By Emily Inkpen
I’ve always been a fan of soundtracks. They give me a ‘way in’ to different types of media and help to inspire my own projects, probably in equal measure. Often I’ll hear a soundtrack that intrigues me before I go and find the game itself, and I find that having a pre-existing connection to the themes helps with immersion. For this reason I thought I’d share some of my favourites, the soundtracks that have stuck with me and still help me in my day-to-day life.
Monkey Island - Michael Z Land
Monkey Island is one of those games Dan (my husband) and I played early in our relationship. He played all the LucasArts games growing up and he wanted to share the experience. The music has been a feature of our relationship ever since. We do this thing where we manage our “grown up tasks” on a Trello board, and at the end of every chapter we get to listen to the Chapter Screen music as a reward (it’s very short).
Reportedly, Michael Z Land was given a lot of artistic freedom when he started on The Secret of Monkey Island, with the only real instruction being that it has to be “pirate reggae”. After the game launch and before the launch of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Michael, along with Peter McConnell, developed the iMUSE system. iMUSE, which stands for Interactive Music Streaming Engine, allowed the music to change dynamically with the events in the game. Adaptive music meant that musical transitions between game areas were seamless, rather than the player noticing obvious, choppy changes in theme. This was a big step for music in games, and pretty ambitious at a time when games were purchased on floppy-disks.
Ori and the blind forest - Gareth Coker
Gareth Coker’s score for Ori and the Blind Forest is, in a word, enchanting. I stumbled across it on one of those YouTube playlists of game music, which I often put on at work just to block out sound while I concentrate on what I’m doing (whoever first thought open plan offices were a good idea should seriously be held to account). When this soundtrack began to play it stopped me in my tracks, and from that moment I’ve been hooked.
Gareth Coker was supposedly inspired by Michael Z Land’s iMUSE technology, while playing the Star Wars flight simulator games, X-Wing and TIE Fighter in the early 90s. And the fact that he often mixes electronic music and traditional orchestra in his compositions definitely suggests that he is experimental with his creativity.
“It all starts with a palette for me. I don’t limit myself to ‘just the orchestra’ or ‘just electronics;’ the only thing that matters to me is what fits the visuals. Fortunately, in games, visuals differ greatly from one project to another, so it actually isn’t too much of a challenge to find a unique sound for a game.”
Skyrim - Jeremy Soule
Skyrim is one of those games that always intimidated me with its vastness. And the best thing about the soundtrack is that it conveys the quiet and the loneliness that characterise the in-game wilderness perfectly. Yes there are dramatic parts, and the theme is awesome, but it’s important not to forget the quieter sections. Bizarrely it’s the Skyrim soundtrack that got me through my final exams at Uni. There’s something like 40 hours of atmospheric exploration music, and another several hours of birdsong and wind and fire and the rest. Absolutely ideal for studying.
Jeremy Soule has produced soundtracks for a lot of games. And I mean a lot. From 1995 to today, he has played a vital part in taking game music down a more orchestral path. This started with the Total Annihilation soundtrack in 1997, where he convinced his bosses to agree to an orchestral score by promising that if it didn’t work, he’d take a pay cut. It did work, and the gaming industry hasn’t looked back since.
Civilisation - Christopher Tin
Christopher Tin’s song Baba Yetu, from Civilization IV was the first piece of video game music to win a Grammy award. It’s one of those songs that I have on a playlist and I listen to it when things are getting tough. The lyrics, in Swahili, are a translation of The Lord’s Prayer. I’m not religious, but it’s a great piece of orchestration, both powerful and uplifting in equal measure.
Christopher Tin worked a lot in movie soundtracks and spent his first internship with Hans Zimmer. Before Civilisation IV, he hadn’t written for video games, and he got the opportunity because his old roommate at Stanford is video game designer Soren Johnson, who invited him to compose the theme. His Grammy was a significant milestone for music in games, and has helped pave the way for game music to be accepted as a legitimate art form.
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue - Elitsa Alexandrova
The Assassin’s Creed soundtracks are generally great, but the Rogue soundtrack really stands out for me. The way the traditional Assassin’s Creed style refrain is overpowered by the main theme reflects the struggle of the main character, Shay Cormac, against the Assassins during the 7 Years’ War. It’s beautifully and powerfully executed and well worth a listen.
Elitsa Alexandrova is a Bulgarian musician, who has worked for Ubisoft for over a decade, contributing to and leading a lot of their key projects. There’s not much information out there about the composer herself, which is a shame. While others have done interviews and spoken about their interests and life story, Elitsa seems to let her music do the talking. I suggest subscribing to her YouTube channel, which has woefully few supporters for the talent on display.
Like, share and tweet me if you think I'm right or wrong in my selection, perhaps it will lead to new gaming discoveries!