouldn't be ordinarily possible in real life (imagination being a vital aspect of mental development, after all). Platformers are innocent yet challenging, often appealing to younger audiences in seek of a fantastical experience, and always pushing players onward to discover what lies ahead (a great comparison to the journey of life itself). Simulation games such as Simcity 2000 - recently reviewed on this site - make players think and learn along the way, throwing challenging scenarios their way to entice contemplation and mental development via micromanagement. Not all games possess the same intended basis. Many are a form of comfort and mental stimulation. Even the Call of Duty series presents developmental opportunities. Of course, this is speaking from experience; I'm certain my fast typing speed can at least be partially attributed to the itchy trigger finger and lightning-quick reactivity I developed while playing through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on the second-hardest difficulty. Possibly.

But why bring all of this up? Well, other than to make people think before passing judgment, this human angle is where video game music comes in. Countless composers, bands, and musical artists have conceptualized and created masterful compositions that are specifically geared to trigger emotions or reactions to what is being displayed on the screen (masters such as Tommy Tallarico and Grant Kirkhope come to mind). Music is a powerful tool that can completely transform the atmosphere and attitude of what it is based around; in the case of gaming, it affects how the player feels about what they are experiencing. 

Before we go further, it must be stated quite plainly that the following music clips are the property of their respective creators. No copyright infringement is ever intended. In fact, this might be a good thing to showcase some of the finest music in gaming history; it creates awareness of the amazing work out there and is one of the only ways people are able to find these pieces, as physical or digital copies for sale by the companies responsible are tragically lacking in number. Many video game soundtracks are extremely rare to come across unless if pirated (and even then, it is poor quality for the most part). The best way to experience these compositions is to play the games that they are in.

Hopefully, by presenting some of the best pieces here, maybe you'll be enticed to pick up a controller and immerse yourself in the stories they convey. 

Credit: SupraDarky (Youtube)

Credit: Rated R~ (Youtube)

Credit: CYCHREUS (Youtube)

Some of the very best, most sweeping, and utterly magical pieces of music are present in games released on various Nintendo consoles between 1990 and 2005. The Donkey Kong Country series soundtracks, composed by the brilliant David Wise, Eveline Fischer, and Robin Beanland, were a triumph in soundscape conceptualization. Exquisite arrangements and melodies destined to linger in one's mind for eternity ended up being a cornerstone of the series, vital to the essence of its charm. Tracks were tailored according to each level's overall theme, level of difficulty, and even pacing. The strategy worked brilliantly, and helped establish the Donkey Kong Country series as a pillar of Nineties (or "Ninties" as some affectionately term it) platform gaming. In a way, the music of those games defined a console generation. The golden days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System as well as Rare and Nintendo's much-missed partnership will always live on thanks to these meticulously crafted soundscapes that stand the test of time. They still make people feel, which is an important thing nowadays.

But Rare, an unstoppable force of brilliance at the time, was not done yet. Moving onwards to Nintendo's next console, the Nintendo 64, the developer poured their hearts into a game totally different from the colourful and youthful aesthetic of the Donkey Kong Country series. The result, after experimenting with the game's engine in initial N64 release Goldeneye: 007, was a sleek, moody and incredible effective title that made a thoroughly lasting impression.

Perfect Dark. 

Credit: MusikTECH (Youtube)

Credit:TektiteTriforce (Youtube)

Grant KirkhopeGraeme Norgate and David Clynick are the masterminds behind the evocative, alien, and addictive atmosphere of this first-person shooter through their striking compositions. A cold, harsh, and in-your-face soundscape at times, the music of Perfect Dark captures the essence of the sci-fi alien conspiracy thriller that it sets out to be. On top of this, the team responsible for the game's soundtrack engineered a genius idea; to provide two versions of the theme for each level. The regular theme would accompany the player through the level, but there was also an "X" variation of each theme that would play in intense situations. It created a familiar yet energizing atmosphere, making each level feel like an intricate and vital chapter of the game's meticulously conceptualized story. This was propelled by the haunting score working in unison with the game's dark yet futuristic environments. Shortly after, Rare was bought by Microsoft. Despite a prequel game, Perfect Dark Zero, releasing as an Xbox 360 launch title, it couldn't come close to capturing that pure and unique essence of the original game in the series.

Composers often work with the development team to build the music of a game as a foundation or pillar that supports the overall vision of the project. By firmly establishing the overall theme and intended character of the game's music, interface, characters, world, and even animations, the team reaches a critical point where they can continue to build and shape their project in a manner best suited to fit what has been already established. Sometimes, scores are produced early on. At other times, the development team knows the effect that they want to produce from the get-go but adds the soundtrack later in the project's lifetime. A fantastic example of the importance of music brings us to a virtual dollhouse of music-making magic.

The Sims series has become widely known as a top-selling PC game that ushered in a new way to play. The brainchild of genius game designer Will Wright and the team at Maxis before it was taken over by EA, The Sims (the original entry in the series, that is) was initially a very different game. Before focus shifted to the player tending to the needs and actual lives of the irritable virtual people which lived in the game's neighbourhood world, the original game was intended to function as a home design simulation. Judges were to enter the player's designed homes and rate their handiwork according to specific guidelines such as upkeep, layout, room, and more. Soon enough, the game turned into what it is known for today; life simulation with a zany yet infinitely charming touch. 

Credit: Bob Saget (Youtube)

That touch wouldn't be half as inspiring if it weren't for Jerry Martin's transcendent compositions, particularly those for the "Build" mode in the game where players spent their time creating homes for their Sims to live in. The heartfelt and touching piano pieces accompanying this mode are a great source of inspiration, escapism, and utterly blissful comfort. Of course, the rest of the game's soundtrack is equally magnificent. The "Buy" mode in the game - where players furnish their homes with everything from burglar alarms to vibrating love beds and scuba diving tanks - was populated with a host of specially stylized music that emphasized the overall theme of the game. Will Wright called it "American Television Culture", as the team wanted to convey an atmosphere that was familiar and inviting yet comedic in inception, similar to that of a sitcom. The goal to make the game universally appealing according to popular culture also influenced the dialogue of the Sims themselves. By mixing countless phrases and ramblings made in multiple languages, the team crafted Simlish. This often hilarious form of spoken dialogue not only served as an affordable alternative to recording countless actual conversations for Sims to speak, but it also protected the "Live" mode of the game from being suffocated by stagnation due to players hearing the same lines over and over again. 

Credit: SonicOverlordUK (Youtube)

This all ties into the music of The Sims and its several expansion packs because of the shared vision of the team to make something universally appealing, and anything but stale. The original game received seven massive expansion packs, designed to bring even more content and experiences into the game. Music was, of course, an integral aspect of these packs. Hollywood glitz and glamour, New Orleans-inspired neighbourhoods, tropical island vacations and even a meadow of nomadic witch and twisted carnival caravans serve as the focal points for many of the game's expanded composition repertoire. 

Speaking of fantastical soundscapes, leaving out a very specific title would be sacrilegious in nature. The fourth entry in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivionis home to some of the finest atmospheric instrumentation to have ever been recorded. There's a very special, almost transcendent charm and quality to Jeremy Soule's iconic compositions, which have now cemented themselves as staples of the series as it evolves. In fact, this soundtrack is something I personally connect to in a way that, even in words, I cannot describe accurately. I basically owe my optimistic, positive oulook on life to the feeling of utter zen and serenity that Soule's work provided - particularly during a time when I needed it most and was in a very dark place. In some specific pieces, there's an air of mystery and intrigue; of contemplation and reflection. 

Players encounter these musical moments when roaming the game world or exploring interiors, and they give the game a timeless touch that cannot be equalled even by other entries in the Elder Scrolls series. Sure, there's energetic and dramatic pieces befitting dungeon-crawling or intense skirmishes with necromancers, but the peaceful pieces, for lack of a better term, are what literally saved me from myself and others when I had no other way of finding a source of solace. This makes Oblivion an integral piece of my own journey through life, and I'm certain there are others who feel similar emotions upon hearing "Wings of Kynareth", "Peace of Akatosh" or the other majestic pieces of music found in the game or on its soundtrack. If there's any sort of proof that video games as a form of escapism can save lives and be a source of inspiration rather than hatred, then Oblivion is most definitely the prime candidate. Jeremy Soule and the Bethesda Softworks team have saved lives.

Video Credit: Prestigious_Gaming

The next entry in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, released to immense fanfare and publicity in 2011. This fifth entry in the role-playing fantasy series took a more harsh and visceral turn. Gone were the verdant green fields, rolling hills, and impeccably detailed forests that made your jaw drop. In the place of the civilized, lush setting of Oblivion came a Viking-inspired wilderness, complete with dragons perched upon soaring mountain peaks that made the player feel like an insignificant speck at times. With this drastic change in scenery and atmosphere came an entirely new soundscape, which again was the result of Jeremy Soule's magic touch. A choir of thirty male vocalists, enhanced to sound like ninety, produced the roaring main theme that matched the melody of Oblivion, but added a raw and primal twist. Soule also took a different approach to the instrumental music that would play outside of combat or dungeon-crawling. On top of creating several tracks that each had a different feel to them which would serve as non-combative moments in the game, Soule also composed a single cohesive piece of music titled "Skyrim Atmospheres", which captured the isolated and sometimes unforgiving environment that the game took place in. It added an incredible sense of depth and immersion to the experience of players exploring the vast Northern province. It was a triumph, and Skyrim's success can likely be at least partially attributed to the immersive soundscapes implemented into the game.

Credit: GameOSTz2 (Youtube)

Of course, there are infinitely more fantastic musical compositions out there. It would be impossible to highlight them all. I could go into the sheer magnificence of Martin O'Donnell's score for the Halo series. I could go into how Animal Crossing, by Nintendo, had music that would change with each real-time hour that passed in the endlessly simulated game world that continued thriving even when you weren't playing. Then of course, there's the über-simple yet über-effective soundtrack to Minecraft by C418 that expertly argues for the importance of independently developed content in order to maintain creative output and unyielding artistry. 

Even live performances have been intricately crafted from the ground up to immortalize the video game medium as one that deserves to be taken seriously, cherished, and respected. Video Games Live is one such example. Spearheaded by composer Tommy Tallarico as a passion project, it has grown exponentially into a brilliant display of sights, sounds, and experiences for future generations to discover what video games truly represent to people - it's not a disease or a flaw. To be able to understand and sympathize with this medium - respecting it as just an important an outlet as books, films, or other media - is to be open-minded and understand what humanity represents from a creative perspective. It's not about imposing limits, but rather stimulating the mind with new sensory experiences. Behind those pixels are stories waiting to be told, and the atmosphere evoked by musical compositions in such a medium plays a crucial role in inspiring creative minds.

The brilliant work put into video game music and soundscapes deserves to be heard and remembered, not lost to time as the next trendy, exciting thing continually comes along. There's a reason that video games are regarded as a powerful storytelling tool, and that's because there are visionaries and true artists working away at bringing some breathtaking projects to fruition. Hopefully this peek into the genius behind the gaming industry will serve as a source of inspiration and creative stimulation as much as it has done for myself over the past 25+ years.


To reiterate, all rights to the audio linked through this piece are the rightful property of their original creators and connected parties. All rights are reserved, and no copyright infringement is intended. Support artists.