The Soap Box #2: Our Favourite Gaming Soundtracks

When you consider how important soundtracks are to the overall immersion and enjoyment of a game, it’s easy to forget that the first video games were silent. Sound was introduced to games as they become more complex, with some quickly establishing themselves as timeless and instantly recognisable. If I mention Pac Man, I’m sure you can hear the Waka Waka.

As games evolved, the importance of soundtracks increased. I mean, can you imagine slaughtering demons in DOOM without the auditory onslaught of metal; or wandering through Ocarina of Time’s Sacred Forest without Saria’s Song?

In this episode of Soap Box, a few of us speak about our favourite soundtracks.

Graham – WipeOut 2097

Games Inbox: Does WipEout 2097 have the perfect soundtrack ...

When WipeOut 2097 (or Wipeout XL) was released towards the end of 1996 I was 13 years young and had been gaming since I was about 6. I started out on the Commodore 64 and progressed through an Amiga, some early PC games, and then the GameBoy and SNES. While games had always been a part of my life and one of my favourite hobbies, I didn’t consider them as part of my identity, they were just a fun thing to do.

In 1995 I was still loving my SNES but I started seeing screenshots from the Sony PlayStation, and the era of 3D console gaming was beginning. It felt like a seismic shift, and a new dawn of game realism. It’s against this historical backdrop that WipeOut 2097, and specifically its soundtrack, would change my view on gaming’s place in the world, and its place in my identity.

I still have vivid memories of walking around Toys R Us in 1996 and hearing the instrumental version of Firestarter by The Prodigy. It was blasting out of a PlayStation demo booth running Wipeout 2097. While The Prodigy were successful at the time, they weren’t really mainstream. They were still linked with rave and drug culture, they were anti-establishment. And, to my 13 year old ears, they were more ‘adult’ (dare I say ‘edgy’) than any game soundtrack I’d ever heard. Other songs on the soundtrack were from similar acts like Underworld and The Chemical Brothers. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

I finally got my PS1 at Christmas 1996 along with Wipeout 2097. Combined with the jump to 3D, this soundtrack signalled to me that games were no longer just toys for kids. This is a stigma many have long lived with, and which has only really started to disappear over the last 5 years. Sony would lean hard into this theme for their marketing too. Games were now also for adults, they had cultural value and relevance. As naff as it sounds, they felt like they were maturing with me as I went from being a child into an adolescent. My hobby had been validated. Games started to resonate with me on a personal level, and I got to explore more mature themes and settings. And I got to play FF7.

That soundtrack was, indeed, a firestarter. That is when my now lifelong passion for games truly began.

Laura – Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3: this is female Shepard | PC Gamer

For me, an amazing soundtrack is one that blends so seamlessly with the visuals and narrative of the game that I barely even notice it first time around. It’s not until I go back and listen to that soundtrack after finishing the game that I realise how integral it was to my immersion.

Say what you will about Mass Effect 3 – it’s undeniably a controversial game – but in my opinion there’s no arguing that its soundtrack is incredible. I finished the game with a hole in my heart and jumped straight to Spotify to fill it with the OST. The second ‘Leaving Earth’ started playing, I was Shepard, watching earth being torn asunder by a threat she’d tried for years to prepare for. It was wonderfully, painfully gut-wrenching.

Some highlights from this soundtrack are:

–              Leaving Earth

–              The Fleets Arrive

–              I’m Proud of You

Honestly, I was tempted to name the entire playlist. The whole thing gets me in the gut every time, possible even more after the first playthrough.  Basically, it’s a masterpiece. Go listen to it.

Rich – World Of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth

Pre-Battle for Azeroth: The Burning of Teldrassil (Horde)
Sylvanas unleashing her mix tape on the unsuspecting Night Elves

This was a tough one. My mind heads straight back to Shenmue, but I’ve already discussed that in another article. So I will have to go with World of Warcraft. Job done. What? I have to pick only one of the OSTs from the various expansions? Give me a break.

This is still a tough one, but I’m going to pick Battle for Azeroth as my favourite OST from video games. I have a great fondness for many of the expansion’s soundtracks, with Mists of Pandaria getting a special mention but I feel BfA is a notch above. Potentially it is because it’s fresh in the memory and probably had a bigger budget than previous expansions but it’s undeniably a treat to listen to.

The highlight of any World of Warcraft soundtrack is the lengthy title screen mash up, and this is no different here. The slow and moody beginnings of ‘Before the Storm’ brilliantly conveying the sense of seriousness and dread for the battles to come. The motifs from previous expansions kicking in bringing that comforting familiarity with a sinister twist.

There’s a sense of adventure that permeates the entire soundtrack, from the swashbuckling ‘Pride of the Seas’ to the cultural ‘Might of the Zandalar’. The zonal music is a perfect fit for the zones they play in when you are in the game, helping you along your adventure as you quest throughout Kul’Tiras and Zandalar. ‘What makes us Strong’ which was used in the official cinematic trailer is another shining example of war, determination and hope. Such an eclectic mixture of feelings from one track.

For all its faults, of which there are plenty, Battle for Azeroth is a beautiful expansion with some of the best-designed areas in the game. This beauty is supported further by the music that plays throughout, pulling you into the game in a way that a lot of others cannot. Emotionally investing, world-building and heart racing when it needs to be. This is one of those soundtracks that I can listen to outside the game, a personal favourite to put on whilst I’m working. Oh, and just for clarity…

For the Alliance!

Alex – Persona 5

Persona 5 Royal North America Release Date Set for March

I felt torn between Persona 5, FFX and Ocarina of Time. After starting Persona 5 Royal though, the choice was easy. I’m not particularly musical, nor am I an avid listener of music, but hearing “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There” immediately elicits a smile.

Persona 5 is a sprawling, 100-200h RPG. You have a lot of down time, as you explore the city, go for coffee or just watch a movie. As the game progresses, the characters have highs and lows, each of which having far-reaching ramifications. My love for the soundtrack is that it perfectly captures the mood of the game and adds to each of these moments in a meaningful way. I don’t think that’s a characteristic exclusive to Persona 5, however the way that it’s achieved is.

Much like the characters, the leading track, “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There” is unwaveringly positive. Similarly, the defiant lyrics and upbeat, jazzy tempo of “Life Will Change” is a proclamation to antagonists that they can’t subvert The Phantom Thieves’ reformation of society. It exudes the characters’ confidence and conviction, and makes all of your actions feel effortlessly cool.

Tracks are always played at the right moment and subtle changes signify moments of importance. “Life Will Change” (instrumental) plays as you explore castles, but the lyrical version plays as your invasion reaches the apex and you dash towards the boss. The lyrical inclusion lets both you and your adversary know that the Phantom Thieves’ plans are now beyond their means to stop.

The game uses dulcet, solemn tones at appropriate moments. “Regret” plays as characters have realisations that mistakes have been costly, or when they recount undesirable memories. Because of the leading track’s positivity, this feels even more poignant.

There are over 100 tracks on the album – with one even dedicated to having food and coffee – so not every track will suit casual listening. However, most do, and they also make cool while doing workaday tasks. Try making toast while listening to “Blooming Villain”. The butter lid dare not fall face down.

Amber – The Sound of Silence

Sad Affleck | Know Your Meme
Hello darkness my old friend

In what I suspect is a rather controversial move, I play most of my games on mute (with subtitles if they have them). To be fair, I do this for tv and movies as well, so it’s not like video games are the exception to the rule. To be honest, if humans had a subtitle function, I would have everyone on mute.

I’m not actually sure why – I’m autistic, so it’s probably sensory related. I definitely find subtitles easier to understand than someone speaking, and frankly, when there’s a lot of background noise/sound effects, it’s hard to concentrate on what’s happening in the game. I’m constantly listening to music though, so it’s probably the mix of sounds that I find off-putting. I cannot filter sounds AT ALL, especially when there are sound effects, multiple voices and music. So yeah, everything on mute.

The only exception is Skyrim, because the music is fucking epic (and the NPCs aren’t too chatty), but also possibly Death Stranding, because it’s insanely atmospheric. I could listen to the Death Stranding soundtrack on repeat.

Warren – Nier Automata

NieR:Automata Việt Hóa | Link Tải Game

There are a few game soundtracks I love, Mick Gordon’s work on Doom is definitely up there, as is composer Akira Yamaoka’s work on Silent Hill 2, but at the end of the day this one was an easy choice for me: Nier Automata.  I apologise in advance because I’m about to wax lyrical in a rather pretentious way about how much I love this soundtrack.

Composed by Keiichi Okabe, the soundtrack of Nier Automata is just a beautifully haunting work of art that elevates an already unique game into the realms of something truly special.  The music so perfectly captures the feeling of the game; the devastation and the beauty; the despair and the hope; the ghosts of a world long dead. It was the music for the ‘Forest Kingdom’ section of the game though that really made me fall in love with the soundtrack, I still listen to this song and it gives me shivers.  Starting as a kind of almost quiet lullaby, a haunting chant reminiscent of something cyberpunky or ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is layered over the top, as the song builds up pace and seems to underscore the sad plight of the inhabitants of the forest kingdom and the desperate mission of the game’s protagonists.  It’s just so damn good!

The whole soundtrack though is just magical and covers so much ground, from the upbeat goofiness of Emil’s theme, to the simple joys of Pascal’s theme to the kind of innocently creepy Amusement Park theme.  Whether it’s the intense desperation as “Birth of a Wish” underscores the robot uprising (THIS. CANNOT. CONTINUE.) or the softness of “City Ruins” as it laments the world that has been lost, this soundtrack never ceases to enthral and amaze me.  Honestly I could listen to this every day and not get tired of it, it’s my go-to soundtrack when I need something chill/inspirational/beautiful to listen to.

Enjoyed what you’ve read? Check out our first Soap Box, Our Pet Peeves in Gaming and our new feature series, The Neuroscience of Gaming!

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Alex Morrison

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2 Replies to “The Soap Box #2: Our Favourite Gaming Soundtracks”

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    Just today I’ve been considering how to examine “music in video games” with pre-teens and now i have a load of research pre-packaged

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