Press Start: Eight video games that show the power of music
Video games are a powerful storytelling medium simply because they give players agency. Games immerse players into a world they have at least some control over, which gives them a personal stake in the outcome of a narrative. After beating a difficult encounter or watching a particularly moving cutscene and seeing how the plot unfolds, I frequently find myself feeling strong emotion, such as accomplishment, sadness or excitement.
Part of those feelings is often articulated by the games' soundtracks.
Whether it's during tense, edge-of-your-seat situations or brief lulls in action, music helps heighten our emotions. This can lead to some truly wonderful moments, and gaming is full of them. Here are some of my favorites.
Note: Spoilers for major games of yesteryear follow.
“The Last of Us”
“The Last of Us” features one of the most compelling video game stories I've ever experienced. That's due in no small part to the game's simple yet engaging soundtrack. Most of the songs in “The Last of Us” are variants of the same acoustic riff, giving a sense of consistency that fits perfectly with the setting and characters. The soundtrack elicits emotions such as joy, sorrow and terror while establishing a sense of desolation and solitude that main characters Joel and Ellie feel throughout their harrowing journey together.
There are two moments that stick out to me. In the first, the scene starts with Ellie trying to escape a cannibalistic killer. Before the man can strangle her to death, she gets hold of a machete, taking the upper hand. She flips the man onto his back and repeatedly chops down into his face as she screams. Joel grabs her from behind, and Ellie thinks she's being attacked again before Joel speaks and assures her she's safe. All sounds fade away, save for the music, as we watch Joel speak to Ellie. They make a quick getaway, leaving players with only the twang of an acoustic guitar.
In the other moment, Ellie and Joel emerge onto a building rooftop to find a herd of giraffes roaming the desolate streets of a city. Joel, controlled by the player, can approach the rooftop barrier and lean against it, Ellie beside him, and just watch the giraffes for as long as desired. The background music, a simple piano melody, makes an otherwise out-of-place scene one of the most emotional and memorable in the entire game.
“Fez” is a bright, colorful, cheery platformer, full of character and personality. What it lacks in emotional narrative it makes up for with an electronic soundtrack by the talented Disasterpeace. The music perfectly encapsulates the sense of childlike delight and wonderment protagonist Gomez experiences as his perceptions of reality break down around him throughout the game.
In one challenging level, Gomez must navigate blocks that vanish and reappear in time to a song. It's a perfect marriage of gameplay and music. The soundtrack is stuck in my mind as much as the intriguing gameplay.
The player is introduced to the setting of “BioShock Infinite” through a chorus of stringed instruments as a rocket carrying player-character Booker DeWitt is launched through a wall of clouds into the sky. Just as the rocket reaches the pinnacle of its height, the strings cut out, a disembodied voice in the rocket whispers, “Hallelujah,” and DeWitt gasps in disbelief at the sight before him: Columbia, a city in the clouds, floating in the heavens.
The rocket descends and sinks into a building as piano chords play. As DeWitt nears his destination within a half-flooded church, he hears an angelic chorus of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I must have spent at least 20 minutes exploring that small area simply because I didn't want to leave the beautiful music behind.
Later in the game, as DeWitt and his partner Elizabeth explore the buildings of war-torn slums, players can enter a random basement and see a poor child scurry and hide beneath the stairs. A guitar sits close by. By pressing the action button, DeWitt picks it up and strums some chords as Elizabeth finds some nearby fruit and gives it to the child while singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
This, one of the most powerful scenes in the game, is actually an Easter egg, yet it highlights DeWitt's and Elizabeth's bond through music. I'm glad I didn't miss this treat when I first played through the game.
“Final Fantasy XIII”
I hadn't played many “Final Fantasy” games before picking up “XIII” for the Xbox 360 many years ago, but I'd heard it was the first game with a new composer. Apparently diehard fans were worried the soundtrack wouldn't properly capture that “Final Fantasy” feel.
I can't speak to that, but I can say that “Final Fantasy XIII” features one of my favorite video game soundtracks. From the flute-driven tune first heard as you land in the open plains of Gran Pulse to the foreboding “Dust to Dust” as you enter Vanille and Fang's old village, the orchestral music in “Final Fantasy XIII” makes the world and the ensuing battles that take place within come alive.
Plenty of other games feature amazing music. In the PlayStation 2 darling “Ico,” you save the game by having both characters sit on a bench and fall asleep, during which a simple song plays. It perfectly encapsulates both characters' trust in and dependence on one another, giving them both a few moments of serenity before they continue their quest.
In the sci-fi role-playing game “Mass Effect,” an ethereal and ambient song plays whenever you check the galactic map. As your ship moves from solar system to solar system, star cluster to star cluster, the music brings on the realization of how truly insignificant humanity is on a cosmic scale.
While the story of "Mirror's Edge" isn't stellar, the music is. A trancey, electronic soundtrack captures the game's sterile, futuristic, almost utopian setting.
And of course there's the turrets' adorable and amazing cover of an opera song at the end of “Portal 2” that bids the player goodbye.
There are countless other examples. It's an evident great moments in gaming, just like great moments in other media, can be heightened by the clever use of an exemplary soundtrack. I'm excited to see what music the next generation of games produces.
Video game columnist Jake Magee has been with GazetteXtra since 2014. His opinion is not necessarily that of Gazette management. Let him know what you think by emailing [email protected], leaving a comment below, or following @jakemmagee on Twitter.