The Soundtrack to a Generation Pt. III
It’s the third part of our look at the defining soundtracks of the last generation, after parts I and II. As we hit the vintage years of 2011 and 2012 it’s worth noting the increasing recognition that soundtracks have begun to attract – with a Grammy-nominated score included in this batch there can be no denying the importance and brilliance that game music has to offer. So, without further ado, let’s dive in to part III…
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Composed by: Michael McCann
Released on: Sumthing Else Music Works
As vitally tied to near-future representations of Detroit and Shanghai as Vangelis’ soundtrack was to Neo-Los Angeles, Michael McCann’s at times ethereal score to Deus Ex is a masterpiece in dynamics. From haunting ambient sounds – a perfect fit for the cramped, squalid side-streets – to the percussion-driven action tracks, it’s hard to imagine what Deus Ex would feel like without such music. ‘Icarus’, the main theme, feels both triumphant and dangerous, reflecting its namesake as well as the controversial philosophies presented for discussion in game, while the mix of robotic beats and organic sound mirrors Adam Jensen’s life-saving augments. Any warmth imbued by the fleeting vocals is just as quickly suppressed under ominous synths, but there are moments that inspire hope. In one moment the music feels uncertain, meandering in search of a melody until a thundering drumbeat allows the track to coalesce, recalling Adam Jensen’s move from stealth to badass action. A subtle, underrated score but one that will linger and hopefully come to define a series.
Standout tracks: Icarus, The Hive, Opening Credits
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Composed by: Greg Edmonson
Released on: La-La Land Records
That fanfare that opens ‘Nate’s Theme’ can proudly sit alongside any classic film theme. Like the James Bond or Indiana Jones themes you know exactly what’s to come once you hear it – an immensely satisfying adventure, complete with mind-boggling setpieces and a bit of emotion as well. Any of the Uncharted soundtracks could just as easily feature in this top twenty but Uncharted 3 builds on its series predecessors in wonderful ways. The defining brass motif is present and correct but Edmonson allows the change in scenery to influence this epic – in the David Lean sense of the word – game. It might be an easy choice but the homage to Maurice Jarre’s score to Lawrence of Arabia is perfect for conveying the sense of scale to Drake’s desert sojourn, easily heard in ‘Atlantis of the Sands’. A lilting, mysterious guitar melody emphasises the playfulness and carefree attitude of young Nathan Drake in ‘Small Beginnings’ while ‘Drake’s Return’ and ‘Something Better’ are quieter moments amidst the action. With some of the game set in London, twangy guitars evoke James Bond while Eastern vocals conjure images of dusty towns and exotic markets. It’s a spectacular ride, a true Hollywood score that perfectly fits the game.
Standout tracks: Nate’s Theme 3.0, Atlantis of the Sands, Something Better
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Composed by: Joe Hisaishi
Performed by: Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra
Released on: Wayô Records
Where to start? It was no surprise that Ni No Kuni should have such a sumptuous, beautiful score – coming as it does from long-time Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi. What is a pleasant surprise is that this could well be his best work. The main theme has all the innocent wonder of protagonist Oliver but hearing it in so many different versions only accentuates its timeless quality. You’ll hear it repeated over and over throughout the game (it is Ni No Kuni’s Overworld theme, after all) yet it never annoys, instead befitting the epic adventure you’ll spend many hours completing. Each location has a distinctive aural identity, from the Arabian Nights-esque Al Mamoon to the ‘Imperial March’ that defines Hamelin’s militaristic, steampunk design. Ghibli aficionados will recognise staples of Hisaishi’s sound including the (some would argue overly) sentimental piano piece in ‘In Loving Memory of Allie’ and the traditional final song, ‘Kokoro No Kakera’. The European dual-CD release includes both the English and Japanese versions although the purity of Mai’s vocals makes the native recording the better of the two. Like any Ghibli film, the soundtrack to Ni No Kuni has high production values yet remains full of emotion, able to pull on the slightest of heartstrings.
Standout tracks: Main Theme, Kokoro No Kakera, Miracle –Reunion-
Composed by: Austin Wintory
Performed by: Skopje Radio Symphonic Orchestra, Tina Guo
Released on: Sumthing Else Music Works
Perhaps the pinnacle of game soundtracks, Austin Wintory’s effervescent score to Journey was a watershed moment for a number of reasons. There are only a few games where the music is so powerful that hearing the theme can bring emotions rushing back – ‘Nascence’ is one such track from an entire album that plays like a fond memory. From the first stark note to the tremulous final sound it’s a wondrous – excuse the pun – journey in itself, ranging from the sublime (‘The Road of Trials’) to the tense (‘Descent’), culminating in that operatic final song. It’s obvious why Journey’s score was Grammy nominated – it isn’t over-produced or bombastic yet it has left an indelible imprint on the world of classical music, becoming the go-to soundtrack to convince the upper echelons of the genre that game soundtracks are legitimate, viable contemporaries. A towering achievement delivered in the most subtle of ways – arguably the best soundtrack of the past decade, if not the most pivotal.
Standout tracks: Nascence, The Road of Trials, I was Born for This
Composed by: Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland)
Released on: Bandcamp
Amongst the lush orchestra and symphonic masterpieces, the soundtrack to Fez is a stark reminder of gaming’s heritage and why it should never be dismissed. Masterful in tone, Disasterpeace – alias of Rich Vreeland – creates a minimalist yet infinitely nuanced sound that recalls early 8-bit nostalgia-melodies, yet feels so contemporary. The looping, deceptively simple tracks belie a complexity that perfectly fits the mind-bending puzzles that make Fez so intriguing. Yet, despite being almost entirely electronic, Fez’ soundtrack feels organic – the distortion of the opening to ‘Puzzle’ feels as if taken from the very era of analogue tapes and cartridges. Short stings are easily recognisable as homages to the heyday of platformers – the tangle of notes at the beginning of ‘Beyond’, the very first squeal opening ‘Adventure’ – sounding like warped pickups in Mario. It’s no surprise: the very fabric of Fez threatens to disintegrate. The music mirrors this, but never feels anything more than foreboding. There’s a comfort in the very texture of Fez’ hopeful synths. Even better – there are two companion albums, FZ: Side F and FZ: Side Z, compiling artists interpretations of these instantly iconic tracks. Solar Fields – composer of previous Top Twenty entry Mirror’s Edge – delivers a scintillatingly deep version of ‘Puzzle’ and even our very own Stevie Mac brings his own spin on ‘Home’. All three albums are worth finding (on Bandcamp!) and will give you a glimpse at game music at its most inventive.
Standout tracks: Puzzle, Adventure, Beacon, Sync, Home
BONUS: Check out our interview with Disasterpeace here!
We’re approaching the present in our chronological rundown of the top soundtracks last generation. Are there any you feel we’ve missed? Keep posted to The Digital Fix for the fourth and final set of soundtracks.