Music plays a profound role in games, arguably even more crucial then in film or television. With its ability to convey sadness, joy, anger, or fear it can propel us forward on our journeys or cause us to tremble as we creep through a mysterious house. It can cause us to cower in fear or send us soaring with its inspiration. Good music makes the great moments outstanding and the sad ones tragic. So I would humbly like to take this time to look at how three different games approached using music. They range from a modern cinematic masterpiece, to a 8-bit classic, to one of the great 80's soundtracks ever assembled. Each one uses music in different ways, yet all do so to convey larger points about the story they are telling and the world that the characters inhabit. Now to the three distinct yet wonderful examples of games and music blending together in harmony.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is a gaming marvel. I can not say enough amazing things about this transcendent game that easily ranks as one of the very greatest ever made. Yet, a particular star of the game that perhaps doesn't get enough attention is the games beautiful and at times haunting soundtrack. Gustavo Santaolalla's perfectly scored soundtrack rivals that of the very greatest in films. It is at the very upper echelon of what composers have crafted. Mixed together with the images on-screen it combines to cement the greatest story ever told in games. Bleak, minimalist, and yet hopeful at times too, it is a wonderful capture of the game as a whole. From the brilliant background score of the games opening credits, to the small yet striking simplicity of the The Last of Us's iconic theme the game never misses a beat and continuously helps to elevate everything around it. That's all without even mentioning arguably the games emotional high during the beginning part of the spring section, where Santaolalla delivers one of the finest and most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard to match the staggering beauty and humanity on display by Joel and Ellie and the breathtaking view they have. The Last of Us is a testament to exemplary story-telling across the board and the way that it marries music and the moving pictures on screen is an unparalleled experience in games. Always elevating and heightening what we can see, but never in a brash or overbearing way. It is something to further the excellent experience of the game, not overshadow or dominate it. It is simply put a perfect example of games and music working together in joyous teamwork and a powerful answer to the question of if games are art.
Mega Man 2
Really this place is occupied by the entire Mega-Man series and by extension the entire NES era, when games were forced to squeeze everything they could out of the consoles power to create music.. The NES era of games so wonderfully took everything they could out of the NES and created some of the most iconic music in gaming history. More then this though the music served an extra importance. The music of this era had to help to convey the themes and nature of the story. Games of the time couldn't tell very complex and intricate stories due to the limitations of the hardware, but the music helped to tell and further the story in ways that wouldn't be necessary as games progressed. Take Mega Man 2 for example, featuring one of the great soundtracks ever, each and every stage has music that tells its own story about what lays ahead for the blue bomber. From Wood Mans stage music that conveys excitement and worry, to Flash and Quick Mans music, to the tension that lays present in Air Mans stage all told in glorious 8-bit fashion. This is without even mentioning Dr. Wily's first stage which still over 20 years later remains among the titans of game music. Wonderfully recapping the journey of the game so far, serving a triumphant note for the success you've managed, a note of caution for the final task that remains, but most of all Dr. Wily stage one serves as one of the most epic and inspiring pieces of music crafted, beautifully serving as a rallying cry for games and their power to inspire and move us. Oh and then there's that short gut-punch of a ending theme with its somber melody that hits all the right notes of sadness and melancholy. All of its serves as a moving testament to the fact that just because games were smaller doesn't mean their music wasn't just as powerful.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
This is a weird one I know, but hear me out. GTA: Vice City and really all GTA games used music far differently then nearly any other games. The only time you hear music is whenever your in a car, otherwise nothing. More then this is the fact that none of the music is original, all of it is from artists from the 80's. That might seem like a problem or like something that would limit the game from a narrative aspect, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Some of the most iconic moments of games and music blending together occurred in Vice City, it was the ultimate example of what GTA games do so well, putting you in a time and place. There were many reasons why Vice City felt like such an 80's game, but arguably the most powerful and stealth was its usage of the greatest hits of the times, this is seen in no better place then during the games opening when you get inside your first car. The song that plays is Billie Jean, its always Billie Jean, there's no way to avoid or miss this, its always the same. Yet, that sameness is powerful in one simple and fantastic way, Rockstar has just transported all of us to 1986 and to one of the decades finest songs. From the songs legendary opening beat, you instantly know whats about to play, coming from the biggest album of all-time, by the biggest pop star arguably ever, there is simply no piece of music that more defines the 1980's then the king of pop's best song. Smooth, fun, infectious, and unarguably a masterpiece listening to it all of these years later still gives me chills for the promising look inside of the mad, excessive, wild, and uncontrollable ride that would be both the 80's and Vice City. Perhaps no single song has ever captured the soul of a game better then this........and it was just the first of an absurdly fantastic soundtrack of a game, I will never forgot the music of Vice City its what made the game so damn special.
Music and games have such a wonderful and unique history with each other. Able to come together and tell stories in ways that no other mediums can. Using music, both original and established hits, to enhance rich, deep, and compelling cinematic masterpieces, to in large part tell the story of the games and serving as a crucial narrative aid during the industry's early formative years. Finally games and music can come together in wonderful ways to use songs we all know and love to transport us to a different time and place and use our deep love of certain pieces of music to instantly connect us to a game and form a bond in a heartbeart. Foreshadowing the promise and potential of the game in a wonderful synergy fueled moment. There is no story or history of games without a story of gaming music and the three examples I have given above are just the very tip of a huge music filled iceberg, but hopefully they helped to show the different yet special ways that games and music can come together to help create powerful and everlasting experiences for us all.