Valve released the second part of the Portal 2 soundtrack today and my reaction was much the same as when the first volume emerged: it’s a very interesting soundtrack, but not really one that can be listened to and, perhaps, appreciated without the rest of the game to back it up. As an ambient piece of audio it’s oddly intriguing and I defy anyone to listen to this track, for its entirety, and not end up hypnotised into a childlike trance. Aside from that, there’s not much new to say about it.
So I thought I’d indulge myself with a list of my favourite pieces from various other game soundtracks. This being the internet there are doubtless thousands of other favourites lists vying for your attention, so here’s the big sell: if you’re really not into the idea of reading at the moment, just click one of the links, close your eyes, and listen. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I do.
‘Welcome to Rapture’ From Bioshock
Aesthetically, just about everything in Bioshock is uniquely striking. It’s very often said that nothing is original any more, particularly of writing and stories, but as regards art design in games it can also seem depressingly true as well. Irrational are shunning the view spectacularly; the city of Rapture is a visual marvel (as is Columbia, as we have seen in the preview videos of Bioshock Infinite) and it has a tremendously rich soundtrack to go with it. The composer, Garry Schyman, uses plenty of skidding strings and sharp percussion cracks for some nicely unnerving moments of suspense, but the solo violin he employs throughout seems to be his signature. In this track, which plays when the player first witnesses the undersea cityscape of Rapture, he writes at his finest, evoking wonder, tragedy and just a little bit of nervousness – three qualities that Bioshock thrives on.
‘Deionarra’s Theme’ from Planescape: Torment
The sound quality on this is a little frayed, but the game is from 1999 after all. Besides, the fidelity of the audio doesn’t matter when Mark Morgan’s music is this good. Planescape: Torment has become a cult classic for many reasons, but its tragic tone has to be one of the main ones, particularly when so many RPGs (and some are very good, don’t get me wrong) are unashamedly heroic. No track sums up that tone better than this one, which plays very close to the beginning of the game when you first meet the ghost of Deionarra. At this point you’ve no idea who she is, but the music is instantly telling; there’s love, there’s loss and there is immense pathos. Once the heart-wrenching truth is revealed later on, the music becomes even more moving.
‘A Fight of Light and Darkness’ from Prince of Persia
The 2008 Prince of Persia is a criminally underrated game. It seems that every time I see it mentioned by the games media it is being criticised for its gameplay, its voice acting, or its ending. In my view, whilst it’s not the best of the Prince’s outings, it’s still great fun – but as a sensory experience on both the eyes and the ears it has to be one of the most ravishing games ever made. This track plays over the main menu. That’s how fabulous Inon Zur’s soundtrack is: a track this beautiful can be played in the menus (they are seriously gorgeous menus, too). It’s exotic, dream-like and utterly, utterly spellbinding.
‘Darth Sion’s Theme’ from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords
From the sublime to the sinister. Darth Sion’s theme, strangely enough, is again from the main menu of a game, but the significance here is that it’s a Star Wars one. As the first thing you hear, this track immediately tells you ‘this is not a normal Star Wars game’. True, the first KotOR went for a darker start with its Sith theme, but KotOR 2 really benefits from having a full orchestra behind it rather than the less authentic sound of its predecessor. This track is hideously cold and unnerving, as is the whole first section of the game, particularly once Darth Sion makes his first appearance. Darth Vader’s theme is militaristic and proud; the Emperor’s theme is gothic and brooding; but Sion’s theme is the first to make a Sith lord actually seem terrifyingly evil. Thank goodness Mark Griskey is leading the composing on Star Wars: The Old Republic – after this score, he must have been the only candidate for the job.
‘Tour of Venice’ from Game from a Series I Must Never Mention
Half the front page of this blog is taken up by stuff from this series, so I didn’t want to mention it again, but Jesper Kyd’s score is annoyingly brilliant. Immensely powerful, brimming with belting drums and strong beats one moment, and then this sort of thing the next, an enchanting soundscape evoking every romantic image of Venice that you’ve ever thought of. The contrast is incredible.
And there we are. Not exactly a wit-filled post today, but once I get started on game music it’s very tough to stop myself. Incidentally, Wednesday’s post will be top five orchestral soundtracks, Friday’s will be top five ambient soundtracks, next Monday’s will be top five woodwind sections in games, next Wednesday’s will be the twenty best uses of windchimes in game soundtracks…