Experience the soundscapes of video games
Discover the musical hallmarks of the top five gaming soundtracks. | Photo Illustration by Caleb Raney/THE CHIMES
Video game soundtracks have evolved dramatically since the first 8-bit computer-generated loops of arcade games like “Space Invaders,” to the sweeping orchestral suites of “The Elder Scrolls.” While growing up, many students virtual gaming reality consisted of Nintendo Entertainment System games, “Sonic,” and of course, “Pacman.” Video game composers face a variety of scoring difficulties that set the genre apart from film. For example, each track has to seamlessly loop and transition to the next track according to the player’s position. Not to worry, here are five video game soundtracks worth checking out.
1. “The Legend of Zelda” (1985-2017) - Koji Kondo
Familiarity with Koji Kondo’s iconic theme for “The Legend of Zelda” series spans generations of gamers. Many adults grew up playing the 8-bit original on the NES in the ‘80s. Most fans find it nearly impossible to choose just one score from the “Legend of Zelda” universe. Each soundtrack features a variety of repurposed original melodies and new catchy motifs that perfectly capture the nostalgia of the series. The “Legend of Zelda” scores have evolved musically from the simple 8-bit synthesizers of the original, to the computerized string patches of “The Ocarina of Time” and “The Twilight Princess,” and culminate in the epic live orchestra of the most recent installment, “The Breath of the Wild.”
2. “The Elder Scrolls” (1994-2017) - Jeremy Soule
The stunning music of “The Elder Scrolls” series flawlessly illustrates the vast, fantastical landscapes and battle-driven spirit of the story. Soule translates the gameplay into a musical soundscape using the versatility of the orchestra, the rawness of human voices and pounding, war-like percussion instruments. Although this series contains numerous memorable soundtracks, “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” eclipses its predecessors. Study tip—“Dragonborn” perfectly accompanies long nights of studying and definitely deserves a listen.
3. “Journey” (2012) - Austin Wintory
A lone cello composes the opening melody of Wintory’s exquisite score to “Journey.” Wintory uses the orchestra and various ethnic instruments to create a unique timbre representative of the game’s environment, which speaks volumes to the game’s stunning simplicity.
“Musically, it’s like a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you, including other players,” Wintory said in an interview with The Sixth Axis.
“Journey” proved its merit when it earned a nomination for the “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media” in the 2013 Grammy Awards—an achievement no other gaming soundtrack has received for that category.
4. “Ori & The Blind Forest” (2014) - Gareth Coker
Coker masterfully conveys both the epic, adventuresome spirit and delicate, emotional moments of this visually stunning fantasy RPG. The orchestral score remains a perfect example of the more recent shift in the stylistic approach to video game soundtracks—from the classic synthesized loops to cinematic-esque orchestral scores recorded on live instruments. The breadth and musical craft of “Ori & The Blind Forest” could easily be confused for a film score rather than a gaming soundtrack.
5. “Civilization IV” (2005) - Christopher Tin
Tin's gorgeous choral piece, "Baba Yetu," from the game's intro, has become one of has become one of the most recognizable and performed choral pieces of the genre. In 2011, “Baba Yetu” won the Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals”—the first gaming track in history to receive a Grammy nomination and award. Additionally, the numerous cultural contexts of “Civilization” allowed composers of the games to experiment with exotic instruments and vocal techniques, giving the game a unique voice. In “Civilization IV,” Tin contributed yet another stunning choral track, “Sogno di Volare.”