Game music has come a long way in since its 8-bit origins and now includes mature, diverse compositions drawing upon everything from electronica to rock to orchestral opera. As I was shuffling around my music collection this morning, I had a sudden desire to pull out the music that I thought was not only best–but also has wielded the most influence on game music to come.
Far Away by Jose Gonzalez featured in Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption was innovative in a host of ways, and one of them was the incorporation of a folk-styled guitar song that would be equally at home in a modern Western drama like Deadwood as it is in a video game. Gonzalez has also performed the song live in a music video, which is equally enjoyable.
Still Alive by Jonathan Coulton, featured in Portal
There’s probably no song that’s had greater impact on gamer-fandom culture than Still Alive, and it went a long way to paving the way toward a shift from the classic epic-orchestral themes and towards new forms of simpler, more lighthearted music with singing accompaniment.
Baba Yetu by Christopher Tin, Featured in Civilization IV
This score won a Grammy—a first-of-a-kind accomplishment for music created for a game. It’s the sort of dramatic composition that transcends gaming–I know people who listen to it as a favorite track on their iPod.
Music Of Tristram Village By Matt Uelmen, Featured in Diablo
Diablo was Blizzard’s re-imagining of the Nethack-type dungeon crawler within an animated, action-oriented dark fantasy. The haunting guitar music from the original, now 15 years old, remains one of the best songs created for a game. This music opened up the field of music for fantasy games like no other before it, making it acceptable (and even desirable) to embrace guitars and new themes within a game’s music.
Arthas, My Son Featured in World of Warcraft
This piece demonstrates what can be done with an amazing composer, a symphony orchestra and a great set of themes: starting with haunting tones and operatic singing, it sets a tone of longing and sadness–then to be replacement with the driving call-to-war. Most Hollywood films should be envious.
Ending Credits from Mass Effect
Part electronica; part rock guitar–with vocals that challenged what it means to create music for a game.
Guild Wars Faction Theme by Jeremy Soule
Guild Wars was (and is) one of the more innovative MMORPGs, and its music by Jeremy Soule raised the bar for what you could (and should) expect from a full-length orchestral soundtrack.
Targos Town by Inon Zur, Featured in Icewind Dale 2
Icewind Dale 2 featured the above theme by Inon Zur, which is representative off some of his best work; it demonstrates the shift towards compositions that match the best of any Hollywood fantasy soundtrack. Inon Zur has gone on to create fantastic themes for Dragon Age and Fallout 3. Along with Jeremy Soule, Inon Zur has probably done the most to take orchestral composition to a whole new level in games.
Suicide Mission from Mass Effect 2
Is it silly to shed a tear for a video game? Mass Effect 2 (the only game franchise featured twice in my list!) has an incredible dramatic climax–the best we’ve seen in a game so far, in my opinion–and its music was equal to it. The theme music from the suicide mission is part electronica, part orchestral fanfare; it still evokes memories of a game I haven’t played through in over a year (but is making feel like going through it again, before Mass Effect 3 hits the market).
My jaw dropped when I listened to the theme music in Starglider around 1987, which featured digitized singing. It might not seem like much today, but this showed many developers and composers where things might go:
Where it ll Began…
Of course, one can’t exclude from a list of the most influential game music without recognizing the 8-bit music where all this began. Although these songs can’t hold up to contemporary music, I recall trying to figure out how to play the Ultima IV theme music on piano–and themes like the Super Mario Brothers music are probably permanently engraved on every NES owner off the 80’s. Of course, NES-sounding music is seeing a rival, such as with the chiptunes used in Anamanaguchi’s work.
Naturally, any list like this is going to provoke many “OMG, you forgot about _________” comments. Chances are, there are some important pieces and composers I’ve ignored, forgotten or simply haven’t heard. If you share your thoughts in the comments (or @ me on Twitter), I’ll be happy to include them here!