It only takes a couple seconds of the rhythmic chants for gamers across the world to chant along or grin with delight as they remember Halo. For the people who’ve had the good fortune of playing the Halo series (one that’s been consistently covered before), one of the hallmarks of the series was the music and soundtrack. Music has been an often-underrated part of video games. They can turn sad moments into periods of intense anguish, and turn ordinary gunplay into furious, deadly, and exciting shootouts. That is the beauty of a good soundtrack, and it, as well as the composers behind them, deserve recognition. This article will hopefully cover just a couple of the very many examples of brilliant soundtracks and music present in the gaming world.
Rock Anthem for Saving The World: The Original Halo Series
( Note: Bungie Studios were the developers behind the original Halo trilogy, as well as ODST and Reach)
Of course, the Halo series has more to offer than the simple chanting. Incorporating a full orchestral suite for their games, The Halo soundtracks were greatly successful and were the first few signs that video game soundtracks deserved legitimacy amongst the entertainment market. It is, however, notable that the original Halo’s were all produced primarily by two people. These people were Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Martin O’Donnell was the audio director at Bungie, and Michael Salvatori was a frequent partner and friend when it came to composing music. O’Donnell and his company TotalAudio previously worked with Bungie Studios to create the audio for their game Myth. The relationship was a success, and soon after producing the audio for several more games, O’Donnell was tasked with composing the music for Bungie’s ambitious new product, Halo.
O’Donnell talked with Halo’s directors about their vision for the game, and their discussions led him to decide that the soundtrack had to be unusual, “with an ancient feel to it”. With this knowledge in hand, O’Donnell got to work, finishing the first piece, “Halo” in 3 days. The now famous Gregorian chant was thought of by O’Donnell while he was in his car. The resulting music has been a major player in what has made Halo the juggernaut of the 2000s and early 2010s. Another innovation that has further been adopted by many other game studios was Bungie’s use of an interactive music engine, that would change pace and repeat depending on the player’s actions.
The soundtrack for Halo, as well as Halo 2, won awards for the stellar soundtrack, and throughout it all, Marty O’Donnell continued to refine and revise the original music, even adding a now-famous piano theme that was showcased in Halo 3. The final titles, ODST and Reach required completely different motifs, the former more noir, filled with jazz and sax, while the latter was gritty, with harder bass and darker themes to reflect the different nature of the story.
Reach was the last Halo that Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori worked on. After it came out, Bungie Studios split with Microsoft in order to create a new IP. The next Halos, while receiving a warm reception, never really captured the magic that the first few games did. From first arriving on the ring-world in Halo: Combat Evolved, to fighting off enemy tanks to an incredible piano score, what set the original Halo’s apart from everything else in the market was an incredible atmosphere, and at the forefront of this experience was the music.
Honor, Amongst Thieves: Red Read Redemption II
It seems impossible to get away from talking about Red Dead Redemption when discussing excellence in video games recently, and it shouldn’t be a bad thing. While the games certainly have their flaws, the soundtrack and general atmosphere of Red Dead Redemption II is certainly not one of them. With every mission and location containing a unique soundtrack, complete with style and theme, it was no surprise that RDR2 won best soundtrack at the video game awards for 2018.
For a game that takes over 30 hours for the main story and hundreds of hours if one is aiming to fully complete the game, not to mention the online mode, (which hasn’t been received as well) Composing a soundtrack to accompany all of that was a mammoth task. Woody Jackson, who was behind the original Red Dead Redemption soundtrack was once again asked to head RDR2. While the original drew a lot of inspiration from old western films, (Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood come to mind) Rockstar did not want to derive from their first game, preferring both games to have a separate musical footprint. As a result, Rockstar went to very strange lengths in order to ensure a unique tone and theme for their latest title. Indonesian metal groups, mandolin bands, electric guitar, all were tasked upon at some point to make music for Red Dead. Popular artists like Willie Nelson, Daniel Lanois, even Nas composed tracks for the game.
Red Dead 2 has been lauded for many advances and achievements in the video game industry, and music can definitely be labeled as one of them. The positive reception of the original’s soundtrack deserves a lot of credit for allowing Rockstar to venture, and go for more adventurous styles when it comes to creating a memorable soundtrack. One of the most memorable gaming moments, perhaps of all time is the first ride into Mexico during Red Dead Redemption. As the player ventures slowly into a new land and the harsh twangs of Jose Gonzalez and his guitar play “Far Away”, we are awed and the beauty, and artistry of video games.
Serenity, Joy, And Wonder: Journey
Commonly discussed as one of the greatest games of all time, Journey was an indie adventure game developed by thatgamecompany. And by god, what a game it was. For a game with a very simple objective which was to simply reach a mountain, it was executed so incredibly, and with such creativity that it was universally acclaimed. Part of that creativity was having other players accompany you on your journey, yet be unable to talk, only able to communicate with a musical chime. The other part was the simply astounding music.
Composed by Austin Wintory, the music for Journey deserves immortalization in the music hall of fame. Serene, calm, and beautiful are just a few words that can describe the music of Journey. Unlike Halo or Red Dead, Wintory looked towards creating a singular theme that overarched the entire game, yet also responded to the player's actions. He wanted to create an auditory experience, where players could feel like a “Soloist in a Cello Concert”. Wintory changed instruments, adding and removing them to mirror the player’s own journey towards the mountain. He also tried to ensure that the music remained culture-less, appealing to a universal flavor rather than to a specific audience.
The results spoke for themselves. When the soundtrack of Journey released on iTunes, it quickly reached the top 10 of over 20 countries. The game itself also received universal acclaim from critics. thatgamecompany had struck gold, creating a moving and emotional experience that tapped into the visuals, and audio to create one of the most memorable adventures ever for video game players. The soundtrack was even nominated for a Grammy award and received Kickstarter funding for live tours across the United States. Journey was a reminder of the wonders of exploration and how they can be evoked so well by video games. It remains a standard of excellence today.
Those are just a few examples of brilliant music in Video Games. There are definitely many more that I didn’t write about. Music and soundtracks are some of the most important aspects of creating a good video game, and often times a brilliant game is carried on the backs on its beautiful music. They are the difference between a scene reaching an intense narrative and emotional climax, and a feeling of boredom. Next time, load up a game you love and listen hard to the music. See what feeling it gives you. Whether you’re exploring the wild west, fighting aliens on a skyscraper, or navigating a peaceful desert, music is what turns these games into experiences that are truly unforgettable.