Following on from my Stop and Hear the Music article, we're returning to the auricular artistry of video game music!
As I stated then, music in video games is an astounding medium that deserves to be explored and appreciated. It's not just instrumental music that makes games great though. There are a number of songs written for video games that put some popular music to shame.
A good song can punctuate a scene, moment or event to build truly memorable experiences. Back in the 1980's it was impossible to even put a lyric-filled song into a game. Early-era game hardware just didn't have the power to cope with those sorts of recordings, so the relative abundance of songs nowadays is testament to how far we've come.
In order to qualify for this list, a song must have lyrics and be sung; however I have also chosen not to include any choral songs as I feel they were fairly well represented last time.
I have also avoided including licensed songs; that is, copyrighted songs included in the game for royalties and so on. Instead, I wanted to give focus to songs written specifically for the games they feature in.
Please also expect spoilers for the following games:
Like last time, I have also included some extra listening suggestions where applicable.
So without further ado, let us begin!
The Theme Song to Mirror's Edge is a cool pop-rock song in its own right, but when combined with the phenomenal game behind it becomes a classic of video game music.
That opening keyboard/piano riff is so satisfying, and made the game's main menu a place to pause and listen to the music every time I loaded up the game. "Still Alive" is deceptively simple and accessible, and has spawned multiple remixes from big-name DJs such as Armand Van Helden.
Mirror's Edge was one of those games that felt truly unique and refreshing when it launched; and there's still nothing like it today. The amazing first-person free-running action and sterile utopian City environment were a winning formula.
"Still Alive" is an affirmation of forward motion and confidence, and invokes memories of standing on the edge of a skyscraper as protagonist Faith, surveying the city and feeling quite literally on top of the world.
Other listening suggestions:
"Some day you feed on a tree frog". This amazing track is clearly inspired by the classics of the James Bond film franchise. We first hear it in the opening credits, which themselves take heavy cues from 007 movies.
With its stunning vocals, string frills and brass stabs, the song ebbs and flows, climaxing on Harrell's delivery of the game's title in each chorus. The interplay of instrumentation paints a rich picture of a classic jazz-themed song. Like Shirley Bassey in Goldfinger, Cynthia Harrell holds her own against the power of the band behind her to give balance and weight to the performance.
"Snake Eater" is simultaneously timeless and relevant to its game setting. MGS3 takes place in 1964, as protagonist Naked Snake journeys behind enemy lines into a Cold War-era Soviet Union. Stealthing his way through the jungle, Snake must survive in his harsh surroundings.
The achievement of "Snake Eater" is that it can relate to numerous facets of the game. There's direct meaning in the most literal terms, in which Snake must subsist on local wildlife such as snakes and tree frogs; not to mention the elite enemy "Cobra" Unit that makes up the game's wonderfully memorable boss battles. But like any good lyrical piece it goes deeper than this.
"Snake Eater" can be seen as another theme song of The Boss, Snake's former mentor and apparent defector to the USSR. Sung from her perspective, it talks about and references Naked Snake as the titular Snake Eater.
Of course anybody who has played the game will know the tragic truth; that The Boss was loyal to the end, carrying out her orders to gain the trust of Soviet enemies, before giving her life to prevent an all-out nuclear war.
it seems that the chorus' lyrics: "I give my life, Not for honor, but for you" - could be The Boss's feelings as she engages in a fight to the death with Snake, knowing full well that she must die for both his sake and her country's.
This makes even more sense given that the song once again begins playing at the climax of this duel. When you look at it this way, "Snake Eater" is even more deserving of praise as a classic original video game song.
The Metal Gear Solid franchise is one of few that has produced quality original songs multiple times. Here are a few more of them:
Rockstar always nail their music selections, but Red Dead Redemption is in a league of its own, even when compared to the likes of GTA.
Although the game's soundtrack is made up mostly of classic western movie-style music (of which Ennio Morricone would be proud), a select few songs are included to bring extra intensity to powerful scenes and themes.
"Deadman's Gun" is a moving tribute to the game's protagonist, John Marston. It mirrors his journey throughout the game as he works to move on from a chequered history of past misdeeds and protect his family from outside forces.
Playing over the end credits, we've already seen the painfully cathartic finale to the main story; as Marston takes a heroic last stand against the government officials he's been betrayed by, giving his wife and son a chance to escape as he dies in a hail of bullets.
This makes the song all the more poignant. Like the narrative in "Deadman's Gun", John Marston died like he lived. Refusing to bow down and "take what they've got to give" or let them "take your will to live", he stood tall to the last, giving "all he can give" for his family, his "reason to fight" in the end.
While I can't be 100% certain that this song was written solely for the game, it doesn't seem to appear on any other album or EP by Ashtar Command, except for the RDR soundtrack. Therefore, as far as I'm concerned it counts!
"Melodies Of Life" is a ballad about the bittersweet nature of love and loss. The song's melody is integral to Final Fantasy IX, repeating in various forms throughout the game as the accompaniment to Zidane Tribal and Prince Garnet's romance.
This may not be the most popular decision, as many people often cite Final Fantasy VIII's "Eyes On Me" as the best song in the series. "Eyes On Me" captures the relationship between Squall and Rinoa; however "Melodies Of Life" does the same even more satisfyingly for Zidane and Garnet.
Its ultimate usage comes at the end of the game, where Zidane and Garnet are parted and Zidane is thought to be lost forever in the destruction of the Iifa Tree. As Garnet settles back into her life as a ruler, the song's lyrics find their most impactful footing.
They reflect Garnet's feelings of loss and loneliness, of her "dearest memories" with Zidane and her struggle to continue "picking up the pieces that remain".
However, despite its melancholy, "Melodies Of Life" is ultimately uplifting as both the music and the story conclude jubilantly, with Zidane's return and a heart-warming reuniting of the couple that ensures happiness all round.
There are many versions of this song, including its original Japanese lyrics. This particular version is performed by Susan Calloway as part of the "Distant Worlds II" live concert album. And when the song sounds this good recorded live, you know it's special!
Other Final Fantasy songs include:
Here's something a little different. "Three Minutes Clapping" isn't, in fact, three minutes of clapping at all. In fact it's an awesome mashup of Japanese stylistic influences and rock/rap/hip-hop.
In fact the delivery of the song's rapping verses are somewhat reminiscent of classic hip-hop like The Sugarhill Gang.
It's groovy, rhythmic, and slightly neurotic. The World Ends With You is a similarly groovy melting pot of ideas, drawing RPG systems, youthful exuberance and modern-day Tokyo into an interesting and idiosyncratic world where music is paramount. The game does all of this whilst exploring ideas of social isolation and the importance of communication between people, yet remaining fun and involving throughout.
A large part of this success is down to the music, which is not just a backing but a feature to be interacted with through the collecting of songs and forming of relationships with local record labels and stores.
"Three Minutes Clapping" is especially addictive, and only gets more impressive when you remember that all this quality was achieved in a DS game.
"The Poet and the Muse" is just one of the songs by the fictional rock band Old Gods of Asgard in Alan Wake.
Alan Wake is a psychological thriller following a writer who becomes caught up in a real-life mystery in the small town of Bright Falls. It delves into the supernatural and plays with a loop whereby certain peoples' writing can alter or recreate reality.
In this sense we never really know whether Alan ended up writing the band into existence or whether they perhaps wrote him. The song is very clearly about the overarching narrative of Alan Wake. It references Thomas Zane ("Tom the poet") and Cauldron Lake ("the magic lake which gave a life to the words the poet used").
It then outlines Alan Wake's own experiences, attempting to "bring back his love by stories he'd create" after she was taken by the darkness. Yet at the same time the song provides advice and instructions as to how to achieve this through finding the "lady of the light"; things that Alan doesn't necessarily know about when he can first hear the band's music.
With a whole in-game band history which becomes instrumental to the game's outstanding narrative, not to mention a discography of albums, The Old Gods of Asgard are in a very unique and central position within the game.
"The Poet and the Muse" is full of prophecy and supernatural themes; a musical microcosm of Alan Wake's core ideas. On top of this, it's a genuinely good song, with a great chorus, fantastic evolution from acoustic to full rock sound and deep, meaningful lyrics that tell a story even when separated from the game.
In our reality, the songs were in fact written and performed for Alan Wake by the real-life Finnish band Poets of the Fall.
With the questions Alan Wake raises, though, who's to tell whether we are in fact in the story?!
"Eternity" is the boss battle theme that is synonymous with Blue Dragon. It plays so often throughout the J-RPG that it's all but imprinted upon your psyche by the time the game is over.
This song was sung by Ian Gillan from Deep Purple. Just let that sink in for a second: the guy who sang Smoke on the Water is singing this. It's not his best performance by far, but the song manages to maintain such energy, not to mention being super catchy to boot, that it doesn't really matter.
"Eternity" will pop into your head randomly for years to come, which is only fitting given its name. It was always a pleasure when this song started playing as I entered a boss battle, and like at least one other song on this list, it never fails to get you pumped up and raring to go!
I might add "Eternity" to my workout playlist now that I think about it...
Katamari Damacy's soundtrack is a wonderland of chilled, fun and whimsical songs. "Que Sera Sera" is most definitely one such song, which has no doubt contributed to the awards for originality that have been heaped upon this OST.
Sung by Charles Kosei, and evidently with Japanese influences, there's an undeniable Sinatra-like quality to the song's performance.
Like Katamari Damacy's gameplay, "Que Sera Sera" is weird and wonderful. Not only does it make the game itself infinitely more fun to play along to, it stands on its own as a great and easy song to enjoy listening to.
Check out the annotations from YouTube uploader Aubrey McKenzie in the video above - they paint a wonderfully colorful picture, and one that's suitably imaginative for its subject material!
"The Stains Of Time" is the theme of Monsoon, a Cyborg Ninja and member of the Winds of Destruction elite unit in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
The song is full of heavy guitar licks and thrash metal passages, with an especially memorable chorus. Its lyrics suit Monsoon to a tee, referencing the power of the Monsoon rains, "pouring down" like "a flood of pain".
"The Stains Of Time" begins to play when protagonist Raiden takes Monsoon on in a frantic and violent boss battle, and escalates what was already an adrenaline-fuelled scenario to unbelievable heights.
The song also reflects Raiden's recent turn of personality in the most horrifically badass scene of the game. Giving in to the blood-lust he'd been suppressing for so long, Raiden's psychotic child soldier persona - Jack "The Ripper"- takes control, leading to the blood-soaked battle with Monsoon (who quickly comes to regret goading The Ripper out of Raiden).
In this context, the "flood of pain" and pouring rain in the song also conjure images of the gratuitous blood and agony dished out by both sides throughout the conflict, and it's all wrapped up in a hard-hitting song led by riotous vocals and techno beats.
Honestly, all boss battles should be accompanied by this sort of epicness!
There's a whole album of this stuff and it's all incredible. For more music of this style also check out:
The cake is a lie. The end credits song from Portal, Valve's gem of a game, is a less-than-subtle hint that villain GLaDOS, whom you supposedly just defeated, actually survived your encounter.
"Still Alive" is hilarious yet sinister; so basically a perfect reflection of its singer, GLaDOS. The great contrast between simple, happy music and the darker meanings behind the lyrics is a highlight of video game writing and creativity in general.
Whilst she might appear to be fairly harmless if you're just casually listening to the song, GLaDOS is excited to use all the new things she has learned dealing with the player on all the other subjects who are "still alive".
GLaDOS's passive-aggressive remarks towards the player's success make the song even more entertaining - she's "so happy for you", despite the fact that you tore her apart and burned her in a fire.
There could hardly be a better way to end Portal than with "Still Alive". It keeps the game's wonderful humor alive right to the end, effortlessly sets up a sequel and simply cements itself as one of the best original video game songs to ever exist.