Why video game soundtracks are underrated

If you say that you enjoy film soundtracks, most people wouldn’t react at all. Everyone knows that a lot of movies have great music. It’s even acceptable to admit to buying a television soundtrack, since many of them have cinematic-style scores.

Video games, by contrast, have no such respectability. Even though you might spend sixty hours wandering around a fantasy landscape and even realise that on some level a great deal of the lure is your enjoyment of the game’s music, there’s something a little silly about saying you love the score, because they’re just not taken seriously.

I think that’s a little ridiculous when you consider that just the same processes have gone into each, and that if you listen to the music on its own terms, it has just as much “worth” as music written for any other purpose. Take a listen to this piece (TES IV: Oblivion medley) by Jeremy Soule, for example:



I defy anyone to say that’s not great music.

Perhaps it is because games – for reasons of sheer ignorance – are still regarded as “children’s toys”, the wonderful scores for this increasingly mainstream medium are being shamefully overlooked.

Though Jeremy Soule is perhaps the best-known game composer, particularly for his Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars scores, Inon Zur has made some wonderfully memorable music. I love his Fallout 3 theme, but his Dragon Age: Origins theme is beautiful and really distills the diverse “cultures” in the game into sonic form, in the same way that Howard Shore accomplished with Lord of the Rings.

Still, perhaps most remarkable element in newer games is full-on musical interludes, such as Leliana’s song in Dragon Age: Origins. At first, since game graphics aren’t quite there yet, it seems a little strange, but the piece is lovely enough to make you overcome any objections.



Mass Effect 2 has a rather better-known song routine – Mordin’s humorous take on Gilbert and Sullivan – but the space-age score itself by Jack Wall would be reason enough to play the game even if it wasn’t a completely brilliant game anyway.



Even if the sound quality’s much better these days, the idea of a well-loved video game score isn’t new. Eric Heberling’s soundtrack for The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, is loved by everyone who’s ever played the game, though it could benefit from a modern symphonic arrangement.

You don’t even need an orchestra to bring the music to life. Here’s a fan playing Jeremy Soule’s Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind theme on a harp:



Him Indoors has chipped in with some suggestions of his own for further listening, such as the soundtrack from Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The soundtrack is dynamic, in that it’s made of short clips that loop until the on-screen action changes, so you’re unlikely to hear clips like this in game of the whole piece looping over and over – though the music itself is wonderfully evocative. This is probably the best part of the RTCW soundtrack – a deliciously chilling atmosphere-builder.

HI also wanted to point out the highly underrated Rogue Trooper game:



It has a more contemporary synth-based soundtrack, which fits alongside other more typical “video game scores” such as the much-admired Mirror’s Edge original score by Solar Fields. Special mention should also go to this understated Jean Michel Jarre-style ambient track.

Electronic non-orchestral scores really started to come to the fore with the Quake 2 and Carmageddon soundtracks, which reflected the preoccupation with industrial rock in the 1990s. Games like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines even included numerous existing songs that were played in-game, in much the same way as contemporary film soundtracks blasted popular synth rock tracks at key points in the action.

Game soundtracks have every bit as much depth, complexity, beauty and variety as any other type of media. Future generations may wonder why we appreciated them so little at the time.


4 comments on “Why video game soundtracks are underrated

  1. Summary of Facebook feedback:

    SB1 thinks that because film plots tend to have more nuance and depth, the scores are better accordingly. Game soundtracks have to adapt generically to player decisions. The exceptions are very tightly-scripted games, like JRPGs.

    My response: I take your point, but surely television soundtracks have the same problem, where most of the soundtrack is (also) short bursts of music that adapt to wherever the script is going. I’m talking about the main themes here, and I certainly think that the tunes I linked to hold up pretty well.

    Games are a young medium: movies took about 40 years to get good. I realised watching the Leliana Song clip from Dragon Age that the problem is that the graphics still aren’t realistic enough to “sell” the emotion, even when the dialogue and everything else is there. It’s like earlier CGI movies and animation – it’s incredibly difficult because you have no subtlety of facial expression. Once we get to Gollum-in-LOTR levels of realism, *then* the rest will fall into place.

    People talk about movies having “better plots”, but do they? I just sat through Wolverine, and that had a mediocre soundtrack and shitty plot just like almost everything else. Films with great stories are often badly directed or boring or ruined in some other way. When people point to a game like Bioshock which has a great story + graphics + music, and how that only comes up once a year or even once a decade … well, the same is true of any other medium. Here’s a clip from Bioshock, for the uninitiated: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEFIZh_Zscc

    SB2 is disappointed that most game soundtracks don’t use live instruments (i.e. synthesised orchestral sounds) and that only the main theme tunes tend to stand out.

    I would say the same for most television themes – you only remember the title music; the incidental music is normally quite bland.

    SB2 says: On the other hand, I think soundtracks such as Morrowind has a beautiful title theme, and the rest of the soundtrack flows with a similar instrumentation and feel which can be enjoyed as ambient music outside the game – it’s not tailored solely to strengthen what’s happening on screen, it’s created so it can be enjoyed as a stand alone. Similarly with lots of Final Fantasy music and Factions. The Zelda music is exceptionally melodic and memorable, especially with its generous treatment outside the game with world class orchestras.

    SB1 says: Synthesized or no, Zelda and Metroid had amazing music.

    Me: I think if you can’t tell if it’s ‘real’ or not, it doesn’t matter. Orchestras are expensive. I doubt Oblivion’s score is live, but it sounds great!

  2. What I really hated about the Oblivion theme is that it’s the Morrowind theme, but worse. All the Elder Scroll games have had unique themes, so why does Oblivion make a far less superior spin on Morrowind’s beloved theme. Laaaaaaame.

  3. Pingback: London Philharmonic’s game symphony « Reinspired

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