June 27, 2022

Five Times Music Made the Game

Any Button Gaming reflects on the importance of music in games, with five examples where the score took the game beyond all expectation

Music

A couple of weeks back our head honcho undertook his bi-annual marathon of machoism. For the uninformed, I am of course referencing his 24-hour gaming stream, this time supporting GameBlast21 and the wonderful charity SpecialEffect. As has become tradition, this self-sacrifice at the altar of the gaming gods ends with a frankly barbaric, and frequently fruitless attempt to best the next level of Volgarr the Viking. Volgarr, for the uninitiated, is a brutal reimagining of classic 90’s side scrollers, mimicking both their style, cadence and, most importantly, their difficulty.

It’s unlikely Darren’s ever got this far, or ever will

And so, with an air of delightful schadenfreude and a bowl of cereal, I sat down to watch my boss struggle, at the climax of his own personal Everest. But this time, something wasn’t sitting quite right. Was it his sweating, deeply creviced expression, or the seven or so years he’d gained as I caught my eight hours sleep? Perhaps the ever-present drool that permanently adorns his extended bottom lip wasn’t dangling in its usual splendour? But then it hit me. Volgarr doesn’t have any music.

This is no criticism on Volgarr, not at all. It’s a great game and considering its humble beginnings on Kickstarter, that may have been one expense too far. But a bit like eye-brows, music in games is a lot more noticeable when it is absent. Which got me thinking. Sound design in gaming has come on leaps and bounds since the 8bit wonders that inspired Volgarr. Some games have great background music that eases play along. But occasionally something so sonically profound arrives that for just a moment, the gameplay becomes the background, and the player can do little but drift away on a score so immutable, so exquisite, that to imagine the game without it would detract infinitely from the experience.

So, without further ado, here are five such games, and the music that made them sound out from the crowd.

NieR: Automata – Olly S

NieR: Automata, for the ill-acquainted, is an exceptional game. And whilst it’s true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, one of those parts packs an almighty punch. Just like the perfect 10 NieR received from so many discerning outlets, the music in NieR: Automata is, in my humble opinion, without rival. There are a number of games that will occasionally have one or two stand-out tracks from the full composition that really hit the high note. NieR has 40 tracks, and each and every one of those is sublime, perfectly attuned to the section of the game to which it has been allotted. Each aligns so perfectly with the experience as to envelope the player further into the game, urging them to sink yet deeper, deeper into the sublime immersive genius of Yoko Taro’s concoction. That alone would be enough for most aspiring games. But NieR goes yet further.

40 standout tracks alone is astounding. But what composer Keiichi Okabe achieved is nothing short of godly. Each of those 40 tracks has seven individual versions. First, there is a vocal and non-vocal version for all music. Next, both of those have three iterations with an increasing crescendo, corresponding to the on-screen action, peaking as gameplay intensifies. Finally, each and every version was then reimagined in 8-bit, to correspond with the hacking gameplay of Android 9S. What Okabe can achieve with this astonishing array of tools is to punctuate the play-through with his sublime compositions, seamlessly pitching player emotion by tweaking a drumbeat here, an arpeggiated xylophone riff there.

Perfection in Triplicate

Following the release of NieR: Automata, Square Enix went on to release a three-disc, three-hour album to accompany the game, containing all music used. Further, this was released in three languages, including an invented French-derived language by EMi Evans, who sings throughout the ensemble. It peaked at number two in the Japanese album charts on release and sold almost 30k copies in the first week in Japan alone. This was followed later by NieR: Automata Hacking Tracks as previously described, NieR: Automata Arranged and Unreleased Tracks, and finally NieR: Automata Piano Collections. In the history of gaming, I have never witnessed such singular emphasis placed on the score of a game by a publisher pursuant to the release of a title, and that alone should speak volumes.

Usually, this is where I’d say something about how you should immediately go and play the game yourself, those lucky enough not to have this exceptional piece of mastery as yet. But in this case, it’s infinitely more appropriate for you to listen to it. So do yourself a favour, if you haven’t already.

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Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 – Rob W

Where even to begin with this? The successor to the breakout (and some would say BEST) RTS game Red Alert, Red Alert 2 took everything its predecessor had and made it better. While the cutscenes seem straight out of a dodgy 70’s porno, it still holds up today with its solid gameplay, tight mechanics and the one thing that helps hold it all together; its soundtrack.

Composed by Frank Klepacki, RA2‘s soundtrack contains 16 rock-heavy, high octane beats that get the blood pumping while you build your base and commence your attack. Taking over the world, or saving it, has never sounded so good.

A quick mention also goes to RA2‘s expansion, Yuri’s Revenge, which has its soundtrack once again composed by Klepacki, adds nine tracks to the original soundtrack. All follow the same theme as the original, with heavy rock at the forefront.

But before I let you go… I HAVE to mention the one track EVERYONE knows and loves… HELL MARCH!

It’s by far the first track that comes to mind when someone mentions Red Alert. While the first iteration of this beloved track is the OG, Hell March 2 slowly builds before assaulting your ears with heavy rock and it never stops. While Hell March 3 took this further for Red Alert 3, HM2 is the track we come back to again and again

See you on the battlefield, commander…

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Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture – Chris H

Sometimes a score to something just takes you to a place. In late 2016 my work took me all the way from Yorkshire to Hong Kong. How exciting! The culture, the architecture, the food. Ah yes, the food. See, having been flown out for several days of intense meetings followed by food trips, I became somewhat ill. I won’t go into details but I had a very miserable night where I felt terrible and could not get to sleep. I was too panicked about missing meetings the next day or being horrifically ill in front of/on top of my client. As the night wore on, my panic increased. Looking for a sense of relaxation, I put on one of my favourite albums – the soundtrack to 2015’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture by Jessica Curry.

Audibly Enraptured

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is an emotional, narrative game where you explore the seemingly abandoned village of Yaughton, experiencing the last moments of its inhabitants via gorgeously rendered echoes of conversations. Developed by The Chinese Room, the creators of Dear Esther, the game is haunting, mysterious, and exceptionally beautiful. Nowhere is this emotion conveyed more keenly than via the soundtrack – a choir led orchestral score that fits tonally with the fictional 1980’s village of Yaughton. As you explore this silent and empty place, it is the score that accentuates the emotion of each discovery and piece of the puzzle. One sequence, where you learn the fate of a particular character and solve a mystery has an accompanying score that is literally heartbreaking. If I wasn’t emotionally dead inside, I’d be crying on my keyboard right now.

Rarely are a game and its soundtrack so intertwined. Winner of the 2016 Bafta for best Music, this soundtrack works perfectly on its own but alongside the game, is a pure masterpiece.

As for this poor author, laid up in bed thousands of miles from home and hugging a pillow? Well, the soundtrack to Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture lulled me to sleep and I never was sick all over my client. Can I thank this soundtrack for that? Without a doubt.

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DOOM (2016 & Eternal) – Mike A.

If you’ve played the DOOM reboot, hell, even watched an advertisement or trailer of it – you know. This isn’t just an orchestration of demonic genocide, no-no, this is the melodic tale of the DOOM Slayer complete with an interlude.

In the first age, in the first battle, when the shadows first lengthened, one stood.

He chose the path of perpetual torment.

In his ravenous hatred he found no peace.

And with boiling blood he scoured the Umbral Plains seeking vengeance against the dark lords who had wronged him.

And those that tasted the bite of his sword named him…The Doom Slayer.

Pure Badassery: Dogma I

Testosterone floods my veins like an adrenaline shot to the heart while composer Mick Gordon punishes my fragile eardrums. The visceral nature of the soundtrack lends itself so wholly to its tone that instrumentals become an audible representation of DOOM itself. This is how DOOM sounds. It’s rigid, brutal and destructive, just as the Slayer is himself. I used to put this on at work and internally thrash because everything is hardcore AF when you’re listening to this. The mixing is tight, the beats are savage and it holds up with or without the gameplay. It just so happens, that it’s exceptionally complementary in addition to harmonizing damn nicely. It’s just fun to listen to, and even more fun to slay demons to.

They are rage, brutal, without mercy. But you. You will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done.

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QPC Mix Credit

de Blob 2 – James Wright

I know, I know. “But James, this isn’t Cat Quest“. You’re right, my loyal subjects, it isn’t. However, I dare anyone to bring me a better example of some smooth melodic contemporary jazz in a better bundle than what Blue Tongue did with de Blob 2.

It’s not necessarily the first game you’d think of for a “good soundtrack”. However, therein lies the crux of the matter; you wouldn’t think of it. Which means it’s somewhat of an eclectic taste. Sure, others on this list are perhaps more recognisable in terms of their musical prowess. But de Blob 2 offered something I bet some of you found lacking in other games; geuine soul.

It’s a cop-out to say that jazz and soul (not the genre) go hand-in-hand. However, you can’t argue that they do. And de Blob 2 does so with the plomb and bluster you would have expected from THQ in its glory. de Blob 2 was as much about the music as it was the colours, and, as anyone who played it or its remake knows, there was plenty of colour.

At times shifting from lo-fi beats to an almost rock-infused medley, the soundtrack captured a wide range of emotive rhythm that, to this day, I’ve not encountered since. I mean, it’s jazz, after all.

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So there you have it, 5 games that stand out to us a sonically perfect. But what do you think? Did we miss your favourite? Feel free to let us know in the comments, your opinions are always music to our ears.


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