Music has always been a passion of mine. It’s an extremely powerful and emotive form of art that is now more diverse than ever before. And across the gaming scene, it’s been a pleasure to see the soundtracks develop alongside the games themselves, which continue to grow into a multi-billion pound market.
Music within video games has the unique ability to tip off players with what’s going to happen next and is by far the most effective way of setting the mood. But right now it’s time to hit pause, and look back at five of the most influential game soundtracks ever to grace the Xbox family, and why they resonate with players so much.
5. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
The third and best title in the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series raised the bar in so many ways, and the music did not disappoint.
Amon Tobin was at the helm, and his moody score following globetrotting secret agent Sam Fisher hit all the right notes. From climbing a weather battered lighthouse in the dead of night to sneaking around a Japanese bathhouse, the game’s soundtrack matches the perfect balance Chaos Theory struck between stealth and action. Previous games in the series had managed this to a lesser extent, but in Chaos Theory Tobin compliments the blockbuster feel of the adventure perfectly, and consistently throughout.
Even 14 years after release, if you turn out the lights and dial the volume right up, you’ll find it impossible not to be completely immersed in this superb game.
4. BioShock Infinite
Many will question why I have not chosen the original, groundbreaking BioShock due to its incredibly atmospheric backdrop and soundtrack. My answer is simple. Bioshock Infinite does it better.
Although, perhaps confusingly, BioShock is my favourite game of the series, Infinite’s soundtrack has more variety, in part thanks to the game’s setting. Gary Schyman’s score provides strong juxtaposition from the brutalistic music that accompanies a lot of the action in the game to the heavily religious music during crucial plot moments, especially right at the shocking ending. The existence of a higher power which drives the game’s plot, and provides a lot of drama, is intensified by ritualistic music, reflecting the cultist religion you find yourself involved with. Subtle but effective touches such as a final flourish of sound when you take out your last enemy is both useful and effective.
Somewhere in between the two extremes Infinite’s soundtrack settles into the period it’s set in, but never gets too complacent there, just like the plot. It’s safe to say a very distinct chill ran down my spine towards the end of BioShock Infinite, and that was triggered by Schyman’s exquisite timing and pacing.
Strong rumours suggest we will see a new BioShock game next year, so the future looks bright for fans of the franchise.
3. Half-Life 2
Sadly, the future looks rather more bleak for Half-Life fans when speculating about a sequel. Best not to talk about that here though. It is not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for a most influential soundtrack nominee, as the music to Half-Life 2 is subtle and potentially easily overshadowed by the game’s strong suite of sound effects. However, it’s the subtlety that makes the soundtrack so effective.
It can’t be too grandiose or over the top, as it is accompanying a gripping but simple and easy to follow story. But at key moments you will be hit by some excellent, highly charged pieces of music that hammer home the situation you find yourself in.
One such example is when Dr Kleiner’s teleporter malfunctions near the beginning, and you’re thrust onto the streets which are crawling with Combine troops. Not long after the music kicks in, and states loud and clear that it’s do or die, it’s time to get moving and start the battle for humanity’s survival. Just prior to this, you get your H.E.V. suit from Kleiner and are treated to the exact same piece of music from Half-Life, where you got the same suit for the first time. It’s a lovely touch for fans of the series.
In direct contrast to this, the music can also make you feel isolated and alone, such as when you are trying to navigate the deadly streets of Ravenholm. In some ways the fact the soundtrack to Half-Life 2 may be overlooked for a list like this is a compliment, as it’s doing exactly what was intended.
2. Jet Set Radio Future
Next is a true hidden gem. A game that was, and amazingly still is, an Xbox exclusive. It’s a sequel to the beautiful and totally Japanese Jet Set Radio, which was originally released on the Sega Dreamcast. The soundtrack is made up of several artists which include some real pedigree, such as a side project by one of the Beastie Boys.
Pulled together by the Hideki Naganuma, it came at a time when, arguably, SEGA was the king of pop music within video games. In fact, some of the 3D Sonic games of the era had only their soundtracks to shout about. Jet Set Radio Future is a game that is different, and makes no bones about it. This is reinforced by it’s excellent, experimental, lyric based soundtrack that is a joy to listen to whether you are playing the game or not.
1. Halo: Combat Evolved
Somehow, it always comes back to Halo.
In 2001 Microsoft was about to launch their branch new, first-ever, home console, and it fell on the Master Chief’s shoulders to ensure it was a success. A truly groundbreaking game, Halo’s ambitious scale and satisfying gameplay made the Xbox just that, setting the new bar for First Person Shooters. Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori had to produce a soundtrack of equal quality, and did not disappoint.
The music of Halo is varied, and perfectly crafted to match what the player is experiencing. For me, Halo is one of the first truly original blockbuster video games, and has a soundtrack to match. The music has a central theme running through its DNA which is an irresistible combination of drums and strings that screams epic. When you combine this with the set pieces within Halo, there is no finer video game experience, even to this day, 18 years later.
The duo then went on to compose equally epic music for many other games – and as Halo did, raised the bar for video game music forever.
It’s a real testament to all the skilled musicians that compose and produce for video games, that today venues around the world can be filled by those wanting to hear their work. Tours such as Video Games Live continue to sell out concert halls and theatres and prove that video game music is now in the mainstream, and will continue to go from strength to strength.
But what do you think of this list? Do you agree with our thoughts surrounding some of the most influential game soundtracks? Have we missed any nailed on certs out? Let us know in the comments below!