Taking a drive home from New York to Massachusetts for the last pre-move trip I was listening to my 4GB iPod Nano using the ‘shuffle songs’ feature and something occurred to me: I have a lot of really cool video game music mixed in with all of my other stuff. Combining that with the latest of Cary’s Top 5 lists got me thinking: what are my favorite original game soundtracks? Not ones full of licensed songs or music from movies, but original works written solely for the game I am playing.
This list isn’t in any real order … except for #1. Divine Divinity is my clear favorite game soundtrack. The rest are favorites that I could possibly order but many would shift position as a function of time or other influences.
Divine Divinity (PC, RPG, 2002) – Kirill Pokrovsky created a grand work around this massive game. Divine Divinity is an action-RPG by combat-style, but a very deep and engaging RPG in terms of execution. There are rich characters and quests and plots and hidden stuff just about everywhere. But in the grand tradition of things such as the Star Wars films, much of the game is accentuated by the tremendous music that takes a starring role throughout. Combining orchestra, rock band instrumentation, breathy voices and just about every style you could imagine, Pokrovsky weaves a tremendous ‘story behind a story’ that is every bit as compelling as the wonderful game going on around you.
Arcanum (PC, RPG, 2003) – the first of Troika’s highly flawed masterpieces, Arcanum is a turn-based 2D isometric game set in the late 19th century in an alternate world where magic and technology coexist, albeit uncomfortably. In that setting, Ben Hogue chose a rather unique canvas to paint his soundscape; while some might expect the typical techno-fueled pulsing rhythms that accompany most steampunk adventures, Hogue decided to use a string quartet. It is intimate and introspective in a game that is all about a world in conflict, that needs resolutions to deep questions between two distinct ways of looking at life. The game is a classic, and this soundtrack is a wonderful listen.
Hotel Dusk Room 215 (DS, Adventure, 2007) – a very small game in terms of scope, the entire story takes place in a dingy two-story hotel in the 1970′s and through a number of flashbacks. But someone must not have told composer Satoshi Okubo about that, because rather than putting together a throwback retro compilation that would frame a 70′s context, he did something wonderful. His soundtrack shares that intimate feeling with the game, a closeness that beings together the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters and the over-arching complexities of the situations.
Gothic 1 / 2 / 3 (PC, RPG, 2001 – 2006) – perhaps this is cheating to an extent, but the core themes are actually the same, and as a result the soundtrack has grown from small and simple in Gothic 1 to huge and monumental in Gothic 3. Some of my favorite moments in gaming are wandering through the world of Khorinis in Gothic 2 accompanied by this relaxing music. Occasionally loud and bombastic, but usually small and intimate as one man faces a challenge gripping the whole world. Gothic 3 is the culmination of the series in terms of the soundtrack, with Kai Rozenkranz putting together a full-scale orchestral score that takes you from the frozen north to the desert wastes of the south, changing in style to suggest different cultures even within each region. Yet while taking on this massive scope, KaiRo never loses sight of that ‘comfortable explorer’ musical style that was so wonderful during the earlier games and serves as an excellent complement in the latest Gothic.
Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn (PC, RPG, 2000) – While I love his soundtrack for the original Baldur’s Gate, it is Michael Hoenig’s work on the sequel that has stuck with me over the years and resided in parts on my iPod since I played the game. The romance themes, the dozens of battle themes, tavern songs and others paint the massive landscape of one of the great all-time games and stick in your head alongside the interactions and stories you hear as you travel through the world. He captures a broad sweep of emotions that scale from individuals to entire regions and yet keeps it all right in tune with the game as you progress.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (PC, RPG, 2004) – while there are a fair amount of licensed and commissioned songs in the soundtrack for the final Troika flawed epic, they usually appear on radios or in dance clubs. That leaves the rest of the world waiting for a soundscape that communicates the dirty, dingy and desparate setting of Los Angeles at night properly. Composer Rik Schaffer does a wonderful job of painting a picture of a world that is at odds with itself, that transitions from wandering aimlessly to frantic battles seamlessly, and brings a sense of presence to each of the city’s regions. My favorite track is probably the ‘twisted’ soundscape of the haunted hotel – the combination of setting and sound made that a tense and chilling area despite not having a single moment of combat.
XIII (PC / GC / XB / PS2, FPS, 2003) – style over substance. That is what the reviews basically said. Here was a game that had an amazing visual style and soundtrack to complement the unique look, but the gameplay was only solid if rather stale. Long after the game was done and uninstalled, the soundtrack remained in my head. My kids love it as well, and the jazzy-funk rhythmic instrumentals have remained staples on my iPod for more than four years.
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (XBOX/PC, RPG, 2003) – much has been written about the game scoring of Jeremy Soule. I could cite many great works in which his music has been integral to the overall quality of a game: Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights, and Oblivion to name but a few. However, it is his work on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic that really sticks with me. Other games have mixed original themes with music from the films, but Soule has created a body of work that is at once his own while also fitting perfectly in the game and complementing and extending the John Williams body of work. It is at once Star Wars without feeling derivitive; familiar and original at the same time.
The Witcher (PC, RPG, 2007) – this amazing collection of eclectic songs and themes feels like like it draws heavily from a whole host of genres and influences, from traditional fantasy soundtracks of movies and games, to the stylized fantasy on KaiRo from the Gothic games, to raw rock strains of many action movies and games. The game is full of wild twists and turns and the music is there every step of the way. This is my second favorite soundtrack of ’07, which doesn’t diminish how important the music is to this excellent game. It falls from ‘Best’ to ‘Honorable Mention’ because despite how much I love it in the game, I don’t tend to seek it out on my iPod.
Blade of Darkness (PC, Action, 1999) – this is a brutal, bloody, and graphically gorgeous hack-n-slash third person action game. The soundtrack in general is solid and functional, doing what it is supposed to do: propel you from battle to battle without ever being a distraction. But the main theme stands out as one of my favorites, earning a long-standing place on my iPod.
Thief 1 – 3 (PC, Stealth, 1998 – 2004) – Eric Brosius has a tough job: making music that is fitting in a gothic fantasy setting where the hero is a thief who operates in silence. Yet he makes it work and makes for some very memorable themes, probably my favorite is Shalebridge Cradle. However, while I absolutely love the music in-game, this is not stuff that ever really lasts on my iPod.
Dungeon Lords (PC, RPG, 2005) – when the trailer originally came out for this game, it was ~40 seconds long and accompanied by a bombastic but memorable fantasy theme that fueled the imagination of fans … much like the rest of the trailer. However, aside from the music that played during the opening cutscene, this forty second snip that played when the main menu was displayed was the only music you ever heard.
So those are my faves – does that make them the best? Of COURSE it does! This is the internet, after all – all I need to do is get Hitler in there somewhere and I have an unassailable Epin Internet Win . But seriously, I think it is pretty clear that while I consider my choices to be objectively very good music, they are also based on my gaming tastes and habits. Yet despite years of playing almost exclusively first person shooters my playlist is dominated by role-playing games … and by PC games. I guess I haven’t found others that have really gripped me for a sustained period. I’m currently playing Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VIII which has a wonderful soundtrack, so we’ll see how that holds me once I finish the game.
So what about you? Do you love game music as much as I do? What are your faves?