I will get back to Saint Francois soon, but first a short thing about video game soundtracks.
Soundtracks can be a bit of an anomaly in the music world. Unlike rock, pop, or any other major music genre there is not such a big community of ‘soundtrack-fans’. There are a couple of reasons for this: One is that pieces of music we define as ‘soundtracks’ are defined by their function, not by any particular sound. Therefore a soundtrack to a film or game can sound like a classical piece or it can be a pop song, depending on who the studio hired to create the music. Another reason is that soundtracks were not made to be listened to on their own, but instead to accompany certain moments in a film or a game, and therefore a part of a soundtrack that sounds incredibly meaningful in context may lose that meaning outside of that particular context.
This also brings with it a certain problem when we want to talk about soundtracks. Since there is not such a big community, the work of discussing or platforming a piece of music in the ‘soundtrack’ genre is often done by the community that belongs to the genre that that particular piece sounds closest to. This means that the soundtrack to Harry Potter belongs to the ‘classical music’ community in that regard, while the soundtrack to Drive belongs to fans of ‘electropop’. As a result, when a site like ClassicFM makes a list of ‘best soundtracks of all time’, the highest-scoring soundtracks tend to be those that sound at least similar to what a classical music listener would expect, and excellent soundtracks like Drive or Paris, Texas hardly make the cut.
In short, soundtracks are often not judged on their own terms, because it’s unclear what those terms are. ‘Would it sound nice if played by a symphony orchestra in a concert hall’ is one question you could ask, but it’s not what the music was made for. There are various reasons why a soundtrack, especially one composed for a video game I should say, would not work when performed in concert, the flow of time being one major reason; video game soundtracks cannot always progress linearly but have to be flexible in order to ‘move with the player’. So, perhaps a better question to ask is: ‘How does it hearing this soundtrack while playing the game improve the experience?’ And, well, here are five tracks that I think are quite good in that regard.
Cuphead – Don’t Deal with the Devil
Written by: Kristofer Maddigan
It is clear that the Cuphead soundtrack was made with lots of love. The large big-band numbers that accompany the various boss fights not only go perfectly with their old-timey cartoon animation, but also give them a perfect slapstick-feel, which makes them fun to play even after dying to the same boss hundreds of times. But what truly stands out is this particular track, which is heard immediately after you start the game up, before you even get to the main menu. Instead of a big band, it’s an a cappella song by a barbershop quartet, which simply tells you the backstory of the game:
Well, Cuphead and his pal Mugman
They like to roll the dice
By chance they came on Devil’s lane
And gosh, they paid the price
Paid the priiiiceee…
And now they’re fighting for their lives
On a mission fraught with dread
And if they proceed but don’t succeed…
The Devil will take their heads!
And then, it repeats – but now instrumental, with a piano and strings. The warm sound of the instruments and voices creates an incredibly cozy, relaxing feel, which stands in stark contrast to the otherwise very fast-paced and violent game. The harmony is incredibly well composed and
reminiscent of the songs I would sing as a young boy before the feast of St. Nicholas, aka Dutch Christmas. All in all, a great way to go into a game and be calm for a minute, perhaps steadying your nerves, before starting a level and letting your heart rate soar as a bunch of cartoon villains throw hundreds of projectiles at you.
Portal – Self Esteem Fund
Written by: Kelly Bailey
Portal is an old game now. When remembering the Portal games, people often appreciate the sense of humour that was present in them – think of the saying The Cake is a Lie!, which became an internet meme back in the day – and Valve played into this in Portal 2, which is full of jokes. But we must not forget the other side of Portal, which is the way in which it plays into the inherent loneliness of single-player games. GladOS speaks to you in a robotic voice and with a tone reminiscent of the fake sincerity programmed into the AI of robotic help desk workers at large businesses. The fake ‘friendships’ you can form with NPC’s in games is openly mocked when the game gives you a ‘companion cube’ which is nothing but a standard cube with a heart painted on it. Not once in the game do you encounter a real human being.
And this track perfectly encapsulates that loneliness. Very sparse in its synthesised sound material, it uses delay and reverb to great effect – the sound is of one voice almost crying out for help, finding no response except for its own echo. While you may be having fun solving puzzles and shooting portals at everything, this soundtrack brings you back to the reality of the situation – you are trapped in an underground bunker, with nobody around to help you, surviving only at the whims of a psychopathic AI, and that’s a terrifying thing to realise.
Celeste – Scattered and Lost
Written by: Lena Raine
One thing that I greatly appreciate about Celeste’s soundtrack is that, while it evokes the sound of old 8-bit and chip tune music at times, it’s not content with simply staying in that sound world and actually expands it with more modern synthesizers as well as acoustic samples of piano’s and drums. This track in particular has a special quality to it. It starts with just a percussion track that’s reminiscent of the earliest Super Mario games and a piano part full of arpeggio’s in different registers that seem to continuously interrupt each other – like the thoughts of someone with anxiety, perhaps? Anyway, it then transitions into a quirky little melody full of unexpected jumps and chords played percussively in a nice irregular rhythm.
While this is just the base material of the piece and is quite alright in itself, what really sets the track apart is the way it develops. Slowly, more and more synths are introduced in the melodic parts, while the drum parts transition the other way, slowly letting themselves be taken over by an acoustic kit – it’s quite fascinating to listen how the percussive parts are constantly full of subtle changes. Similarly, the intensity of the music increases as well, with the introduction of the synths adding more layers and illustrating broader melodic lines and the drum part getting more and more dense, until it sounds more like a freely improvising jazz drummer than a programmed drum machine. And of course, this perfectly fits with the way you progress in the level of the game, starting out by just helping the insecure Mr. Oshiro clean up his hotel, but ending in an epic boss battle.
Hollow Knight – Nightmare King Grimm
Written by: Christopher Larkin
Speaking of boss battles. Nightmare King Grimm from Hollow Knight is quite obviously made with the intent to be the game’s Very Hardest Boss Battle (outside of maybe the final boss and some of the bosses in the later DLC), and this is a perfect opportunity for both the developers and the composer to go over-the-top and give the player the most epic, memorable experience possible.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this (at least among a certain group of internet nerds) is Undertale’s Megalovania. But this track, in my humble opinion, completely blows Megalovania out of the water. With the use of a (synthesized) choir, church organ, biting low strings, and again, a well-written drum part, it really is pulling out all its stops while pulling no punches. The upwards glissandi in the voices, use of double bass drums and how the song goes into half-time at its climax take it to the next level.
The entire aesthetic of Hollow Knight is built around the amusing contrast between it’s grim-dark storyline and the fact that all characters are cute cartoon bugs, and the soundtrack, in my opinion, plays with this very well, using all the sounds you would expect from a run-of-the-mill ‘epic dark (midi-)orchestral soundtrack’ you’d hear in a game like Dark Souls or Bloodborne, and at the same time not being afraid to add in just a little silliness. While this track absolutely rocks, the constant descending chromatic lines and the sound of the church organ have an almost campy, haunted house-sort of feel to them. And this perfectly fits the image of the Grimm Troupe, who are a band of travelling performers, something in between a circus and a cult. This track is the perfect background music, whether you are in the ring and putting on a spectacle for the audience, or participating in a dark ritual that is slowly sucking the life out of a doomed kingdom.
The Beginner’s Guide – Be in this Place
The Beginner’s Guide is a… weird game. It’s questionable whether it even really can be called ‘a game’, since it is essentially a collection of small, one-level games with few mechanics – they are mostly just spaces that you walk through which, through environmental storytelling, convey some abstract idea. The games are held together by a voice-over from the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden, who mostly uses them as a vehicle to talk about creativity and inspiration, including the feeling of getting stuck, not knowing what to do, and becoming afraid that you will never be able to create again. Without trying to spoil too much of the game, Be in this Place is a track that plays when this aspect of the narrative is at its most intense.
The track embodies the feeling of being stuck in a quite literal way by hammering on the same chords, over and over, unable of making any progress. At some point, the harmonic implication of the chords hardly matters anymore, they are just points that the music keeps returning to because it literally can’t think of anywhere else to go. But more than that, it expresses the feeling of panic, of stress, of constant crumbling pressure to keep going, by its sound design. Samples of panicked gasps are woven through the texture, and the recordings of the guitar playing the chords are sometimes reversed: You can’t even control in which direction the time of the sample goes. It’s one of the most beautifully helpless pieces of music I’ve heard, and I love it for that. It also adds to the emotion that the game clearly wants the player to feel – it wants you to identify with this feeling of being stuck inside your own mind and not seeing any way out. It’s intense, melancholic, and kind of frightening, but at the same time, it’s simply wonderful.