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JJ’s Bizarre Blog #2 – Name of the Game

May 11, 2023 - Music

Hello again everyone! I’m back at it again with a second installment of musical wonder to bless your eyes and ears. This week, I decided to firstly stray away from metal and talk about something different and also indulge in a different massive passion of mine – video games!

I’ve been an avid gamer for 20 years now (damn, I’m getting old…) and this industry has had a lot of twists and turns throughout the years. While big budget games are…really something today, that’s a rant for another time. Thankfully, the rise of indie games in recent years has kept the passion for the artform alive and well. And yes, I do believe that video games should be treated as art, because if you do, developers will have the correct attitude towards them – make the best creation you are capable of. If you treat games as a mere product, as vapid and hollow entertainment, then your works will be soulless.

There has been one constant since the earliest days of gaming though – video games have had some of the most amazing music ever made, better than film a lot of times. I don’t know what kind of air those people have been breathing but game music just keeps getting better and better. Also an amazing soundtrack can elevate an already fun experience to a whole new level and become an integral part of the experience. Music can keep the adrenaline pumping during intense action, provide beautiful ambiance during quiet and serene moments, accentuate important storybeats or just provide the energetic background to the fun the players are having. Let’s explore all of that in some of my favourite examples.

My personal favourite game composer of all time is Frank Klepacki. He scored my favourite game of all time, Command & Conquer Red Alert 2, but even besides that, all of his work across the C&C franchise is absolutely mindblowing. He was the perfect man to make the music for games about warfare, strategy and mass destruction, for his songs perfectly illustrate both the melancholic darkness of wartime tensions and the intense ecstasy of all out battle. His most famous tracks are the energetic electro-industrial songs with hints of metal that play during frantic combat and during trailers and cutscenes. Kind of sounds like instrumental Rammstein songs, except that Frank actually predates them! Nothing gets the blood pumping quite like these.

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However, Frank is also the master of calm and atmospheric ambiance. These songs play during the slower paced middle of a match, where both players are strategizing and building up armies and defenses. The songs are slow and mellow, but you can still feel the tension in the air, as if the storm is just around the corner.

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These show you how music can perfectly enhance the mood of what is happening in game, elevating the whole experience. On that note, we have to talk about the madman known as Mick Gordon. He made huge waves with his work for the Doom franchise, concocting some of the most violent and brutal soundtrack that has ever existed. After all, Doom games are all about murdering demons in frantic fast-paced succession, ripping and tearing them to shreds in the most brutal and violent way possible. To this end, ol’ Mick managed to take pure rage and violence, contain it in a bottle and then turn that concoction into musical form. The brutal metal tracks are so good that even non-metalheads fall in love with it. His mixture of distorted electronic elements and crushing low-tuned guitars is chaotic and distinctly biomechanical, like Doom’s demons one might say.

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Also Mick’s own work before this on the likes of Wolfenstein, Killer Instinct, etc. is still spectacular. He shows great versatility, being able to make epic melodic pieces, banging techno or atmospheric piano music, whatever the game requires

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Doom’s brother Quake can have a completely different tone to it’s demon slaying. Did you know that the original Quake from 1996 had it’s soundtrack made by Trent Reznor himself? Yes indeed, the man behind Nine Inch Nails gave us this masterpiece of an OST. What’s fascinating is that, besides the opening theme, this isn’t really music, in Trent’s own words, it’s “textures and ambiances and whirling machine noises and stuff. We tried to make the most sinister, depressive, scary, frightening kind of thing […] It’s been fun.” And fun it most certainly is. The dense layer of electronic noise seasoned with sounds of flies, beating hearts, mechanical distortion and dissonant whispers creates a perfect dark suffocating atmosphere for the H.P. Lovecraft inspired world of Quake. Gaming wouldn’t be the same without this game and every dark ambient OST of today owes a little bit to Reznor’s opus.

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On the topic of thematic soundtracks, we have to mention Cuphead. A unique indie game that channels the vibe and artstyle of early 20th century cartoons. Think Mickey Mouse’s Steamboat Willie, Betty Boop or Felix the Cat. Befittingly, the music is 1920s jazz, piano, funk and boogie music that is irreplaceable for the old fashioned atmosphere the game is recreating, a love letter to art from a century ago.

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And thus, soundtracks can be designed to compliment any kind of vibe. Whether it’s the beautiful medieval fantasy landscapes of The Witcher.

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The unreal worlds across the cosmos of Warframe (space shanties!).

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The wartorn deserts and cities of C&C Generals.

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Or the cyberpunk technocratic dystopia of Cyberpunk 2077, anything is possible!

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On a completely different note, instead of trying to follow what’s happening on screen, you have soundtracks that just serve to provide a wonderful backdrop to the action. Take Risk of Rain 2, a fantastic game about fighting your way through a bizarre and hostile alien planet. Greek composer Chris Christodolou was hired for this one and he decided that the best music for the job is…jazz? Yeah, why not. A strange mix of jazz, funk, blues, electronic and rock, as whimsical as the creatures you fight and as colourful and graceful as the oil painting inspired artstyle of the game. Musically speaking, this is some of the best you will ever hear in a game. Soulful bluesy guitar solos, Hammond organ, flutes and sax, this and more expect you in this amazing adventure.

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Another great example of a vibing soundtrack like this is the obscure but awesome Roboquest. Quite simply, they took the amazingly talented Noisecream and had him make some banging electro beats to go with the fast-paced action. And they go oh so well.

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A friend of mine’s favourite such OST is from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. An excellent movie turned into an excellent platforming game with fun and bouncy chiptune music to match, courtesy of Anamanaguchi.

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Also shoutout to Megalovania. Because it’s Megalovania

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A special mention has to go out to rhythm games. When the gameplay itself is focused around following the music, your soundtrack is essential. It often also needs to follow a very rigid structure to fit the gameplay. I’ll take the excellent Crypt of the Necrodancer as an example. I’m also using this as an excuse to shoutout to Danny Baranowski, a man that’s in a league of his own when it goes to game soundtracks, especially when it comes to retro inspired pixel art games. Necrodancer is a game where you fight through a dungeon and every action you perform is on beat to the song. Danny’s songs here are stupidly catchy, bouncy and fun. My favourite is King Conga’s theme because of the skipped beat, during which everything stops. Such an interesting and engaging mechanic.

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And to wrap things up, let’s just give some appreciation to jukebox soundtracks. This is when a game doesn’t have music made especially for it and the creators license already existing commercial songs instead. Whether it be the metalcore and deathcore mayhem of Killing Floor 2

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The catchy early 2000s bangers of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2

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Or the awesome nu metal and hip-hop jams of Need for Speed Underground, Underground 2 or Most Wanted, there is nothing wrong with just taking some already beloved songs off the shelf and making them a part of your identity.

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There you go, a nice in depth look at just some amazing video game soundtracks. Quite frankly, I just wanted an excuse to gush about my favourite OSTs, so I hope you enjoy them too! As usual, below is a playlist of all of the mentioned songs above along with a plethora of other materials. Happy listening! Game on!

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