Most Influential Game Music

by Jon on February 20, 2011

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).

Starglider Theme

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.

What else?

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!

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Dan SilversNo Gravatar February 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Totally agree with the Mass Effect 2 Suicide Mission theme. I especially like the (much) shorter but similar theme used as fanfare for completing a mission:

I’m not going to go ahead and argue that you forgot anything, especially because you chose some fantastic pieces! The Tristram theme did more than open fantasy games to guitars, though. It opened them to the entire world of dark folk music, which I could argue is folk music’s own equivalent of metal (it’s a genre that prefers to stay acoustic, but that isn’t to say it can’t go as black as metal, which the Tristram theme proves).

I would like to add my own addition to the list, if you don’t mind, by throwing in Late Goodbye by Poets of the Fall from Max Payne 2: This is the earliest example of a band (not to mention at the time, 2003, an unsigned one) that I can think of writing a theme with lyrics for a game (the earliest instrumental theme written by a band that I can recall would be White Zombie’s Quake II theme. Megadeth’s cover of Duke Nukem 3D’s theme does not count). The Poets have since written the theme song for Alan Wake, War, also developed by Remedy: and their latest song “Can You Hear Me” is being featured in Remedy’s iPhone/iPad remake of Death Rally. I’d love to discover an earlier piece than this, though. 2003 seems a bit late in the history of video games to have the first theme w/ lyrics as written by an unsigned band.

Tim CrosbyNo Gravatar February 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Interesting that you don’t mention any JRPGs — which I think of as typically having very high production values with its music. I think the musical sting for winning a battle in Final Fantasy 7 was key in reframing how good those small moment of music could be.

Also a game like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was important for incorporating the music into the player experience — not only tying together some nice story/visual/gameplay themes, but also consciously made players think about game music.

My personal bias is towards masterful use of music is the highlight of emotion and character in Final Fantasy 9 and in Chrono Cross, though I don’t know how influential they were to those who weren’t already fans of the series.

(And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention PaRappa the Rapper — one of the first games in the rhythm genre before there was a rhythm genre. An important different between PaRappa and a game like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero is that PaRappa’s music was, to my recollection, all created for the game and thus falls into the category of game music rather than music that has appeared in games.)

EllieNo Gravatar February 20, 2011 at 10:28 pm

My favorite is Bill Brown’s Return to Castle Wofenstein because of that soundtrack it scared the hell out of me while playing this game that I could hardly finish it.

RussNo Gravatar February 21, 2011 at 1:39 am

Also loved the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, with Yuffie’s theme my personal favorite for its impish and goodhearted delight that perfectly captures her character. Also a plug for the eery music on Homeworld by Paul Ruskay that suggests the vastness and exotic nature of space through long sustained notes using cool instruments with orchestral support and very slowly building themes.

John WallNo Gravatar February 23, 2011 at 5:11 pm

You are dead on with Diablo, it’s been years yet I’m still creeped out by the music and the other sound effects (the faintest sound of screaming children…).

I’d add Halo to the list for bringing back that Enigma sound, and really moving the last chase forward in the finale.

Toni PopNo Gravatar October 28, 2011 at 4:00 am

I’m surprised you have not included Michael McCann’s Icarus of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

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